Supriya Ghosh (Editor)

Musical composition

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Musical composition

Musical composition can refer to an original piece of music, either a song or an instrumental music piece, the structure of a musical piece, or the process of creating or writing a new song or piece of music. People who create new compositions are called composers in classical music. In popular music and traditional music, the creators of new songs are usually called songwriters; with songs, the person who writes new words for a song is the lyricist. "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 typically includes the creation of music notation, such as a sheet music "score", which is then performed by the composer or by other instrumental musicians or singers. In popular music and traditional music, 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 (choosing the instruments of a large music ensemble such as an orchestra which will play the different parts of music, such as the melody, accompaniment, countermelody, bassline and so on) 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 pop or traditional songwriter may not use written notation at all, and instead compose the song in her mind and then play, sing and/or record it from memory. In jazz and popular music, notable sound recordings by influential performers are given the weight that written or printed 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 all of the members of 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, since the 20th century, with computer programs that explain or notate how the singer or musician should create musical sounds. Examples range from 20th century avant-garde music that uses graphic notation, to text compositions such as Karlheinz Stockhausen's 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.


In classical music, a piece of music (a concerto, dance movement, song, etc.) exists in the form of a composition in musical notation or as a single "live" acoustic event (a live performance in recital). Since the invention of sound recording, a classical piece or popular song may also exist as a recording. If music is composed before being performed, music can be performed from memory (the norm for instrumental soloists in concerto performances and singers in opera shows and art song recitals), by reading written musical notation (the norm in large ensembles, such as orchestras, concert bands and choirs), or through a combination of both methods. For example, the principal cello player in an orchestra may read most of the accompaniment parts in a symphony, where she is playing tutti parts, but then memorize an exposed solo, in order to be able to watch the conductor. 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, such as electric guitar and electric bass. Electric and electronic instruments are used in contemporary classical music compositions and concerts, albeit to a lesser degree than in popular music. Music from the Baroque music era (1600–1750), for example, used only acoustic and mechanical instruments such as strings, brass, woodwinds, timpani and keyboard instruments such as harpsichord and pipe organ. 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. In free jazz, the performers may play without any sheet music, form or plan. Improvisation is the act of composing musical elements spontaneously during the performance, as opposed to having a composer write down the music beforehand. 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, which used numbers and markings made near the written-out bassline to indicate which harmonies should be played. During the classical period (1760–1820), solo instrumentalists were expected to be able to improvise virtuostic cadenzas during a concerto. During the Romantic music era (1820–1910), composers began writing out ornaments and cadenzas, and so classical musicians were not expected to improvise as much. In contemporary classical music (1945–2016), some composers 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, including rhythm section members playing accompaniment parts and soloists (e.g., a guitarist playing a guitar solo). 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..."

As a musical form

In discussing the composition of a musical work, the structure (or organization) of that work is generally called its musical form. 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, and others. 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

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.

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.

Chord progression

One method of composing music is starting by using a chord progression. There are many "stock" chord progressions used in music, such as ii-V7-I (in the key of C major, this is 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, this would be the chords D minor–G major–C major) into V7/ii–V7/–V7–I (in the key of C major, this would be the chords of 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 in many genres is a lead melody line. 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 (e.g., 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, melodic theme, or group of melodies. Once these melodies and themes have 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, this held "G" note could 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), or even by treating the melody note as an "extension" to an existing chord (e.g., supporting the long "G" note with an F Major chord, thus making the "G" note the added ninth of this chord).

Free playing

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. Free playing is also used by guitar players, who explore different riffs and licks on the instruments.

Computer methods

As technology has developed in the 20th and 21st century, new methods of music composition have come about. One method involves using computer algorithms contained in samplers to directly translate the phonetics of speech into digital sound. EEG headsets have also been used to create music by interpreting the brainwaves of musicians. This method has been used for Project Mindtunes, which involved collaborating disabled musicians with DJ Fresh, and also by artists Lisa Park and Masaki Batoh.

Compositional instrumentation

The task of adapting a composition for different musical ensembles is called arranging or orchestration, 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. Based on such factors, composers, orchestrators and/or arrangers must decide upon the instrumentation of the original work. In the 2010s, the contemporary composer can virtually write for almost any combination of instruments, ranging from a string section, wind and brass sections used in standard orchestras to electronic instruments such as synthesizers. Some common group settings include music for full orchestra (consisting of strings, woodwinds, brass and percussion), 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. Solos may be unaccompanied, as with works for solo piano or solo cello, or solos may be accompanied by another instrument or by an ensemble.

Composers are not limited to writing only for instruments, they may also decide to write for voice (including choral works, some symphonies (e.g., Beethoven's ninth symphony, operas, and musicals). Composers can also write for 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. 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 playing with the piccolo. This would clearly drown the piccolo out. 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.


Arranging is composition which employs prior material so as to comment upon it such as in mash-ups and various contemporary classical works. 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.


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.

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.

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) in the form of a...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."

In the UK

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."

In India

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."


Musical composition Wikipedia

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