The Composer’s Toolbox

The Composer’s Toolbox

As the holidays approach, so do application deadlines for academic institutions. Those students who plan to earn their degrees in the spring seriously consider their future; many of them work diligently towards their next collegiate home. Often, they turn to me for advice.

As someone who is in certain ways an example of the success these students seek—having earned my doctorate in music composition and landed a job teaching at a major conservatory—I feel it incumbent upon me to help them consider other options, to creatively assess the paths that lie invitingly at their feet. I ask them why they want another degree. As we consider the costs associated with university education, I tell them to imagine a scenario in which they cut their costs in half by offering their favorite composer $20,000 (instead of the typical $40,000 tuition demanded by many private universities) to work together for a year while the student works in any field in which they can find employment. (I’ve never heard of anyone using this solution, but I imagine that even a very prominent composer would be tempted by such an offer.)

All of this has me wondering: What intellectual and artistic tools are necessary for composers? What abilities should all students of composition seek to master?

toolboxObviously, the budding composer should study the craft of composition. We should learn how various instruments work and should be able to write for any instrument, either solo or within standard and original ensemble configurations. We should have a deep understanding of the full historical context for the music that we intend to write: film scoring, rock operas, performance art, or any other genre. We should analyze favorite works in order to fully comprehend what makes them tick and how that work creates a vivid musical statement. If we intend to produce scores, we should study engraving practices.

In addition, the composer should have hands-on practical experience with music making. In today’s world, it’s essential to have the ability to edit sound on computers, and if one is able to create live electronic music, so much the better. We can be our own best advocates by performing our own works as instrumentalists, vocalists, and conductors—advice that I personally have found very difficult to follow.

Finally, composers should learn how to effectively self-promote.

I perceive this list as a starting point and am curious as to what tools you believe are necessary for the craft of composition.

The university experience can be an effective way to acquire many of these tools, both through one’s studies and through the social contact with one’s peers. But I think many emerging composers forget that it’s not the only path they can take. Sometimes we can forget what our true goals are, and as we grasp for the next rung on the ladder that lies within our immediate frame of perception, we need to remember to stop and look around just in case there is another way that we might ascend towards our personal objectives.

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15 thoughts on “The Composer’s Toolbox

  1. Bob Paolinelli

    I agree with all the things you’ve mentioned. You are also correct in pointing out that the university experience is not the only way to acquire these tools. As an independent composer having learned my craft through private tutoring and self-education, I was never urged to lean towards the commercially viable side of composing in order to make a living or at least some of that living composing music.

    Instead I tended to be more adventurous, to explore some of the more radical elements of creating music. I know that’s not necessarily the best advice for an up and coming composer, but I always supplemented if not replaced my income from writing music with other things. Being commercial to get work wasn’t always my motivation.

    But, as a tool for a composer, I feel this sense of adventure is essential. Once you’re acquired a working knowledge of the technical aspects of composing music, pushing the aesthetic envelope can take you to places where you’ll discover and develop new techniques that add to your overall knowledge and ultimately make you a better composer.

  2. Kevin Clark

    This is a good list. And I’m glad to see a focus on the “Honestly, maybe you shouldn’t automatically go get more post-graduate degrees and more debt” point. I think it’s a good point, especially with the heading off after my Masters to get a day job, where I’ve learned a bunch about how the arts world functions, marketing, etc.

  3. lawrencedillon

    Good list. Let me add one thing: the ability to work with musicians, not simply as sound sources, but as artists in their own rights. Many composers are well-versed in score study and studio editing, but struggle to communicate with other human beings in real time. For many of us, this takes practice, and it has to be learned in an artistic environment, not in lessons.

  4. Armando Bayolo

    Larry makes a great point (and I think that goes, somewhat, with the ability to self-promote).

    I also think that an important but seldom mentioned part of the toolkit is exposure to other, not-necessarily-musical areas of human endeavor. Be it architecture, the visual arts, theater, literature, film, science, without these I find it hard to find inspiration or a point of contact with other musicians or, especially, audience members (who may not necessarily be musically trained).

    I am, however, increasingly of the opinion that one need not get these things in the academy, although certain parts of the toolbox (hearing one’s own works performed in order to learn from these performances being the most obvious to me) are harder to come by outside the hallowed halls of academe.

  5. Alexandra Gardner

    Nice list, David! I would add a couple more things:

    1. Solid writing skills. Writing of words, that is. Crucial for grant applications, program notes, press kits, etc. Grammar and spelling are just as important as harmony and counterpoint.

    And for those composing for live instruments:

    2. The ability to manage (if need be), or at least make one’s self useful in a rehearsal of one’s own music through coaching and giving useful feedback. This ties in to Larry’s point about having good “people skills.”

    3. Basic conducting skills.

  6. Marcos Balter

    That’s a good list, but I think there’s no infallible formula as there are so many variants. Craft and interpersonal skills are definitely a must, but there is a near endless list of other important factors, and many are near if not totally impossible to control. For instance, it’s somewhat more doable to bypass academia if you’re in a large metropolitan or culturally rich area as location is hugely important in many cases. And, I think that charisma, which I think it’s absolutely vital, is not something one can learn. Same goes to actually having something to say: one can have lots of craft and knowledge, and still be deemed irrelevant or, well, boring (both somewhat arbitrarily judged, I know, but a reality…). And, one needs luck, lots of it, which can be somewhat pursued by trying to be in the right places at the right time (festivals, for instance), but only to a certain degree. So, I agree that there are many possible paths, but I think it is near impossible to concretely lock them into formulas.

  7. Aaron

    Thanks for your post, David. It’s certainly an interesting starting point.I think some more clarity and depth would help to determine the parameters of what you’re saying, though.

    When you say “study the craft of composition”, do you mean the harmony and counterpoint mentioned by Phil Fred? What about Aural Skills? These are, of course, disciplines a composer can pursue outside of a university, but it’s unlikely that a composition ‘mentor’ is going to spend a couple of hours a week with the student working through Modus Novus! Also note that, in this, a University does offer a lot more than just composition lessons. Most University departments will organise and co-ordinate numerous workshops, rehearsals and performances of composer’s works during their tenure at the institution. This is incredibly difficult/expensive to reproduce on one’s own and it also negates the simple daily interaction with other musicians/composers and plain-old normal people that you have on a daily basis at a university/college.

    In terms of this, I wonder if a reasonable compromise might be that a composer tries to put these blocks in place, either through private study or perhaps a university course, and the uses your ‘cut the costs down’ suggestion at the post-graduate level. But the question here is what the purpose/use of that degree actually is. It’s very difficult to make a living as a composer outside of at least some academic work, and a composer without at least a Masters and likely a Doctorate will have a hard time winning Academic posts. A composer who avoids the post-grad road cuts down on their costs but also likely hinders their potential future earnings unless they are extra-ordinarily successful in the marketplace.

    In terms of the rest of your list, it’s a very interesting idea but I think it needs specifics. A composer doesn’t really have to be able to write for “any” instrument. Many successful contemporary composers I know wouldn’t be able to write for electric guitar or drum-kit off the top of their head, and many film composers wouldn’t have the slightest clue how to write multiphonics of any kind. In similar veins, many successful composers would be lacking many of the technical tools you speak about. I know many film composers that can’t work Sibelius/Finale to save their lives (luckily this results in work for those of us who do!), and I know many contemporary concert music composers who wouldn’t be able to use Audiosculpt, Logic or Open Music any more proficiently.

    I think the point the composer is trying to reach in the end, is one where the technical aspects of the trade don’t hinder the physical act of making the music. This is, again, widely varied. If you want to write music like Ferneyhough, you are going to need a notational vocabulary that simply isn’t necessary to improvise jazz with your own quartet.

    Finally – Alexandra Gardner – YES! To the fundamental importance of writing skills and to being able to manage a rehearsal. I’m not sure every composer needs conducting skills, but if you’re going to have them you should develop good conducting skills and rehearsal technique. I’ve seen a number of composers ruin performances of their own works because they stepped in to conduct where their technique simply couldn’t keep up.

  8. Chris Becker

    “The university experience can be an effective way to acquire many of these tools, both through one’s studies and through the social contact with one’s peers. But I think many emerging composers forget that it’s not the only path they can take.”

    This is a very powerful statement and I just wanted to see it reiterated in this thread.

  9. Mark N. Grant

    What should be in a composer’s toolbox and doesn’t seem to be any more in the 21st century? Practice, training, and fluency in the following skills:

    ●The ability to sight sing
    ●The ability to write four-part chorales
    ●The ability to harmonize an unaccompanied melodic line
    ●Moveable do and fixed do solfeggio
    ●Listening to an orchestral piece and being able to identify by ear individual lines played by specific instruments
    ●Listening to a song and being able to call out the chord changes as one listens in real time
    ●Fluent clef-reading skills, not just to able to read older scores but to be able to transpose mentally instantaneously when reading orchestral scores
    ●Fluency in sight-reading complex, changing rhythms
    ●The ability to “take down” a record, i.e. listen to it and then notate what you hear– by your own hand and ear, not using a recording device and a midi
    ●skill in writing different kinds of canons (crab canons, canon in augmentation, etc.)
    ●species counterpoint
    ●skill in writing fugues
    ●Experience writing in sonata form, dodecaphony, and other rigorous styles, to improve technical and general compositional fluency.
    ●Knowledge of what constitute the “meat” ranges of good instrumental writing, and why they are so, before one attempts to write for extended ranges
    ●The ability to read a musical score silently and the ability to write a musical score silently, at least to some extent. And I mean without digital or computer aids

    I could go on. The above are all skills that refine the composer’s inner ear, her power of imagination, and the ability to utilize his powers of conception. Study of these skills used to be the core musicianship curriculum of conservatory programs for composers in this country. And if you studied at the Paris Conservatoire or with Nadia Boulanger you sure as hell would be put through these paces even more rigorously.

    I am frankly baffled why few if any of these foundational composing tools are referred to in a thread nominally about “the composer’s toolbox.” I for one have expressed the necessity for composing students’ cultivation of these skills repeatedly in these pages the last few years but have the feeling that such comments fall on deaf and uncomprehending ears. Yet the entire literature of our art of musical composition until at least 1950 was created by practitioners who were all trained and well-versed in all of the above skills or their equivalents. The music they created informs every note that is written by a composer in 2011 whether it was written on a drum machine or a laptop, in the same way that my writing these very words on a computer is informed by the plays of Shakespeare and the novels of Dickens.

  10. Tom Dempster

    What about continued study, or continuing education? We hear those two words – continuing education – bandied about in so many other areas. However, whether because we all as composers want to erroneously believe we’re magically endowed with “knowing how to compose properly” after school is finished in four, six, or ten years, or because it’s anathema, or maybe it’s just not something we talk about, we seem to stop seeking tutelage in one form or another. Working with performers, current and prospective, is of course very important here; bouncing ideas off of theorists or visual artists is also important. But, where does the non-budding (the emerged, blossomed, or perhaps desiccated) older composer go for guidance? There’s nothing like handing a score off to someone who’s not a peer but not in the same power-dynamic as a mentor or teacher and getting valuable, objective (through their eyes) feedback on it. I can’t help but think of Schubert who, before his untimely death, had made appointments to study counterpoint and harmony further with Sechter; Schubert clearly wanted more advice and coaching on how to improve at the craft far beyond any formal training had ended. Why do we not speak more freely about our own “continuing education”? That is, what do we have to speak of? If nothing else, this toolbox (which seems to grow ever larger and more Pandora’s-Box-like with each comment) should likewise include the necessity to seek out continual advice and the desire to continually learn new ways of approaching composition.

  11. Brighton21

    A person on a mission to write great music will identify and energetically seek out the tools he needs to be great in his particular genre. You needn’t worry about him. He will lie, cheat and steal to develop his voice because it is a matter of life and death. No one had to design a curriculum for Beethoven, Ives or Frank Zappa.

    Composers waiting for permission to be great (from themselves or others) will never be great.

    College students should get the best liberal education they can and then go do what they end up doing, but with grace, wit and integrity.

  12. clint

    Does anyone know of a downloadable piano program where you can change the pitch?

    Please email me at

    It would be nice if it were cheap or free, but if that’s not available, then I guess I’ll pay a reasonable amount of money.

    The program doesn’t need to be very fancy.

    Thank you.


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