Composing - a natural ability?

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Boingloing
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Composing - a natural ability?

Postby Boingloing » Fri Jan 14, 2011 2:09 am UTC

I'm trying to start to write my own music. Sometimes I find a song that perfectly matches a moment, but there are times when I want to be the person to write the perfect song to express something. However, I'm not that good. It seems like some people are just really good at it from the start, but is it something you just improve on as you do it more and more? This is probably a silly question, but it just makes me wonder sometimes...
Is it a natural ability for some, and if someone doesn't have that ability, do they just need to keep at it? Like drawing?
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Re: Composing - a natural ability?

Postby Captain Waffles » Fri Jan 14, 2011 2:22 am UTC

I'm a mostly a writer, so other than vocals I have little instrumental talent, but here's what I've learned in my experience.

Music isn't quite the same as drawing, but it is certainly an art form. The main difference I found in music is that it doesn't have to reflect that one moment. Music can be very free form and with a simple change here and there, you can present a whole new array of emotions.

Overall, my tip for you is that you can't start off looking for the finished product. Leave yourself room to experiment and adapt, test yourself with new ideas and you'll get better in no time.

Practicing isn't nearly as important to success in music as having confidence in yourself and being willing to try.

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Re: Composing - a natural ability?

Postby Dream » Fri Jan 14, 2011 2:44 am UTC

Boingloing wrote:It seems like some people are just really good at it from the start, but is it something you just improve on as you do it more and more?

No one is really good at anything from the start. The people you're thinking of merely learn faster than others. Sometimes they're re-applying skills learned elsewhere, which can seem like being "good from the start", but actually indicates having learned from before they started. In reality, everyone starts from the same place, in creative terms. Me, I couldn't write a great song to save my life. But I can write other kinds of music, and if i turned my hand to songwriting, I'd probably advance more quickly than someone who had no music background at all. If I found a way to implement my music, language and other creative skills into songwriting at the same time, it might look like I magically was "good from the start", but my start would have been two and a bit decades ago, which is hardly comparable to someone who just picked up a guitar.

The thing is, different creative fields can inform one another more than you might think. People who can draw well might be very good at visualising finished structure and planning whole works from the beginning. That might really help with turning a few nice lines into a complete song. People who can write prose might instinctively create theme and character in their lyrics without realising they're doing it.

So the question is: do you have anything else you could look to for skill sets to use in your songwriting? You might not be as much of a beginner than you think.

And yes, it gets better if you keep at it. I've lost count of the number of artists I've heard say they couldn't write when they started out, but finally cracked it after years of trying. David Byrne and Trent Reznor come to mind immediately. Track your progress, to make yourself feel better about it. Keep at it. Keep at it. It really does get easier, and you get better at it.
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Re: Composing - a natural ability?

Postby Boingloing » Fri Jan 14, 2011 2:50 am UTC

Thanks for the encouragement :D I have this sheet music notebook I got for a christmas gift that doesn't even have a single full page yet(I got this like 2 years ago) and I wanted to get some use out of it.
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Re: Composing - a natural ability?

Postby Midnight » Fri Jan 14, 2011 4:56 am UTC

Well don't feel bad about not filling up a thing of sheet music. When I write, I put it down as sheet music months after it's already completely done, if I sheet-music it at all. I've written a few things but I can't sit down with a pen and piece of paper... I need a guitar or piano. It's much easier to memorize that way (another thing that comes with practice) and without perfect pitch you can't exactly hum a tune and throw it down.
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Re: Composing - a natural ability?

Postby Boingloing » Fri Jan 14, 2011 5:12 am UTC

I've got pretty good pitch and I normally have an instrument nearby. However, I'm not good enough at piano or guitar to play out my ideas. I can do it on a violin.
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Re: Composing - a natural ability?

Postby Midnight » Fri Jan 14, 2011 5:17 am UTC

That works fine. My point is that rarely does just pencil and paper cut it. y'know what they say though... takes 10,000 hours to truly master something. I'm not so sure if that's true in the realm of composition specifically, but it is within the general realm of music, and that takes composition. Mozart was a one-of-a-kind prodigy when it came to his composition.
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Re: Composing - a natural ability?

Postby Роберт » Fri Jan 14, 2011 3:42 pm UTC

If you can play violin, than you've certainly got some of the skills necessary. Having a good sense of pitch helps, which you say you have. Having a good sense of rhythm helps. Basically, what Dream said is right. Nobody is a "natural" composer, but if you harness the skills you already have and practice, you'll improve.

It also helps to be depressed. :P At least in my experience.
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Re: Composing - a natural ability?

Postby Boingloing » Fri Jan 14, 2011 8:17 pm UTC

being depressed, heh. That's another thing that's difficult about writing: emotion. Sometimes I start to jot something down when it's on my mind, but I can never get back into that emotion that I was in if I want to continue working on the piece.
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Re: Composing - a natural ability?

Postby Dirk » Sat Jan 15, 2011 12:27 am UTC

Boingloing wrote:being depressed, heh. That's another thing that's difficult about writing: emotion. Sometimes I start to jot something down when it's on my mind, but I can never get back into that emotion that I was in if I want to continue working on the piece.

I have this a lot.

Anyone who wants to get into composing should consider that most serious composers know a lot about music theory. There is a lot more to know about it than you expect at first, when you start studying it.

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Re: Composing - a natural ability?

Postby Captain Waffles » Sat Jan 15, 2011 7:15 am UTC

Boingloing wrote:being depressed, heh. That's another thing that's difficult about writing: emotion. Sometimes I start to jot something down when it's on my mind, but I can never get back into that emotion that I was in if I want to continue working on the piece.



Happens to me all the time. I fixed that partially by writing things out of my perspective, a little complicated, but gets the job done.

Basically, writing a song about the someone or something else feels. I don't mean to get political here, but this is the least offensive grouping I can think of.

Say you were a democrat and composed something about the way republicans saw the government. This applies mostly to lyrics, as it is a concept, but you can easily capture the emotions of others when composing an instrumental.

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Re: Composing - a natural ability?

Postby Magnificent Minimalist » Sat Jan 15, 2011 7:28 am UTC

I think that composing happens in two parts: structure and communication. You can do some remarkably beautiful musical writing just by understanding how music theory and composition works, and I think that studying music theory is a great way to start. Just as important, though, is trying to communicate a mood or an image, and I think that the pieces that communicate are the pieces that are more than mediocre. The people who demonstrate early composing fluency probably have a knack for either communication or structure.

So, if you want to fill out that notebook, I'd focus on trying to describe a feeling with your music, and I'd also try learning more structure/theory. When the two work together they're gorgeous, gorgeous, gorgeous.

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Re: Composing - a natural ability?

Postby BurningLed » Sun Jan 16, 2011 2:12 am UTC

Composing is definitely possible with a creative mind, a instrument, and a sense of pitch -- If you're doing fine, let nothing hold you back.

That said, I found a class in Music Theory immensely helpful. It's much easier to design chord progressions when you know what makes them sound good, it takes out some of the trial-and-error of it -- I can just wonder what a "I - vi - IV - V - I" progression would sound like, then use it; instead of messing with chords for a while and ending up with that progression after lots of crappy-sounding chords. Then the dynamics and decoration are whatever you want to do with them :P

And listen to Dirk, music theory is way deeper than it looks. If you do master it, it becomes much easier to compose things that are technically "wrong". As my theory teacher loved to say, "You're not allowed to break the rules until you know all of them. And then you go ahead and break them because you don't *care*, not because you don't know."
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Re: Composing - a natural ability?

Postby Retne » Fri Jan 21, 2011 5:50 am UTC

I will back up the music theory study suggestion. It is an incredibly deep subject but in a way gives you shortcuts to knowing what progressions are associated with what emotions etc. If you learned violin in school I would be willing to bet you already know a little music theory and just need to start building on it.

As to losing your thread when leaving and coming back to a piece of music I feel your pain. My suggestion is don't be afraid to adjust what you started with to how you're feeling at the moment. Sometimes it can lead to some very interesting results.

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Re: Composing - a natural ability?

Postby Dirk » Sat Jan 22, 2011 6:48 pm UTC

Retne wrote:As to losing your thread when leaving and coming back to a piece of music I feel your pain. My suggestion is don't be afraid to adjust what you started with to how you're feeling at the moment. Sometimes it can lead to some very interesting results.

Hmm, I will remember that! Thanks

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Re: Composing - a natural ability?

Postby cjmcjmcjmcjm » Mon Jan 24, 2011 3:00 pm UTC

Retne wrote:As to losing your thread when leaving and coming back to a piece of music I feel your pain. My suggestion is don't be afraid to adjust what you started with to how you're feeling at the moment. Sometimes it can lead to some very interesting results.

I've got a piece I've been working on for the better part of 4 years, writing a bar or four when I remember and have a few minutes. What I have so far is really quite intersting
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Re: Composing - a natural ability?

Postby Account20151023 » Mon Jan 24, 2011 9:19 pm UTC

Maybe try writing songs in different genres? I sucked at writing punk and thrash metal. Now I write noise rock because sucking can literally be the point of what you write.

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Re: Composing - a natural ability?

Postby Charlemagne_ » Mon Jan 24, 2011 11:50 pm UTC

Barely anybody is immediately good at something, it's just a matter of how long it takes you to 'crack it'. As has been said, there's the idea that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to master anything, so if you're enjoying it just keep experimenting and writing music - it doesn't matter if it's good, only that you like doing it.

Having said that, most professional composers have a wealth of musical knowledge, and knowing technical and theory-based things can definitely help not only to understand the structure of other pieces, but how to get a certain effect or sound within your own music without having to resort to blind guessing, or a trial and error process.

Keep going though - everybody has to start somewhere; even the most celebrated composers have bad pieces.
And if you think it sounds really terrible just say you were going for a super modern and experimental theme.

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Re: Composing - a natural ability?

Postby darthdidious » Mon Apr 04, 2011 5:51 am UTC

Don't concern yourself with myths about composing being a natural ability, or something that must always take place "in the moment." It's something that takes practice, and a single piece of music can often take a long time to work out. As many people in this thread have already pointed out, having a thorough knowledge of music theory will be a tremendous asset (don't let anyone tell you otherwise). If nothing else, it speeds up a process which would otherwise take a long time by trial-and-error. But most importantly, music theory helps refine your ear; with a better ear, you'll have an easier time hearing the music you want to write.

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Re: Composing - a natural ability?

Postby Little Richie » Tue Apr 12, 2011 1:57 am UTC

I agree with the comments on music theory. I took a 1 semester Music Theory course, that class alone took me from relative a musical beginner, and gave me a deeper understanding of what goes into music. I can now write music that has the feeling and flow that I'm feeling. I strongly suggest taking a theory class, it's not all straight memorization :wink: .
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Re: Composing - a natural ability?

Postby Dirk » Tue Apr 12, 2011 8:41 pm UTC

Little Richie wrote:I agree with the comments on music theory. I took a 1 semester Music Theory course, that class alone took me from relative a musical beginner, and gave me a deeper understanding of what goes into music. I can now write music that has the feeling and flow that I'm feeling. I strongly suggest taking a theory class, it's not all straight memorization :wink: .

Where did you take the class?

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Re: Composing - a natural ability?

Postby Little Richie » Tue Apr 12, 2011 9:27 pm UTC

Dirk wrote:
Little Richie wrote:I agree with the comments on music theory. I took a 1 semester Music Theory course, that class alone took me from relative a musical beginner, and gave me a deeper understanding of what goes into music. I can now write music that has the feeling and flow that I'm feeling. I strongly suggest taking a theory class, it's not all straight memorization :wink: .

Where did you take the class?


It was at a community college, the summer of my Junior year of High School.
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Re: Composing - a natural ability?

Postby Dirk » Wed Apr 13, 2011 7:17 am UTC

I wish our schools would offer classes like that :F Here in Holland I never even heard of such a thing being offered in high schools/colleges. Unless you go to a specific school for music, but that's another story altogether .

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Re: Composing - a natural ability?

Postby Microscopic cog » Wed Apr 13, 2011 5:16 pm UTC

Dirk wrote:I wish our schools would offer classes like that :F Here in Holland I never even heard of such a thing being offered in high schools/colleges. Unless you go to a specific school for music, but that's another story altogether .


Yea, unless you get into the conservatorium or one of the more commericially focused rock or pop academies, the only way to learn composing is by hiring a teacher or teaching yourself.

Most high schools here don't even have music as a subject you can graduate in, but if they do, they aren't about composing ( speaking out of experience )
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Re: Composing - a natural ability?

Postby Dirk » Wed Apr 13, 2011 7:16 pm UTC

Because I picked a profile that was focused on science I could not even choose music as a subject, because it falls under culture....
And from what I've heard its just a little history on music, very global

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Re: Composing - a natural ability?

Postby M1k3_Nix » Thu Apr 14, 2011 6:07 pm UTC

Being a grade 5 pianist, who also plays a little drums, I find composing something that sounds decent amazingly difficult.

I've been playing piano from around 10 years now, and self teach myself all sorts of new songs, as-well as passing Grade 5 theory of music with distinction. And yet, for the life of me cannot write music. I know how to write music per say, but never anything that sounds good.

So I'm gunna have to root for the 'natural ability' theory. Obviously it helps to be able to play music, but I think its either something you can do, or can't.


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Re: Composing - a natural ability?

Postby Toeofdoom » Thu Apr 21, 2011 4:29 pm UTC

I'd say it's a learned skill. I used to be pretty awful at writing anything and I'm now decent (by my standards, probably not by external standards) and improving. Playing piano for 10+ years and bass for a bit less barely helped unless I was actually practising making things up and even then it took a lot of work making fairly simple riffs and improvs before I came up with a somewhat structured 2 instrument song. Like anything you get better and learn from your mistakes.
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Re: Composing - a natural ability?

Postby Danezimus » Wed May 18, 2011 5:44 am UTC

I compose currently as a hobby and eventually wish to make it into a career path, but I wasn't always good. When you write music, you take a mood or emotion; something that you feel but isn't tangible, and you convert it into a musical idea. This is where people run into the most problems. To convert something you feel into a musical element, you must have a good grasp of that element and how it functions. Thousands of musical elements are passed by us as we listen to various genres of music during our days, and depending on what we want to be versatile in, it is important to study how the genre works.

Dissecting music, like may other things, cannot be taken in all at once. If there is a song with a bass guitar, a lead guitar, a lead singer and a drum set, then in order to fully understand the most fundamental ways that each part works you must listen to the piece five times at least. Once for how the lead part works, how the bass part works, how the singing notation works, how the lyrics work and how the rhythm works, all in relation to each other. Then you must go deeper to understand the various elements of the individual parts themselves, and how they relate to their timbre and mood (as far as the dynamics, chord qualities, harmonies and tessitura are concerned).

To learn how to write, we must learn how to listen, and once we understand how truly complex a single work of music is can we begin to write a piece that sounds alike to it. We all have the capacity to conceive an idea and mold it into a sensation that communicates to others (audible, tangible and especially visual), but we must first learn how to communicate (like learning to talk) before we can achieve the full extent of our imagination's creations. Composing is possible, but at great sacrifice of time and patience. I say its worth it if you can stick with it

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Re: Composing - a natural ability?

Postby Dirk » Wed May 18, 2011 9:07 am UTC

Danezimus wrote:I compose currently as a hobby and eventually wish to make it into a career path, but I wasn't always good. When you write music, you take a mood or emotion; something that you feel but isn't tangible, and you convert it into a musical idea. This is where people run into the most problems. To convert something you feel into a musical element, you must have a good grasp of that element and how it functions. Thousands of musical elements are passed by us as we listen to various genres of music during our days, and depending on what we want to be versatile in, it is important to study how the genre works.

Dissecting music, like may other things, cannot be taken in all at once. If there is a song with a bass guitar, a lead guitar, a lead singer and a drum set, then in order to fully understand the most fundamental ways that each part works you must listen to the piece five times at least. Once for how the lead part works, how the bass part works, how the singing notation works, how the lyrics work and how the rhythm works, all in relation to each other. Then you must go deeper to understand the various elements of the individual parts themselves, and how they relate to their timbre and mood (as far as the dynamics, chord qualities, harmonies and tessitura are concerned).

To learn how to write, we must learn how to listen, and once we understand how truly complex a single work of music is can we begin to write a piece that sounds alike to it. We all have the capacity to conceive an idea and mold it into a sensation that communicates to others (audible, tangible and especially visual), but we must first learn how to communicate (like learning to talk) before we can achieve the full extent of our imagination's creations. Composing is possible, but at great sacrifice of time and patience. I say its worth it if you can stick with it

So how are you learning? Any books you can recommend?

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Re: Composing - a natural ability?

Postby EnigmaMTC » Wed May 18, 2011 9:55 pm UTC

I find that every once in a while, a catchy tune manifests itself in my head, and I hold on to it for the rest of the day, adding instruments until it seems like a completely finished song. Unfortunately, I don't know how to write music and the tune is lost by the time I wake up the next morning. :(
anyone else experience this?

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Re: Composing - a natural ability?

Postby Dirk » Thu May 19, 2011 7:31 am UTC

EnigmaMTC wrote:I find that every once in a while, a catchy tune manifests itself in my head, and I hold on to it for the rest of the day, adding instruments until it seems like a completely finished song. Unfortunately, I don't know how to write music and the tune is lost by the time I wake up the next morning. :(
anyone else experience this?

Sometimes, yes, but not very often :P

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Re: Composing - a natural ability?

Postby freakish777 » Wed Jul 13, 2011 3:14 pm UTC

Definitely not a natural ability. Even Beethoven and other great composers twerked their songs and concertos relentlessly (months or years on end) until they were "perfect."

I find the biggest problem to be having a song stuck in your head, and it turns out to be a riff/bass line from a song you've already heard. Then I start writing it. Then it comes up on my mp3 player. Then expletives are uttered. Then I try to twerk it so it has it's own identity. Then I scrap the whole thing you were working on when it. You can replace the whole ("song already exists" problem with "this song just sounds bad" problem too).

The real trick is to not scrap it and to keep twerking until there are no more "problems" with the song.

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Re: Composing - a natural ability?

Postby cjmcjmcjmcjm » Sat Jul 16, 2011 6:21 am UTC

If your problem is that it has already been made, just change the key and call it a tribute if you get called out
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