Robert Estrin - piano expert

How to compose music?

Learn how great composers write music

In this video, Robert discusses music composition, highlighting very interesting and intriguing aspects of it.

Released on July 3, 2019

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DISCLAIMER: The views and the opinions expressed in this video are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Virtual Sheet Music and its employees.

Video Transcription

Robert Estrin here at with a really big question which is, how to compose music? How do you compose music? Well this a huge subject and it's interesting that there isn't one answer to this. So I'm going to give you a lot of pointers today.

Here's the thing about composing music, now there are exceptions to this. There are kind of those who, for example, find a certain formula. I hate to say that Mozart found a formula but when you consider the massive quantity of music that he wrote, all those sonatas and chamber music, and symphonies. And they all kind of fell into a certain form with some exceptions. Obviously he wrote other works other than those that are based upon the sonata- allegro form, and the multi movement works. But there's a lot of commonality in the actual structure of Mozart. And the same thing is true to pop music, there's some pop composers who one after the another they can turn out somewhat formulaic compositions that are great. But all too often, there's a sameness to them and there's very, very few people who can pull that off. Mozart, he was able to write all these sonatas and each one is an unique statement even though they are structurally similar to one another in some macro type of ways.

But many composers don't have one way of composing, every single piece they compose is a completely different way of getting there. So what are some of those ways? I'm going to give you some examples. One way of composing a piece of music to come up with a melody, let's see you come up with a pretty melody, I'll just mix something off the top of my head. So let's say you came up with that melody and you kept going and you wrote more and more, and then eventually you go back and you start putting in some kind of accompaniment. I think I was close to what I played the first time, anyway you got the idea. So, composing a melody and then harmonizing is one great way of composing. Because if you try to put every last detail, it could bog you down and you lose the vision of where you're going with the music. So if you have a melodically oriented piece of music in mind, this could be a phenomenal way to knock out a lot of music. You just write out that melody line, sketch it on a manuscript paper, or sing it into a recorder. Anyway you can get it down, play it into a keyboard into a computer. Anything that can get that melody. Then go back and flesh out the rest of it.

Well, are there any other ways that you could approach composing? Absolutely. Another way is come up with an interesting cord progression. First, harmonic elements, so maybe you'll come up with something like. And then later, come up with a melody. And maybe then you come up with another cord progression. So we have the starting with melody and then fleshing out the underlying harmony, then you could start with harmony and then create a melody on top of that. Are there any other ways? Well there are countless ways, and the more ways that you can approach a piece of music, the more creative you can be. The last thing in the world you want to do is to fall into rut. Where is becomes just like, you know, come up with another thing that sounds like everything else you've ever done before.

You might come up with some kind of groove, some kind of rhythmic element that is captivating, that you might want to build upon. And there you have that. Maybe that groove continues, but then the cords change. So it could be anything like that. And it doesn't even have to be groove, it could be even a motif. And then. Anything that you start that captures your interests is what you should go with, and build upon that.

The last thing in the world you want to do is try to do something for the sake of doing it a certain because you've been told to do it that way, or you think it's the right way to do it. Because that's the surest way of coming up with something that's not engaging. You'll know when you're on the right track when it's something that you have a burning desire to keep on plugging away at, that's something that you find fascinating. Whether it's a melody, a harmony, a rift, a groove, any of these things.

Now, some last thoughts for you is to think about the structure, some people like to think the structure first to know where you're going in the whole macro of the composition. Now I've mentioned sonata- allegro form which is kind of like an ABA, where you have a theme, a development, and the theme comes back. It's a little more complicated than that. But that's one type, and another type would be, for example, a theme in variations. Come up with a theme you really love, and just keep coming up with versions, and versions, and versions of it that take off in different way like Pachelbel Canon is an example of that. It's essentially the same thing over and over again but you never get tired of it because each one is inventive. So that's another one.

A Rondo has many repetitions, so you come up with the form first, and you try to carve out something that has all the themes and things like that. You'll find that ultimately it's what is genuine for you that it's going to get the best results. And I know composing, I've done a fair amount of it myself, and I know quite a number of composers. Sometimes you just hit a brick wall, and rather than just go through the motions, and try to force something that isn't there. Sometimes you just have to wait for inspiration to strike, and one of the best ways to do that if you're a pianist or any instrumentalist, is just play around with notes freely until you come up with something you like, and build from there. Any of the ways that I've described in this video, and that should be a terrific way to explore new ways to compose music.

Well I hope this is giving you some ideas and thoughts for any of you who've ever tried to compose. And you know today, with technologies, it's so easy to be able to have large output. It used to be that ... let's say you wanted to write a string quartet or an orchestration, it was such an arduous task writing out the score, all the individual parts, the transpositions. With programs like Finale, Sibelius, and others, you can actually have all that done for you. Just like a lot of the great composers had their students doing that, well today there's machines that can do that for you.

A great way to compose also, which bridges the gap between improvisation and composing, are digital sequence programs. You plug in a digital piano or any kind of keyboard that has a USB, which is like pretty much all of them these days, into a computer and there's free programs like Audacity, or you can use GarageBand, or professional programs like Logic or Pro Tools, and you just play to your heart's content. Anything you like, you save and you can snip, copy and paste, just like you do with a word processor expect with music. It can be a tremendous time saver and you can take such an idea that's just the top of your head, and start working with it without having to first write it all out, then preform it, then record it. It's all instantaneously done, all the steps I've just mentioned are done all at once.

So there's many ways you can work today, and I'm hoping this is helpful for you. Again Robert Estrin here,, your online piano store. Thanks for joining me.
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