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Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Music Composition for Dummies

In our age of "better faster cheaper" education, a niche publishing market has flourished.

Wiley Publishing Inc. has been very successful with their for Dummies books. A search on turned up 3,297 titles in the series. Self-admitted Dummies can learn the basics about String Theory, Global Warming, Space Exploration, Auto Repair, Cloud Computing, Knitting, Japanese, and Second Life (just to name a few popular subject areas).

The "for Dummies" series is positioned to provide practical information presented in a consistent easy-to-read style. The publishers' trademark is a catchy black-and-yellow paperback cover and silly titles. But in general these books do provide some useful information about topical or trendy subjects and aim to explain in common language concepts that are often complicated and intimidating to average people. These books strive to be user-friendly, concise, and up-to-date.

You can imagine that it caught my attention when I discovered Music Composition For Dummies while browsing in the bookstore.

First, I was a little surprised that there is a market for this topic. But given the societal gravitation toward quick and easy self-improvement, I could see that some people would want to learn "just enough" about music composition to get by. Perhaps there are busy people who want to compose, but can't take lessons, make the time commitment to learn the craft, or just want to learn enough to talk semi-intelligently about the subject. I see no fault in that.

However, as someone who has studied music composition for the better part of a lifetime, I was impressed with the goal set forth by the authors to train the pure novice (or "Dummie") on the subject in the span of a few hundred pages of written text.

So many great musical minds over the centuries have attempted to write books about musical composition - from C.P.E. Bach to Arnold Schoenberg - and all of them have come up short in one way or another. For me, it has always been an impossible topic to write about, and the process of learning to compose music is one that takes many years of study, very hard work, and a broad understanding of an encyclopedia of technical and cultural details. Frankly, I don't believe there is a quick fix or shortcut to the traditional methods of study.

Music Composition For Dummies (not to be confused with The Complete Idiot's Guide to Music Composition by Michael Miller - also by Wiley Publishing) sets the bar rather high. The publisher promises that the book "demystifies the process of composing music..." Authors Scott Jarrett and Holly Day have their work cut out for them, and they do their best to explain a very complicated subject to the absolute beginner.

The book is organized around the following subsections:
Preserve and organize your musical ideas
Work with established chord progressions or create your own
Develop great rhythms
Select the right instruments
Find melodies in your head, your instrument, and the world around you
Use major and minor scales
Work with modes and moods
Build melodic motifs and phrases
Use the circle of fifths to harmonize
Write for multiple voices
Make a demo recording

The authors' section headings are written like the job-description area of a good resume, with lots of "action words" and a positive sales pitch. While I don't that style of writing, the topics are quite appropriate and applicable to the making a musical work.

From reading other reviews of the book, I gather that there are some qualms and quibbles about the wording and technical details within the text. For example, on page 148, regarding the development section of the sonata form the authors write: "The development often sounds like it belongs in an entirely different piece of music altogether -- it is usually in a different key and may have a different time signature than the exposition."

Here is where the danger lies...

When one over-simplifies any subject, misconceptions and misunderstanding can arise. Sonata form is one of the more complicated subjects in Western music, and it is very difficult to adequately grasp the concept of Sonata-Allegro form without studying a body of representative pieces that exist in the repertory. Renowned musicologist, scholar, and pianist Charles Rosen wrote an award winning book about this very topic, and even his rather extensive monograph will not serve as a definitive or complete discussion on the subject. Used in isolation without the experience of extensive musical examples, books alone can not provide a full and necessary understanding of the complex art of musical composition.

Albert Einstein said, "Things should be made as simple as possible, but not any simpler." The same principle holds true in the field of music composition. Charles Wuorinen's book "Simple Composition" is actually rather complex. Given the complexity of musical language, it can't be reduced beyond a certain level.

While I commend authors Scott Jarrett and Holly Day for their admirable effort to explain the art of musical composition to non-experts in just a few hundred pages, I don't think they ever had a chance to succeed in their task. However, given the constraints that they had to work within, it is not necessarily a bad book. However, Music Composition For Dummies is a book that I would never recommend in the context of serious study or professional musical training.

I was curious to learn if the authors were professional composers - not necessarily university professors with academic credentials - but skilled musicians who compose for a living. I was not able to establish that fact. I do suspect that the authors are professional freelance writers who have published other "for Dummies" books on diverse topics and various user-friendly "how to" publications.

It all goes back to my original point that consumers want their knowledge and skills "better faster cheaper." Why invest decades of time and countless dollars pursuing a traditional path of music education when you can purchase a book for under $20 and learn enough to get by? Presumably anyone who reads the book could call themselves a composer and impress others with their cursory knowledge of the subject at cocktail parties and the like.

In my humble opinion, books such as those in the "for Dummies" series perpetuate the false notion that there is an easy way or short cut to learning complicated things. While there is nothing wrong about writing an introductory book about an advanced topic, marketing it as "A Reference for the Rest of Us!" beguiles the subject matter.

It also insults the reader to make the assumption that they start from a position of abject ignorance and incompetence. I don't believe that book titles using the D-word are humorous or cute. It is now clear from recent discoveries using fMRIs in brain science that all humans are genetically pre-wired with innate musical ability and come to the table with amazing skills of aural perception and cognitive processing capability. Wouldn't it be better to start with that positive assumption rather than assign demeaning labels to interested students or beginners?

I don't get it.

Perhaps I should write my own book.

Music Composition for Dummies
by Scott Jarrett and Holly Day
Wiley Publishing, Inc. 2008
Hoboken, NJ
ISBN-10: 0470224215
ISBN-13: 9780470224212
Paperback: 360 pages