You might have seen me talking or writing about music composition and the creative process. I even created a complete online course to help musicians be better music creators.
But is it really possible to learn how to compose music?
Or would it be a privilege of the few born with a particular talent and vocation for it?
This topic can be controversial. I've seen different points of view and heard conflicting responses. In this article, I share my perspective as an educator and composer!
So, after all, is it possible to learn to compose?
Of course, there is a matter of talent and predisposition. Some people are more inclined towards creative activities than others. It starts with an early interest in the area. But there there is much more than talent and predisposition to becoming a composer.
I've observed some interesting things during the two decades of my life dedicated to composition — years of experience working with musical creativity.
Let me share some of these insights with you!
Don't wait for the "cake recipe"!
Metaphorically, teaching how to compose is very different from teaching someone to "make a cake." After all, there are no ready-made formulas when preparing a person to work with creativity.
As a comparison, in any cuisine, students copy step-by-step; they learn the measurements of each ingredient and method for each recipe. If the person follows all the rules, in the end, they will likely come to a result that may be very similar to that of the master. This person will just be replicating a model that works.
When we talk about creativity, about art, the goal is different. The idea is not to replicate, but to appropriate what already exists - the musical tradition - and (re)create based on it. Do it in your way.
It is also worth noting that there is a spectrum of originality when discussing musical creators; some composers are closer to tradition, while others seek more innovative and experimental paths. There is no right or wrong.
But if there is no recipe, how to make it?
It is possible to teach individuals how to seek their creative paths and help each potential composer find one's voice. They must build a theoretical and technical basis and delve deep into the creative process. In short: a lot of study and commitment!
There is no secret. All serious music creators must go through this process: study hard, put learnings into practice, and improve over the years. I, for example, spent almost 12 years in academia - a long time dedicated to studying. A time divided into two Bachelor degrees (in Brazil), a scientific initiation, and Masters and Doctorate degrees (in the US). Time for a lot of learning, experimentation, self-criticism, and comments from my masters.
An example: my trajectory and study
Let me share my academic trajectory as an example of how much dedication existed as part of my learning journey. I spent seven years at UNICAMP (State University of Campinas, in Brazil), earning a double bachelor's degree in classical composition and popular music.
During this period, I took various classes related to classical composition, such as harmony (from various historical periods), counterpoint, music analysis, instrumentation, orchestration, etc. And also many other fields of study in popular music, such as arrangement, jazz harmony, ensemble practice, improvisation, etc.
Then I moved to the US for my master's degree in Studio Jazz Writing at the University of Miami and concluded my academic studies with a Doctorate of Musical Arts in jazz composition; I studied the relationship between concert music and jazz: hybrid processes in music creation.
And make no mistake, I keep studying and researching on my own to this day.
Each path is different
As you just discovered, my background is very academic, but yours can be different. It is also worth noting that each musical creator - composer and arranger - will take a different path and reach different results. All artistic paths are valid; what matters the most is for the individual to study and find the tools and processes needed for their musical evolution.
Do not expect "being ready" to start creating
Start composing as soon as you feel like it!
Do not expect "being prepared" to take the first creative steps.
I was already creating even before I started this academic trajectory I told you about. I lacked tools at the time (I was 13 years old), but that didn't stop me from trying. These first experiences made me start my composition journey. Since then, it has been a continuous process of evolution and transformation.
The evolution of the composer
No one becomes a great composer overnight. The composer's evolution is continuous through contact with specific techniques, repertoire, the understanding of creativity, and much practice. Through the act of creating, we discover our ways and possibilities.
To be an actual music creator, you need to be passionate about the creative process: constantly looking to discover and experiment with new things and enchanted by new ideas and the challenges to make them work musically.
Additionally, a good mentor, a good course, a series of guided practices, and feedback can shape this evolution.
The composer's artistic journey is the theme of my course: "Creative Processes in Music." In this course, I approach musical creation as a whole, from idealization and composition to the most technical processes of arrangement and orchestration, concluding with relevant topics related to music direction and production.
How about starting to expand the horizons and unlock your process?!
Did you like the article?
Ask me questions and post suggestions for future blogs in the comment section below!
Also, check out my online courses: “Creative Processes” and “Fundamentals of Audio and Video Production for Musicians”.
About the author
Rafael Piccolotto de Lima has been nominated for a Latin Grammy as the best classical composer. He holds a doctorate in jazz composition from the University of Miami and has multiple awards as an arranger, musical director, producer, and educator.
His works have been premiered and/or recorded by jazz legends such as Terence Blanchard, Chick Corea, and Brad Mehldau, renowned Brazilian artists such as Ivan Lins, Romero Lubambo, and Proveta, and orchestras such as the Brazilian Jazz Symphony, the Americas Symphony Orchestra, and the Metropole Orkest (Netherlands).