New composition tutorial series: Developing an idea with Sibelius 6

iPhone SibeliusI haven’t managed a blog for quite a few weeks now. This term at MLC School I’ve been acting head of department and gosh, it has been rather a lot of work. So I’m looking forward to handing back to our much more competent usual HOD tomorrow and moving back behind the scenes as composer-in-residence.

I have, however, managed to carry on every now and then working on a new series of videos for composition students who are lucky enough to have access to Sibelius 6. And although they are not quite finished (7 of 11 lessons are done) I’ve decided to release them to celebrate the end of term (and hopefully I can knock off the final 4 over the break!).

These videos centre around the skill of developing a musical idea, which I think is one of the main stumbling blocks for students learning to compose. The first stumbling block, which I’ll deal with later, is what I call blank page syndrome, which is where the student sits in front of a blank page of manuscript paper or (even worse) computer screen and gives up because they are expecting the entire piece to leap out, fully formed, onto the page. What a disappointment when I tell them it doesn’t even work like that for those of use who’ve been doing it for 20+ years.

The second stumbling block, I think, is deciding what to do with that idea to develop it once it has finally been penned. So a while ago when I was still working at Sibelius I had a chat with the rather wonderful Daniel Spreadbury and Bob Zawalich, and we came up with a bunch of plug-ins (well, actually, Daniel and I made a list and Bob did all the hard work) which would do many of the Transformations of musical ideas that composers do. These plug-ins made it into Sibelius 6 as a new feature.

This series of videos, then, shows the student how to use the plug-ins. But it does a little more than that. It provides context by looking first at how Beethoven, the master of development, transforms ideas in the first subject of the first movement of his third symphony (lessons 1 to 6). Each video looks at what Beethoven did, and then shows how to do the same things in Sibelius (and you can download files to try it yourself). The next five lessons show how to do some more modern Transformations, like inversions and retrogrades, based on a short piano piece I’ve written as an exercise.

To make remembering the plug-ins as easy to remember as possible, I’ve created a shortcut set to install in Sibelius and a shortcut card which can be placed above the keys 1 to 0 for easy access. It looks like this:

Transformations shortcuts
Transformations shortcuts

Now, before I sign off on this and start receiving comments, let me say that I know there will be purists out there who say that we shouldn’t teach students to do these kind of musical devices via a computer plug-in. That they should do them themselves, possibly on manuscript paper, so that they properly understand the process and so that composition doesn’t become a series of button presses and playback auditions until something sounds at best half-baked.

And in many ways, I wouldn’t disagree with that point of view. As I’ve said in earlier posts, I’m a big fan of learning to handwrite music and that that is, in my opinion. a medium that encourages students to first hear what they are creating in their heads. But that doesn’t mean that these plug-ins aren’t also useful. Many students wouldn’t be able to accurately work out an inversion of a motif: here they can see and hear it instantaneously. Many wouldn’t be bothered to try to create 20 variations of a motif just to find a second motif that is interesting and related to the first: with the plug-ins it would only take 5 minutes to create 40 such variations. In this way, Sibelius opens up complex creative thought to more students of composition.

For the best discussion on the whole thorny issue of teaching students to compose using computer notation programs, see Kenneth Froelich and his brilliant blog at (which I’ve posted about before).

So here we have a bunch of tools that are another option for a student, and hopefully these new pages, videos and resources on my website will be of some use and perhaps even some inspiration to students around the world using Sibelius 6 and interested in ways to make their compositions grow. Click here to check out the whole course.

2 responses to “New composition tutorial series: Developing an idea with Sibelius 6”

  1. It’s such an interesting notion for composers – that the notation technology is not a transparent medium, but rather an inherent part of the creative process.

    I’ve been involved in a discussion on another blog about encouraging students to compose in a different tonality to C Major – my instinct is that these are students who are starting with a blank sheet of manuscript and finding themselves writing a middle C, rather than approaching the page with an idea waiting to be inscribed.

    I suspect that in some number of years time we will be able to hear the difference between ‘organic’ compositions and ‘notation program’ compositions, as tools like these new functions in Sibelius emerge which allow a completely different temporal experience (to the composer) of their musical palette.

    When, in 2001, I first started using Sibelius myself (rather than sending my scores off to be set by someone else using Sibelius) I spent a couple of months composing from the computer rather than via improvising or imagining. Of course the kinds of composition I began to produce were quite unlike those I had ever produced before. I found I spent more time at the micro-level, especially spending time playing with the kind of accidental variations that are easily achieved in a notation program. But at the macro-level I also found that I was more engaged, being able to play with structure more freely.

    From my observations of high school music students working on their compositions for the HSC (usually on a notation program at school) the computer becomes a means of collating random musical motifs, banding them together and calling them a composition. I can hardly wait to see these tutorials, James! I’m sure they will be a big contribution to changing that…

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