Composition 101: Preparing to Enter a Composition Contest

Advice for Young Composers Considering Entering Composition Contests

“Nothing ventured, nothing gained.”

By Andrew F. Poor, D.M.E.

Past Southern Division Representative, National Council for Music Composition

composition | DragonImages


Recently, there has been a proliferation of composition contests in an effort to encourage a new generation of composers. 

As a young composer, should you consider submitting one of your compositions to a composition contest? YES!

It does take some courage to submit your work, but having your work reviewed, and possibly recognized, could be a life-altering experience. To quote Ben Franklin, “Nothing ventured, nothing gained.” As a composer and music educator, I have had the privilege of both mentoring young composers and evaluating compositions for composition contests.

Encourage your students to enter the NAfME Student Composers Competition this spring.


Here are my “Top 10” recommendations for a successful submission process:


tmcnem | iStock | Thinkstock


 Does it fit?

 Caution: “The MIDI Muddle!”

  • With the ease of access to MIDI and sequencing programs, young composers can easily be drawn into, “The MIDI Muddle”, and overwrite their music.
  • The MIDI makes it sound exciting but, with too many layers in your music, your music may lack clarity, which impacts the overall aesthetic of your work.

Only the Best!

  • If you are submitting a live recording, ask yourself, “Does this recording truly bring my music to life?”
  • If the answer is, “No!” Do not submit that recording.
  • Unless a live recording is required, submit the MIDI.

Less is more…

  • Try to work within a smaller musical scope for your composition.
  • This allows you to focus on details, clarity of musical intent and the overall quality of your composition. Be sure to meet any minimum time requirements.
  • Here is a company that specializes in chamber music for some great models

Details Matter!

  • Take the time to make your score look professional. Be sure to add musical markings, articulations and style markings consistently throughout the composition.
  • Look for items, such as, score order, staff groupings, spacing, labeling of parts etc….
  • Find a reference model for the type of ensemble (band, orchestra, chorus, piano etc…) used in your composition.

Can you play that?

  • Orchestration is a complicated subject. The topic involves understanding: timbres, range, technical considerations, spacing of voices, balance, acoustics etc….
  • Beware: the MIDI playback and live playback are different. A MIDI can play repeating lines with absolute accuracy; a human might be less consistent performing 20 measures of high B. Also, some extremely complex rhythms, i.e., 10 vs. 7, are performed mathematically correct by the computer, while musicians may find this type of challenge unnecessarily difficult.
  • Ask for help and find a model for the sound you want.
  • Here is a user-friendly video with some additional tips (Goss, 2010)
  • Again, consider a work with fewer instruments, such as, quintets, quartets or piano.
  • A good introduction to orchestration for wind band was written by Frank Erickson, entitled, Arranging for Concert Band, (Erickson, 1983)
  • Here is a brief PDF on getting started arranging for strings (Corozine, 2015)
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Counterpoint from J.S. Bach’s Well Tempered Clavier Book 1, Fugue #17, in A-flat Major.


Melody and Harmony and Counterpoint, Oh My!

  • While contemporary composers such as, John Adams and John Corigliano, have expanded the meaning of tonality, harmony and counterpoint, young composers should have an understanding of these techniques.
  • Our Western art music tonal vocabulary has evolved over centuries. A solid foundation of these musical elements will strengthen your work.
  • Here is a great video with user-friendly tips on melody writing (Williams, 2008)
  • I highly recommend, Counterpoint: Based on Eighteenth-century Practice by Kent Kennan, (Kennan, 1999)
  • And Tonal Harmony by Kostka and Payne, (Kostka & Paine, 2003)
Rawpixel Ltd | iStock | Thinkstock


Got Form?

  • I recommend that young composers become more aware of common musical forms (Binary, Ternary, Rondo, Sonata-Allegro, Theme-Variations etc…) and consider utilizing these conventions.
  • Your work needs some musical structure.
  • Form is the balance between new, varied and familiar musical material. Too much new material is overwhelming/ lacks direction. Too much familiar/repeated material is redundant/ boring.
  • I recommend, Form in Tonal Music by Douglas Green as a good resource, (Green, 1979)


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Two heads are better than one, and three are even better

  • Share your work with musicians who can provide you constructive feedback on your work.
  • Your work will be stronger from this collaborative process.
  • NAfME has an archived forum addressing composition questions. And start a conversation with fellow music educators today on Amplify, the online forum for NAfME members.

Take the leap!





Meet the Author:

andy poor headshotAndrew F. Poor, D.M.E., is currently the Director of Bands at South Forsyth Middle School in Cumming, Georgia, and is on the part-time music education faculty at Columbus State University, Columbus, Georgia. He is an active composer with works appearing in the catalogs of C.L. Barnhouse, Northeastern Music Publications and Eighth Note Publications. Dr. Poor currently serves as the Southern Division representative on the NAfME National Council for Music Composition.

Works Cited

Corozine, V. (2015, January 25). Vince Corozine Music. 

Erickson, F. (1983). Arranging for Concert Band. Van Nuys, CA: Alfred Publishing CO, Inc. .

Goss, T. (2010, March 10). Orchestration Online

Green, D. (1979). Form in Tonal Music: An Introduction to Analysis Second Edition. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston.

Kennan, K. (1999). Counterpoint, Based on Eightteenth century Practice Third Edition. Englewoods Cliff: Prentice Hall.

Kostka, S., & Paine, D. (2003). Tonal Harmony, with an Introduction to 20th Century Music Fifth Edition. New York: McGraw-Hill Humanities/Social Sciences/Languages.

Psathas, J. (2012, May 22). ChamberMusicNZ

Williams, J. (2008, September 10). SongwritingSecrets


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