Composer Q&A: Thomas Butler

Teaching Fellow in Composition, University of Edinburgh
Lecturer in Composition, Junior Royal Conservatoire of Scotland


What was your first musical memory? 

My mother singing Gershwin's Summertime to me at bedtime when I was very young.

What was your route into composing?

I started composing seriously when I studied music at university (before that I had been more into performance). I then studied composition at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland where I was given time and space to work closely with many accomplished instrumentalists.

Which composer do you wish you could have met – or could meet if they are still alive? 

Fausto Romitelli

What would you ask them?

I'd talk shop! I'd love to hear about how he blended instrumental sounds in some of his most famous works.

What do you wish you’d known about composing when you were 18 years old? 

That there are lots of ways to be a composer, and many contexts for being creative with sound. Creating music for ensembles to perform in concerts is just one way, and I wish I'd known more about sound art, sound design and electro-acoustic composition when I was much younger.  

What music do you like to listen to – that’s not work related? 

It depends what I'm doing: I generally listen to whatever's on Radio 6 Music when I'm cooking, and heavy metal when exercising. The problem is, I can't turn off the part of me that listens intently / analyses any music I hear, so perhaps it's all work-related! 

If you weren’t a musician, what might you have become? 

A train driver. 

What do you like to do when you’re not composing? 

I like hiking, sleeping in tents and swimming in lochs. 

Where do you get inspiration from? 

I'm mostly inspired by specific places, their history, their natural and built environments, and how you feel when you're there. 

What do you do when you’re stuck in a compositional rut? 

I've come to learn that the ups and downs of composition are normal and just part of the process. Some days are easy, others are hard. The trick is to not worry too much about the hard days – a good day is right around the corner!   

What are the most useful aspects of musical theory to understand/learn/help composition?

Music theory is a way to understand what your intuition is telling you. I still try to learn as much music theory as possible, but it stays in the subconscious part of my brain when I'm composing! 

What are your 5 top tips for young composers?

  1. There's no substitute for hearing your music played or sung by real people, so be practical and write for what's available. Writing music for your friends to play can be a great way of hearing your music (bribe them with cake if necessary!). 
  2. There's no right or wrong way to compose music – find out what works best for you and don't worry if it's different to how other composers work.
  3. Revise and edit your work. Don't be afraid of the “delete” key or eraser!
  4. When indicating a tempo or metronome mark, choose the slowest speed at which the music still sounds good (this is particularly true if you're using music notation software with playback).
  5. Composition is just listening in reverse. Be a good listener! 
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Tuesday 18 June, 6.36pm