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Composing books / exercises

Discussion in 'Tips, Tricks & Talk' started by Thomas Bryla, Apr 28, 2018.

  1. I'm curious: What can you recommend as good ressources (preferably books) that contain a boatload of pure exercises in composition?

    Want to improve my skills in a more 'academic' sense than I have so far. Dug out my Hindemith 'Craft of Musical Composition' and slowly starting with that. Looked at the Julliard bookstore to find inspiration, but the Hindemith was basically what they had.

    What have you been through?
    Paul T McGraw likes this.
  2. Sure.... perhaps for me to offer better solutions could you say a little what you mean by "academic" and "pure exercises".

    While I get the gist of what you mean, it's one of those terms only people outside of university/conservatory use.
    In my 8 years of conservatory study no one ever said let's write academic music.

    You know, over here in the US. you will find radio stations called "jammin oldies" but no one ever goes to a party and says
    "let's hear some jamming oldies".

    Those terms make me want to suggest counterpoint studies.

    If you don't know of it the work of Alfred Mann is really fantastic. He has a book on the teaching of fugue thru the years.
    Also, and I love this book this book only has the actual composition exercises Bach, Mozart, Schubert, and I believe some Beethoven used to learn and
    from their teaching. It's not a method or exercise book, more of a "This is how they taught". There are some examples of Bach correcting one of his students, so you see the students work and then his

    If you don't know these below they are pretty much on most "academics" books shelf, and have lots of exercises

  3. Ahhh ...... that's bullshit. Why don't the links to Amazon work ? I tried a couple times
  4. Thanks Doug! Just remembered that I have the Persichetti and it has lots of exercises.

    I understand the confusion! I was just curious as to what kind of composition books you have been through (in particular if you had been studying composition at college). I'm self taught in this way and simply wanted to brush up on skills. I've been through a lot of counterpoint studies both with a teacher and with the counterpointer app and both Jeppesens and Fuxs books and was looking for books like these on inventions, fugues, 12-tone etc.

    The Mann book seems out of this topic but very interesting!
  5. Did the links show up on your side. None of them do over here, and yeah.... the Persichetti is one that I listed.

    Well Alfred Mann has THE BOOK on Fugue as far as I am concerned. It's just called "The study of Fugue".

    Both books you mentioned are within his book. Alfred Mann's thing was to present like an "Urtext" for composition pedagogy.

    So it's not so much him "lecturing" on this or that. It's a collection of famous instruction and he is just providing "Context"
    Like the book about composer as student you can look through Schuberts fugal

    I went through most of Julliards methods, and also Vanderbilt's musicianship programs and my main degrees are
    from the University of Melbourne. I am just a junkie man..... if there is a GOOD course... I really like learning in classroom settings. Just me. It's a thing.

    So for things to advise you (from what little I know of what your background) would advise the following:


    The Spiraling Tapestry of Music by Philip Lasser.
    It's based on the teachings of Nadia Boulangier, and from a french author named Narcis Bonet.
    Bonet has his own book on keyboard harmony/counterpoint

    The art of Keyboard playing by CPE Bach

    For many things this is still THE book. In particular the figured bass, which is very useful for keyboard players.

    Felix Salzer: Structural hearing.

    Schenker influenced. He was Schenker's prize student. Changed my life.......... never will I hear music the same again.
    Check out Salzer........ he is clear in explanation. Schenker was a total dick, like Wagner. Both were out to prove the superiority of
    German music/Art. Salzer only talks about the music.

    Not books

    I am a HUGE fan of improvisation, and think it is integral to really learning counterpoint. Or .....as you say..... it's academic.
    Get anything by Peter Schubert (same last name as the other guy)

    I think one really needs to sing these things

    Next.... Get some books on improvising in these styles at the piano.

    **** Organ players have many books on this topic. It's the one place improvisation is still alive and well in classical/contrapuntal music.

    Look at either


    Robert Gjerdingen's partimenti books and "The rule of the octave" stuff of yester year are wonderful

    I've set up a link for you to look at some examples of learning to improvise in the baroque style.

    Just grab those....... they are pretty cool.

    You know...... I was doing post-grad teaching of counterpoint at the University of Melbourne about 12 years ago.
    So I had 4 classes a week of about 15-17 undergrads in each. About 65 in all. Weekly papers graded etc.

    I thought I was pretty good at the stuff. Teaching it, and checking over all those homework examples etc.

    Then I moved to NYC. The person I am about to link to below has since become a great friend, and it turned out we were neighbors.

    Improvisation was always looked down on at UofM (fuck them). I may have used this phrase already, but watching Noam play literally
    blew my mind and changed my life. I began taking lessons with him about 6 years ago, and holy shit....... all the things I used to teach....
    never again....... that was kids stuff. This is "knowing" counterpoint. (PS. He does this in every style you can imagine within the classical genre: Not jazz etc.)

    If you are ever really wanting to drink from a firehouse, I am happy to connect you. Just take a lesson or two with this guy. Just check out the video below.
    You think he knows his stuff ?

  6. Just wanted to say that I'm digging the Persichetti book! Went through it in the conservatory only difference is that this time I'm listening to ALL the source materials and doing ALL the exercises. This means that it's slow but just finishing up the first chapter is extremely fulfilling to my compositional needs. Such a breath of fresh air.
  7. I just watched the entire video of Noam Sivan improvising. I was completely thrilled as I listened. What an amazing and delightfully talented guy! @Doug Gibson is this fellow for real? Do you think the girl with the melodic fragment was a plant? It seems incredible that he could come up with all of this just "on the spur of the moment". It certainly makes me feel like an idiot.
    Rohann van Rensburg likes this.
  8. I never tried that book. Sounds like I need to get a copy!
  9. I have been taking lessons (have one on Monday) with Noam for about 6 years now.
    That video does not even show half of what he is capable of.

    As he was also a neighbor (we lived on basically the same street) I would often go watch his lectures.
    Twice, just because people are shy in groups, when no one would offer to sing I would. People would come up to me
    and ask if I was a "plant." He is also on faculty at Juilliard and the Curtis Institute; they wouldn't let a trickster in.

    I can share with you any other info you wish via PM, or make another thread.

    Hope you are well Sir ! :)
  10. Hi Thomas

    You have inspired me to think about opening that book ! I was wondering if you experiment with your composing process at all with these exercises ? I might try that out for myself.

    For example for one exercise improvise at the piano, then transcribing fragments I like of the improv, and then flesh it out pencil and paper.

    Next exercise, Pen/ Paper and a stack of study scores at a table and complete the exercise without touching an instrument. Then playing the example on piano.

    Piano score vs. Full Score composing etc...etc...etc..

    Mixing this up : Improvise - transcribe liked parts of improv. -- score study --- paper etc.

    Have you any thoughts on this ?
  11. Hi Doug,
    Since his assignments are pretty straight forward I either work them out at the piano or directly in Sibelius/pen-paper. His first exercise is:
    "Write a phrase for two flutes that contains several dissonant perfect fourths. Follow this phrase with one that contains several consonant perfect fourths."

    The boundary is already given: Two flutes, two phrases.

    If I improvise it I will be doing 'live' transcribtion. Not to tape but capture the moments as I play them and revisit them to further polish them.
  12. Robert Gjerdingen's Music in the Galant style is the only good book I know that handles composition well.
    I must have done 100's of small dance-like compositions until my brain could easily develop useful patterns in this style.
    I think if you go with "Music in the Galant style" you'd develop a structural understanding AND the ability to understand the music of Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin and some other great composers. You'd learn the concept of "The Red Thread", something that Mike also covers in composition 1 although he might phrase it differently.
    The most humbling experience when reading "Music in the Galant style" is when you start to understand the unconscious evaluations done by your brain. He compares the music in Mozart's time to the music of the 1950's and demonstrates how "taste" is formed.

    As far as voice leading is concerned I got much from Alfred Mann's books. I never completed all his fugal writing, gets a bit tedious for most of us.
    "Gradus ad Parnassum" is a bit strict, there is a free book written in the 1850's I believe covering Beethoven's student exercises (building on Gradus). It is less strict (and 100% free).

    Oh yeah talking about exercises - I did a statistical analysis of about 100 Bach choral harmonizations. About 50% of these contained voice crossings. Voice crossings are so forbidden in modern day 4 part choral exercises. Don't follow rules, follow great composers!
    Rohann van Rensburg likes this.
  13. #13 Rohann van Rensburg, Aug 20, 2018
    Last edited: Aug 20, 2018
    I should know better than to check this forum before going to bed, especially when Doug has recently replied to something. Thanks for all the pointers and info here, will be ordering some books and the comments/videos were inspiration I needed for this week (but I'm definitely not going to bed now). I've got the "study hard" itch again.

    Would studying books like these bridge the "repetoire" gap between self-taught and academically trained composers? Obviously a good deal of the topics listed are fairly idiomatic to particular styles but it makes sense to study them in an applied manner if one is influenced by them. I don't really want to write Baroque music but I still listen to Bach almost every day and his chorale and counterpoint writing is obviously genius. Would these books/study topics be along the line of the "Shakespeare example" you talked about Doug, i.e. you may not want to write that way but you'll benefit studying it?
  14. A broader perspective and understanding of academic training will definitely benefit you. What composers belong to what tradition, how much did they experiment etc...
    Unfortunately we can discard much of academic writings of the 19th and 20th centuries since they were not based on rigid scientific research.
    Robert Gjerdingen proves this point very well - the whole concept of "harmony" never existed in Bach's and Mozart's time. Bach rejected Rameau's treatises on the subject.
    Bach did encourage his students to study Fux's Gradus. Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven also studied this book. You can do it! It is a bit strict but you will end up breaking all rules anyway... Beyond that we have the Italian tradition well documented by Robert Gjerdingen.
    Actually that Italian tradition continued to influence operatic composers of the 19th century, and even Russian composers. There are books that documents this historically and scientifically and then there is this popular academic culture always trying to invent new strange theories.

    If in doubt just study scales and understand that beautiful and natural chord progressions arise from these scales - then you will have the key to all music before the time of Bach.
    If you don't like to sing just get yourself a recorder or some similar instrument.
    You can also experiment with creating your own scales, chords and chord progressions.

    Well actually what you can do is to get yourself a teacher who can improvise fugues, there are many in Europe but I don't know about the states. Learn that old thorough bass and all that. But on all cost avoid the conservatories since they are full of crazy people who will misguide you and often they are not even passionate about the subjects that they teach.
  15. There are different levels to this answer. Previously we spoke familiarizing yourself with "Masterworks" of the Symphonic repertoire.

    1. Classical music is a "live music" phenomena. (IMO) Go to concerts, and in particular..... go to concerts which you have never heard the pieces being played. (This is so much more powerful than simply logging on youtube, and the memory with remain much longer.) Or even better join a ensemble or sit in on rehearsals.

    2. With regards to the Masterworks: I would make this as much a "meditation" like experience as possible. Make sure you have the score. Quiet the "I like this/ I hate this" stream of thought. Some works are going take a while.
    Just trust......trust there is something to observe. Just notice. Notice and take note of what you see/hear.
    Asking specific questions is helpful to get out of the "I fucking hate this piece" mindset:

    For example you could begin with:
    What are the dynamics? Is it contrapuntal ? What are the first 3 pitches ? What intervals do those pitches make ? ETC... and so on. ( In fact it is perfectly fine to only focus on say 4 measures and memorize every layer of it.)

    Spend a day with it. Don't listen to anything else, take it everywhere with you, and spend pretty much the whole day with it. Sing, transcribe, copy the score etc.

    That's it....... now move on. Go back to your regular habits.

    The aim is to "know" the work.... which means spending some time observing, and experiencing the work. (It additionally helps to know about the time/context of the work too. )

    Consider this like eating food. I can't this will make you write "better", but I can attest that not taking in QUALITY new ideas drys up inspiration and leads to stagnation.


    Learning from these works in order to learn compositional technique is another task:

    I began with the above, as almost every teacher knows, and most "learning theory" emphasize that what
    you are aspiring to learn has to have"meaning" to you. (AKA...... dropping someone in a foreign country can make you learn the language faster as there is a immanent need. *** You do find people who have lived for decades in a foreign country and never learned but a word or two. Arm chair Frued would say they still identify with their native tongue thus resist learning out of fear of "losing identity")

    The above is meant to convey two points;

    1. If you really want to write baroque music then the study is more successful (no need to if you don't want to)

    2. Learning to write in the baroque style will not harm your film music/ heavy metal/ axe murder dungeon songs of 1399 style of composing. It might not directly help it either. Pursue it for it's own sake, not "carry over". Most literature focuses on Harpsichord and Organ works, so don't expect it to fill in orchestration gaps.

    A few points will always remain, regardless of style

    Improvise frequently in the style of
    Transcribe lots of it by ear (overload you brain)
    Practice sight reading music in this style.
    Learn to play the music on an instrument.
    Compose works in "the style of"

    You can of course supplement with a teacher a book on counterpoint. But don't just pick up a book and begin working thru the "rules". Not a knock against the books, but they are designed for classroom study, and meant to have an instructor "provide context". Make the above the focal point.

    You most likely already know the most influential composers/ works


    I do think you really do need to want to learn it for it's own sake. There are many pieces from the era I would have loved to say I wrote.

    As a starting point, I would probably say Rameau, or Scarlatti, or Vivaldi. They often are not as complex.

    Bach is of course OUT OF THIS WORLD

    If you are still interested pieces of a later period composed and influenced, but departing, are interesting too.

  16. Thanks for another informative response!

    Good point. I often feel overwhelmed by the sheer volume of work available, but in reality not focusing on them adequately will mean not learning from them. I do find orchestral music to be "slow burn", in that the more I hear it the more I like it, generally (I also suspect this is largely why music in general has a much smaller audience than in the past -- few people sit and pay any attention to it anymore). I have a list, but I think I'll "schedule" out blocks of listening to and internalizing one work for the course of a few weeks or a month.

    I suppose this is what I wonder as a "non-academic" (musically). Are these classic works simply studied and analyzed in a conservatory setting, or does one have to "write in the style of" and also transcribe them? From what I understand of composers of old is that they knew their inspirational material extremely well, but then their particular style wasn't exactly miles and away different from their predecessors, more incrementally so.

    I have to say that familiarization is definitely key, for me at least, to be interested in a particular work enough to spend time transcribing it, so both of these categories are extremely useful in order.

    Good, because God forbid my dirges become less depressing.
    In your opinion, would you say that "focusing" one's transcribing and writing "in the style of" is helpful to do by genre, if one's goal is to "integrate" it into your writing capabilities? I.e. say I really want to learn from, and integrate elements of the following into my own writing: Howard Shore's LOTR, Williams' Star Wars, Eric Satie in general, and also Bach. Would it be more helpful to understand these ways of writing better if one focused on transcribing a slew of one particular "genre" or composer, in this case, or would spreading it out be just as beneficial?
    i.e. spend a month transcribing only sections from LOTR and writing similar melodies and harmonies, then spend a month on transcribing and learning Satie pieces and writing "in the style of", or switch it up constantly?

    Good advice though. I'm learning Bach, Chopin ("learning"), Debussy and Satie on piano simply because I enjoy it and want to play it. I'll see if that eventually translates into wanting to write like them.
    I also imagine these would be more useful if also rather familiar with the existing work. I'll avoid applicable books for the time being (transcription and learning pieces will take up enough time for now). Been listening to a lot of Scarlatti lately -- I don't know why I'm not more familiar with him, but he created beautiful work.
  17. PS -- I'm glad you voiced this. I've been embarassed by how little I've enjoyed some really monumental works, but in trusting that there must be something to them I kept on, and in recent years I finally "get it". It's been that way with all my favourite music, as it tends to be music that really requires focusing on, not playing in the car (I stopped doing this with important music probably 5 years ago and it changed my life).

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