My First Crack at the Composer Continuum

Last year I embarked on a personal project to learn enough music theory to compose a song. I’ve been blogging my progress (or lack thereof) and the many shiny distractions encountered along the way. Recently I wondered where I was towards being a composer. It got me thinking about the various pathways to becoming a composer and the minimum requirement to be a composer in the modern sense of the word. That was the genesis of the Composer Continuum.

I should mention here that the Composer Continuum is subjective, theoretical and speculative in nature, and words like "composer" and "music" mean different things to different people. I welcome your corrections, alternative interpretations and even slaps upside the proverbial skull if I got it really wrong.

Where was I? Yes, composers. I decided that anyone who conceives of original work and sees it through to completion is a composer, at some level or another. I don’t consider indicators like record sales, number one hits or influence because they can be gamed. I also don’t include innate abilities like creative genius because it’s not essential to composing music, although it does help you get recognized.

The technical proficiency of an instrument is or similar skill is cautiously factored in because the better one knows and can play their instrument, the more likely they are to elevate their art form.

Basically, I made it so all levels of the Composer Continuum are attainable with enough time, practice and experimentation.

So here's a quick primer on the Composer Continuum (a very basic version). I'm going to use it to compare my progress against well-known composers of various kinds. Please note that the Composer Continuum is to be read from the center up, and from left to right.

As you can see, I start at "Poseur". I currently don’t have the skills to compose music, although that shouldn't (and won't) stop me from trying :)

Level 1
The first level of composer (and the easiest to attain) consist of artist archetypes like Yoko Ono and Henry Rollins. To my limited knowledge, neither know music theory, play an instrument or can even sing. Yet both make music anyway. So the first milestone is to put something out there, no matter how unpolished.

Level 2
Level 2 has Frank Sinatra, Chuck D and Janis Joplin. None of them are musically-trained but all were focused on a particular style and/or genre, and took their craft seriously. To get here from level one is focus, and focused practice.

Level 3
The third level of composers, inhabited by archetypes like Ozzy Ozborne, Sid Vicious and Miles Davis, are those who play an instrument but not particularly well. They’re credited with songwriting (sometimes undeservedly) but leaned heavily on other band members throughout their careers. Miles Davis is the furthest along on this tier and even partially transcends this sphere because, while he wasn’t a great trumpet player, he knew how to pick his spots. The man needs his own bubble. No doubt there are other "transcenders" who cannot be contained on a single level, but none come immediately to mind.

It seems that getting from level 3 to 4 requires taking up an instrument and collaboration.

Level 4
This tier of composer (ala Brian Eno, Bjork and John Cage) has all the competencies of the first three levels. The big difference is they compose(d) in different mediums, with different tools, experimenting in different genres and even open entirely new genres. Attaining this level requires diversification and exploration.

Some artists are very focused on a particular style and spend very little time at this level. Others spend the majority of their career here. Either way, most artists never get past this level.

Level 5
The moat between level 4 and 5 is the mastery of their chosen instrument. Artists at this level are excellent musicians who have honed their skills and found a signature style or formula. Getting here requires years of dedicated practice.

Level 6
This is the specialization at a world-class level, as personified by the likes of Jimi Hendrix, Bill Evans, John Coltrane and Ravi Shankar. These elite musicians can compose and perform works that, to paraphrase Arthur C. Clark, are "indistinguishable from magic". Attaining this level requires a life-time of woodshedding with monk-like commitment.

Level 7
This musician-composer archetype doesn’t specialize in a single instrument but are prolific multi-talented multi-instrumentalists. They either work across numerous genres like Prince and Paul McCartney or in Fanny Crosby’s case, compose record-breaking volumes of hymns that are sung over a hundred years later. More study is required for me to understand how one might achieve this level.

George Russell, Duke Ellington and JS Bach are multi-instrumentalists who can compose for numerous instruments in different genres. They also have made valuable contributions to music theory itself. They can be thought of as the conductors of all other musician-composer archetypes. More study is required for me to understand how one might achieve this level.

Again, this the a quick first version and many improvements are planned.

Back To The Start

Another shiny new thing. Photo provided by COLORED PENCIL magazine

Instead of systematically learning music theory then applying that knowledge to composing a song, I've bounced from idea to idea. I still don't have treble and bass clef notes down cold, and that's Lesson 1, page 1 stuff. Why? That requires constant repetitive drilling, and I'm too easily distracted by novelty and shiny new things.

I hired an online music tutor to show me some shortcuts to singing from the shape-note hymnal, but he says there's no getting around thoroughly memorizing all notes on the grand staff. I promised him I'll hunker down with a few music training apps and gamify myself to greatness before our next session in a few days.

The tutoring platform I decided on is Preply. It's affordable and the user interface is smooth like cruelty-free vegan butter. If you're interested in giving it a go, use this referral link for a 30% discount on your first lesson.

The Shape Note Shortcut

Amazing Grace written using shape notes, in the traditional congregational hymnal format

I've been following up on a suggestion I received in this Hacker News thread. It's by a very nice person with the handle zeta0134:

Ooh, here's a fun idea: see if you can track down a hymnal that uses shape notes, like those described here:

The basic idea is to make it much easier to sight-read songs in different keys. With shape notes, the "Do" in solfege is always the same symbol, regardless of the key signature. So it'd be a "C" in C Major, but the same shape appears for an "F" in F Major. Once you can recognize the 7 shapes, you can suddenly do two things very easily:

- Find "Do" and feel your way around the song using it as an anchor, without any risk of losing it

- Re-pitch the song so that the melody is in a more comfortable range

The first point helps out a lot with interval training, as it short-cuts the key signature translation steps. You no longer have to remember that a C -> an E (or was it an Eb in this key?) is a major third, you just look at the "Do" shape and the "Mi" shape following it, and hear what you should do.

The second point was especially useful as a song leader in my youth. Some of the composers had an optimistic idea of how high our tenors could comfortably sing, so over time I learned to nudge the key up or down a few steps to keep the voices comfortable. (This was a congregation of worshipers, not a trained choir.) Shape notes made that easy to do, since everybody in the audience could still follow the music and often without realizing that I'd changed the reference key on the fly.

First, I had no idea shape notes was even a thing, but there are shape note hymnals?! And using shape notes has been described as a short cut to learning how to sight sing. I love short cuts!

I ordered a popular shape note hymnal called Heavenly Highways Hymns and will give this a try.