Music composition, rules and inspiration

Approaching music composition is a goal that lots of musicians or non musicians would like to realize. Is there a systematic method which, if followed to the letter, would make it possible for a person to compose?

Musical inspiration is not really explained by theory. It is simply the creation or combination of sounds in an original way, with a specific goal or simply for fun. If the result is appreciated by others, those can always try to explain why it sounds well, why it is well built, etc. But this “afterwards” explanation can be misleading, because one could conclude from it that the musical work could have been deduced from the theoretical explanation, whereas it is the reverse that occurred.

If it was only related to logic (whereas it is related to esthetics above all), it would be all right to assemble all musical theory rules and integrate them in a software. The computer would then be able to have inspiration. Unfortunately, its “inspiration” will be limited to copy, modify or combine the inspiration of those who, by their esthetic sense, succeeded to really create and whose works allowed to deduce rules of musical theory.

Therefore, do not fall into the trap: inspiration is above theoretical rules. In other words, if you like some measures of your musical composition, keep them even if these measures do not satisfy any theoretical rule at all. The process of music evolution is thus the following: inspiration makes it possible to create musical works. When these works are appreciated, people deduce from it some theoretical rules or musical construction systems. Then these systems and rules are studied by others. Where the latter fail, it is when they think that they will have the inspiration only by studying these systems of logic. They forget to place their share of esthetics in it, the essential source of musical inspiration and sound effects.

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Do not fall either into the opposite trap of rejecting all rules. Rules can guide you, especially when you lack experimentation in composition.

One could look at music as a succession of distinct, small or great sound effects, assembled to form a more global sound effect: a musical work. For example, the passage from a G7 chord to a C chord: it is a sound effect in the field of combination of several sounds. It produces a sound effect that the ear generally appreciates and it produces a specific atmosphere. Similarly, each sequence of two chords is a sound effect. The use of such or such rhythm is a sound effect. Combining two instruments creates a sound effect. Each one of these small effects can combine to create a larger sound effect, which is then characterized by a specific personality.

A melody is only a set of notes in a specific rhythm sequence, each one being a specific sound effect. The combination forms a melody, recognized among all others.

Thus music is a construction of sound effects sufficiently personalized so that a piece is unique and distinct from the others, while communicating what its composer wished to communicate.

The spirit of composition is thus to create sound effects to express something. Any method which produces that is a valid method. If a musician plays by ear and if, by research and work, he methodically manages to isolate the various sound effects of his instrument and if he can then selectively produce them in a sensible way according to what he wants to express, then one can say he composes music.

Let us break this into three phases:

  1. The methodical location of sound effects
  2. The possibility of selectively reproducing them according to what you want to express
  3. The coherent construction of musical work

The sound effects can be located in various ways. Listening to lots of music with an attentive ear will help you. But to do only that is likely to make phase 2 very difficult, even impossible, because you still cannot connect the sound effect to what you need to do to produce it. The practice of an instrument will be complementary, because it lets you associate the desired sound effect to the technique to produce it. Listening and playing will give you basis for inspiration, but you also need some ability to synthesize and listen so as to mentally classify and integrate the various effects your instrument can produce.

Phase 2 is more active. It implies that you have something to express, to write into music. You can start from almost anything (an emotion, a landscape, an idea, an atmosphere…). Then the trick is to find, in the sound effects you assimilated, the right combination that expresses your message and which is specific to you. It is your capacity of choice and creativity.

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Phase 3 requires more experiment and comes gradually. It concerns the ability to develop a coherent work, where every element goes well together. It is the link that will bind the ingredients. One needs a link between the various passages of your work. This link can be rhythmic, melodic or be based on combinations of sound effects. Start with relatively short pieces before writing a whole symphony.

These three phases are interdependent. Only the practice of composition will help you to refine these three phases.

The purpose of any musical rule should be to help the composer to combine sound effects while helping him to free his musical imagination and stimulate his inspiration. Three types of rules could be met, corresponding to the above described phases. And the software tool can be very helpful in this direction. The current version of Pizzicato music software (see already offers various tools. The next versions will continue in this direction, the goal being to help you to compose.

Dominique Vandenneucker

Designer of Pizzicato.


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