Composition: Hints & Tips

Composition in action
The composer at work

Useful Composition Tips

  • Know when to use rules of composition, and when not to. Think about the genre and whether you need to be “correct” or can bend the rules a bit of even completely throw them out of the window
  • Think of the melody as a conversation, with phrases logically following one another, possibly as questions and answers.
  • Repetition, development and contrast can all be used to create and release tension, but be careful, too much repetition is boring. Too much development can become obscure and too much contrast can be disconcerting. Melody writing, like all aspects of music, is about creating tension and releasing it in the right place. You will grab the listener’s interest if the tension is not always released where or when expected, but holding tension for too long may not be appropriate; always be aware of the genre in which you are writing.
  • If you have already conceived the chord sequence this will often tell you where the first phrase will develop, but also feel free to go somewhere else and change the chords if inspiration arrives.
  • Many good tunes are very simple either rhythmically or melodically or both. Compare composing with writing poetry where one strives to say a lot with a few words.
  • If you are writing a pop song try starting with a title, a riff or hook.
  • The first ideas are often the best.
  • Study many types of music, not just the area in which you wish to compose, and allow ideas tocrossover from one style to another.
  • Analyse melodies and try to find out what makes them good.
  • Try inverting or reversing your melodies. Study twentieth century compositional techniques, e.g. tone rows, chance (throwing dice to choose the notes – randomising function on a sequencer).
  • Force yourself to write a tune every day. Sooner or later there have to be some good ones.
  • Don’t just compose with your instrument, sing or whistle as you go about your daily life and write down the good tunes. Try to remember dreams with music in them.
  • Try to bring original melodic material into your improvisation rather than relying on licks and clichés. Improvisation should just be a speeded up process of composition.
  • Keep a notebook, tape recorder, note down any melodic fragments
  • Try to be objective. Imagine yourself not as a composer or musician but the person listening to your music for the first time. You may suddenly some superfluous passages or devices that are just there to impress people with your musical knowledge.
  • It helps to be aware of your reasons for composing, whether it’s money, respect (self or from family and friends) fame and stardom, spiritual awareness or a desire to entertain or spread love and peace. Try and be aware of what emotions you are trying to arouse in the listener.
  • Don’t use rules to merely to compose, but use them to improve a tune if you think it could be better. Composition may be up to 99% inspiration: try to learn where that inspiration comes from. Some composers get it from meditating or being at peace with the world, others from the panic of fulfilling a deadline. Everyone finds inspiration in different ways.


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.

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 (aka “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 vital to gain a basic working knowledge of the instruments you are writing for. 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

The Elements of Music

These may seem very elementary (no pun intended) however I find they can be very useful to think about just to focus your mind at those time when you don’t feel as inspired as you think you should do. Just step back and think about what music actually is. Music is the organisation of sound into melody (pitch) and rhythm (time). This is the basic structure on which a composer (or orchestrator) will add further elements including harmony,timbre and dynamics.

Composition (on its most basic level of writing a good tune) will often involve only the rhythm and melody, however in western tonal music the melody usually implies the harmony. Exceptions to this include a lot of pop/dance or rap music of the last two decades. Traditionally a composer or composer/lyricist team wrote the basic tune (melody and rhythm) and words along with any further orchestrational development, or else would get a dedicated orchestrator to do the latter.

In vocal music either the words (lyric) or the music could be written first, or both at the same time.

Most forms of pop and jazz music combine all the above elements. The basic melody usually consists of notes of different pitches (even rapping often varies the pitch and intonation) which are organised in time (rhythm). This is usually arranged against a backing provided by a rhythm section which can consist either of musicians or a programmed track (typically drums/percussion – bass –piano/guitar). This backing often contains a complex rhythmic and melodic counterpoint to the main melody, which can be divided into three main areas:

Bass drum patterns Evolved from early forms of dance music and jazz where bass (and/or bass drum) plays on beats 1 and 3. Often synchronised with bass instruments
Snare drum patterns Evolved from early forms of jazz where snare (and/or R.H of piano) plays on beats 2 and 4 (backbeat) Often synchronised with guitar or keyboard
Cymbal patterns Subdivisions of beat, eg 8 or 16 Often synchronised with guitar or keyboard

In addition the harmonic changes can form a rhythm, ie the position and duration of harmonic changes can imply a strong rhythm, especially if a recurring pattern is implied.


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