Composing Standards

Below are a selection of motivating ideas behind composing and arranging for a variety of purposes and in a variety of styles. These are the nearest thing to ‘criteria’ that we have so far developed and are the result of our experience of dealing with a wide variety of people coming to composition from a wide variety of directions. We place particular emphasis on independence, discipline, imagination and openness of mind.


When some people approach composition, they feel the need to use a standard or template to base their piece on, to hang their ideas on. Make some effort to avoid this, although it can be difficult at first. A lot of people talk about music that’s ‘conventional’ or ‘unconventional’. Think about this for a moment. Music is conventional if it follows any particular convention, and since virtually all music follows one convention or another, virtually all music is conventional to one extent or another. When we call music ‘original’ this often means that it has combined two or more ‘conventions’ in an interesting and new way, or reconsidered one accepted one similarly. There is, in fact, no way of avoiding using certain conventions if one wishes to be understood even partially by others. We tend to think it good, though, if composers are able to use conventions imaginatively, rather than following them slavishly. Try mixing them, ‘framing’ them in unusual environments, playing with them, making them your own. We will be encouraging above all else the development of your own voice.

Pastiche or stylistic composition

Some composers actively seek to emulate others in what they do. There is nothing necessarily wrong with this within certain boundaries or limitations. Ultimately, there is no point in spending all your time trying to copy others – you will never be able to do it precisely. Instead, try to find out what it is you like about certain musics and, if you want, try to incorporate that part into what you do. Most people like more than one ‘style’ of music, and if you do, try to mix them together, even if you feel that, initially, they are incompatible – you might come up with something original and beautiful. Often the best ideas are those which come about not because of logical thought processes, but through the sudden perception of otherwise unknown links between apparently diverse ideas. Stravinsky is well known for his ‘neo-classical’ material. In these pieces he made use of many stylistic ideas (often not ‘classical’), although always within his own particular context – you would be very unlikely to confuse a Stravinsky neo-classical piece with the ‘real thing’. For examples see PulcinellaThe Rake’s Progress, the Ebony ConcertoCantata and many others.

Listen with open ears

Probably due to its unique cultural position, people’s reactions to different musics can be widely varied and often quite vigorous. Try to avoid reacting in any way that is automatic, neurotic, or prejudiced. If you find yourself reacting unusually strongly about a piece, try to work out why that might be. Every piece you hear in whatever circumstance will have been thought about, however slightly, and there will be someone who appreciates it, (even if it’s the composer’s mother). If you do not understand what a piece of music is trying to do, say so rather than simply insisting that you ‘don’t like it’. Informed judgement can only really be made in the light of understanding. If you feel you don’t like something, try to formulate what it is that you don’t like. Try to find something that you do like about it, however small. Try to understand why someone took some time and trouble to create this. Try to keep your ears and mind open for new and possibly unusual experiences. What can appear frightening, distorted and threatening can turn out to be entirely the opposite with familiarity.

Use your instruments and instrumentalists fully

One of the most common problem areas that novice composers have is in dealing with their instruments. If writing for ‘real’ instruments, write for instruments, not for a piano or guitar and then orchestrate. Use the sound of the instrument to inspire your music. Use the full range of the instrument, not just the middle register – if possible, get someone to play you their instrument in these registers to show you what they sound like. Extreme registers often sound like a completely different instrument. It is the attack of a note that usually tells us which instrument is playing. If you use a keyboard or a guitar, avoid using cliched techniques like arpeggiated figures constantly. If all it’s doing is filling up the background, maybe it would be better if it weren’t there at all.

Use dynamics, articulation and tempo

Dynamics, articulation and tempo are some of the attributes in western music that are most forgotten by young composers. When young people are taught, there can be a tendency to emphasise the most common attributes of both ‘classical’ and ‘popular’ music: melody, harmony and (occasionally and sometimes reluctantly) rhythm. The importance of dynamics, articulation and tempo is often overlooked. We can also see this too often in amateur performance, where pitch and rhythm may be precise (but often aren’t!) but the performance can be ruined by a uniform dynamic and general lack of expression. Think of composing as performing – you need to emphasise – to begin with you may feel over-emphasise – your musical thoughts and gestures.

On a practical level, each phrase of each of the instruments you have used should be well annotated, including dynamic markings, slurrings, points of emphasis, and so on. If your score has few or none of these annotations you may well need to go over it again. 

Sound sculpture

Think of composing music as sculpting sound. You have much control over your material – over many aspects of it. Don’t give it all away by copying someone else – use your imagination to come up with strange new ways of seeing and hearing the world – impress others with your colour and plumage! Be proud of your ability to express yourself!

Expression, drama, atmosphere and beauty

This is the key to it all. Music can express many things, but one of its principal achievements is expressing the idea of things: religion, love, mystery, violence, peace… Above all else, music is capable of creating expressive atmospheres.


This is one of the aspects that is assessed. You are encouraged to take pride in your work – not just in its appearance, but in its practicality. A beautifully presented score that cannot be read or that is impossible to play or that falls off the stand during performance is useless. (But at least it’s beautiful… ) Make your scores both attractive and practical. Also please remember dynamics, articulation and tempo – see above.


Technology can be a very useful tool for the composer, whether they are writing with electronics or not. However, the use of music sequencers will not automatically improve your composing ability. Neither does the fact that your music is processed and printed make it any better, (although it may be easier to read, in which case you should improve the quality of your ‘hand-writing’). Above all, remember that all software has a ‘flavour’ that tends to push you into composing in one way or another. You are the composer, not the machine, or the person or people who wrote the software that you use. Finally, don’t forget to write by hand as well. I will insist that a specified proportion of your submitted work is hand-written. Avoid writing at a music processor. They can control you.

On the other hand, you should accept that electronic instruments and processors are an increasingly important and unavoidable part of our musical language. With the above caveats – that is that we should be wary of a manufacturer’s intentions – you should seek to embrace and make imaginative use of whatever resources are available.

Getting started

Many students studying composition forget the most basic things when they think about composing – nerves, anxiety, or simply the hideous task of having to come up with anything at all. The opening of a piece is a most precious commodity – whoever you are, whatever your reputation, you have a few moments when people are all ears – they are all listening and hoping to enjoy what they hear. However, it is all too short a time. Unless you hold their attention, they will soon lose interest or categorise you into one of the hundreds of categories each of us carries around in our heads and their listening will become corrupted by this categorisation.

Spend some time just improvising. Listen to different sorts of music (with open ears) and improvise around some of the ideas. Don’t be ‘held back’ by notation – use rough images, shapes, words and gestures to get started with this. Let it ruminate. Then come up with something contrasting:


One of the main methods of getting started is to come up with an idea and then deliberately make another, contrasting one. For instance, judge the idea against the following criteria:

  • Tessitura (is the idea high, medium or low in the range of the chosen instrument(s)?);
  • Timbre (which instrument(s) has (have) been chosen?);
  • Tempo (is the idea fast, moderate or slow in tempo?);
  • Dynamics (is the idea loud, moderate or soft?);
  • Lyricism (is the idea lyrical or highly rhythmic?).

Of course, there are many others you can choose.

Take one, two or three of these criteria and create another idea using different, or opposite ideas. While initially you may feel the idea is too contrasting, after playing around with it for a while you may discover that it has potential.


Repetition is something you need to consider.  Generally, once you’ve included it, it’s hard to avoid.


You’ll often find that the simplest expressions are the best – but be careful that you don’t fall under the misapprehension that an idea which is musically simple need sound simple. The reverse is also true – many people find that they like composing an an existing style because the style seems familiar and this may be misinterpreted as it being ‘simple’. Composers often fail at stylistic composition because they make this mistake – a style may be familiar but this can make it very difficult indeed to imitate well, and this is because however familiar a style may be, this in itself doesn’t make it ‘simple’ music.


Don’t think of composition as solely involving your own emotions – you want to find your own voice and this must involve the acquisition of a variety of skills and techniques, each of which will need learning, understanding and practice. You’ll need to use ideas that you may not initially like, or you feel are counterproductive – but how do you know if you’ll like it unless you try it. Don’t just listen, experiment with an open mind!

Create your own Opportunities

You have to Want it

Listen to Everything

John Cage’s infamous composition 4’33” – essentially four and a half minutes of silence – was ‘composed’ in order to emphasise the ‘music’ of ‘silence’ – in any environment there are constantly sounds – even if only those emanating from your own body. In Cage’s opinion, these represent one of the truest ‘musics’ there is.

Our environment is constantly filled with sound – indeed, it is difficult to find silence anywhere. Many of the sounds are background noises – birdsong, traffic, an overheard radio, footsteps, chatter. On television and the radio, in the cinema, in the pub there are many different types of music and sound, all of which compete for our attention.

Wherever you are and whatever you are doing, always try to spend a few moments just listening. If you’re watching a film or television, try to work out what the music (if any) is doing there. Try to imagine it written down. Try ‘playing along with it’ (in your imagination, if you don’t want to irritate people). Many films and television and radio programmes make especially imaginative use of music (although many don’t).

Try not to listen solely to ‘music’ stations, but when you do, ask yourself why they’re there. It’s usually not just to entertain you!

Carpe Diem!

Seize the Day! Think long and hard about what impression you want to make. But at the same time, don’t get bogged down by ideas that aren’t working – discard them and start with something completely different. Above all, don’t start writing immediately. Think, imagine, improvise and when you find something, note it down in as brief and unspecific a form as you can without forgetting it.

However, also bear in mind that what you initially think of as the beginning, may turn out not to be – this is good, don’t be alarmed if you find yourself changing your plans!

Above all, create an atmosphere or a mood…