Use the Copying Technique to Study Composition

Posted By: ryan On:

If you have ever spent some time in an art museum, you may have noticed an art student with a sketchpad and pencil drawing a work of art. Sometimes they are sketching the main outlines, sometimes they are going into every little detail, but either way what they are doing is copying. By actually putting a masterpiece down in their own hand, an artist can feel and think about the work more intimately than simply by looking at it alone.

I propose that composition students take the same approach when learning how to write music. By literally copying a piece of music you can learn far more about what makes it work than by simply listening. Depending on the style this might mean literally writing out the notation, or it might mean trying to duplicate the music exactly in your DAW.

This can’t be a passive task, however. Mindlessly copying out notation while you watch TV is about as useful as using a photocopier. I’ve made this mistake before, thinking that if I simply copied out twenty pages of Debussy I’d somehow absorb everything and become a brilliant orchestrator. But I was merely drawing notes, not paying mindful attention to the music, and so I wasted my time.

You need to actually pay attention to the work, to think about each note. You need to question it’s existence. Why did the composer use that motive there? Why the decision to change to that harmony? Why two half notes instead of a whole note? And so on.

I read about a composer who used this method in an even more challenging and brilliant way. I believe it was Ernst Toch, author of The Shaping Forces in Music. He would copy out by hand the entire exposition of the first movement from a Mozart string quartet. Then when he reached the development he would stop looking at the Mozart and instead write his own development section.

Afterwards he’d go back and compare his development to Mozart’s. Every single time he was blown away by how Mozart had handled the same material, but more importantly he really understood WHY and HOW Mozart had done it. He had lived intimately with the themes and motives of the exposition. He knew them in his bones, and so he had a better insight into Mozart’s decisions than practically anyone else who was merely listening.

It’s hard work. Really hard work, especially when you are first starting out and the approach is new and difficult. But if you want to reach elite status, hard work is what it’s going to take.


  1. Jon Bjork
    February 16, 2015 at 5:13 pm

    Great post! Bill Ross (orchestrator/arranger/composer) talks about something similar, analyzing the parts of a piece you love and then writing something just like it. Really forces you to understand what makes the original tick if you’re going to be successful with your own version.

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