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Balancing Study and Music Composition

Discussion in 'Tips, Tricks & Talk' started by Dyllan Mills-Harten, Mar 23, 2019.

  1. Hey all, I've been having a bit of an issue balancing studying the theory/orchestration of the greats, and actually writing music. I spend whole days of frivolously writing notes, ideas, and tips, but don't really know how to stop, and start a piece. Any suggestions?
  2. Writing music, in a way, takes way more effort than studying other people's music. It is difficult, and it requires mental strength and a lot of stamina. It also has to be purposeful; I always write music because of one of the 2 following reasons: I have a "story" that I really wanna tell (in the form of a melodic idea or a more abstract concept) or I have a deadline (be it a competition, or something that I have to deliver). If one of these is missing, it's almost impossible for me to get going, I can't write without a motive. Music is, at the end of the day, a way to communicate with people, which means that there is either a strong desire to communicate to an audience, or a necessity for me to do so. If these conditions don't take place, I have to artificially create the setting. This can be, for example, in the form of signing up to a competition or taking commissions from musicians and ensembles. I do write because I wanna improve, but that thought alone is not enough to get me going. I have to mentally put myself into a position where writing music is inevitable. It is, and the end of the day, a process where I feel naked and vulnerable, and the "dramatic" side of the process is necessary for me to produce music that is worth something.

    However on the other hand, most of the times it's about self-imposed diligence. As I said, creating music (like any creative effort) is hard work, and it drains your mind if you do it for hours and hours. The bad news is that you just have to do it, put the hours in, and endure the discomfort. The good news is that it's a muscle, and it does become easier. Set yourself goals and keep yourself accountable: "I have a free weekend with X many hours. I'll write a piece for a Y ensemble that is gonna be approximately Z minutes long. Also, the first decent idea I have is gonna the one". If you impose yourself to do it and you're diligent enough about it, then you are going to do it. The more experience you have, the easier it is to go into the "composing state of mind" immediately, like turning a switch On and Off. But it requires all the attention you're able to give, and it takes time.

    There is almost a funny direct correlation between things that are very hard/complex and things that are incredibly useful for you. Transcribing is way harder than studying a score by reading it, and it's about a thousand times more useful. Writing a "finished" piece of music is much more tedious and difficult to do compared to finding little melodic ideas, but it's also incredibly more useful for your development as a composer.

    It's supposed to be difficult, long, and frustrating at the beginning; overtime the "frustrating" part fades away. But it's always gonna be challenging. Remember: the bigger the challenge, the bigger the payoff.

    TL;DR: you take up a couple of hours and you start doing it. No tricks or lifehacks for it. You just start.
    Rohann van Rensburg likes this.
  3. Thank you for the help. The thing is, since I still feel so new to orchestration (13 months), I think of my notes as my "orchestral alphabet" in a way, so I feel compelled to learn all of the "letters" before writing "poetry". Is this common?
    Doug Gibson likes this.
  4. That's the fallacy of breaking a complex thing into its separate components and learning one at a time, thinking this best.

    It is a fallacy which transcription eviscerates, and solves, all at once.
  5. You can study all your life, but you'll never be anything more than a beginner if you don't start writing. If you don't have a lot of experience, you'll suck. And it's okay. We all mumbled when we first started talking. That's why the community here will help you move in the right direction so you don't have to reinvent the wheel all over again and can get past the basics quickly.

    But you have to write something, so that we can all together take a look at your piece and tell you how you can improve. I mean nobody here is perfect, but people try and give constructive criticism and I can say that the credit for my improvement goes mostly to Mike and this place for the direction. In the end, you'll have to put in the work to study and transcribe yourself, but with every crossroads having 20 possible directions, pointers always help.

    So from my experience: transcribe whatever you like, write something, post it here, listen to advice from people you admire, listen to advice that the majority agrees with, and you'll improve in no time. I'm not reading theory at all. Half of this stuff I don't have a name for. It's just "that thing" in my head.
    Rohann van Rensburg likes this.
  6. I'll be honest, I was always afraid of transcription, other that pop tunes. I thought that my condition (Cerebral Palsy) would triple the the amount of time/effort/ endurance needed compared to a "normal' composer, but now I'm at my "fuck it" point. Any tips on transcribing grander works?
    Doug Gibson likes this.
  7. One bar at a time.
    Aaron Olson likes this.
  8. #9 Doug Gibson, Mar 24, 2019
    Last edited: Mar 24, 2019
    Oh fuck man....... why didn't you say that to being with. Yes, it will be at least 3x's as hard for you. I am very sorry to say it but it's most likely true.

    To offer a confession, when I first read your post I had already seen the same thing on VI-C.
    I just thought you were another wanna be composer looking for a short cut. I was never going to write anything until I read this.

    But knowing now what you are dealing with, and reading about the "fuck it" point was like a big giant kick in the balls. (kinda Verklempt here)

    I am totally happy to work with you - for free BTW - to get you going. After that...... carry on as you were.
    I don't want to go too into my own mental health history, but I have spent more days un-able to move from my bed other than think about suicide and watch porn (a nice distraction. A man needs a reason to live right !). Months man..... months. So I empathise with "Fuck it" points.

    I am pretty flawed individual, and I'm ok with that. But what I can do is share with you what got me from not being able to transcribe the most basic song to becoming a professional transcriber and orchestrator too. I can share my bio later. Right now I can happily say most (not all) every single "bucket list" dream of mine for composing has been ticked. From having my own work played at Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Center, to the LSO recording a film score I was orchestrator on at Abbey Road, to having a film I was orchestrator on going to #2 in the box office (Damn Avengers).

    A lot of my stress was from the financial realities of living in New York City, and making a living as a composer. It can leave one feeling jaded that society on the whole does not value (to put it lightly) composers and our contributions to society. I've busted my ass, and paid a shit load of money to learn my craft. If I can help get a fellow composer out of the "Fuck it" zone, I am here. I want to help how I can.

    Feel free to message me personally (douggibsoncomposer@me.com) and we can discuss what your goals are, and what pieces you would ideally like to be able to transcribe.


    Man....... hold up...... you can write !!!

    That's nice. It sounds really good !!
    Hang around here with Mr. Verta, he'll help with the gusto.

    A word of caution: You will get a lot of well meaning advice on Vi-C. It can cause confusion however, and take more time for an individual to progress.

    There is some really great advice here........but there is a huge obstacle people have yet to spell out, which you already know about.
    (The other thing left unchecked is if you can read music notation well. People are assuming you do with the advice above)

    OK......... let's say you spend a week, and transcribe the opening 16 measures to Star Wars. It would be fantastic for so many reasons - accomplishing a goal, ear training, orchestration etc.

    Now what happens when you face a blank page (or computer screen) ? Star Wars is a really hard on to make meaningful variations on that don't sound like rip-offs. So it's easy to feel like John Williams is great and you suck. With that negative realization the odds of you persevering is going to be very low.

    You have two goals really: Developing the daily habit of music transcription, and being able to compose your own original works.

    The bridge between these two is "Thinking in Music". Developing your "Minds Ear"

    We need to build you a musical foundation. Picture someone building a house. What kinds of things does one need to start building a house foundation ?

    We need shit like shovels, steel, concrete etc. No fluffy curtains, no "infinity pools" or style bullshit. That comes later.

    You need two things as your foundation before jumping into harmony and orchestration.

    Rhythm and Melody. That's your foundation.


    Start ONLY with words:

    The best place to begin is language. Both for transcribing and getting you composing.

    BUT !!!!!......... you have to begin picturing in your mind the notation for what you are hearing. See with your ears, listen with your eyes.

    put Rhythm and how it relates to meter first. Don't fret about the pitches yet. You'll internalize them too, and this is also "parallel" learning - meaning more than one thing at a time.

    For example without listening to any recording, can you notate the Rhythm (no pitches !!!) to a children song ?

    London Bridge Falling Down, This old man etc. ?

    This old man, he played one, ........... go try writing out the notation.

    Most likely you would get one of two possible outcomes





    At this point it is not important which you get. As long as the proper grammar stresses are being felt. You feel the down beats, and you feel where in the measure you are.

    PUT YOUR HEALTH FIRST (no stress ok !!) , but doing even 10 minutes a day--- everyday--- is going to start things moving. No pitches.
    Just Rhythm and Meter. Within 1-2 weeks you should just start picturing images of words as music sort of by autopilot. When I don't care for either the person or what the person is saying to me, I just let a stream of music notation roll in my head looking like above.


    Begin setting text to music. Take the same approach. Even if you only want to write instrumental music.

    The first exercise to do here, is to take a short phrase, and make LOTS of variations. No "masterpiece syndrome". Don't try and write the 1 ideal
    idea that will forever stand the test of time. For myself I find metrics very inspiring.

    Let's look further:

    Read this phrase


    Just start saying it in your mind. How would you notate this. How many ways can you notate it ?

    The guide is the grammar. What's the most meaningful word ? Where do you begin - down beat or upbeat ?

    Ex. 1 should reflect as close as possible the speaking voice. No melismatic shit yet. Further examples you can.

    Saying the phrase out load my first instinct was


    I know night is most important so I am placing on a down beat, and in this case beat 1 too.

    "In" just feels like a downbeat to me. (again we are staying foundational here)

    I could also imagine this:


    Next, let's add in the melismatic shit since singing is different than speaking.


    Then, maybe longer duration as I imagine the voice singing.

    For example:


    Hopefully all of this can be done without any computer help. Just your own minds eye.

    This is transcribing from your mind. With this first lesson we are already "generating" ideas and variations from our own imagination.

    Now, if he is reading and see's the above example Mike is most likely onto my scheme here.

    One of the wonderful things about transcription is it, in addition to helping you internalize music, you will make subconscious connections.

    As I was writing above .... it was just a random phrase. INTO THE NIGHT. Mostly it just felt natural for me to have in as a down beat, to as a off beat.
    Don't care much for the, however Night is a big deal.

    Now after writing those examples, a song is clearly in my head and I can notate it without having to hear the recording. Just can hear it in my head. I don't know if this is correct with the recording, but I know it's what I am hearing from touching the piano. Can you see that the last four measures are the "Into the Night?"

    Now we have covered work on BOTH your composing, and transcribing skills.

    This totally sounds like a MIKE VERTA influencer.

    Please feel free to reach out at anytime if you would like my further assistance.

    Stay strong, keep the faith and you can do it !

    PS. I saw quickly you might have mentioned this guy --- err I mean dick lick- named Jake Paul. I have been meaning to post something around here about his cock-sucking piece of shit brother. I will do so soon I am sure. Don't worry about em man...... just do your thing.
  9. PSS.

    One of my students is the Dean of economics at the University of Calgary. He also runs a few live music nights in Calgary.


    I would be happy to put you in touch. At the very least I am sure he could let you know about things with the University of Calgary's school of music.
    Watching free concerts, or attending master classes would be possible I am sure.
  10. Sorry for not mentioning my CP, Mike was already aware, and I didn't want any unintended sugar-coating.
    Doug Gibson likes this.
  11. Look, CP can manifest in varying ways to varying levels of severity, as you know, but no matter what, you've got your instinct, creativity, musicality, and determination. The rest of it there are ways around; tons of them. The part where you either have a story to tell or not is something no condition can grant you or take away, so you're covered. You've got everything you need, believe me. Plus, fuck CP. What has CP done for you beside get you better parking spaces? I'd tell CP where to pound it and get back to writing music. In fact, CP can earn its keep by giving you an interesting slant on life and a perspective not everybody has. We've all got struggles and challenges; my Dad used to beat me 'til I pissed myself. He locked me in an asylum once. Each of us, whatever we've had to face is the biggest deal there is, and internalizing that - using that - is what music is for. Beethoven went fucking deaf, you know? Kept writing. So keep writing. Write little things; short things. Simple things. Doug's got some good advice for you, and it's a little different than what I'd suggest, which is good, too. Just set your sextant on your favorite guiding light and the distant horizon and take it one wave at a time.
    Rohann van Rensburg likes this.
  12. I Know about the beating, and asylum (basement in my case) first hand from my step dad. Also, being basically kidnapped by my bio dad, while he was skipping town. Turns out, he was running from the cops for running a pedo ring. I think all artists have been through shit.
  13. Okay, that's a movie right there.

    I suspect that sort of shit is half of why we become artists. But boring people don't make interesting art, so...
    Rohann van Rensburg likes this.
  14. Your Dad was a Priest ?!! :D

    Sorry..... my bad. I actually waited about 2 hours before posting this, trying not to bring my poor taste to the forum. I couldn't resist.:oops:
    Dyllan Mills-Harten likes this.
  15. Penalty for hesitating. We thicken skins and sharpen senses of humor here.
    Dyllan Mills-Harten likes this.
  16. Lmao! My dad's side was religious enough, thank god I only got half of the pedo gene, and just turned out gay. Perfect for Hollywood!
    Mike Verta likes this.
  17. In retrospect, my reply sounds way harsher (and a bit condescending) than I intended to be. I also wasn't aware of your background, so I'm sorry for assuming otherwise. Although, I'm happy to read all the other very useful replies in the thread! Plenty of extremely valuable advice! Good luck with your efforts, and I'm looking forward to listen to your music in the forum!
  18. Frankie, frankie, don't go soft on me now! lol
    Francesco Bortolussi likes this.
  19. Inspiring thread!

    "Happy people have no stories"

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