Review: Musical Doodles (Paul Harris)

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Instrumental teachers have long lamented the lack of books and resources for teaching composition. I can understand this, but I also know from experience, that teaching composition is far from easy. As a composer myself, explaining and putting into words the composition process is hard. I remember once replying to a message on an online forum from a teacher asking about resources for teaching composition. She duly ordered the book I mentioned, and when it arrived, complained bitterly it wasn’t at all what she wanted. If anyone asked me again, then I would wholeheartedly recommend Paul Harris’s Musical Doodles.

Published by Faber Music, it’s not a book explicitly about composition, or about teaching composition, but rather it’s designed to offer a mechanism by which anyone can explore writing their own music. Above all, it’s a book about having fun!

Quavery bird song

I really like Paul’s writing on the back cover as I think this is such a great philosophy when it comes to starting out composing:

“This book is a technical-term-free zone, so don’t expect to find labels for complicated ornaments, chords or harmony. There are no rules. Composing music is an entirely natural form of human expression: just have fun!”

At a time when instrumental teachers are being encouraged to develop all-round musicianship and skills, Musical Doodles is a great resource to aid the exploration of composition.

Review: Musical Doodles (Paul Harris)

In some ways, I hesitate to use the word ‘composition’ because ‘exploring and writing music’ feels far more in keeping with philosophy behind Musical Doodles. The A4 landscape book offers a framework around which anyone can explore writing their own music. It’s not a method book and it’s not a theory book. Neither of those are its intention. It’s not divided into nice neat little chapters and sections, but rather, offers a journey of exploration in itself.

Paul offers a variety of suggestions for getting started exploring writing music. The first suggestion titled ‘probably your first piece ever’ encourages students to write a tune which follows the contours of a landscape, thinking about whether you might be walking or skipping up or down the hills.

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Paul explores familiar sounds such as birdsong, and ideas such as writing your name in rhythm. Emotion, character, shape and texture are all covered, not in technical or theoretical terms, but in consideration of musical ideas and exploration. There is ample space for development of ideas, not just in musical form, but focusing on shapes and graphics too.

Review: Musical Doodles (Paul Harris)

If you’re looking for a book which progresses in a clear and logical way, this might not be for you. Yes, it can be used in that way, but in some ways, that’s not really how composition works. We all bounce between different ideas at different times, and depending what mood we’re in. You could absolutely follow this book page by page, but you could also dip in and out, and still gain much from it.

Is it for children or adults? I suspect it’s aimed at children, but I see no reason why adults couldn’t use it too. It is certainly not infantile or condescending, and indeed, the lovely inventive illustrations are by Bill Jones whose work regularly features in Private Eye magazine.

You can find some sample pages from Musical Doodles on the Faber Music website here.

Musical conversations

It’s really hard to describe Musical Doodles in writing. You have to see it to really understand what it’s about. At its heart is a sense of exploration, that through experimentation, anyone can develop and write down musical ideas which, in time, can be expanded into longer compositions. It’s full of great and down-to-earth advice about exploring writing music. Paul has well over 600 publications to his name, so he does know a thing or two about writing music! What appealed most to me about this book is its sense of fun. Yes, amongst other things, it’s about taking pencil to paper, and that is a discipline in itself, but above all, it’s about having fun with music, whatever age and whatever level your expertise. I’ll leave Paul with the last word:

“This book invites you to enjoy and have fun with the process of writing music down!”

I wholeheartedly encourage you, whatever age, whatever level, and whether you’re a teacher or student, to take up Paul’s invitation.

Musical Doodles by Paul Harris, is published by Faber Music, ISBN 9780571542666, RRP £14.99.

I was sent a review copy of this book free of charge; however, this review is my honest opinion as a teacher. You can find my Reviews Policy here.

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