Composing : Composition training by Tobias Jäck

Tobias Jäck

Composition training

How do you people out there train your composition skills? Do you analyze existing pieces or make mock ups or attend lessons, etc.? I'm curious!

Joel Irwin

When I went into the music business from a previous career in the summer of 2003, I went back to school and started from scratch. I took the exact same courses as the music major did which included a fundamentals class and two years/four semesters of music theory and ear training. Then I pursued specialization in learning to orchestrate. As I already had a Master and part PhD in another field, I had no interest to pursue and pay for another degree. Here in Houston, almost every school requires you audition to get into the music program and go for a degree. All but one - Houston Community College. That is where I went. I studied my basic classes under a PhD who wrote operas for Houston Grand Opera and then I moved to study under arguably the top Jazz pianist in Houston who was also an excellent full orchestrator. HCC is a two year college - I have now been taking classes there for 13 years. I currently take a composing and Jazz improvisation class (where I get my pieces performed - and only some are Jazz). And the prices is wonderful - about $400 a semester for both classes. Two things happened: 1. My instructors felt that the best ways to understand how musicians performed and the idomatic characters of various instruments were, I needed to 'live with the natives'. So for every orchestral section I needed to learn an instrument. My first task as is for anyone learning to orchestrate was to write a three/four movement string quartet (2 violins, viola and cello). So I needed to take three semesters of violin - I purchased and learned to play violin. The I had to write a trio for flute, clarinet and bassoon. So I stuck to a single reed instrument and took 3 semesters of clarinet. 2. By the time I made it to the horn section, I did not learn a horn. That happened for two reasons: (a) my instructor at the time was a prof who played trumpet and (b) since there was no full orchestra for me to write live music for, I had to concentrate on the next largest ensemble around which was a jazz big band. Now scoring for a big band is not all that different since in addition to write for a rhythm section (piano, guitar, drums and bass), I had to write 4 parts for trumpets and trombones and 5 parts for saxes (2 alto, 2 tenor and one baritone). They started me simple by having me transcribe off an existing record - "It's Been A Long Long Time" - the most well known version by Harry James from 1945 - the defining song for the end of World War II when the soldiers came home. Transcribing is a great ear training exercise and gives you the ability to learn how to score 15 to 20 parts without actually having to compose and arrange it yourself. Then over time I started writing for big band with original material. In exchange for having the band play my charts, I was also asked to play keyboard in the band. Again, a great way to 'live with the natives' - the best way to score for big band is to play 'standards' to see how everyone fits together as a team. An important concept to remember is whether you intend to score both electronic and live or just electronic - understanding your instruments and how to create arrangement and what rules to follow and which you can ignore / violate, is much easier and realistic to do if you don't merely learn on piano/keyboard or guitar. The more you know about your instruments the more 'idomatic' it will sound. Every instrument has its own sound, its own way to 'articulate' and its own way to combine with every other instrument that is playing. You need to know about how to layer different instruments together and when one instrument should play louder or softer than another. If you merely come from an 'audio engineering' orientation, have learnt just on a piano or a guitar or have just done 'beats', then when you play on your keyboard, for example, and then just move notes over to different instruments from what you played, the end result, in my opinion is that it will still sound like a keyboard. You can't create a score by just holding notes (whole notes) or having stacked chords where all the notes just move together (unless you want it to sound like a classical or church choir). As far as your question on analysis - yes from an academic point of view it is useful to look at some sheet music and to listen to thousands of tracks and try to figure out what they are playing. The more you do, the better you will get and the more diversity you will learn. I guess there is benefit to look at classical pieces (check out - it's all free) and to purchase some scores. Just remember that many of those are 'reductions' or 'arrangements' that may differ from the original. We all tend to start with the original 'master' - those Bach scores where we learn how to write in four part harmony or Haydn string quartets. Then if you really want to look at a score that comes close to what you may here in a orchestra film score, I would highly recommend "Pictures At An Exhibition". Now the composer was Mussorgsky in the 1870's, but his piano work was published by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov in 1886. That is a fun chart to follow listening to just a piano. But the real score to follow would be the full orchestra Ravel version from 1922. Following this and studying various sections would be very beneficial - the score is free at The music is an artistic painting / a poem and story description and so comes real close to the type of music you would write with full orchestra in a film cue. Now it is possible to buy and follow John Williams Star Wars suite but what I have found having both is that Ravel's give me personally much better insights since it is more descriptive of story lines and much less 'thematic'. Another great descriptive score to follow is the Fountains triology by Ottorino Respighi from around 1916 (such as "The Fountains Of Rome"). Whenever as a child I want to be transported to a different place, this piece was what I played. Following that score is very close to learning how to write descriptive cues for films. And finally get two well known and standard orchestration text books. You first have Henry Mancini (who I first learnt of by listening to "Moon River" or watching the Pink Panther films) - "A Practical Guide To Professional Orchestration" and Samuel Adler's "The Study Of Orchestration". When I was taking classes they used "The Technique Of Orchestration" by Keenan & Grantham but that quite academic and more suitable to classical scoring.

Steven Burks

All those things you mentioned are good ways to go about it, Tobias. My response will focus on film scoring specifically, as opposed to composition in general. I studied composition in college, read books on film scoring, and did a few mockups for practice. One DIY approach that can be valuable is to watch movies and identify the music cues in them that you like or find effective, and then figure out why they work; reverse engineering. Mute the sound to determine what contribution the music is making to the scene. This is where readings, interviews, and discussions about the psycho-emotional function of film music come in handy, because these give you the questions to ask. Does this cue play "against the action" or with it? Why that instrumentation? Why those dynamics? How does this cue serve as commentary on the scene? Which character's internal state does it reflect? What was the director's purpose for including music here? And so forth. So yeah, I'm a big fan of reverse engineering, in combination with some formal study as needed. Best of luck to you.

Tobias Jäck

Wow! Thank you so much!!! I'm totally stunned by all the information and support you provide. Learning how to play various instruments sounds like a great idea to understand their 'behavior'. I'll have a look at the scores and books. I've done that taking a specific look at the music while watching the movie thing already, am yeah, it's very helpful and inspiring :)

Steven Burks

You're welcome.

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