I get asked sometimes how to compose music. The simplest answer, and the most accurate one, is this: “Plunk at it until it sounds good.” You don’t have to have formal musical training to start composing your own music. What you need is simple: ignorance and killer taste.
Ira Glass has a great quote to this effect, rendered beautifully here by the artist Gavin Aung Than. It applies to my experience as a composer very well.
Here’s the quote:
Nobody tells this to people who are beginners, I wish someone told me. All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you.
A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know its normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will finish one story. It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. And I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met.
It’s gonna take awhile. It’s normal to take awhile. You’ve just gotta fight your way through.
I started composing ragtime when I was 12 years old. My first piece was called “The Starlight March,” and it wasn’t good. Ira Glass would argue that I knew it wasn’t good because I had killer taste, and I’d like to think he’d be right. I listened to great musicians relentlessly, consuming every syncopated thing I could get my hands on in those days of libraries and the nascent Internet, and I knew that my first piece didn’t have that extra something. Maple Leaf Rag made the hair stand up on my arms, but my pieces didn’t do that. What was missing?
I could have quit there. Lord knows I gave up pretty quickly on the idea of my cooking ever having that extra something (unless that something was undercooked potatoes… God, potatoes are intimidating), but I didn’t give up on composing. My parents and family were encouraging – my parents and grandparents especially – and between that and my own unquenchable ambition to make ragtime, I went on to write 30 more piano solos.
Sad to say, none of these were very good either (though I did manage to write one winner in this time). It took me 12 years to finally write a piece that stacked up against my own tastes, that had that extra something.
I didn’t get there with theory classes or piano teachers (although that would have sped the process along). I got there via a shocking ignorance of my own limitations. I didn’t know what I didn’t know, and so I never knew what I couldn’t do. It was never a matter of if I would write a good piece, only when I would write it, and the happy delusion of that is what enabled me to write music at all.
Composing is the only thing in my life I’ve ever felt that confident about, that unshakably sure. And so, based in my own experience, I offer the following prescription for anyone who wants to compose music.
How To Compose Like a Very Real Person… Who Composes
- Find a genre of music that lights you on fire and listen to everything in that genre you can get your grubby little ears on. Ragtime, classical, zydeco, trance… whatever. If it moves you, if it makes the hair on your arms stand up, it can fuel your journey to Composerland. Don’t be intellectual about it. You’re going to need fire to boil this kettle.
- On your instrument of choice, try to make something up. One hand, two hands, with vocals or without, it doesn’t matter. And it’s okay if it sounds like something else. Correction: Your early works will sound like something else. Your killer taste will tell you that it sucks, and your first instinct will be to give up. Don’t. Your taste only has one setting: tough love. Stay with it.
- Share what you make with a trusted community of friends and family. If they discourage you, drop them. You need a fan club right now.
- Listen to more music. Keep making shit up. Share it with the ones you love.
- Don’t give up. Ever. For any reason.
- Repeat steps 4 and 5 until you write something that makes you cry when you play it.
- BAM. You’re a composer. Now, get cracking! Those folios don’t publish themselves.
This list is not oversimplified. You have to compose relentlessly, doggedly, stupidly. Malcolm Gladwell recommends 10,000 hours of it to master it. Get started. And even if you get moderately competent in one genre, you can still be a beginning composer in another. Three years ago I attempted my first composition for orchestra, and once again I was a complete beginner, trying to make something that stacked up to my killer taste.
But when you love the music, when the sound lights you up, there is no more profound pleasure than forging yourself into someone who can make good art.