Composing up a Storm: A Guide for Music Writers/Arrangers

By Mathew Lanning

More and more people in Mrs. Terauchi’s class have been arranging/composing music. Music composition is a process that can either take a long time or a short time; you may find yourself completing a piece in a day or a month. Whatever the time may be, it is important to not rush your composition. A rushed piece of music is the equivalent to a rushed piece of literature; it is hard to understand, incomplete, and sometimes boring.

Here is a top 10 list of music composition:

  1. Know your music theory!

It is important to know plenty of music theory before attempting to write a piece. You must understand more than just the note values and rhythms; you must also know your different key/time signatures well and how to count all of your rhythms.

It is also important that you understand the melodies and harmonies that you devise. If these harmonies are not constructed properly, your piece may sound like an elementary school’s first attempt at Beethoven’s Ninth.

  1. Know your notes!

Understand your harmonies (in the sense of music theory as discussed in #10). You should know what basic intervals are, such as thirds, seconds, fourths, fifths, sixths, and octaves. If you don’t know, a little research into the subject can help. You must also determine during your composing whether or not these intervals sound good; you can try them out on your instrument (a piano is most helpful).

  1. Know your clefs!

If you are a cello player and only a cello player, you may not know how to read treble clef, and vise-versa for someone who only knows treble clef. To be able to write for instruments does not simply mean to play the guessing game and place notes until they sound right; If you don’t know a clef (most people don’t know alto clef), then you can look up and print off a chart online; there are tons to be found.

  1. Know your instruments!

Writing for an orchestra is different than writing for piano or solo instruments. Every instrument also has a designated clef, and some instruments are built in different keys. To name the important ones:

-Trumpet – Almost always in Bb

-Clarinet – Almost always in Bb

-French Horn – Always in F

-Bassoon – Always in C

-Oboe – Always in C

-Flute – Always in C

-English Horn – Always in F

  1. Know your timbres!

Every instrument has a different texture, and some sound better with others. To name a few that sound good together-


-Complete brass section

-Mid-range flutes/Violins


Every instrument has its own unique qualities as well. The oboe, for example, can play very somber melodies in its lower register, very full-sounding melodies in its middle register, and very piercing oddities in its upper register. You can explore the different qualities of instruments online; there are websites dedicated to the sort of thing.

  1. Know which orchestra you’re writing for.

It is important to understand the skill levels of the orchestra you’re writing for. Don’t write rhythms or notes that will be too complex for a low-skilled orchestra, and try to stay away from simplicity when writing for an advanced orchestra (If you’re not bent on boring them). Listen to your designated orchestra and figure out which sections/players are the strongest. Figure out based on that what you want your song’s basic form to take.

  1. Choose a form!

There are many forms to choose from, and choosing one is very important. To name some of these musical forms:





(Where each letter is a theme or melody)

There also many more complicated forms to write, such as the sonata (Write a theme, develop it, then recap it at the end), the invention (basic counterpoint), or the fugue (invention + fugue, in a nutshell)

  1. Reuse your material!

Nobody would want to read a book in which one chapter the main character was doing one thing and then in the next chapter he was suddenly doing something completely different and unrelated. However, no one likes a story that repeats the same thing over and over again, either. There is a similar philosophy in music.

  1. Create an “A” theme.

This “A” theme can be a melody, idea, or subject. Whatever it is, you can then take this theme and follow a musical form with it. You can create your B theme based on your A theme, and then a C theme based on your B theme. This will help you to reuse your material in creative ways.

  1. Have fun.

This step sounds cliché, but it is an extremely important step within the process of music composition. If you’re not enjoying what you’re doing, then chances are your composition won’t come out in an enjoyable way. You won’t have fun with what you wrote, and you won’t have fun playing it. Although it sounds like a tedious and long process, music composition can be a fun experience that can also increase your knowledge and understanding of music.

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