For an absolute beginner, "Composing Music" by William Russo can provide a good start.
I have frequently been asked by local musician how I go about composing. So a few years ago, I wrote out a few paragraphs. A bit disorganized, but it does generally describe how I go about it. If you are interested, I can find it and post it here.
You need two important things to compose.
An ear and a heart.
If composing would be a process which can be exactly described then it would be science and not art. Like any art, Composing is a regulation-free activity, or it should be. The end result is a composition which is pleasing at least to one person, the composer. The acceptance of that composition by others, or the rejection of it, does not reflect the value of the composition. Of course, when both the composer and the audience is liking the piece, it is heaven for the composer, he/she managed to transfer his feelings to others, which is the actual goal of any art.
So, try to compose with your inside, do not worry about rules, but make sure that YOU like what you have created, your ear and heart both liking it.
Ted is right on. Rules are derived from practice, not the other way around. Instructions can provide you with the tools you need to express yourself, but they can not teach you how to create ideas. They are useful, but not inviolable laws.
Duke Ellington: If it sounds good, it is good.
Paul Hindemith and Walter Piston: The ear is the final arbiter.
It is often said that you must first know the rules before you break them. My usual response is "Rubbish!!!!" If you have a musical idea, and are able to perform it, or write it so it can be understood, that is sufficient. If I find that what I have written says what I mean, that is sufficient for me, although I certainly am happy when it pleases others.
That actually isn't true. Yes, you can approach this like a monkey learning to write by banging on the keys, but there is a system, or a lot of people wouldn't be doing it on a regular basis, especially in film.
I guess you are saying throw out hundreds of years of music theory and practice, but I don't think this is practical.
I think the "art" part sits between rules and experience. Just my two cents :-)
I really think it is you who is wrong Steve.
YOU CAN NOT LEARN COMPOSING FROM BOOKS. They may help you, if you have talent. I you don't. you can study until the end of your days, you still will not produce anything worthwhile. If you listen to some ancient music, produced without any theoretical music knowledge, you'll be amazed. Or, if you wish, listen to the very "modern" "MUSIC" which does not follow any theory, but still considered by many as great, you will see what I mean. Music theory is a result of analysis of music produced by incredibly talented persons.
Your original question of "Anyone here a talented composer", while I know you did not mean it that way, is an insult on many of us. You could listen to the available pieces this Forum members has published here, and you should have had you answer there. If not agree that there are talented people here, then, if I were you, I would abandon the idea of becoming a composer.
I consider myself a mediocre amateur composer of 88 years old, had my successes as a composer, an organist, a choir director, so I consider some of my colleges here as much more talented than I am, I even admire some of them.
So, without any bad feelings, I wish you good success, and who knows, maybe your inspiration will come from theory. On the end, if you succeed, you will agree with me about heart and ear. ( I really don't bang monkey like on my keyboard and hope some great will come out).
Well, hopefully we all are, otherwise we're wasting our time. The point being, talent is necessary. This is not something that anyone can learn to do. You either have it or you don't. You usually know if you have it. How?
It's been said that composers start composing first, and then learn how later. So, are you composing? Do you have ideas, and are you putting them on paper, or recording them? Are they original ideas? If so, you could be a composer.
Can one compose without playing an instrument? I suppose it's possible, but you have to use something with which to make music. This is not theoretical physics, something you do in your head. You have to in some way create patterns of notes, actual sound waves, at some point. Music is, most simply and obviously, sound. So, either an instrument or a computer, or some kind of device that makes sound. Your brain is not going to magically start creating music after a suitable period of study.
The usual route I suppose is that someone who plays an instrument, after a while begins to create original ideas. It can happen while improvising on your guitar or piano. For me, I needed a way to kill the long hours spent in Boston Common one summer in the early seventies, when I was homeless. So I decided to see if I could write music in my head. I discovered that I could. And it went from there.
My advice is to learn an instrument. If you don't, you will almost certainly not become a composer. There is a motoric element to this. It's a product of the whole person, not just brain and ears, but hands are needed. Unless you possess abilities comparable to Helen Keller, you are not likely to succeed without learning to play. It will teach you rhythm, pitch relations, meter, melody, harmony, etc. You don't need to master an instrument, just be good enough that you can play a series of notes on demand. If you don't want to learn an instrument, get yourself a midi keyboard. And learn the basics of notation. Notes, intervals, keys, meters, time signatures, chords, and basic harmony and voice leading. Even a cliff-notes or music theory for idiots would be enough.
As for classical theory, as has been said, the "rules" were written down after composers had been composing for centuries. But few composers ever composed according to rules. If you follow rules, you will never be original. If you have the talent, and the desire, and you make the effort, you will make your own rules.
Also, it cannot be stressed enough that you need to listen. To tremendous quantities of the best music that has been written. In this way you build up a storehouse of technique, based not on rules, but on results. Listen to the Masters (though it is a humbling experience).
Finally, you must love music. So much that you want to create it yourself, for the simple reason that it makes you happy, and because you cannot be happy unless you do so.
Well, a lot of good comment has been provided here! Any aspiring composer could learn much from careful reading.
As I promised earlier, here are some of my thoughts on composing.
The matter of my compositional process is brought up fairly often. I do not have a direct or clear answer. What follows are some of the considerations in the process. But they are in no particular order.
However avant garde or revolutionary your musuc may be, if you expect anyone to listen, you cannot ignore music of the past. What you write must relate to something that can be understood.
I do not intentionally emulate any composer. Some of my music bears some resemblance to some composers some of the time.
I make frequent use of standard contrapuntal techniques, but in my own way, which is not so easy to define.
I rarely write melody with accompaniment. All parts are conceived as a part of the whole. Although sometimes the various polyphonic lines can stand alone, the important thing is that they form a coherent whole.
Even when I write lots of full chords, the polyphonic element is still very strong. Sometimes I create a theme with a series of block chords and subject it to contrapuntal treatment.
To me, the great value of polyphony is that it gives a great cohesiveness to the music, and provides great opportunities for variety.
I am not bound by usual rules of tonality or atonality. Much of what I write is shifting tonality, poly-tonality, and polyrythmic.
Much of what I write requires a virtuoso performer. If I try to simplify, I am very dissatisfied with the results. .
Quite a few years as part time pianist, mostly for private events helped me develop a talent for improvising. Also a lot of improvising as church organist. These skills contribute to my composing. As an aside, I was filling in as organist, completely improvising, when the regular organist came up and sat beside me ans told me to quickly somehow modulate to E flat, which I did, as he watched my hands, then started his playing on the upper manual while I continued on the lower manual, then I slid out of the way, and the congregation did not notice the activity.
Sometimes, I visualize the shape of the music as I am beginning to write it.
It is helpful for me to see the music, which makes the ideas much clearer and easier to work with.
I often take a small fragment and stretch, twist, shrink, and bend it until it becomes a decent piece of music. Some of my works can be condensed into just a few bars, from which all else derives.
Sometimes a piece develops from keyboard doodles, but usually, just a fragment as a start.
I currently use a computer when composing because it is easier on my hands. My use of the computer is the same use I would make of a typewriter when composing a text. I mention this because so many people think that if you use a computer, the computer is doing the composing, which, of course, is the same error that has been used about authors using word processors. The computer certainly makes life easier if I want to transpose a passage, add,delete, or move a passage, and is wonderful in making me notice when a complicated bar has the wrong number of beats! But the composition is mine alone, and the computer is strictly a tool. I wrote music before computers were available, and still write manually when a computer is not handy! Incidentally, my introduction to computers was via the math, the Boolean algebra equations/symbolic logic. My first contact with a live computer keyboard was at CBS HQ in NY, where the computer was so large I walked through it.
Before falling asleep I will often concoct some music, which sometimes produces good results, sometimes not. Dies Alii is one that began and developed in this fashion.
Sometimes, out of nowhere, music just sort of explodes full blown in my head, and write it down as quickly as possible. These I refer to as my "Minerva" works, a reference to Minerva springing forth full grown from the brow of Zeus.
The usual harmonic progressions and rules don't trouble me much. I simply ignore them if it seems useful. Same for rhythms. Duke Ellington, Walter Piston, and Paul Hindemeth, among others, state something like "the ear is the final arbiter", which is my one firm rule.
Sometimes a melody comes first. Sometimes harmonic ideas announce their presence, and the music proceed from that. Sometimes melody, harmony, rhythm, and form appear simultaneously.
The composers best friend is an eraser or delete key.
I welcome comments, consider all of them, but discard those which are obviously based on bias or personal preference, which describes most of them.
I write as I do because I am me, and that's the way I am built. I seem to be non-standard issue, and that is just the way it is.
I am not encumbered by a strict adherence to form.
If a musical fragment occurs to me, I may discover that it is totally unworkable for the purpose in my mind. Therefore, I follow the dictates of the music rather than try to force it into a particular mold.
If an idea runs out of steam, sometimes I think, "If I were playing this, what would I want to do now?"
The accents and pulse should be defined by the music, not the bar lines. In this matter, I quite agree with Walter Piston. For me, the bar lines are often just road markers, keeping you from getting lost. Exceptions, of course for marches and dance music.
When writing vocal music, I give exquisite attention to the prosody.
Pedals on a pipe organ must add more than just creation of a fuller sound. They must be used to add to the music, and can be quite melodic, fast moving, and can be used for playing more than one note at a time. I have, for special needs, required the organist to play four pedal notes, which is quite possible, but combinations are limited.
The composer should allow for artistic interpretation by the performer. Therefore, I limit my expression/dynamics to general ideas as much as is practical. It is sort of like including the registration on an organ piece, which most organists will adapt to their instruments and predilections; suggestions for performance, as I would play the work. But I do not always play a piece the same way, and would not like anyone to feel that they should do so. I do not write for automatons, but for humans.
Keep the long line in mind!! Everything must be subject to this.
The art of form consists of knowing what to repeat, when to repeat it, and how to repeat it. I avoid exact repetition except in specific situations, such as fugal expositions.
Inspiration is a small part of the process of composing. Once an idea is arrived at, the process should be treated as a construction project, tempered by the composer's musical skills and attitudes. Creation of a musical work is much the same as writing a novel or short story. Inspiration is of no value without technique to make use of it.
I consider very carefully what ideas for a piece should be omitted.
It is very important to discover when a composition has reached it's conclusion. When it is reached, conclude it!
Revisions are essential, sometimes because of stupid errors, somtimes because the music demands something which I had not previously noticed, sometimes because I have learned more about how to express my ideas. Sometimes the revision occurs after many years.
As I compose, I always revvise as I progress, but I keep a copy of all versions until the work is completed. Then I will delete them, except for revvisions that contain something I will use later.
This describes my composing in general terms.
Afterthought: nearly all great composers have had considerable keyboard skills. The value of keyboard skill should be rather obvious.
Parting though, a quote from Schoenberg:
"I have composed more than I have written. I have written more than I have published."