Review of Essentials for Composers: Creative Process by Design | Leonardo

Review of Essentials for Composers: Creative Process by Design

Essentials for Composers: Creative Process by Design
by Jonathan Middleton

Waveband Press, Inc. Long Grove, IL, 2017

165 pp. Paper, $32.95

ISBN: 978-1-4786-3249-8

Reviewed by: 
Richard Kade
May 2017

At last a delightful find, far more thought provoking than hinted at by its blurb. Jonathan Middleton has provided not only a means to surmount writer's block for new-to-seasoned composers but also, sculptors, painters, poets, stand-up comedians, choreographers, and even gourmet cooks.

Because the targeted audience was the composer not schooled in the finer points of theory, so much of the advice given becomes applicable to people yearning to give utterance to their creativity in realms beyond mere music. The obligatory disclaimer, of course, is that the contents of this book do not guarantee great creativity but rather any number of means to organizing thought so as to increase odds of better output. For the aspiring composer not conversant in the rudiments of music, a crash course on form and methodologies replete with further examples is provided.

Michelangelo recognized that the artist works more with his mind than his hands. To this I would submit that the fabled fight between head and heart is fiction and on a par with the ephemeral distinctions drawn between the arts and sciences. In this regard, the spark of creativity sought by all wanting to express their thoughts in musical terms, the great pianist and composer Erroll Garner and recording artist Ella Fitzgerald demonstrate that inability to read music might actually be an asset rather than liability.

In the mid-1980s, Stephen Sondheim told how, for him, writing both the words and music was "not about waiting for the muse to tap you on shoulder but far more akin to solving crossword puzzle" where the rebuttal to the old conundrum, "First the music and then the words" [1] is more a toggling back and forth.

For the more experienced (over educated?) composer, the writings of Dmitri Tymoczko on the "Geometry of Music" are invaluable. [2]

Since so much of what is mistaken for insight is little more than pattern recognition, even such formulaic exercises as stand-up comedy lend themselves to many of the rote applications advocated by Middleton. [3]

Essentials for Composers is divided into five chapters with Introduction:

Creative Process by Design
Basic Counterpoint
Harmonic Strategies
Variation Methods and Principles and
Analytical Strategies and Creative Methods

Beyond aiding the novice composer or arranger to the seasoned pro beset by intermittent impasse, this book might even forestall burnout for those who feel frustration at possibly being nearly written out.


  1. Salieri, Antonio Prima la musica—dopo le parole? revisited by Stephen Zweig and, ultimately, Clemens Krauss resulting in the collaboration with Richard Strauß on Capriccio. (1942)
  2. Tymoczko, Dmitri, "Geometry of Musical Chords" Science 7 July 2006 Vol. 313, pp. 72–74, posted at See also Michael D. Lemonick, "The Geometry of Music" Time, Vol. 169, Issue 6–5 Feb 2007, pg. 57, posted at,9171,1582330,00.html.
  3. Itzkoff, Dave "Steve Martin on Teaching You (and Himself) How to Be a Comedian" NY Times, 18 April 2017, posted at See also Hofstadter, Douglas R., et al. Human vs. Computer Creativity; Creation of jokes and humor [videorecording – VHS] (Stanford, CA., The Stanford Channel, 1998). Taped Nov. 21, 1997 through Spring 1998 as part of a series of symposia at Stanford University. Four presentations with questions and answers concerning computers and jokes. Douglas Hofstadter presents mathematical jokes, Kim Binsted discusses JAPE, a computer program she wrote for constructing puns, Marvin Minsky examines the nature of jokes and comedian Steve Martin provides reflections on humor.