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A composer should have a basic understanding of music theory for a number of reasons:
- Aids the composer to write in a more sophisticated and logical way.
- Aids in planning compositional development.
- Aid the composer to write the 'tighten the seams' of his/her composition.
The essential lesson, overall, of musical theory is to provide the composer with the tools and technique of his/her trade.
Also, the usual objection to learning music theory is something like "I don't want to play by the rules in my piece, so why bother learning theory?" Even in this case, theory is useful to learn, because it's easier to break the rules if you know what they are.
Establishing a Time Signature
Establishing a time signature is essential. The time signature will be based on the type of composition the composer desires. For example, if the composer wanted to write a "waltz", the time signature would be 3/4. Keep in mind that the time signature can hinder ideas. For example, perhaps the composer chooses to write a piece in 4/4 time, but comes up with an idea where a measure should hold 12 eight notes. There is no way the composer can fit this idea into his composition if he has a 4/4 time signature. There are two ways to overcome this problem. One way is to change the time signature for that particular measure to 6/4. The only problem this produces is that if the composer wishes to maintain the beat of 4/4 of another staff, this is impossible for the time 6/4. Another solution is to use tuples. A tuple is an irregular rhythm in which the composer defines his own rule of sequence. In a time signature of common time, to achieve 12 eighth notes in one measure, the ratio would be 3 quarter notes to every half note, or 3 to 2, or 3:2. The composer broke the rule of the time signature by the use of tuples, and since 6 quarter notes now fit inside a measure, 12 eighth notes are similarly legal. This is why having knowledge of time signatures is imperative if the composer wishes to compose music that is not too limited. An example of how an amateur composer may go about inputting a cluster of 12 eighth notes in the common time is by extending his passage over to the next measure. While his compositional idea may have been decent, this organizational method is poor and is an example of why learning the basics of music theory is recommended, as a good composer should be versatile and not restricted.
Establishing a Key Signature
Or lack thereof. Not every piece will necessarily have a defined key signature, but may be made up of a series of key signatures. The key signature will be based on the mood the composer wishes to set. For example, if the composer wants to write a melancholic piece, the key signature would be written in a minor key. For more examples, be sure to read more here. For information specially concerning more ambiguous uses of key or lack of key, see Atonality and Polytonality.
Key Signature for Playability
Although musically it does not matter where a composer starts home key since music is relative, some key signatures are easier to play on certain instruments. If the composer chooses a key signature that is difficult to play, a composer will have a hard time finding a performer. An example for the piano in which a rather difficult piece is quite easy on the hands due to perfect choice of key signature is Chopin's Fantasy Impromptu. Chopin chose C# minor for this particular piece because it is a pianistic key signature for the choice of sequences written. Had he written this piece in A minor, it would have been much more difficult to play due to the spacing of the white keys, and fast passages to be played. Read more here.
Being Creative with Key Signatures
A mistake many learning composers make is the lack of key changing. A composer should not just stick with the home key signature if music is to be made interesting. Learning how to change from a minor to the relative major (or vice versa) is a useful skill to learn. Knowing how to create smooth transitions is what makes a composition sound natural. A composer knows he has constructed a relative major or minor transition correctly because the key signature will remain constant. An example of a relative minor to major transition is F minor to A flat major. Both keys use the same 4 flatted key signature. Although knowledge of smooth key transitioning is useful to know, a composer should never feel restricted by key signatures, and there is no need to start and end in the same key signature. For example, if a composition starts in C major, and ends up in E major, there is nothing wrong with that, and there is also nothing wrong with a piece having a lack of a key signature. The problem comes when a composer has a lack of direction and sense, and does not understand why or how he ended a phrase or passage the way it happened. This is a problem because a piece will have lost its compositional organization.
Formulating and Expanding Ideas
- The composer may want to think of a main theme, secondary theme, tertiary theme, etc. He may improvise or hum a tune until an idea has been reached.
- The composer will need to think about the beat of a composition, or its tempo. For example, if writing a specific style such as a scherzo, he will want to think of a fast paced tempo.
- The composer may want to follow a specific pattern.