Review: Composing Music by William Russo

Composing Music by William Russo is one of the first books I recommend to all my composition students. It has a very interesting approach in its methodology and is perfectly suited to the total beginner and the seasoned veteran alike.

This book is structured into 16 chapters including topics such as tonal and atonal music composition, motivic development, transformation techniques, harmony and counterpoint.

Although not a rigorous textbook on any of the subjects it covers, Russo does a wonderful job explaining each technique as well as offers numerous compositional exercises that will get your creative juices flowing.

The book’s exercises are very practical. Beginning on page 1 Russo outlines some general rules for the exercises. These “rules” seem at first to be very strict however they offer the composer some limitations, which is a very powerful creative tool when used properly.

“The Imperial Flute” is one of the exercises that I have used with many of my students. It begins by describing that you have been “captured by the Lorac, a warlike tribe ruled by Edrevol, who will spare your life only if you please them with the music you write for the Imperial Flute”. This flute can only play four notes. Thus your assignment is to create a piece that uses only the four notes E4, G4, A4, and C5.

This exercise is a type of constraints or limits exercise designed to get you to problem solve when creating a new piece of music. It works like a charm to get a student out of a case of writers block.

Check out one of the glowing reviews from Amazon to get a better idea of the quality of this book:

This is one of the best “How to” books I have ever read on any subject.

It works on several levels. Even though it takes a “beginners” approach to introducing many topics, it doesn’t shy away from “real” music. For example, even the first simple exercise contains something different – 5/4 time. A beginner will simultaneously learn the basics of chord progressions and melody writing, stripped down to the bare essentials, while delving into modern techniques like 12-tone rows and picture music.

The key to the book is the concept of restricting the musical palette by some simple rules, to prevent the budding composer being overwhelmed by the possibilities. Right from the first page, you are working on real composition examples.

Even though the book is not particularly aimed at computer music or sequencing, electronic music enthusiasts should find it useful. A lot of the minimalist techniques are ideal for sequencing. Plus, if your musical background is pretty basic, and you are looking to broaden it with a mix of traditional and contemporary techniques, this book should take you a long way.

By its very nature, a book like this can only touch on some areas. So you will probably want to supplement it with some other material if, for example, you want a bit more detail on counterpoint. Still, it manages to cover a huge amount of ground, with the most detail where it counts most – developing and harmonising melodies, and a very good section on writing music to lyrics (ie: songwriting).

One last point – a lot of theory and composition books miss the mark with contemporary musicians because they approach the subject from the purely “classical” angle of cadence and resolution. This book is soundly classical in its approach to harmonisation and melodic development, but uses the comfortable pop/jazz approach to chord progressions, so it shouldn’t lose any reader.

Highly recommended!

I can’t recommend this book highly enough and I urge you to get a copy today if you are at all interested in writing your own music.

Do you already own this book? If so let me know what you think about it in the comments below.

Until next time, Keep up the good practice!

Leon Harrell

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