ComposingAbout the Composing Section

These pages present a practical working guide to writing and arranging music in a way which I have found to work well in the real world of popular commercial (and sometimes not so commercial) music. Hopefully this will be useful for those starting off on a journey discovering the enormous range and depth of this topic.

Many of these resources have been used on the Southampton University commercial composition course which I designed and taught between 2000 and 2004, before leaving to go back to full-time professional composing. I have tried to achieve a balance between doing it by the book and looking at some of the realistic short cuts available. In some areas I have taken a slightly academic approach where I feel that the knowledge of certain rules (or conventions as I prefer to call them) are invaluable. In other areas I have relied purely on my experience of what happens in the music business. I am very happy and proud to see many of my composition students from Southampton University go on to work professionally as composers – see the composition students pages in the Media Music Forum to hear examples of their work.

Musical boundaries are being broken all the time and so these tutorials cover more than one genre, not purely orchestral and not purely pop and commercial. Although I have concentrated mostly on western diatonic music, the area with which I am most familiar, many of the techniques I describe can be applied to all types of music, traditional or avant-garde and from whatever culture. It would be narrow-minded and uncreative to assume that we can’t apply one set of conventions to various styles of music. For many years I have been composing and arranging in many different styles including pop, jazz, rock, rhythm & blues, big band, orchestral, classical, country and folk. I have been involved in writing and producing music for the film, television, radio and the record industry as well as for my own gratification and pleasure. I have often needed several different textbooks when a problem arises. I hope that these tutorials will answer many of the questions that would normally take three or four different books to cover. Inevitably I have had to omit some of the more intricate aspects and would recommend much further study in specialist areas.

These pages are designed give the intermediate musician some short cuts to creative writing. In some cases there are no short cuts but ways of avoiding some pitfalls are useful. The conventions that exist are of course a very important aspect, but not as important as that most intangible requirement: inspiration. I believe that at certain times we are all able to create music with a magical quality that breaks the rules and transcends all the studying we may do. No book can tell us how to do this, but at those other times, there’s a lot to learn.

Some Definitions


Composition is the creation of an original musical work. It involves the creation of a melody, and in the case of a song, lyrics. The composer often supplies a harmonic and rhythmic content but in most countries the copyright in the composition exists only in the melody and lyrics. (Possible exceptions would be a work for percussion instruments with no pitch). In the case of modern dance/rap music the copyright in the composition is often claimed by the programmer, but this is a grey areacurrently disputed under current law.


Arranging involves taking the bare essentials of a musical work, in some cases just the melody, and creating a means by which that work can be transformed into a musical performance. It is often the case that an arranger will also use the harmonic and rhythmic structure suggested by the composer, but will frequently desire or be briefed to change or develop these aspects.

Traditionally arranging is done by means of a written score but can also be done by communicating verbally with the musicians and relying on their memory to recreate the arrangement (Often called ahead arrangement). In current pop and dance music computers are often used to generate sequenced backing tracks, usually referred to as programming. This is also a form of arrangement where electronic instruments are concerned (e.g. synthesisers and samplers), but is not within the scope of this book and needs to be dealt with as a separate subject. Computer programmes are also available that will translate sequenced information into musical notation, so that parts conceived aurally may be communicated in a conventional score. In this case knowledge of conventional arranging techniques can still be very useful and in many cases essential.

Arranging may involve the creation of original melodic ideas such as counterpoint and backing figures, answering phrases, introductions and so on, however the copyright ownership of the composition will always remain with the composer, along with the rights to all performing and mechanical royalties. A separate (beneficial) copyright exists in the arrangement and belongs to the arranger. This allows the arranger to grant specific or restricted use of the arrangement by whoever has licensed such use (usually by a payment to them arranger). An arranger can be commissioned to write a piece of music either for all uses (a buyout), or for specific limited use. E.g. an arrangement may be commissioned solely for use on the radio. In this case a fee would be negotiated only for such usage. If the client then wishes to use the arrangement on TV, in a film, on a recording, in a lift, on a karaoke, at an exhibition etc, then they must apply to the arranger for a further licence to allow this, usually with another payment.


Orchestration involves taking a given arrangement and assigning it in parts to different instruments, usually in the form of a written score. An arranger may employ an orchestrator.

It is essential to gain a basic working knowledge of the instruments for which one is writing. This includes their ranges of pitch and dynamics. Many instruments produce a tone that varies depending on the pitch; for example the flute is quite weak in its lower register and in a normal acoustic environment would not be able to compete with louder instruments. Some instruments are transposing instruments; i.e. the pitch that sounds is not in the same key or octave as the written notation. Scores can be written these days with transposing instruments either notated in concert pitch (non transposed) or in their own key.

UK Composer Organisations & Resources

Musicians Union Contracts, negotiation, good advice. It’s worth joining the Music Writers Section
Showcase Comprehensive music industry guide
Songlink Record companies and publishers looking for songwriters
PCAM Producers and Composers of Applied Music – advice, contracts, news-sheet and meetings with canapes
BACS British Academy of Composers and Songwriters
PRS/MCPS Royalty Collection Societies
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