After writing many blog posts for tonebase on how to play the guitar, I finally decided to make a post addressing composition, a topic that means a lot to me.

Why do I think composing is important?

I love playing guitar and playing the works of the great guitar composers like Brouwer, Sor, Aguado, Barrios… I admire them immensely.

However, before learning composition, I was always frustrated that I had to play “those notes, those rhythms, those dynamics…”

Sometimes, I wished I could be playing other notes, other rhythms, other dynamics…

We spend so much time playing music written by other people that we never really develop our own creativity… And when there is that yearning to compose something, we feel we lack the skill to do it…

So, what can we do?

1. Make Cacophony

Believe it or not, children compose all the time. They have a natural instinct to do it.

The child sits at the piano or guitar and immediately starts trying out all the chords and sounds.

At first, they have fun playing wrong notes and cacophony, but eventually, they become “educated” and stop their creative pursuits.

Usually, composition teachers recommend studying harmony, counterpoint, melodic writing...

I recommend playing wrong notes and making cacophony.

When I tell my students this, they usually are a bit shocked. They are learning composition because they want to make a “nice sounding piece,” not cacophony.

But how can you make a “nice sounding piece” if you don’t try things out and really explore the instrument to its fullest?

Studying harmony, counterpoint, melodic writing… all of that is just a way of making the composing path a bit more “straightforward.”

However, when you’re just starting out, it’s important to take the windy road and discover your own way.

So, if you are a beginner, please do not feel intimidated. Just grab your instrument and have some fun!

2. Use Rules to Help the Creative Process

People constantly say, “Art should have no rules. Art with rules is emotionless.”

So why are composers and academics so interested in creating them?

The reason: Rules help us create.

Scenario 1

I ask you to “paint me a painting. It can be anything. You can use all the colors you want, it can be in any style you want and you also choose the size of the canvas.”

You get blocked. There is a sea of possibility.

This is called the “paradox of choice.”

The more choice you have, the more anxious you get. This leads to paralysis and inaction. This is a scientific phenomenon studied by American psychologist “Barry Schwartz.”

Scenario 2

I ask you to “paint me a painting. It needs to be no wider than 2 meters, you can only use the color blue and it needs to be a portrait of someone you know.”

With this set of instructions, you immediately start to get ideas.

Those rules were completely arbitrary.

I said “blue.” I could have said “pink” but by sticking to “blue,” I gave you a frame. A starting point. A challenge.

If during the artistic process, you feel like adding “a bit of red,” don’t feel bad for breaking the rule.

It was there just to help you. Nothing else.

If it no longer helps you, just abandon it. That’s all there is to it.

3. Copy Other Composers

As a beginner, originality is not something you should be striving for.

Take a piece that you like. Make a variation on it. Change notes and rhythms at will. Deconstruct it.

If you repeat this series of steps and change it enough, you’ll be surprised to find that the piece now sounds original.

A good starting point for you would be to make a parody.

For example, a fantastic example of this is the Sonatine Bureaucratique by Erik Satie which is a parody of the Sonatina Op. 36 Nº1 by Muzio Clementi.

4. Don’t Take It Seriously

In the non-classical music world, everyone composes. Everyone makes songs (good or bad) and enjoys playing their own music.

However, in our world, we make a piece and it needs to be good.

We immediately compare ourselves with masters like Leo Brouwer or Fernando Sor. We expect ourselves to make the next masterpiece. The next Guitar Sonata that will revolutionize the instrument!

For me, composing is always about having fun and trying out new things.

Some pieces have turned out ok, others not so much. That is how it should be.

I can tell you right now that you will be making a lot of bad pieces before you make a good one. So, do not be surprised when it happens. It is all just a part of our evolution as human beings.

The important thing is to get started and enjoy the process!

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Dave McLellan

Concert & Chamber Guitarist

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