Photo by Red Junasun
Studying composition is a ton of work. There are innumerable subjects within the overall category of writing music. Melody writing, form, orchestration, production, arranging, instrumentation, harmony (and it’s many subsets) and on and on. But the one to rule them all is counterpoint.
If I could only recommend one subject to an aspiring composer it would be counterpoint. The study of counterpoint teaches melody writing and harmony but above all else, it teaches you to think of music in forward-moving lines as opposed to vertical blocks.
The problem that has plagued every one of my composition students has been a reliance on looping chord progressions, ostinatos, and an overall “vertical” frame of mind. “How many layers can I add to this to make it full and rich?” “How can I keep it building and building?” “Where do I go next after I get tired of repeating the same idea?”
All of these problems stem from forgetting that music moves through time. It is a constantly flowing and moving art form. Of course your music doesn’t seem to “go anywhere” when you are stuck looking at the same four bars as if they are a grand Renaissance painting that needs more and more details.
When you’re “in the weeds” of composing it’s very easy to get wrapped up in this static and vertical type of thinking. Music flows forward constantly when you listen to it, but not when you’re writing it! So you can become stuck looking at the same few bars without remembering that the whole point is how you carry your listener through those bars and beyond. And as I said in the beginning, the key to getting out of that rut is counterpoint.
I highly recommend The Study of Counterpoint by Johann Joseph Fux, the gold standard of counterpoint texts. But I also really like Exercises in Elementary Counterpoint by Percy Goetschius which is available for free!