by Professor Terry Dwyer


Introduction to the course

The need for Form

Composers all want to write good music. What is good music? Presumably music that others enjoy. Yes, and I would like to add “…and understand.”
What are the rules for writing good music? I’ll simplify matters for the moment and say that there is only one rule: “Thou shalt not bore.” Boredom is of two kinds, boredom through over-familiarity and boredom through total incomprehension. Or to look at it differently, we experience meaninglessness, either because we know everything already so there is no new information, or we can’t make head or tail of it. For anything, in any sphere of life, to convey information, it needs to include two opposites: something familiar, something unfamiliar. In music these two opposites translate as Unity and Variety. In practice this involves some kind of repetition and some kind of change: if these two opposites are balanced properly, then we can say the music has good Form. Too much repetition and we have Boredom Through Over-familiarity. Too much variety and we have Boredom Through Bewilderment.

The need for good material

But on the smaller, more immediate level, every bar we write should be attractive and meaningful, so we need to create good themes, melodies, motives. Opinions will vary on what constitutes a good theme; for the moment it is sufficient if the composer thinks it is good. Getting started is always a problem, so choosing good starting material is important. Later I will be suggesting how to do this, but for now the important thing is to realise that the themes must be appropriate to the particular composition (you won’t want funereal minor key music for a birthday celebration).

The need for good deployment of material

Themes can be stated. They can then be restated, then other themes can appear, and then the first one can be stated again. Many good compositions, however, do more than just state: they develop material, so we also need the ability to do this convincingly.

The need for a suitable infrastructure

With certain exceptions, music will usually have a foreground (main themes) and background (accompaniment). The latter should receive equal attention from the composer – it can be negative and self-effacing if desired, or it can contribute to the overall message of the piece. So we need the ability to create appropriate textures.


A piece of music should have a well-constructed form. This requires the basic material of suitable themes, and probably good development; all supported by an appropriate texture. The following lessons will explore these four basic ideas.