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Eight Steps Toward Improving Your Music Composing Skills
Written by Jeffrey P. Fisher - © 2006, Cengage Learning. Reprinted with Permission.
This article is an excerpt from the following book: Cash Tracks - Compose, Produce, and Sell Your Original Soundtrack Music and Jingles.

You want your musical skills to get better and better, don't you? Of course you do. If you are nowhere close to reaching your peak performance, it's because you don't understand the process that helps you produce your best music all the time.

Compose Something Every Day
The best way to make sure you get the most from your talents is to use them. Write a piece of music every day. This doesn't need to be extravagant or even complete, rather just put your first thoughts down in some real form (paper, recording, etc.). Make composing part of your daily routine. Not everything you do will be good, but the exercise will yield some bits and pieces that you may later turn into something special.

Too many people believe they must be in a creative mood to compose. It's infinitely easier to procrastinate than to just start working. You can't be seduced by this unfortunate behavior. You must banish those "ifs" and "buts" and start writing. Don't worry about style or if you are composing something worthwhile. Write first to please yourself. If you let your inner voice of judgment interfere with your creative flow, you severely inhibit your work as an artist. Turn off the messages in your head and let go.

By far, the toughest part of writing commercial music is learning to be creative on demand. You can't always write just when you feel like it. Sometimes, you must write when asked. You must get instant inspiration and be able to compose, orchestrate, play, and record quickly. Music is both art and craft. You can learn and practice the craft aspects. Personally, I save up all my energy for when the muse is especially strong. This way I can sit down cold and write a score from scratch. If I composed and recorded all the time, I would find it difficult to create on short notice.

Get into a routine. Write at the same time each day. If you are especially strong in the morning, get up a little earlier and start composing. Late night your strength? Set aside an hour before going to sleep just so you can capture your energy in a musical sketch. You must find the method that works for you.

Regardless of your working method, make sure you practice, too. Don't confuse doodling around with being serious and truly creative. You must expend some energy and use this time to sharpen your skills. I play and goof around musically all the time. And I set aside time to seriously compose, too. I go back and listen to my doodles and transform them into stronger, more structured pieces. This keeps me fresh and original.

Listen To Music Every Day
Oliver Wendell Holmes said it best: "Take a music bath once or twice a week, and you will find that it is to the soul what the water bath is to the body." Make sure you do take that oh-so-important music bath every single day. If you're like me you have tons of music in your collection from A to Z. Don't just play it in the background, though. Take time from each day to really sit down and listen to the music. Study it carefully and apply what you learn to your own work.

Will this affect your appreciation of your favorite tunes? I doubt it. You will gain a keen awareness of music composition and an even greater respect for other artists. For this to be a truly useful tool, you must scrutinize every note, every phrase. First ask yourself why and apply these answers to your own work: Why that progression? Why that instrument? Why a counter melody there? Why slapback echo here? Next, ask yourself how the composer used a certain technique, instrument, or phrase. Make sure you recognize what is art (why) and what is craft (how). Listen to the same piece repeatedly until you've exhausted every possibility; then put it away and don't listen again for a few weeks. Come back to it with fresh ears and see if you hear or feel anything new.

If you record music, first listen to the music and then concentrate on the recording techniques. Personally, I don't make the distinction between composing music and recording it. The two share a synergistic relationship. I feel composing and recording are integrated, not mutually exclusive. I can't write without hearing how the final version will sound.

Imitate Other Composers By Writing In Their Style
The easiest way to grow as an artist is to get inside another composer's head, first, by listening and second, through imitation. Many musicians learn by copying their favorite songs. While this is useful toward improving your mechanical skills, imitation is critical to improving your composition skills. Pick artists you admire and compose in their style. Don't just copy their songs. You must try to write a piece as if you were the artist. To imitate without directly copying is harder than it sounds. You should hear the influence, and the process should reveal both positive and negative aspects of your musical prowess. This exercise will help you learn from the masters first by listening, second by playing, and last through imitation. Then let go and use what you've learned to discover your own music. This won't happen overnight, but your critical study will pay off in time.

Try Other Styles And Forms Of Composition That You Usually Ignore
OK, so you're a rocker. Nothing wrong with that. But have you considered composing for string quartet? No matter what your level of talent is, try this: Choose a simple tune like Row Row Row Your Boat and try to write multiple versions in various styles like hip hop, jazz, orchestral, new age, etc.

Choosing a simple, familiar tune means not having to worry about the melody. You are free to experiment with structure, chords, counter melodies, and so forth. Just because you don't like or aren't comfortable in a particular musical genre doesn't mean you shouldn't give it a whirl. Also, try playing an instrument you don't normally play. If you play keys, take up guitar. You'll gain useful, new perspectives.

Creativity means looking outside the boundaries. Don't stay tied to a single way of doing things. Try many different approaches. You'll find the solution if you open up your mind to all the infinite possibilities. Leaving your comfort zone is the doorway to your best work. You will find the true creativity within. Do you really want to risk shutting out this world and stifling your musical talent?

Play Your Pieces For Friends And Associates And Ask For Criticism
Find someone whose opinion you trust and ask for his help and candid, constructive ideas. You don't need a judge—you need help! Try to find someone you don't share a deeply personal relationship with. Because they don't want to upset you, many people will not be brutally honest. Let your music play all the way through and then ask open-ended, leading questions. Don't apologize for it and don't interrupt while it plays. Next, play the track again and analyze it in detail. Once you get opinions and advice, go back to the drawing board and put all you've learned to work and repeat the process again.

Seek Advice From A Recognized Expert
Objective opinions, constructive criticism, and useful suggestions from a mentor will really open your eyes and give you insight into your work. Once again you are looking for constructive criticism. "That's good" just isn't what you need. You want specific information about how to make your work better and stronger. And you want to learn from your mistakes. Take advantage of expert knowledge and benefit from professional, objective expertise.

There are many ways to get this valuable information. You might try instructors at your local college or university. Maybe there's an area musician you admire who might evaluate your work. A songwriter's group might be another alternative. Consider sending your tape for review in magazines. You should never pay an agent, lawyer, or record company (or anyone for that matter) who claims to get your music published/recorded/etc. in exchange for your paying a substantial fee. However, I know it is useful to have a professional review your work and make useful suggestions. This professional would have no claims on your music or a vested interest beyond a desire to share his or her expertise with you. This kind of third-party opinion could save you mistakes you might unknowingly make. I equate this to having an accountant prepare your taxes. Sure you can do it yourself, but you may benefit from a professional's experience, and that is almost always worth the price you pay for the services.

Produce Your Demo And Send It Into The Market
Once you've followed the above steps diligently, you will be ready to put together your best demo of your music and start promoting. This is the real test of your skills. Don't fret about rejection, use it to your advantage and make your work stronger.

Evaluate Your Past Work
Don't let your old music fade away. Dust it off and give it a critical listen. Use this distance from your work to improve your past, present, and future music. I once discovered an old song on a long-forgotten tape, reworked, re-recorded, and turned it into a sale. Once you've let music sit for some time, the warts really stick out. Most of what you find will be coal. But once in a while, you'll uncover a gem. For more information, see Cash Tracks - Compose, Produce, and Sell Your Original Soundtrack Music and Jingles.


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