The Complete Idiot's Guide to
Music Composition

$18.95 US
264 pp.
ISBN 1592574033
October 2005
Alpha Books
Michael Miller, Author

Read David Vayo's foreword to the book
Browse corrections and clarifications to the text

About the Book

If you liked The Complete Idiot's Guide to Music Theory, you'll love The Complete Idiot's Guide to Music Composition. It's the next step in your musical education!

You're no idiot, of course. You know that composing music requires more than humming a few bars and belting out some words. And whether you're writing a three-minute pop song or a two-hour orchestral movement, the rules are the same.

The Complete Idiot's Guide to Music Composition will take you note-by-note through the mechanics of bringing your music to life. In this next book by popular author Michael Miller, you'll get:

  • Tried and true techniques that help you create popular songs, classically structured pieces, film and television scores, videogame soundtracks, and more

  • Instruction on how to compose music both chords-first and melody-first

  • Methods for developing simple melodic motifs and themes into longer compositions

  • Tips for creating interesting chord progressions, using chord extensions and substitutions

  • Advice for orchestrating and arranging your compositions -- and creating complete scores

  • Tips on how to employ both traditional and contemporary compositional techniques

Get your music out of your head -- put it on paper and get it performed! Here's more of what you'll find in The Complete Idiot's Guide to Music Composition:

  • Learn the theory behind basic chord construction

  • Discover how to compose a memorable melody -- and fit it to an interesting chord progression

  • Create tension and release in a melodic line -- and extend the melody with repetition and variation

  • Learn voice-leading techniques for multiple-voice compositions

  • Select the right instruments and voicings to express your musical ideas

  • Apply your skills for different types of compositions -- from popular songs to serious concert pieces

What's In the Book?

Like it's predecessor title, The Complete Idiot's Guide to Music Theory, this book mixes information and instruction in an easy-to-read, easy-to-understand format. The information you can handle on your own -- just read the text and look at the musical examples. The instruction is in the form of musical examples and end-of-chapter exercises. You should play through the examples as they appear in the text, and when you get to the end of each chapter, work through each of the exercises. The exercises are particularly important as they both reinforce the techniques introduced in the chapter and enable you to write your compositions based on those techniques. 

The Complete Idiot's Guide to Music Composition is composed of 18 chapters, each of which concentrates on a different aspect of composition. The chapters are organized into five general parts, as follows: 

  • Part 1, "Before You Start," describes various types of composition, and details the tools you need to start composing your own music

  • Part 2, "Harmonic Composition," addresses the art of composing music, chords-first. You'll learn how to create a harmonious chord progression, how to use both standard and extended chords, and how to employ chord substitution to create more sophisticated compositions.

  • Part 3, "Melodic Composition," is all about the melody -- to me, the most important part of the composition. You'll learn various techniques for creating great-sounding melodies, including the use of scales and modes, structural tones and embellishments, rhythm and syncopation, melodic contour and flow, and tension and release. You'll also learn how to fit chords to a melody -- and reharmonize an existing chord progression.

  • Part 4, "Developing the Composition," shows you how to turn a basic composition into something more substantial. You'll learn how to develop a short melody into a full-length work, how to use repetition and variation, and techniques for creating multiple-voice compositions.

  • Part 5, "Advanced Techniques," moves beyond basic composition into more specific -- and more sophisticated -- musical areas. You'll be introduced to the topics of orchestration, chromaticism and atonality, contemporary composition, and that unique type of composition we call songwriting.

The Complete Idiot's Guide to Music Composition concludes with a glossary of musical terms and the answers to selected exercises presented at the end of each chapter in the book.

From the Book's Foreword...

...[L]ike any other complex tasks, composing can be broken down into a series of manageable steps. As Mike Miller describes in these pages, melody and harmony rarely emerge simultaneously as a composer works; it's much more common to work on one and then the other. Likewise, if you're composing a contrapuntal piece (with two or more melodies taking place at the same time), you will most likely switch back and forth between the two, working on the melodic parts one at a time and listening to how they fit together -- alternating between the forest and the trees, as it were.

Composing is a constant search for one's individual musical voice. As you gain experience in composing, you may find that your voice speaks most clearly in pop tunes, country songs, jazz charts, church hymns, contemporary classical music, or any of a million other realms of sound -- classifiable and unclassifiable. Maybe you know the direction you're heading, or maybe you don't. Rather than force the issue prematurely, this book wisely starts you out composing on terra firma; in what's called functional tonality, the common musical language in which Mozart, the Beatles, and Alan Jackson are all rooted. As you gain more experience and confidence being creative within this safe harbor, you can then get ready to set sail for wherever your inner light pulls you. Or if you decide to stay a landlubber, that's fine, too; as the old saying goes, there's still plenty of good music to be written in C major.

Have fun. Don't force things. Listen carefully to your inner ear. Run everything past the filter of your taste, but at the same time don't be too quick to judge and reject. Oh, and one more thing. Don't believe Mike when he disses himself -- I've played some of his handwritten music, and it's not nearly as messy as he says.

David Vayo
David is Professor and head of the composition department at Illinois Wesleyan University, where he teaches composition and contemporary music and coordinates the Symposium of Contemporary Music and the New Music Cafe concert series. David has received numerous awards and commissions for his compositions; learn more here.

How to Buy This Book

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