Anonymous asked in Entertainment & MusicMusicClassical · 1 decade ago

I want to be a composition major- but I haven't composed anything yet. What do I need to do?

tl;dr: Why do you have to have composed to apply for undergraduate composition? I haven't composed yet but I want to get in to competitive schools- what do I do?

Full version:

I'm 16 and have only recently admitted that the only thing I'll really be happy doing is composing. I mean, there are other things I enjoy, but I really connect to music in a powerful way. I know everyone says that, but I don't know...I seem to be more serious about it than my friends, and I'm connecting to more serious music than they are. (I only listen to music that falls under the rubric of 'classical'. Mostly from all over the Baroque but I like music from the ars nova to Arvo Part. It's not a snob thing, it's just what I like.)

I'm an early-intermediate pianist. I haven't composed anything yet. In part it's because my theory is only rudimentary, and it's in part because the only places I can work will have people listening and critiquing...people without formal musical training, I might add. I'm working on building up a thick skin to work through it anyway, but I feel very vulnerable when I'm trying to create something artistic -I'm kinda repressed like that- so that slows me down.

Also, I'd like to go to college around where I live, and I live in NYC. So far I've been looking Juilliard (who doesn't?) and the Manhattan School of Music. So all the schools I could go to are the schools that everyone wants to go to. I'm homeschooled, so I'd have an edge on the diversity front, but my lack of composition or notable musical endeavors makes me nervous.

What should I do to give myself the best possible chances of getting in to a really good composition program?

And, though this might sound like a stupid question, what can I do after I get my major? The ideal job for me would be something like a court musician, but that doesn't exist anymore. I don't want to compose for TV shows or anything; I want to compose real music that communicates something meaningful. (I have a whole philosophy I don't feel like getting in to.) I suppose I could try to teach for a while and attempt to save up enough money to support myself while I composed what I wanted to...but seriously, what could I do?


alli, Apocalyptica is a metal band. They play on cellos. All my friends are metalheads. I know about metal. I don't like metal. If I wanted to play metal, I would join a band.

8 Answers

  • 1 decade ago
    Best Answer

    I studied Walter Piston's "Harmony" in detail. Get yourself a book on form and analysis. If you understand these two halves of the greater whole, then you will be ready to write compositions that schools will take notice of.

    If you still have time, study counterpoint after the other two.

    One of my teachers used to tell me "every time I followed the rules I always hated my compositions." That is going to be your biggest problem in this endeavor. All of the masters broke rules. Ives' dad explained that you have to know the rules before you can break them correctly. I guess he was right.

    Good luck. Learn all about Harmony and Musical Form. Doesn't matter which books you get, just learn those two subjects in great detail. I highly recommend Walter Piston's "Harmony" as your starting point.


    Even if you pursue performance, you will eventually learn all about music theory because you will find that you love it and are driven to do so. Eventually you will be learning all about serialism, tone rows, and other modern compositional methods. Studying it from a professor who probably writes terrible, boring music is surely not the key to becoming the next great composer.


    I am most disturbed by the fact that you haven't written anything yet. How do you know you love composing if you've never done it? I started writing music when I was 8 years old and I never decided that I would have to study theory at a university.


    And finally - it seems silly to ask "why do you have to compose" to apply to the composition major. You simply are not a composer if you have never composed music.

    That is like asking "why do you have to know how to paint" to apply for a degree in fine arts... The odds are very good that you will fall flat on your face and realize you made mistake trying to get a painting degree. It takes many years to develop enough skill to write/paint masterpieces. If everyone else has started composing years before they came to college, then why wouldn't you have to prepare also?


    Good luck preparing your portfolio. I would be happy to evaluate any piece of music you email to me.


    Aha, and a final note -

    When I applied to college I showed a committe my Piano Sonata in C major. I had basically constructed it adhering very much to form and harmonic norms. They offered me a full scholarship. I decided to forgo the scholarship because performance is way more important to me than theory. Knowing music theory is fine, but knowing how to play - to play from your heart - not only does it pay the bills but it makes life worth living.

  • 1 decade ago

    Your question is complex, but it is a common issue among young and aspiring musicians.

    You definitely must study music theory in order to really know what you're doing. If you are taking piano lessons, ask your teacher to help you with theory. If you are not taking lessons, well, you probably should. Any undergraduate music program will require you to have some proficiency with an instrument, even if your focus will be composition. Basically, you have your work cut out for you in the next few years. Also in most music schools, you will probably have to take your basic courses before deciding on a specialty, so that may buy you some time to get a portfolio of compositions together. Also, you don't necessarily need to start in the best program. Consider the whole thing a learning experience, even if you start off at a lesser known school and eventually transfer someplace more reputable. Ultimately, your education is what you make of it, and I think you will find that there are quality teachers in many places, and if you come to them with a commitment to learning and improving, they will teach you what you need to you know, whether or not a fancy name is attached to the school.

    To be a composer, you must first be a listener, and it seems you are on the right track there. As you build familiarity with the many many many different styles of music, you will gradually start to develop a better sense of what it is you really want to compose. Knowing the existing repertoire gives you a starting place. Keep your ears open always, and you will find your voice. As for the vulnerability of being a creative person, that's something we've all faced. Your art is a reflection of you, and when you put it out there, your soul is exposed. You'll have to get used to that, as a composer and a performer.

    As for a career as a composer, I hate to tell you about what difficulties you face there. There isn't much money in it, and there are plenty of people vying for those commissions. Many end up teaching. Many are also performers. But they still compose and even there isn't a lot of money in it, they still do it, and they get their pieces played. If it matters to you, you will find a way. In the meantime, you have a lot of work to do, but I sense that you have the passion and motivation to make it happen. Best of luck.

  • Lots of great advice here. I'd add that if you want to make a career out of music, buy this book TODAY and read it from cover to cover:

    Mostly likely, you'll be assigned to read it in most good music schools, but getting a head start is a good idea.

    And be prepared to support yourself with something else, with your composing being your pursuit, not your main source of income. This is the ultimate "Swimming With Sharks" business, so success-by-age-25 is pretty rare, even for the most talented.

    Also, take a few business courses. Maybe even a law class or two, I took a great course at a law school (just as a single class, not as part of a J.D.) called "Contract Negotiation." That's a big part of the business, so educate yourself on it.

    Finally, don't get all hung up about the "composing" part. By that, I mean, don't think of your music as something that must be built like a house, with blueprints and plans and whatnot. Sometimes, you'll just get a melody in your head, and that can be the beginning of a great song. You don't always have to "plan" it, just go with what you feel, then build your composition around that simple melody.

    And remember above all, your success as a composer has absolutely NOTHING to do with your talent or compositional skills. It has EVERYTHING to do with whether or not the public connects and responds to your music, so by all means, but some SOUL into your work!

  • Edik
    Lv 5
    1 decade ago

    I hate to state the obvious, but if you're going to apply to a school to MAJOR in music composition, then you need to have a pretty substantial portfolio of pieces you've composed. No one on the composition faculty at Juilliard or Manhattan is going to take you seriously if you say "I want to be a composer" but don't have any compositions to show them. It's like someone saying "I want to be an painter but I've never painted anything."

    So, start writing as soon as you can! Don't let discomfort with theory discourage you. Just write.

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  • Anonymous
    1 decade ago

    First, the music is in you, theory is just learning how to use the tools.

    Second, when you apply anywhere, you will be submitting a portfolio of your works, which will not be judged on artistic merit as much as how much they show your grasp of composition fundamentals; harmonic theory and voice leading mostly. Anything else you learn and can show is gravy.

    If you have something to say, you will say it, that is the most important thing.

  • Anonymous
    1 decade ago

    to write good music you have to create something original that doesn't rip off something you have heard before. play a few notes and if it sounds good, add a few more, the new notes have to contrast the old ones enough to make it interesting but if there is too much contrast the song will lose its intensity. It's a lot easier in a minor key. If you don't want to write parts of TV sound tracks you need to make music that a lot of people will want to listen to; in general, classical music is not very popular but you should check out the song "Burn" by Apocolyptica. it's like half way between classical and rock.

  • Amy
    Lv 4
    4 years ago

    It is also good to study. Here are my suggestions: <<<form>>> The best textbook on musical form seems to be Form in Tonal Music by Douglass M. Green. It is important to analyze, analyze, analyze. (That was one of Nadia Boulanger's secrets.) A good subject to analyze is the Mozart piano sonatas. The best books on the Mozart piano sonatas are The Sonata: its form and meaning as exemplified in the piano sonatas by Mozart by F. Helena Marks and Mozart and the sonata form by Joseph Raymond Tobin. <<<counterpoint>>> Study every Bach fugue you can get your hands on. David Ledbetter wrote a good book on the Well-Tempered Clavier. <<<harmony>>> My music theory professor swore by the harmony textbook by Walter Piston, although some students prefer other textbooks. Take a look at the readers' comments on the Amazon site. Here again, Bach reigns supreme. Get a copy of the Bach chorales, which have been collected by Riemenshneider, and analyze them. <<<orchestration>>> There are several good orchestration textbooks available. Since it is impossible to describe the sound of each instrument or combination of instruments, it is now the norm for publishers to provide CD's with orchestration textbooks. Also, listen to orchestral compositions while following with the score. You will learn how instruments sound not only alone, but in combination. No one can describe to you the sound of an oboe and basson playing in octaves. This is how you can find out.

  • Natal
    Lv 4
    4 years ago

    composition major composed

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