Composing : Starting Up by Eric Liffrig

Eric Liffrig

Starting Up

Hey guys, My name is Eric Liffrig and I'm an aspiring director that enjoys music very much. I'm curious on what I should do as I begin to compose. I have played piano since I was very young and would like to write music in my spare time. My question for you is if there are programs that allow me to create compositions out there without having to spend a ton of money. I have a PC and currently use a Yamaha P-155. Any thoughts or advice would be greatly appreciated as I've just been asked to write something for an upcoming kickstarter. Cheers eric

Joel Irwin

Before you decide on 'how to compose', you need to get an idea of what you want to compose. You don't need a performance keyboard to actually create the composition electronically, but a P-155 is a great way to learn how to play piano and to perform with (though carrying around something that heavy and a stereo keyboard amp like the popular Roland, a seat and a stand is no small feat). In fact, when I first started back to composing in Sept., 2000, I purchased a Yamaha P-80 which I still have but don't really use much anymore. The reason is simple - a full keyboard or synthesizer is pretty much self contained and designed for performance. Now you can certainly use it for composing - but remember as an 'input' device - these highly sophisticated devices can be used in one of two ways - you can play them and generate analog audio output often through RCA jacks on you keyboard connected to your PC's sound card OR you can use the keyboard merely as a MIDI device in which case it is often connected via USB (the older ones use MIDI connectors and cables) and generates MIDI commands. In that case, much of which is in your piano or synthesizer can be ignored since you can and need to duplicate it on your computer. In other words, your piano or synthesizer has its own built-in "instrument samples" which are used to generate audio through an amp (or your RCA jacks). As a MIDI input device what is in your piano or keyboard will not be used. So for example, as I love the soft sounds of the Yamaha pianos, I went ahead years ago and purchased a Yamaha C7 sampled piano from So as I really didn't need a large heavy piano or synthesizer to compose with when I needed an input device, I purchased two much smaller and lighter devices to compose with (remember when I play them, for example, I will hear a Yamaha C7, through my studio speakers or headphones). For my studio I have an Edirol PCR-800 (which is now part of Roland). It is touch sensitive and one octave smaller but as I am not performing, I really don't need the full 88 keys (and there is a way to shift the keys octaves in each direction). For traveling I need something much lighter and smaller - something I can use, for example in a plane in front of my laptop which is on the tray - I chose a Korg Microkey - cheap, USB Midi input, 3 octaves and of course it has to be in a Gator Case! :) Now back to the original idea as I digressed - you have a piano and definitely compose piano pieces. So I ask you - what type of music do you want to compose? Just for piano or perhaps other instruments? When I first started writing for orchestra, I did it with the keyboard/piano and what did they sound like? I essentially ended up with an orchestra which sounded like a piano. Thing is, you may not want your string session to just be a bunch of stacked notes that you play simultaneously on a keyboard - but if you do, then you are in the realm of synthesized orchestral music (versus orchestral instrument samples) since often that is how it is produced. We call the concept, "idomatic writing". For example, writing for a string section is not just about assigning notes from your keyboard to the strings. It means you want the violin, for example to sound like a real player is playing it. That means you have to know more than just notes and 'velocity' (how loud it is) / dynamics. There is, for example also 'articulation' - how is the violin note going to be played - hard, soft, up bow, down bow, 'attack', staccato, etc. Each instrument has its own particular way to be played - a violin is quite different being played than say an alto sax. So if you really want to be effective at writing for real instruments you have to study those instruments - look at musical examples, listen to music played by the instrument - in my case, my mentor had me learn one instrument from each 'section' - so I struggled on violin and clarinet, for example - just long enough (about 1 to 2 years each) to get an appreciation for writing for those groups. Once you can get a good feel for an instrument, you need to understand how to work with more than one at a time - one flute or two flutes? there is a difference in how you write for more than one, perhaps. Then you need to get a better understanding of 'voicing's - what does it mean to work with say 2 violins, viola, and cello - the infamous 'string quartet'. That is usually the first thing we are asked to write for when we start off. And we often are tempted to write 'vertically' - which means that on any beat we try to form a chord. That is not always effective writing. I won't go into a lot of detail - but it is important to learn how to write 'horizontally' - how the notes in a instrument part move from note to note. Many people are good at learning this on their own by just listening or perhaps by looking at how others do it. I believe getting a good foundation is important and voicings are basic to pretty much anything - film composing, jazz lead sheets, or even gospel choirs (for voices we often refer to "SATB" as the way we voice the vocal parts). I would recommend going through what all basic music students learn - two full years of "Music Theory". I did it 10 years ago, and I still use many of those concepts to this day in my writing. And don't ignore good 'ear training' - you don't have to strive to have 'perfect pitch'. Some people are gifted with it - some take years to acquire it. I have an iPhone app to help me :) What ear training will teach you is all about 'relative pitch' and rhythmic understanding. These is very useful in at least two ways for me - (1) it enables me to effectively compose with NO midi / input keyboard - I can compose in my head and then go directly to my tool and (2) we are often asked to 'reverse engineer' a recording (which we call 'transcription'). Some of the great performers learnt their trade by listening to recordings and copying that performance on their own instruments - too many examples to name but the first coming to my mind is Charlie Parker. Transcription is also a way for us to create our own arrangements of other people's material. And as I have written too much already, let me mention one other issue you need to think about - do you want to have the ability and skills to write for electronic delivery only or do you also want to be able to write for live performance (which can be useful for higher budget films). If so, you need to learn how to read and write music and trust me - writing a piano piece is not quite the same as scoring for full orchestra or a big band. I also found that while we all can get very adept at using our 'sequencers' (which we also call DAWs), if we want to get feedback from others - especially in academia - unless we are dealing with audio engineering faculty (and not music faculty), most music people don't know how to read piano rolls - especially for multiple instruments at once. They much rather read conventional sheet music. I think by now I must have saturated your brain. :)

Eric Liffrig

Brandi thank you so much! What a great article just what I needed to read. Im thinking I might go with FL studio, but I noticed there was nothing on here about the software Reason. Do you have any thoughts on it?

Eric Liffrig

Hey Joel, thank you so much for the feedback. I am interested in doing two things with music. I would like to write music for piano, and I would also like to write scores for film. Now obviously that could include a great many things but I am definitely interested in orchestra. I will most likely get my hands on a MIDI keyboard, probably something with 46 keys. I grew up taking classes in music and have spent a lot of time in bands so my basic knowledge of music is fairly decent "though basic" I have good music theory and can read & write music which is of course mostly gained through playing piano over the years. I have written a couple of pieces but with pencil and paper >.< For now I don't plan on writing for live performance, maybe down the road as I discover how serious I get with this. I think mostly what im trying to accomplish is to see if writing music is something that I would consider doing as a profession because I do love music very much. Unfortunately I dont have the educated background necessary to understand everything about an orchestra but I will have to manage.(Did Film at SCAD) Its definitely going to be tough but I kind of cant wait to get started. Thanks again.

Samuel Estes

HI Eric, If you are tight on funds, here is what you can do to get going for around $100 - Get Reaper (both PC and MAC) it's $60, and is a great intro to DAWs, it's not "pro" but it work just fine. Second get yourself a USB to MIDI adapter. I know the P-155 has a USB out, but I think it's just for storage, does not send MIDI protocol. Once you have these, you can start writing music. You will eventually need to get some Software Synths and Sampler instruments. Look at Native-Instruments, Arturia, Cinesamples, Spitfire, etc. My recommendation to get started: Get Komplete ($499) (ultimate if you have the money) Get Cinesamples' Cinesymphony Lite ($299) (most comprehensive and cheap orchestral library out there) Get Synthmaster (KV331) ($99) Best, Sam

Brendan Squires

You should listen to everything Samuel says. He recommended Synthmaster to me and I have loved it so far! One more thing just because I didn't know much about computer specs when I started out... check the system requirements of whatever software you buy and make sure your computer has enough CPU power and RAM to handle it. Also, if your keyboard has MIDI outs you can get a MIDI to USB adapter from Amazon for about 30 bucks. I have one and it works though I don't use it much.

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