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Keys to Improving Composition?

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I hope I'm not jumping the gun here, I made sure to search extensively for a topic like this but, alas, did not find one exactly like it.

There are plenty of great topics related to improving composition, often more specific examples or questions pertaining to certain problems (like a left hand piano part). I wanted to ask: What would a list of general activities to help improve composition look like?

Other than the actual practice of composing your own pieces in whatever way be it paper or in DAW, what other practices help any of you learn and discover more about music?

I'm looking for things most people can practice such as: analyzing sheet music of songs they like, breaking down songs to their base parts, learning about music theory, writing music notation, or anything that you believe helps broaden one's mind on the understanding of composition and arrangement. 

I will say, this is partially personal but also hope others like me who want to improve composition would be happy to see a list of different activities they could proactively do that may help them over time. 

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Critical listening and transcription are very useful tools to learn how stuff works. There's a lot to be learned from music you already love. Pick one of your favo tracks, listen critically to it. What is the core genre? How is it structured? What different instruments do you hear? How does it flow from part to part? How are the instruments placed in the mix?

Also try transcribing (by ear) the song (or parts of it) yourself to get an intimate understanding of how things are done. This is a biggie and takes time, but it's worth it. If you haven't done it before, start with just the chords or the bass of a slow song.

These are just some options, you can go as deep as you want with it, and for me personally it works a lot better than analysing sheet music, learning notation or music theory, simply because I'm pretty much a hands-on kinda person.

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Yeah I've noticed that learning music theory separate from any music, although still technically helpful, isn't as interesting as learning from direct examples. I'm slowly falling in love with jasonyu.me who has amazing breakdowns of classic video game music, where he explains the theory along with the tracks themselves, and with amazingly well written notations. 

I will definitely take your advice though, and try and take songs I like and actually write the musical notation out. Maybe I should start with simple gameboy NES tracks since they can be a lot easier to hear the differences. 

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Kinda what Jorito said about critical listening, but here's my take on a list of relevant tips/tricks in order to critically listen:

  • For an overall perspective on structure, try turning off your screen and playing a song (or close your eyes), so that you can't physically see where you are in a song that you are listening to (especially if it's on soundcloud, which has a waveform display). I sometimes suggest this to people who may be struggling to write less repetitive structures, so that they can work on knowing when to create a shift in the dynamics or sound design.
  • Try importing a song into your DAW, then using an EQ plugin to filter out frequencies that are distracting you from a particular instrument you want to analyze. That may help you hear the actual notes, if the instrument is hard to hear at first.
  • Try recreating a small part of a song (or even an entire song?), in composition and the sounds themselves. That should train your ear to pick out parts, from both the compositional perspective and the sound design perspective. It'll also help you learn new techniques that should hopefully improve your compositional skills. For example, I learned how to sequence a cello by listening to this song, and recreating (and also modernizing) it as this in the process. It also made me realize how complex strings layering can be. (Besides that, I had tried that the year previous to then, and I quit trying. When I tried again a year later, that's what I made, which is how I knew my ears were seriously improved.)
  • Mark down particular spots in a song where transitions occur, to work on transitions. Then, try to pick out each instrument and see how it helps make the transition work. More of what I said on this can be found here (which you've seen).
  • If you don't have a MIDI keyboard, get one (for general non-virtuosic piano use, 37 - 49 semi-weighted keys with modwheel and pitchwheel is probably fine)! It's where many ideas get borne accidentally (or at least, mine). If you do, try thinking of the feel of a chord in your head, and try playing the chord just by knowing how it feels in your head. This is a way to train your ear to think of chords that work together in a progression, just by having a vague idea of how you want the harmonies to feel along the way (are they contemplative? Ominous? Silly?).
  • Listen to new music every now and then. If you just listen to the same influences, you probably won't know what other inspiring stuff is out there. I like hearing inspiring sound demos like the stuff from http://soundcloud.com/isworks (particularly the Ventus Tin Flute, Turkish Oud, Stroh Violin, and other unusual or World instruments). For instance, this track inspired me to write this ReMix in 3 weeks or so.
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I think that, besides the great things mentioned above it's also very important to have certain arranging techniques which are difficult to acquire by yourself. This of course depends on the genre of music you're writing, but a good knowledge of things like voice leading, instrumentation, reharmonization and similar things are generally very useful and help a lot with composing. Luckily, there are a lot of books about this. I'm personally not a big fan of books, but there are a few classics out there which in my opinion are a must have for every composer. Of course, it's a totally different thing whether you're writing for a string orchestra or for a rock band, so I can't really recommend anything as I don't know what your type of music and line up is. But, what I'm trying to say is that you don't have to do anything by yourself. There's a lot of people in the world that know a lot about composition and are sharing their knowledge in great detail for a small price. 


Just blindly listening to other people and constantly staying in a safe zone is of course also not the way. Absorbing information about things that interest you, and meanwhile experimenting with the things you're learning is in my opinion one of the richest and most fulfilling aspects of writing music. It's about the joy of discovering. Just playing around with chords on a piano for a few hours can be a very valuable and educational experience. This, in my experience, also brings the best results. Someone can tell you that the first inversion of a major chord sounds amazing, but hearing it yourself, and most importantly, stumbling on it by yourself when you're just messing around a bit, maybe accidentally adding a 9, has a lot more impact. First of all because it highly depends on the context, but also because that way it comes from yourself. This makes your music more you, and this authenticity and personality is what makes music so beautiful. 

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