Exercises from Composing Music: A New Approach

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I used to write music when I was a kid. Now, many years later, I've come back to it, inspired by participating in my church's worship ministry. Based on recommendations from the r/composer subreddit, I've chosen William Russo's Composing Music: A New Approach (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1983) as a way to wade back in and develop my skills.

On this set of pages I'll link to my uploaded exercises and write some observations. There are 191 exercises, so I'm splitting the list into separate pages by chapter.

I'm only uploading exercises that involve composition. The ones I skip are simple, rote exercises meant to teach a specific mechanic, such as notating chords based on their symbols.

I'm tracking my progress through the exercises on this spreadsheet.

General rules

The book's approach is to give each exercise restrictive rules so you can focus on the specific musical resources the exercise is teaching. There are additional rules that apply to all the exercises (pp. 1-3). Here's my summary of those:

  1. Prepare to concentrate on the exercise.
  2. Compose by singing. This will train your inner ear.
  3. Start and end melody-only exercises on the tonic in the same octave. Start a melody with harmony or accompaniment on any tone, and end it on a tonic below the starting tone. This will shape your melodies and help you stay in one key.
  4. Use intervals of mainly 2nds and 3rds. Singing is the origin of all melody, and this rule will make your melodies easier to sing.
  5. Write for instruments you can play and have access to. This will keep your music playable and give you the excitement of hearing your music performed.
  6. Write for string or wind instruments. These can play simple melodies more expressively than the piano. In most cases you may write harmonies or accompaniment for piano or guitar.
  7. Include tempo, dynamics, and articulation. These complete the music and make it ready to perform.
  8. Give the exercise a descriptive title if it's longer than six measures. This will give the piece life and unify its mood for the performer and the listener.
  9. Rhythm rules:
    1. Use a 4/4 or 3/4 meter for most exercises.
    2. Use only what Russo calls the Basic Note Values: half note, quarter, pairs of eighth notes (no eighths or rest following), sets of four sixteenths (no sixteenths or rest following), quarter rests in groups of one or two. This rule will reduce the beginner's risk of trouble.
    3. Use only two or three rhythms in an exercise.
    4. On rarer occasions you may use 5/4 or 7/4. Group the beats of 5/4 meter into patterns of 2 + 3 or 3 + 2, and use only one pattern in an exercise, though the rhythms within the pattern may vary. Similarly, for 7/4 choose a pattern of 3 + 4 or 4 + 3.
    5. Don't use ties. (p. 12)
  10. Use notes and other musical elements sparingly, and include rests. Restraint and silence contribute to the music.

To give myself targets for exercise length, as a rule of thumb I'm treating each staff line as four measures. So if Russo provides three lines for an exercise, I write 12 measures for that exercise.


  • Chapter 1: The Cell, The Row, and Some Scales
  • Chapter 2: Harmony (I)
  • Chapter 3: Transformation
  • Chapter 4: The Small Theme and the Large Theme
  • Chapter 5: More Scales and the 12-tone Row
  • Chapter 6: Isomelody and Isorhythm, Combined
  • Chapter 7: Ostinato
  • Chapter 8: Accompaniment Procedures
  • Chapter 9: Harmony (II)
  • Chapter 10: Counterpoint
  • Chapter 11: Organum
  • Chapter 12: Imitation: a Useful Game
  • Chapter 13: Words and Music
  • Chapter 14: Picture Music
  • Chapter 15: Popular Music as a Source
  • Chapter 16: Minimalism