Resources for music composition & theory

I got into synthesizers about 2 years ago (for the story, I’m a human computer interaction researcher; when I first saw the monome+arc, I was very intrigued and got one for interaction design explorations. Shortly after I started reading up about Max/MSP, synthesizers in general, the eurorack modules monome was making to go with the controllers and modular synthesis in general, etc. I actually bought my very first Eurorack module, a MI Elements, from @shellfritsch - and when my first sound came out of it, it was a magical moment)

At this point, I feel like I have fairly decent understanding of control voltage, modulation, filters, oscillators, envelopes, sequencers, etc, all the basic building blocks. I have a background in computer science/electronics too, so it’s been really cool to explore that knowledge in a musical way.

But while I can put together patches that make some semi pleasant bleeps and bloops, I’ve been finding myself stuck when it comes to making actual music. Something that I could record and feel good about, or even play live. If in the next year or two I could get to the point where I play a 10-20 minute live modular set that I think sounds pretty good, I’ll be very (very very) satisfied.

Do people have any insights on how to get over that hump? Should I go on YouTube and watch music theory lectures? Are there any books/videos anyone recommends? Or should I just keep making bleeps and bloops and at some point, I’ll figure it out? Any advice on the matter will be greatly appreciated :slight_smile:

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First off, hello! I’m going to school for HCI and it’s great and super relevant to the events of this forum.

My recommendation for getting better with composition specifically would definitely be learning to play something that fits in a more traditional definition of “instrument” (i.e. piano or guitar or and organ sound, even if they are accessed via MIDI or otherwise). For this purpose I find detaching the music from the sound a little bit to be helpful, even if they’re infinitely re-entwined later on.

As far as theory goes, I’ve found that the only way to really understand the system and the concepts behind it is to just play notes and learn with my hands and my ears, but sometimes just seeing the information can help, and it can be hard to get anywhere without understanding at least the basics of scales and intervals. This YouTube playlist is mainly focused on pianists but I’ve found it to be helpful (just don’t treat it like the law, and don’t worry if not everything sticks)

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Maybe not quite the answer you’re looking for, but something that I think is incredibly important is developing taste. Spend much time exploring with an open mind all kinds of music, and learn to listen critically and in depth. I think much knowledge of music from a starting point can be based on intuition, and the deeper, wider, an more adventurous you go in terms of listening and learning what sounds good to you can directly be applied to your own sounds that you create. Indeed, making good music is hugely down to discernment, especially with getting into something that can very much take you in unknown directions such as modular.

Learn processes and learn what sounds good to you and you’ll already be making good music. Lines itself is an incredible resource for learning process. And the more you practice the easier and better it will get.

All music theory can be understood through personal interaction with the above and whatever devices you wish to use, and learnt slowly over time.

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One thing that helped me was to realize that the music came first, then came the theory. In other words, theory is just a collective noticing of what sounds good, and an attempt to explain what that thing is that we are noticing. You can start to understand theory not just as a jumble of seemingly random assertions and start to understand it in your own unique way from first principles. What is cool about “inventing” music theory based on your own ear is that soon you realize that your ear is culturally and physiologically derived just as everyone else’s is, and this means that “your” music is likely to have a great deal in common with “our” music, because you and I, we are just built that way.

This realization, for me, helped me see theory as more of a dialogue rather than as a bunch of laws being handed down from God. I can learn from theory, and theory can learn from me.

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I think that learning a ‘conventional’ instrument is great advice. As a guitarist who eventually learned piano, I would probably advise against guitar first, haha. Standard tuning really throws off understanding scales, especially when you get to the g and b strings. I’d actually recommend 4 string bass over guitar since it doesn’t jump like that. Piano really opened a lot of doors for me personally, but if you want to ‘play’ monome’s earthsea, then stringed background is super helpful.

@guillaume, I think it is good to start with the piano as you can automatically play a scale with the white keys, and then deviate from there to understand major/minor/etc. Don’t let all the ‘modes’ intimidate you. Learn them on the white keys and see them there first in relationship to the C Major scale. To me, this would be very useful when working with a quantizer, coming back to your modular. I bring up modes because I think it would be fun to listen for chord changes and improvisation in a song like So What on the album Kind of Blue by Miles Davis. Jazz is what drove me to understand theory, so that’s where I’m coming from, but pursue whatever it is that you like and try to transcribe it/figure out the notes (there are a lot of tools to help with that)

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Definitely agree about you with learning piano first. I went there before guitar, and I think it let me approach guitar in a much more comprehensive way (I never play in standard tuning). If you want to learn theory for guitar, even if you’re eventually going to play standard, I’d recommend learning in all-fourths tuning (the same as a bass), exactly for the jump you’re talking about. Only problem with playing in C though is you just have to force yourself to move on at some point! It can suck you into habits (although if there’s enough bleeps going on along with it that can be less of a problem).

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Definitely agree with this!

I have my own set of diagrams which define music theory for my own practice. What’s commonly referred to as “Music Theory” is just one system that many people follow and enjoy (be it classical or jazz or blues), but there’s certainly many more systems that work around the world and there’s nothing saying you can’t make a new one that works for you. And you are inevitably going to run into concepts that overlap with other people’s systems.

But on that topic I think diagrams or the like can really help. Find a way to write down or remember the things about the music system you’re discovering, and feel free to modify it over time. Approach a piano like it’s a sound engine and you’re trying to program it to make music. Maybe if the diagram is cool enough you can add it to the graphical scores thread.

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The book I liked the most when I was a teen studying composition is Arnold Schoenberg’s Theory of Harmony. It’s dense. It also demonstrates rules that the author literally broke as an aesthetic choice.

I’m curious about music education today since it’s been more than a minute since I was in that environment daily. I’ve had a number of people at my local hackerspace ask me about teaching a theory composition class but I don’t know where to start. Despite knowing more than enough to be dangerous, I find theory to be boring.

Teaching resources would be quite helpful.

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I’ve thought about making like an interactive web-thingy about music theory to combat the boring issue. But yea I’m worried about the idea of teaching people because there’s so many ways to understand it, and I wouldn’t want to stress my way against a way that might work for someone else.

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I really like the way @Ethan_Hein teaches music.
http://www.ethanhein.com/wp/music/music-teaching/

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This is a pretty sensitive topic for me, because I studied classical/20th century composition for my undergrad, had to “unlearn” a bunch of stuff that didn’t work for me, and then earned an MFA in electronic music from a very non-traditional program that actually made me a better musician, as opposed to simply being a better “thinker about music.” (Not to talk down about other programs, I am just sharing my experience.)

I would only learn a traditional instrument if it makes sounds you want to make. If you like music with chords, learn about them, their traditional and non-traditional relationships, how tonality works, and what is usually referred to as “common practice.” Get a keyboard, or a guitar, or learn to read/write music and use software. I would also encourage you to look at “species counterpoint” if you want to understand how Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, etc. learned to build music based on vertical harmonies, and how equal temperament tuning influenced tonal music. I’m happy to help answer any questions you might have about these things, and there are probably others on this board who are well-versed in it.

That being said, you could become a great composer without studying common practice theory at all. I completely agree with what Jason said.

If we take a John Cage-ish perspective, music is essentially sound organized with intention. He used chance processes to attempt to remove his human inclinations and habits from the process of composing, and observing the results afterward. This is one approach to composition that is really easy with computers, and is a completely valid way of composing music that has little if nothing to do with common practice theory — aside from the moments when the chance procedures form relationships similar to familiar musical relationships.
Pauline Oliveros made a lot of tonal music, but she also composed a lot of pieces with no notes — scores based entirely on text directions, intuition, and the interactions between performers who compose collectively and in the moment.

Ultimately, I find composition to be about building relationships between sounds. What does this sound do when it’s placed after that sound? Before that other sound? What happens if I play this sound while slowly turning up the reverb? Do I hear that “movement” of sound leading to another place? If so, how do I facilitate that process? What is the relationship between loud and soft? Fast and slow? Etc. etc. Play around, and have confidence in the things you like. If you aren’t sure, record it and listen to it in a week. You’ll have different ears and you’ll learn from it.

That’s how my compositional process works. Play around, find things I like, and see how they relate to each other. And don’t be afraid to share! Hopefully that wasn’t too pedantic/pretentious.

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The above advice is spot on and I definitely think learning an instrument, probably keys (I’m a guitar/bass player originally), is the best way to understand what tonal relationships, harmonies and arrangements work for you and you are then able to go and find resources that help you understand what it is that you’re into. and i would emphasise what @jasonw22 has said about theory being a description of something that is otherwise separate and not some kind of law that dictates the music. Having said that, I find this series of you tube vids extremely informative but informal and fun and I think are accessible to all levels of music theory understanding. The examples used are easy to relate to too. I too have no formal training and only put effort into learning theory in the last few years after around 20 years of just playing - wish I had done it earlier though. Enjoy the journey!! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5Fe352_WXWQ

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My father studied jazz music for years - he knew more about composition and harmony and how arrangements work than I ever will. He also took guitar lessons for years. But he could never put the two of them together. He’d ask me how I did it, and my answer was “it’s called playing piano for a reason”.

You’ve gotten very good advice here that I will neither amplify or diminish, @guillaume but I hope that as you bring your (obviously substantial) cognitive capabilities to the task of learning how to compose, don’t forget it’s play, even when it has structure and goals. Have fun with your bloops and bleeps because they’re your bloops and bleeps.

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That Ableton Making Music book may well be worth your time.

Building on my more conceptual response in the recent “path to improvement” thread, I hit a similar wall this year. Working through the same feelings, I realized that the big jump for me was to go from creating some pleasant/interesting complementary sounds to building them out into…something. The keywords here are creating a feeling or a narrative arc and, what usually gets you there, form and arrangement. If your sounds are your vocabulary, you have to put them in an interesting order and combination to tell your story (arrangement).

Side note, I know ambient and experimental music has, perhaps, less formal structure, but I do still think it hinges on building a feeling and does include subtle form-based elements.

Here are some further resources that may be of use. Mileage may vary depending on the type of music you are trying to make, but I think there are helpful nuggets throughout. Loving these discussions by the way, thanks!


Ignore the word dubstep :wink:


Good primer.

The next two are teasers, but they present a nice digestible outline of a classical perspective, which would be easy to build some research upon. I also like the idea of applying simple formal elements like ABA or AABA or what have you to electronic “new music” compositions.

https://www.artofcomposing.com/how-to-compose-music-part-5-simple-musical-form

https://www.artofcomposing.com/the-different-sides-of-musical-form

https://www.cyberfret.com/composition/kole/5-priceless-composition-tips/
Yes it’s a mall guy with a guitar over his shoulder, but I think there are some good concepts here!


This is Kate & Ray Harmony’s youtube channel. I don’t love his music but he’s got his theory down and knows how to teach quick ‘tricks’ that can be applied to the electronic/digital composition. EG “don’t go up by incremental fifths in your bassline”

This is an old grainy video of Four Tet in the studio. Nice over the shoulder glimpse at an arrangement and composition in the DAW. In my opinion you can’t go wrong with anything Four Tet!

Finally, if you are into podcasts or learn by listening, I’d dig through the archives of the Composer Quest podcast. Lots of different perspectives here!

http://www.charliemccarron.com/composer-quest/

Bonus: for quick melodic and harmonic inspiration, and just a cool ass music tool in general, I’m still in love with the recent Teropa implementation of Laurie Spiegel’s music mouse. Can’t share this one enough.
https://teropa.info/musicmouse/

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Thanks for the shoutout, Jason. You guys should check out the aQWERTYon, a web app that I helped develop with the NYU Music Experience Design Lab:

https://musedlab.org/aqwertyon/

It maps chords and scales to your QWERTY keyboard in an intuitive and musically expressive way, and acts like a standard MIDI controller for use with any DAW. It goes beyond the basic diatonic scales to include more fun and exotic scales as well. We’re going to be adding some music theory visualization components in the coming months as well - for example, we’re going to be tying this in:

https://musedlab.org/scalewheel

I’ll echo the other people here in saying that theory flows from music, rather than the other way around. Too many music theory resources present their concepts as if they’re rule systems, rather than attempts to formally describe things that people in a particular cultural context have found to sound good. In particular, be suspicious of classical theory–the notions of what sounded correct in eighteenth century Austria are quite different from what might sound good to you. Jazz theory texts are more likely to be helpful.

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I agree very much with all of this. (And have had to go through a similar unlearning experience after music school…)

Listen to a lot of music. Critical listening to the acoustic field of whatever space you’re in is also a nice way to exercise your ear and it can be done anywhere, anyplace.

Then, make a lot things and become comfortable with moving on, letting go, and making more things.

Listen listen, make make!

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+1 to moving on and making more! A very important thing to develop is non-attachment, and not identifying with the things we make (seeing them as a reflection of who we are). I like about 10% of my sketches, and some small percentage of that is stuff I actually use. Some sketches aren’t ready for the big time, and many of them, while rooted in good/interesting ideas, just aren’t up to snuff. This is where having fun comes in, because it keeps me creating even when I don’t get the results I want.

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I cant speak very well to composition, it is something i am also working on after about 18 months of this production adventure. Which is why my thoughts should be taken with a grain of salt.

I dont want to contradict others with much more experience, knowledge and skill, but as an alternative to finding what will work best for you: I am not convinced that learning a specific instrument other than the ones you are using is entirely necessary. Picking up a guitar or piano and going through that learning curve might not help a whole lot with the modular. Learning music theory is a totally different mode of thinking than the creative making mode. It can be really difficult to apply new, shaky knowledge of theory to the inspired, intuitive, flow state that i seem to be the most productive in.

Not that theory is bad, as most people seem to agree that it has helped them and they were glad to learn it, but you might not need a whole lot to help impose a helpful framework. I took some piano lessons and really tried to learn scales. Improvising with a couple that i am comfortable using have really helped things to sound more coherent and premeditated rather than randomly hitting keys. (try Cminor or Bmajor, they sound interesting and fit the hand better than most)

Practicing scales and learning chords etc has been rewarding as a concrete formulaic way of improving my technical skills. It is a tangible way of seeing progress as you become familiar, faster and more confident. Practice can be a good way to feel productive, to be engaging musically even when you dont feel particularly inspired. In this way it can be a gateway as sitting down to practice can lead to unexpected and interesting tangents as you discover little things that sound neat together.

While learning some limited amount of theory and traditional instrument technique has helped, it hasnt been as helpful as exploring ideas on approach, or technical aspects of Ableton, or a particular synth. And more importantly as @letteronsounds put it

So you should definitely just keep making bleeps and bloops. But you should also record them, even if you don’t think it is very good. Eventually you will have an accumulation of little voyages that you can puzzle together and make into compositions.

I stumbled across a recent interview:


One thing that stood out was that they all agreed that thinking or overthinking is bad. Paraphrasing Abayomi ‘I need to play with things, really interact with the sound so im not thinking, im not necessarily trying to get a particular sound’.

I would emphasize what @bobbcorr said about play. Like a child who learns from playing, doing, experimenting, making movements and seeing what happens. I think its important to have fun, that you can take ‘play’ seriously and turn it into ‘work’ as you develop something and continue to practice. Its easier to trust your intuition and the accumulated musical knowledge you have built up by listening when approaching music with a playful, exploratory and inquisitive nature.

I like @healthylives approach of ‘creating a feeling or narrative arc’. Think of how you are moving things along, introducing change and evolving the song. Sometimes i think of a piece as visiting a foreign city and as i walk through i hear the blacksmith shop, then as i pass by this sound i encounter another. They sound different but still remain in the same city or place within the context of the song.

Another shout out to @Ethan_Hein, his writings and approach to music have been inspiring and educational. I’ve had particularly good results studying and reproducing his transcribed rhythm patterns.

Sorry if i was rambling on and not quite addressing your question regarding composition.

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