Have you wanted to write music but not known where to start? Or perhaps you felt intimidated by the world of “composing”. Sabrina Peña Young is an award-winning composer best known for her groundbreaking animated opera Libertaria and with over a decade and a half of experience composing commercial and classical music – from jazz to folk to film soundtracks to dance electronica. Now she has created a new resource to help anyone take their first steps in composing.

Composer boot camp 101Composer Boot Camp 101 is a workbook which, as the name suggests, quickly gets you up to speed with the essentials of modern composing. It has a series of 50 exercises you can use to begin expressing your own creative musical ideas, whether you’ve been playing for years or you’ve just started learning your instrument.

Through our work with Sabrina here at Easy Ear Training and at Musical U we had the opportunity to get an insider’s peek at this exciting new publication and ask her a few questions about why she created it, who it’s for, and how it can help you learn to compose.

Q: Congratulations on the release of this wonderful new workbook, Composer Boot Camp 101! Could you tell us a bit about where the idea to write this book came from?

sabrina_pena_youngI have had many educators and musicians tell me about how they want to write music and teach their students how to compose, but they just don’t know where to start. I think that there has been this idea passed down over the last century with the composer being some mystical “auteur” that emits magical musical ideas from their brain. The reality is that writing music is a musical skill that anyone can learn, just like singing or playing an instrument.

I decided to “demystify” writing music by putting together a helpful music workbook that any musician or teacher could pick up to practically learn how to write music. I recently presented the new workbook to a local chapter of MTNA (Music Teachers National Association) and I received incredible feedback regarding how much fun (yes, fun!) writing music can be and how easy the exercises were.

I truly believe that anyone can and should write music. Being able to express yourself through melody and sound is an amazing experience.

Q: How does the approach laid out in this book relate to how you learned to compose?

The book is laid out very simply, almost like a menu. There are exercises for Beginners, Intermediate Students, and Advanced Students. Each section is divided into five important aspects of writing music:

”Anyone can and should write music. Being able to express yourself through melody and sound is an amazing experience.”

  • Inspiration
  • Melody
  • Rhythm
  • Harmony
  • Orchestration (arranging)

There is also a section on Music Technology, and marketing tips are sprinkled throughout the workbook.

While it is important for a musician to know how to write for string quartet or choir, for example, they are much more likely to be hired to write a jingle, soundtrack for a web video, or audio for a company. So I cover all of these aspects with helpful, simple, exercises.

The Beginner and Intermediate Exercises have been designed specifically for educators and beginning musicians that may not have much music theory or notation experience. The Advanced and Music Technology exercises are much more in-depth and more closely reflect what you would encounter at the college or professional level.

This approach is different than my own compositional experience. I started as a percussionist, then I started to write music in high school. In college I delved into music technology and never looked back.

Like many composers, I started the bulk of my compositional training in college, which means that my first exercises were on writing fugues, for string quartet and orchestra, writing avant-garde music, and choral music.

These can be daunting tasks for someone that is just learning how to write music, so I developed a more step-by-step approach for the workbook. I don’t want musicians and educators to feel that they have to start with writing a symphony. That is discouraging, like expecting a toddler to be able to drive a car before they learn how to run. I broke down key elements like Melody, Rhythm, and Orchestration into exercises that worked on each component individually in an easy-to-execute way.

Excerpt from Composer Boot Camp 101:


I included Inspiration since many of the roadblocks to successful composition do not deal with skill but deal with a psychological barrier to creative musical expression. The Inspiration exercises help break down these “writer’s block” issues by giving very direct instructions to prompt composition.

Melody exercises work on developing motifs and melodies regardless of musical background and ability. Improvisation plays a key role in composition and is incorporated into the exercises.

Simple exercises on vocal rhythm, basic rhythms, finding the beat, and polyrhythms are incorporated into the workbook.

Starting with simple experimentation and basic chords, the exercises in harmony develop the ear training skills needed to be a successful composer. Additionally, the exercises delve into more complex tonalities as the difficulty level progresses.

This section incorporates basics of orchestration and arranging. Additionally, exercises that open up the ears through listening are incorporated.

Additionally there is a section created entirely for music written for visual media. In the 21st century, a basic understanding of writing music to multimedia is increasingly a necessary skill for serious composer. These exercises are in the Intermediate or Advanced levels, although beginning composers may find it helpful to read through the exercises and adapt them to their level.

Q: Is it designed to be used in conjunction with other resources, or could a beginner use this as their primary way of learning composition?

Any musician or educator can pick up Composer Boot Camp 101 and use this as their primary composition resource. Musicians can complete the exercises regardless of their ability. Computer skills are not necessary.

Throughout the book I recommend additional resources like Samuel Adler’s Orchestration book, listening lists, software, and online resources to help them on their journey. I also recommend that these exercises be incorporated as a supplement to elementary/secondary music and band classes, piano or vocal lessons, university courses, and workshops.

Q: In the introduction to the book you say “I sincerely believe that any musician can become a composer.” What do you think are the main barriers which hold most musicians back from creating their own music?

Honestly, most musicians tell me “I don’t know where to start!” This is why I spend so much time in the book developing “Inspiration” exercises that promote creativity. For example, in one exercise the musician takes a handful of postcards and develops a melody based on each one. Advanced students are encouraged to write a suite based on the postcards. In another example for children, they are encouraged to improvise a piece on percussion based on an animal. These might seem very simple, but they remove barriers.

Each piece does not have to be a masterpiece. Start small and simple. Write a melody or a chord progression. Improvise a lyric or drum out a rhythm. These small steps can lead to some great music. It just takes time and practice, not magic.


Q: Many of the existing resources for learning composition focus on the music theory side of composing. Composer Boot Camp 101 is notable for also covering Inspiration and Technology. Could you tell us a bit about the importance of each of these?

This workbook was designed for anyone to pick up regardless of their music theory background. Yes, music theory is important, but I think in Western music we get caught up in the technical aspects of composition and forget that in most cultures, everyone makes music, regardless of their skill level.

As I mentioned before, I incorporate Inspiration exercises because I have heard so many musicians talk about how they want to write music, but they somehow think that their first song has to be a masterpiece. No one arrives at a masterpiece the first time. Just write.

One of my composition professors, Paul Reller at the University of South Florida, mentioned that I should write music every day, even if it was bad music – just be sure to write. These inspiration exercises provide a spark that lights musical expression and creativity.

Example Inspiration Exercise

Example Inspiration Exercise

Much of my early formal compositional education focused on writing traditional classical music. When I studied Music Technology and New Media in college, I chose that route over graduate studies in Composition because I saw that the landscape was changing. Technology was revolutionizing music. The Internet allowed individuals all across the globe to collaborate.

This meant that focusing only on traditional classical music would not provide a comprehensive enough background to achieve success in the Digital Age. Today every musician needs to know about music notation software, audio editing, writing music to media, website design, and social media marketing. I know so many successful performers and composers that are at a loss when they come to technology.

The other day I received an e-mail from a college musician that wanted to become a professional composer, but she didn’t “do computers”. My first piece of advice for her was to learn. As a professional musician today you need to know how to use software and the Internet, even if you are only promoting yourself as a piano educator. For this reason, I included Music Technology exercises that work specifically on writing music to media like TV, Film, Advertising, and Web Videos.

I’ve never been hired to write a string quartet, but I can’t even count how much music I have written for corporate clients and private individuals that needed my music production, scoring, audio engineering, or film music skills.

Example Advanced Harmony Exercise

Example Advanced Harmony Exercise

Q: One common concern with new songwriters and composers is getting feedback on their work. Without feedback it’s hard to know if they’re “doing it right” and whether they’re improving over time – but sharing your early work with other people can be nerve-wracking, particularly if you are self-taught. Do you have any advice on this, for the budding composer teaching themselves?

Yes. Get your music out there! There are no excuses. And playing back the Garageband MIDI realization of your jazz piece doesn’t count. You have to have a physical performer read your music or chart. Then get their feedback.

The first step is to write for yourself. If you sing, write a short vocal piece. If you are in a band, write up a chart and use it at your next jam session. If your friend used to play clarinet or guitar, then write a simple piece and have them go through it.

Even if the performance isn’t stellar, you will learn so much more through hearing the piece (and hearing the performer complain about mistakes in the piece) than just plucking out the notes on a keyboard. Make a list of resources available like friends, bandmates, a local choir, or community ensemble. Chances are you know someone that can play your music. Then write for them.

Use the Internet to reach other musicians. Set up a Skype chat and have a performer play through your piece and record the results. You can even hire musicians to record your piece professionally. Ask them for advice. Pair up with a professional composer or songwriter and have them look over your scores and give you feedback. You can find many opportunities like this online.

I’ve helped well over a hundred musicians like this through sites like MusicXray which offer opportunities like this. Once you are comfortable and have a good score, then search out websites like ComposersSite.com which has free opportunities for your work. Or find music ensembles online and ask them if they would like you to write a piece for them. Eventually your portfolio will grow and you can start looking at commissions and writing professionally.

My hope is that the Composer Boot Camp 101 will provide you with practical exercises and marketable skills that will help you on your journey. Any musician can write music.

Wonderful! Thank you again, Sabrina, for joining us to share your insights and expertise on modern composing.

You can learn more about Sabrina Peña Young and her latest projects on her professional website. Composer Boot Camp 101 is available now, containing 50 exercises for beginner, intermediate and advanced musicians, covering inspiration, melody, rhythm, harmony, orchestration and more. Learn more and buy your copy at Amazon.com today!