So you’re a composer, huh? What’s your real job? You must be really good with classical music… Are you sick of hearing this? Me too.
Proper composing requires hard work, time, and commitment. Early in your composing practice, especially when facing obstacles and major roadblocks, it’s easy to fall for common myths that discourage aspiring composers. This explains why many give up before they even start. Don’t get caught up in these misconceptions!
I am here today to bring truth and shine some light on what it really means (or doesn’t mean) to compose music.
Misconception #1: You must know how to read and notate music for composing.
Sure, it helps to know the language. Most composers use it to communicate ideas with other musicians. On the other hand, if you are in solitude, you can use whatever system helps you understand the job. For many people like me, this is indeed a course or two in theory; but for many others, it is more abstract and personal. Ultimately, the two paths lead to the same place. Whether you are reading books and learning notation or finding the patterns of “what sounds good’ – you are learning music theory. You don’t need to know a Bb from your face. You just need a keen ear, impeccable concentration, and good taste.
Many famous songwriters claim to not know music theory (Eddie Van Halen, Jimi Hendrix, The Arctic Monkeys).
Misconception #2: You must be a masterful instrumentalist.
You shouldn’t discount the ability to play an instrument, but you don’t have to be a prodigy or virtuoso by any means. It is more important to understand the nature of the instrument – how it relates to other instruments and how it behaves when combined with them. In other words, I wouldn’t bother learning to play the piano as much as learning where the same pitches are on other instruments and what ranges of it sound right in different contexts (this is coming from a piano player, bear in mind!).
Many famous composers claim to have no proficiency in any one instrument (Schoenberg, Elliott Carter).
Misconception #3: You will never make enough money.
Every job that requires practice to gain success suffers from this ideology: pro sports, acting, teaching… but this is just a silly thing to assume. Composers possess a desirable niche skill. Einstein discovered relativity, but he couldn’t (to the best of my knowledge) compose music. Musicians and composers are the epitome of success via multiple incomes: touring, teaching, performing, endorsing products, attracting advertisements, and more. Here is a YouTube video from Advanced Music Production about the advantage of multiple incomes as a musician and why the numbers for the average salary for musicians are not accurate.
Misconception #4: All compositions are of the same monetary value.
It is critical to remember the average person does not understand how music is made. They may think it takes months of grueling focus or they may think you’re simply arranging samples in a sequencer. The truth is… we do both of those things and we cannot allow clients to set unreasonable deadlines. It is up to us to set the rates. Longer content means more work (it’s not just copy/paste). Some jobs are quick and may only take a few hours and a computer. Others may require weeks and several outside resources. The article below outlays a good starting point for content creators.
Misconception #5: All popular music is diatonic and in 4/4.
This is perhaps the most harmful misconception of all because it is, in fact, the occasional non-diatonic colors that make Pop songs so tasty. I am not suggesting everyone should go out and write a micro-tonal piece or create their own tuning system (although I would love to hear it). But, one or two borrowed chords or a seamless key change may be exactly what a song needs to stand out and still “pop” — keeping it cool and keeping it subtle.
Britney Spears’ Toxic borrows the “flat 2 major” chord from Phrygian repeatedly in the main theme – but it is not “in Phrygian”. Radiohead’s Everything In Its Right Place borrows the same chord. The famous cover of Tears for Fears, Mad World, by Michael Andrews follows a Dorian scale. You may have noticed Led Zeppelin has bars of 5/4 and 7/8 all over the place (The Ocean), but people still love it because they do it in a very functional way.