Music Teacher's Helper Blog

Compose Yourself!

It strikes me that there are basically three groups of music users:

Group 1 is made up of the vast majority of humans who enjoy listening to music. But that’s as far as they will ever take it!

Group 2 are the ones who aren’t content with just listening to music. In addition, they want to make music as a singer or a musician.

Group 3 are musicians who, whilst they enjoy listening to and performing music, want even more! For them, creating music from nothing is the ultimate musical expression giving them an additional voice. Traditionally this activity was supported by at least a measure of technical ability at a musical instrument but increasingly people with no previous experience are using computers or even apps on their phone to create music!

Sadly though, many students and even teachers are convinced, even if they would like to compose, that they can’t. “I wouldn’t know where to start,” they lament!

Get the Ball Rolling?

As with every piece of art, the budding composer needs a starting point. When I was a composition student, the teacher would give us each a blank piece of manuscript paper, wander off for half an hour and expect us to have written 16 bars by his return! Despite an incredibly strong desire to write something, faced with a blank canvas, try as I would it was like getting blood out of a stone; impossible! Since then I have discovered that all composers are the same. Even the greatest! Every composer needs a stimulus. And once the ball starts to roll, the composition often gathers momentum.

Writing Music for Film

For a film composer, this would mean reacting to the rough edit he or she has been supplied by the director. Does the scene call for a light or heavy texture? Should the music be in a major or minor key? What tempo is most appropriate? Does the music need a sense of time or place? And does the position in the film demand a strong melodic theme or a subtle sense of tension? And the list goes on… Suddenly you can see that subconsciously the composer has already sketched in the outlines and now the process of filling in the details is relatively organic.

Other Stimuli

Sometimes the hardest thing to come up with is the title for the song. An exercise I’ve set my students in the past is to look through magazines and newspapers combing for potential titles. Often advertisers use interesting expressions in their slogans that can be a starting point. And as song titles aren’t copyrighted, a quick look through track lists on iTunes can sometimes be enough to trigger an idea. One word of obvious caution though. Don’t call your song “Yesterday,” “Every Breath You Take” or “Pretty Woman!”

What next?

One effective way to inspire a melody is to use dummy lyrics. What rhythm does the title suggest? Or what about your favourite order at your local takeaway?!? “Chic-ken Kor-ma and Naan Bread!” If you intend your composition to be an instrumental, then you can use the most bizarre, random sentences as you like because you will eventually drop them. If you want your piece to be sung, you can always replace the words later as in the famous example of Paul McCartney’s song “Yesterday,” which actually started out being “Ham and Eggs!” Whatever gets you there, I say!

Changes Are Better Than Rests!

Sometimes a song can start from an interesting set of chord changes. If you are really struggling, start by improvising with the primary triads of a key, the tonic (chord I), subdominant (chord IV) and the dominant (chord V). This will work well and is the basis for many a hit song. Try slipping in secondary triads between the primary ones from time to time and even experiment with chords that aren’t diatonic to the key. Hopefully now your chord progression is developing into something interesting. But how do you get a melody to sit over it? You could doodle over the chord progression with your instrument although I always find myself falling into old clichés.  A much better approach I’ve found is to “sing,” however badly whilst playing the chord progression. I always find that my voice finds melodies that my fingers would never. It might take several goes but eventually you should start to find a melody that sounds fresh and natural. Never except the first idea that appears. Keep working each phrase to see if you can develop it better.

Join the Dots

Another idea for generating some new music which I use all the time, as do a great number of composers past and present, is to take the musical letters out of a word or sentence and use these letters to dictate the pitches of a melody. For example, one of my pupils Dave was asking me to demonstrate how I start to compose, so I wrote his name DAVE on a piece of paper and then crossed out the non-musical letters. As the musical alphabet only goes up to G, I only had to cross out the letter V. I next played the notes D followed by A and then E on the piano, slowly listening to the sound. After several repetitions in which I choose whether I would go up or down to each subsequent note, I started to hear an answering phrase. Before long, the start of a composition was emerging. I keep a memo on my phone of potential song titles which I continually gather for such an occasion as this, a song without a name. After selecting a title, “Valley of the Kings,” which I felt was appropriate for the direction I was going in, I came up with a middle section. Middle sections don’t need to and shouldn’t be too memorable as their role is to give the listener a break from the main theme/s. However they should carry interest, introduce contrast and build anticipation for the return of the main theme. This is the basic idea behind ternary (ABA) form.

“Valley of the Kings”

Click here to listen to the final recording of “Valley of the Kings.”  Click here to print out the final score for free. Whilst listening to the piece, can you spot how many times I use the DAE (Dave) motif? To give you a clue, it is first introduced as the initial three notes of the melody. Please feel free to print out the music and use it with your students if you wish. Notice how I experiment with different registers and textures on the piano as the song progresses.

What methods have you found effective for generating compositional ideas? Please comment at the end of this post with your suggestions.

Make a Record

One final thought. Remember to record all your ideas, either on paper or on your phone so that you can recall your work in the future. There is nothing more frustrating than remembering you had a good tune yesterday but can’t for the life of you remember it today.

So if you haven’t as yet experienced the wonderful pleasure of creating your own music or helping your students compose, why not give it a try. A wonderful world of creativity awaits you. Even new students can make their own songs, learning a great deal about notation and music theory into the bargain. So take a deep breath…and compose yourself!

See other posts by Reuben Vincent

About the Author

Reuben Vincent
Reuben Vincent is a freelance musician working as a composer, producer and private music teacher, based from his purpose built recording studio in Bagillt, Flintshire, North Wales, UK. His main instrument is the piano although he is also known for a "mean" solo on the Kazoo!!!


  1. Maria

    Great ideas for music theory and composition students!

  2. jkroll

    I am very interested in learning better ways to teach composition and this sounds fantastic. What composition program do you find the most user friendly?

  3. Reuben Vincent

    Thanks for your feedback. I currently use Sibelius for notated composition and Cubase for production based composition. Although NoteFlight is a free web based notation program which is quite good for starting and pupils

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