Music, Composition and Theory

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Composer's Questions (FAQ)

If you're a beginner or amateur composer and you want to send your music into the world, then you should read these questions first. Don't forget to read the Do's and Don'ts as well.

Questions and Answers

Download this page as a clean pdf: Music Composer Questions

I can't read music, but I like to improvise on the piano. It sounds a bit like Chopin. Shall I send you an MP3?

Please do not send me an MP3. First learn to read and write notes. Learn some music theory as well. You must be able to recognize in what key you're in. Then e-mail your composition to someone who might be able to help you, but always ask permission first.

I use a midi sequencer and a virtual orchestra to compose. Would you like to hear my Third Symphony? By the way, I don't play an instrument, but I do have a lot of experience making digital music.

Unless I'm mistaken, you can't read music either. Read answer 1.

I am a trained musician. It has always been my dream to write a symphony. I've been trying to write one, but the first part is already taking me three years.

Take some distance. Put the symphony aside and start a new and short composition for a small ensemble or a solo instrument. Finish it, enjoy the result and then, after some time, make another one. Meanwhile don't even take as much as a glance at the first part of your symphony. Send me one of your new compositions.

Thanks for the short composition. It's nice and you do know your theory. I even wished you knew less about harmony. You made no mistakes, not even when a mistake would sound better. You need lessons in music composition.

Why do you want to write a symphony? I understand when someone wants to write music, but with you I have the feeling you just want to be the guy that wrote a symphony. Do you need to become famous? Chopin never wrote one. Or is it the sound of a full orchestra?

First you should write compositions for solo instruments and small ensembles. Take lessons in music composition and orchestration. Write on a regular basis, but don't overdo it. And then, when your teacher thinks you are ready for it, start to write a new symphony.

I think my son is gifted. He is eight years old and he's learning very fast. Today he played a part of a sonata on the piano. Should I encourage him to write music, like Mozart did?

Encourage him to play the piano. Mozart did write music as a young child, but he got a lot of help from his father (who was a composer too). Make sure the piano teacher is qualified. Your son will need a good teacher. If he starts to write music, ask the teacher what to do.

Is it really necessary to study a heap of music theory, if you want to write music? If you're a genius, you're bound to do the right thing, don't you think?

Yes and no.

I learned music theory from a book and I've been playing the organ for quite some years now. Would you mind if I send you a fugue? I would like to know if it's really a fugue.

You should show your fugue to your teacher. A fugue written at your level is homework. A teacher should check it.

Counterpoint is hard to learn. Most people think that if you can write polyphonic music, you must be some kind of a genius. That could be a tempting thought for an amateur composer.

However, you play the organ. Organ players usually are fond of counterpoint. It's best you take lessons in counterpoint.

I'm not much of a student, but I have been writing music since I was a child. My music teacher at college thinks I might be very gifted. I've written several sonatinas. Should I publish them?

You're not much of a student? You probably didn't study harmony, but you can read music and you like to compose. Your music teacher is right. You might be very gifted, but how are we going to find out?

First of all, do not try to get your sonatinas published. Cherish your work, do not throw it away and if you feel like it, play your music for family and friends.

Ask your teacher if he studied harmony and counterpoint. If not, ask a qualified teacher to have a look at one of your sonatinas. Let him show you the mistakes you've made.

There's no way around it. If you really want to become a professional composer, you have to study music theory and composition, even when you're very gifted.

I showed my work to a composer once. She told me that I didn't know the keys very well. There were also some beginner mistakes, as I recall. I took some lessons and I learned from studying music scores. Would you care to have a look at my latest composition?

You took some lessons, but you ask me for my opinion. My guess is you didn't take lessons in composition. I'll probably advise you to do just that, study composition.

I simply don't get it. You told me that my composition isn't any good and that I need to take lessons, but I showed the same work to a musician I know and he said that it was very nicely done. Are you sure you know what you're talking about?

I most humbly apologize. Your composition is very nicely done.

I have been writing music for more than twenty years, so don't tell me I should study music theory. I must have learned enough by now. Perhaps I should send you my Cantata for Choir and Orchestra.

I have not yet seen one page of sheet music written by you, where you didn't make a beginner mistake every ten measures.

I don't care how long you have been writing music. On the contrary, the longer you write music without ever feeling the urge to study theory, the more I am convinced that you will never learn anything.

How long does it take to become a professional composer?

At least six years, if you already play an instrument at a reasonable level (4 years of study and 2 years of experience). It will take you at least eight years, if you can't read music.

I would like to make some money by writing catchy tunes. I don't think you have to study music theory first, as a song writer. Can you give me some advice on how to write tunes?

Yes, I can. No, I won't.

How long does it take to become a good enough composer? I'm a senior citizen and I would like to give it a try, but it's possible I won't be able to finish the training because of my age.

It is not the goal that should give you pleasure, but the path you have chosen. Write music and take lessons.

A musician told me once that if I want to become a composer, all I have to do is write music. It's just a matter of experience, he said.

If you want to write songs and accompany yourself on the guitar, then you might get away with it. In the land of the blind, the one eyed is king. But if you want to write music for musicians who play instruments you don't play yourself, you should study theory first.

By the way, did he really mean that?

What are you thoughts on algorithmic music composition? Do you think a computer can write music?

Use a computer to make a nice score of what your brain came up with. If you don't dare (or don't want) to write music from the heart, then you'd better find yourself another hobby.

It's not easy to write music. All you have are your thoughts, a pencil, a piece of paper and perhaps an instrument. There's no team, no one to talk to. You're on your own. And if you manage to write some nice music, you might discover that not a soul is interested in your work.

Algorithms are a kind of diversion, if it comes to music composition. The use of mathematics can prevent you from getting emotionally involved. It's also safer that way. You can always blame the software, if you're not satisfied with the result.

I don't mind though, if someone wants to use a computer to compose music. But I would like to ask that person what he or she is afraid of. Is it studying music theory? Or don't you have faith in yourself?

Of course, computer software can be useful if you want to make a score or program a virtual orchestra. I use Finale and Cubase, after I've finished the composition on paper.

I know someone who writes beautiful classical music, although he never studied music theory. He even taught himself to play the piano.

I know someone who was abducted by aliens.

Aren't you being a bit too hard on people that seek your help?

There is nothing so despicable as the abuse or the neglect of a God gifted talent and I don't want anything to do with it.

Not my words. Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy wrote this in one of his letters. I agree with him. That's why I'm being honest with you. I'm trying to protect your talent, not your feelings.

Besides, I'm Dutch. Most Dutch are frank and straight forward. But we mean well.

Is harmony really that important?

Yes, it is. It's impossible to become a professional composer, if you don't study harmony first. Preferably classical harmony (with the Roman numerals).

You will have to take lessons though. Do not study harmony on your own. If you want to get a head start on other students, then you could buy the excellent Harmony and Voice Leading by Edward Aldwell and Carl Schachter, but in the end you will always need guidance.

You are Dutch. Isn't German music theory, like harmony, the best there is?

Yes, it is the best. That is why Dutch harmony is the same as German classical harmony.

Does a composer have to study counterpoint?

Not necessarily. It's possible to write beautiful homophonic music even if one never studied counterpoint. However, the best composers of homophonic music did study counterpoint - vocal (Renaissance) and instrumental (Baroque) counterpoint. For example Mozart studied counterpoint. He also admired the polyphonic music written by Bach.

The students I taught who studied vocal counterpoint (Fux, Gradus ad Parnassum) were better at voice leading then the students who didn't. If you're capable of studying hard and patiently, I advise you to take lessons in counterpoint. Otherwise, don't even bother.

I know several musicians who earn a lot of money, but they never studied any music theory. How about that?

I don't mind. Amateurs need money too.

I read somewhere that old fashioned theory like voice leading and such isn't that important anymore, because modern composers write whatever they want. So why bother?

The great masters did exactly that, write whatever they wanted. You do not study music theory to encage your mind. Knowledge helps you to understand what you're doing and why.

Voice leading isn't something from outer space. All it does is tell you how the best of the best, composers like Beethoven, Brahms and Wagner, connected their dots. These guys had a pretty good idea of what will sound right, don't you think?

However, it is true that in pop music voice leading is less important. A lot of things are less important in pop music. It might even be better, if you want to become a successful pop star, to know as little as possible. Instead, put all of your energy in your appearance.


If you want write music on a high level, you have to study music theory and composition first. You need lessons, face-to-face, by a qualified teacher. Do not study composition by e-mail or by taking an online course. Although you can find some nice tools online, that is not enough. You need a maestro, an experienced composer.

Remember, even a genius like Mozart, Chopin or Wagner needed lessons. Being born a genius is just the beginning. If these great masters needed lessons, then you definitely are NOT going to be the one that will succeed without proper lessons. Do not fool yourself.

So, don't be stubborn, be realistic and TAKE PROPER LESSONS!