Thursday, January 31, 2013

The Paralyzing Effect of Too Much Advice

Since I started composing seriously, I have accumulated a large amount of compositional advice. Sometimes each nugget of wisdom is worth something in isolation (and, perhaps, in specific circumstances), but when taken as a whole this barrage of do's and don't's is really quite hilarious. If you were to follow all of these guidelines in good faith (which, obviously, I do not recommend), I guarantee you would not compose a note of music.

I emailed Sarah and we came up with a list of several of the do's and don't's we've heard over the years. If you are in a state of writer's block, I urge you to leave this page immediately. If you are feeling less fragile, please enjoy:

Don't compose in 4/4 time. It's not original.

Don't write in crazy meters. People won't be able to sight-read your music.

Don't have a fade-out ending. You want to leave the audience excited.

Don't end with a bang. That's banal.

Don't have a fade-in intro or a slow start. Nobody will listen past the first minute of your piece, anyway.

Don't have a metronome mark of 100. Such a tempo is only employed by lazy Sibelius-users.

Don't write a serial piece. You will alienate people.

Don't write a tonal piece. You will alienate other people.

Don't use mp or mf. They're wishy-washy.

Use detailed and nuanced dynamic markings. Specific notation allows you to communicate your ideas more accurately to the performer.

Don't worry about what the audience will think. Composing is about you, the artist.

Make sure you consider the audience. Music is about communication.

Don't write anything too hard. You will alienate performers.

Don't write anything too easy. You will insult performers.

Collaborate with and write for specific ensembles/performers. They will become invested in your piece and will give you a great performance.

Don't write for a specific performer/ensemble. If they decide not to perform your piece, you may be stuck with a piece for a weird instrumentation that will never be performed.

Don't write a piece longer than 7 minutes. People have short attention spans.

Write long pieces. People will take you seriously.

Create a detailed plan for the piece before you begin composing. Pre-composition is what makes you a real composer.

Don't create a detailed plan before you start composing. Flexibility and intuition are what make you a real composer.

Don't write for piccolo. Nobody wants to hear that.


I am sure there are others that we are forgetting...

In the meantime, I will now offer you the best advice I've ever heard: Just write.

Posted by Natalie (and Sarah)


  1. And don't forget the counterpart to "Use detailed and nuanced dynamic markings": Don't be too fussy with dynamics and articulations, it makes the performer think you don't trust them to interpret the piece on their own / the performer will ignore them anyway. ;-)

  2. Dennis - exactly! That's a good one, we should add it.
    Brett - thank you!

    - Sarah