Musical composition

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Scherzo in A flat by the Russian Romantic era composer Alexander Borodin (1833–1887) About this sound Play 
Jazz, rock and pop songwriters typically write out newly composed songs in a lead sheet, which notates the melody, the chord progression, and the tempo or style of the song (e.g., "slow blues").
Jazz and rock genre musicians may memorize the melodies for a new song, which means that they only need to provide a chord chart to guide improvising musicians. About this sound Play 

Musical composition can refer to an original piece of music, the structure of a musical piece, or the process of creating a new piece of music. People who practice composition are called composers. "Composition" is the act or practice of creating a song or other piece of music. In many cultures, including Western classical music, the act of composing may include the creation of music notation, such as a sheet music "score", which is then performed by the composer or other musicians. In popular music and traditional music, the act of composing, which is typically called songwriting, may involve the creation of a basic outline of the song, called the lead sheet, which sets out the melody, lyrics and chord progression. In classical music, orchestration is typically done by the composer, but in musical theatre and in pop music, songwriters may hire an arranger to do the orchestration. In some cases, a songwriter may not use notation at all, and instead compose the song mentally and then play or record it from memory. In jazz and popular music, notable recordings by influential performers are given the weight that written scores play in classical music.

Although a musical composition often uses musical notation and has a single author, this is not always the case. A work of music can have multiple composers, which often occurs in popular music when a band collaborates to write a song, or in musical theatre, when one person writes the melodies, a second person writes the lyrics, and a third person orchestrates the songs. A piece of music can also be composed with words, images, or computer programs that explain or notate how the singer or musician should create musical sounds. Examples range from avant-garde music that uses graphic notation, to text compositions such as Aus den sieben Tagen, to computer programs that select sounds for musical pieces. Music that makes heavy use of randomness and chance is called aleatoric music, and is associated with contemporary composers active in the 20th century, such as John Cage, Morton Feldman, and Witold Lutosławski. A more commonly known example of chance-based music is the sound of wind chimes jingling in a breeze.

The study of composition has traditionally been dominated by examination of methods and practice of Western classical music, but the definition of composition is broad enough the creation of popular music and traditional music songs and instrumental pieces and to include spontaneously improvised works like those of free jazz performers and African percussionists such as Ewe drummers.

Although in the 2000s, composition is considered to consist of the manipulation of each aspect of music (harmony, melody, form, rhythm, and timbre), according to Jean-Benjamin de Laborde (1780, 2:12):

Composition consists in two things only. The first is the ordering and disposing of several such a manner that their succession pleases the ear. This is what the Ancients called melody. The second is the rendering audible of two or more simultaneous sounds in such a manner that their combination is pleasant. This is what we call harmony, and it alone merits the name of composition.[1]


In classical music, a piece of music exists in the form of a composition in musical notation or as a single acoustic event (a live performance or recorded track). If composed before being performed, music can be performed from memory, by reading written musical notation, or through a combination of both. Compositions comprise a huge variety of musical elements, which vary widely from between genres and cultures. Popular music genres after about 1960 make extensive use of electric and electronic instruments, which are less often used in classical concerts. For example, most classical music written up until the 19th century[clarification needed] uses only acoustic and mechanical instruments such as strings, brass, woodwinds and percussion, whereas a 2000s era pop band may use electric guitar played with electronic effects through a guitar amplifier, a digital synthesizer keyboard and electronic drums.


Different musical styles permit singers or performers to use various amounts of musical improvisation during the performance of a composed song or piece. Improvisation is the act of composing musical elements spontaneously during the performance.[2] Improvisation was an important skill during the Baroque music era (1600–1750); instrumentalists and singers were expected to be able to improvise ornaments and add them to a simple melody. As well, chord-playing instrumentalists, such as harpsichord players or pipe organists were expected to be able to improvise chords from a figured bass part. During the classical period (1760–1820), solo instrumentalists were expected to be able to improvise virtuostic cadenzas during a concerto.[citation needed] During the Romantic music era (1820–1910), composers began writing out ornaments and cadenzas, and so classical musicians were not expected to improvise very much. In contemporary classical music (1975–2016), some composers[weasel words] began writing pieces which indicate that the performer should improvise during certain sections.

In Western popular music styles such as rock music and traditional music styles such as blues, jazz and bluegrass music, improvisation is an expected skill for all performers.[citation needed] In most popular and traditional music, the rhythm section musicians improvise accompaniment parts, often based on a chord progression that is known to the performers (e.g., the twelve bar blues) or which is notated on sheet music using chord symbols (e.g., D minor, G7, C major), Roman numerals (e.g., ii-V7-I), or, in country music, using the Nashville number system. Lead instrument players in rock and traditional music are expected to be able to improvise a solo (e.g., the guitar solo, which is a key section of rock, metal and blues songs).


Piece is a "general, non-technical term [that began to be] applied mainly to instrumental compositions from the 17th century onwards....other than when they are taken individually 'piece' and its equivalents are rarely used of movements in sonatas or symphonies....composers have used all these terms [in their different languages] frequently in compound forms [e.g. Klavierstück]....In vocal music...the term is most frequently used for operatic ensembles..."[3]

As a musical form[edit]

Main article: Musical form

In discussing the structure (or organization) of a musical work, the composition of that work is generally called its musical form.[citation needed] These techniques draw parallels from visual art's formal elements. Sometimes, the entire form of a piece is through-composed, meaning that each part is different, with no repetition of sections; other forms include strophic, rondo, verse-chorus, or other parts. Some pieces are composed around a set scale, where the compositional technique might be considered the usage of a particular scale. Others are composed during performance (see improvisation), where a variety of techniques are also sometimes used. Some are used from particular songs which are familiar.

The scale for the notes used, including the mode and tonic note, is important in tonal musical composition. In music using twelve-tone technique, the tone row is even more comprehensive a factor than a scale. Similarly, music of the Middle East employs compositions that are rigidly based on a specific mode (maqam) often within improvisational contexts, as does Indian classical music in both the Hindustani and the Carnatic system.

Indian tradition[edit]

In the music tradition of India there are many forms of musical composition. To some degree this is on account of there being many musical styles prevalent in different regions of the country, such as Hindustani music, Carnatic music, Bengali music, and so forth. Another important influence in composition is its link with folk music, both indigenous and also from musical culture of Arabia, Persia, and Bengal.[4]

In the Hindustani musical tradition, Drupad (originally in Sanskrit and later adaptations in Hindi and Braj Bhasha) is among one of the ancient compositions and had formed the base for other forms in this music tradition such as khyal, thumri and raga. In the Karnatak music tradition the compositions are in the form of Kriti, varanam and padam.[4]

Composing music[edit]

People composing music

People who practice composition are called composers. In popular music and traditional music, the act of composing, which is typically called songwriting, may involve the creation of a basic outline of the song, called the lead sheet, which sets out the melody, lyrics and chord progression. Composition techniques are the methods used to create music. Skills in composition include thinking of melodies, creating a chord progression to support the melody, writing countermelodies, writing musical notation, music theory, instrumentation, and handling musical ensembles (orchestration). Other skills include extended techniques such as improvisation, musical montage, preparing instruments, using non-traditional instruments, and other methods of sound production.[citation needed]

The composition of music in a classical music context requires the ability read and write musical notation in musical clefs (treble clef, the bass clef, the alto clef, and the tenor clef.). Composers must also understand dynamics (loudness of a note or phrase) and effect notations such as pizzicato.[citation needed][contradictory]


One method of composing music is starting with a chord progression. There are many "stock" chord progressions used in music, such as ii-V7-I (in the key of C major, the chords D minor, G7 and C major) and I-vi-ii-V7 (in the key of C major, this would be the chords C major, A minor, D minor and G7). A songwriter can use one of these "stock" progressions, or modify one to create a different effect. For example, secondary dominant and dominant seventh chords could be added, which could transform ii-V-I (in the key of C major, D minor-G major-C major) into V7/ii-V7/V-V7-I (in the key of C major, A7-D7-G7-C major).

The chords could also be selected to reflect the tone of the emotion being conveyed in a song. For example, selecting a minor key, but with mostly major chords (i.e. III, VI, VII) might convey a "hopeful" feeling. As well, to indicate a "darker" mood, a composer could use unusual chords such as moving from I-II (in the key of C major, this would be the chords C major and D major; D is not a note from the key of C major, so the use of this chord has a dramatic effect. Another way to create dramatic effects with a chord progression is to introduce a modulation to a new key. Modulation to a closely related key (e.g., for a song in the key of C major, modulating to the dominant, G major). Modulating to a closely related key such as G major has been a common practice since at least the 1700s, so while this could heighten the drama of a piece, it would not create a significant emotional effect. On the other hand, modulating to a key that is not related to the tonic key, such as modulating from the key of C major (the tonic) to A major or G major.

Once the series of chords is selected, additional lines are added to the piece. The most important part is a lead melody line.[citation needed] This melody may be supported by one or more harmony lines. Songs often have a bassline which adds to the identify of the piece. Popular music is often written this way (see: Song structure) where a selected series of chords forms the structure of each of a particular section of the song (ex. Verse, Chorus). The melody line is often dependent on the writer's chosen lyrics and can vary somewhat from verse to verse.

Another way to compose music is to start by creating a melody. Once the melody has been created, the composer can then add suitable chords which will support this melody. The same melody can be supported with many different chord progressions. For example, if a songwriter has a song in the key of C major in which the melody begins with a long "G", this melody note could be supported with a tonic chord (C major), a dominant chord (G major) or a mediant chord (E minor). If the song is written in a jazz style, where harmony can be more adventurous,[clarification needed] this held "G" note could even be supported with a secondary dominant chord (e.g., an A7 chord, in which the "G" is the dominant seventh of the chord, which could then resolve to a D minor chord).

Another method involves free playing of an instrument. For example, a pianist might simply sit and start playing chords, melodies, or notes that come to mind in order to find some inspiration, then build on the discovered lines to add depth.[clarification needed] Free playing is also used by guitar players, who explore different riffs and licks on the instrument.

As technology evolves, new and inventive methods of music composition come about. One such method involves using computer algorithms contained in samplers to directly translate the phonetics of speech into digital sound.[citation needed] EEG headsets have also been used to create music by interpreting the brainwaves of musicians.[5] This method has been used for Project Mindtunes,[6] which collaborating disabled musicians with DJ Fresh, and also by artists Lisa Park and Masaki Batoh.


Main article: Musical form

Composers may decide to divide their music into sections. In classical music, one common form used in pieces is sonata form. This form involves an exposition, development, and recapitulation. The end speaks to the beginning, concluding things,[clarification needed] while the development allows for deviations from the norm of the exposition.[clarification needed]

Many contemporary songs are organized into sections as well. These sections are usually alternating verse and chorus, often with a bridge before the last chorus. The differing verses will share chord progressions while the chorus is often exactly the same throughout.[citation needed]

Compositional instrumentation[edit]

The task of adapting a composition for musical instruments/ensembles, called arranging or orchestrating, may be undertaken by the composer or separately by an arranger based on the composer's core composition. A composition may have multiple arrangements based on such factors as intended audience type and breadth, musical genre or stylistic treatment, recorded or live performance considerations, available musicians and instruments, commercial goals and economic constraints.[citation needed]

Based on such factors, composers or arrangers must decide upon the instrumentation of the original work. Today, the contemporary composer can virtually write for almost any combination of instruments. Some common group settings include music for full orchestra (consisting of just about every instrument group), concert band (which consists of larger sections and greater diversity of woodwind, brass, and percussion instruments than are usually found in the orchestra), or a chamber group (a small number of instruments, but at least two). The composer may also choose to write for only one instrument, in which case this is called a solo.

Composers are not limited to writing only for instruments, they may also decide to write for voice (including choral works, operas, and musicals) or percussion instruments or electronic instruments. Alternatively, as is the case with musique concrète, the composer can work with many sounds often not associated with the creation of music, such as typewriters, sirens, and so forth.[citation needed]

In Elizabeth Swados' Listening Out Loud, she explains how a composer must know the full capabilities of each instrument and how they must complement each other, not compete. She gives an example of how in an earlier composition of hers, she had the tuba above the piccolo. This would clearly drown the piccolo out, thus giving it no purpose in the composition. Each instrument chosen to be in a piece must have a reason for being there that adds to what the composer is trying to convey within the work.[7]


Main article: Arrangement

Arranging is composition which employs prior material so as to comment upon it such as in mash-ups and various contemporary classical works.[8] The process first requires analysis of existing music, and then rewriting (and often transcription) for an instrumentation other than that for which it was originally intended. It often (but not always) involves new supporting material injected by the arranger. Different versions of a composed piece of music is referred to as an arrangement.[citation needed]


Even when music is notated relatively precisely, as in Western classical music from the 1750s onwards, there are many decisions that a performer and/or conductor has to make, because notation does not specify all of the elements of musical performance. The process of deciding how to perform music that has been previously composed and notated is termed "interpretation". Different performers' or conductor's interpretations of the same work of music can vary widely, in terms of the tempos that are chosen and the playing or singing style or phrasing of the melodies. Composers and songwriters who present their own music in a concert are interpreting their songs, just as much as those who perform the music of others. The standard body of choices and techniques present at a given time and a given place is referred to as performance practice, whereas interpretation is generally used to mean the individual choices of a performer.[citation needed]

Copyright and legal status[edit]

Copyright is a government-granted monopoly which, for a limited time, gives a composition's owner—such as a composer or a composer's employer, in the case of work for hire—a set of exclusive rights to the composition, such as the exclusive right to publish sheet music describing the composition and how it should be performed. Copyright requires anyone else wanting to use the composition in the same ways to obtain a license (permission) from the owner.

In some jurisdictions, the composer can assign copyright, in part, to another party. Often, composers who aren't doing business as publishing companies themselves will temporarily assign their copyright interests to formal publishing companies, granting those companies a license to control both the publication and the further licensing of the composer's work. Contract law, not copyright law, governs these composer–publisher contracts, which ordinarily involve an agreement on how profits from the publisher's activities related to the work will be shared with the composer in the form of royalties.

The scope of copyright in general is defined by various international treaties and their implementations, which take the form of national statutes, and in common law jurisdictions, case law. These agreements and corresponding body of law distinguish between the rights applicable to sound recordings and the rights applicable to compositions. For example, Beethoven's 9th Symphony is in the public domain, but in most of the world, recordings of particular performances of that composition usually are not.

For copyright purposes, song lyrics and other performed words are considered part of the composition, even though they may have different authors and copyright owners than the non-lyrical elements.

Many jurisdictions allow for compulsory licensing of certain uses of compositions. For example, copyright law may allow a record company to pay a modest fee to a copyright collective to which the composer or publisher belongs, in exchange for the right to make and distribute CDs containing a cover band's performance of the composer or publisher's compositions. The license is "compulsory" because the copyright owner cannot refuse or set terms for the license. Copyright collectives also typically manage the licensing of public performances of compositions, whether by live musicians or by transmitting sound recordings over radio or the Internet.

In the U.S.[edit]

Even though the first US copyright laws did not include musical compositions, they were added as part of the Copyright Act of 1831.

According to the circular issued by United States Copy Right Office on Copy Right Registration of Musical Compositions and Sound Recordings, a musical composition is defined as "A musical composition consists of music, including any accompanying words, and is normally registered as a work of the performing arts. The author of a musical composition is generally the composer, and the lyricists if any. A musical composition may be in the form of a notated copy (for example sheet music) ir in the form of a phon record (for example cassette tape, LP, or CD). Sending a musical composition in the form of a phonorecord does not necessarily mean that there is a claim to copy right in the sound recording."[9]

In the UK[edit]

Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988 defines a musical work to mean "a work consisting of music, exclusive of any words or action intended to be sung, spoken or performed with the music."[10]

In India[edit]

In India The Copy Right Act, 1957 prevailed for original literary, dramatic, musical and artistic work till the Copyright (Amendment) Act, 1984 was introduced. Under the amended act, a new definition has been provided for musical work which states "musical works means a work consisting of music and included any graphi notation of such work but does not included any words or any action intended to be sung, spoken or performed with the music."[11]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Translation from Allen Forte, Tonal Harmony in Concept and Practice, third edition (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1979), p.1. ISBN 0-03-020756-8.
  2. ^ Sfetcu 2014, p. 16.
  3. ^ Tilmouth, Michael. 1980. "Piece". The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, first edition, 20 vols., edited by Stanley Sadie, Vol. 14: 735. London: Macmillan Publishers; New York: Grove's Dictionaries. ISBN 1-56159-174-2.
  4. ^ a b Emmie Te Nijenhuis (1974). Indian Music: History and Structure. BRILL. p. 80. ISBN 90-04-03978-3. 
  5. ^ "Making Music With EEG Technology: Translate Brainwaves Into Sonic Soundscapes". FAMEMAGAZINE. 19 May 2015. Retrieved 5 June 2015. 
  6. ^ DJ Fresh & Mindtunes: A track created only by the mind (Documentary), retrieved 5 June 2015 
  7. ^ Swados, Elizabeth (1988). Listening Out Loud: Becoming a Composer (first ed.). New York: Harper & Row. pp. 25–26. ISBN 0-06-015992-8. Retrieved 9 October 2015. 
  8. ^ BaileyShea, Matt (2007), "Filleted Mignon: A New Recipe for Analysis and Recomposition", Music Theory Online Volume 13, Number 4, December 2007.
  9. ^ "Copy Right Registration of Musical Compositions and Sound Recordings" (PDF). United States Copy Right Office. Retrieved 6 October 2015. 
  10. ^ Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988, Her Majesty's Stationery Office, 1988.
  11. ^ JATINDRA KUMAR DAS (1 May 2015). LAW OF COPYRIGHT. PHI Learning Pvt. Ltd. pp. 163–64. ISBN 978-81-203-5090-8. 


  • Sfetcu, Nicolae (7 May 2014). The Music Sound. Nicolae Sfetcu. GGKEY:Y8SWYSZWLE1. 

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