How to Write a Music Method Book
Music educators write method books for many reasons. They may be unable to find the right text for their students, and thus create a resource that they would like to exist. They might have a new approach to something and want to create a resource for other music educators who may be struggling with the same concept. They might hope that publishing provides an additional income stream. They may want the “author” credential. Or, it’s their innate entrepreneurial spirit. These are all good reasons for writing.
In my work at Berklee Press, I have worked with over a hundred music educators who have decided to write. Most are first-time authors, and they seem to find similar challenges in the process. The most common mistake is in trying to make the books too complex—ideas enough for three or four books, rather than just one. There is often confusion regarding what the reader knows, and ideas are presented “out of order,” with complex concepts being presented prior to the simpler concepts that comprise them, which then requires back-pedaling to explain things. And first drafts are often overly wordy and wandering, as the author seems to be trying to figure out what to write next, and there may be redundancies and logical gaps in the explanations. In this article, I will present some strategies for overcoming these common frustrations, which I hope will make your process easier and your product better.
1. Working Titles
Begin by brainstorming title ideas. Come up with at least five and preferably twenty or more potential titles that encapsulate your subject. Be creative! Be silly! Try a title that is long-winded and academic, and then try writing one that is “hipper” than you feel comfortable being. Best of all, be precisely descriptive about your contents, so that a reader can tell at a glance what they are buying. Here are some potential title ideas that describe the same content, from different directions:
Scale Studies for Guitar: Technique for speed and intonation
Fire on the Fingerboard: Lightening-Fast Fingerings for Guitar
Finding Your Fingers: Building Fingerboard Facility through Scale Studies
Of course, you will use only one of these, at the most. The point is not necessarily to come up with the actual title. Rather, this process will help you to narrow your concept. Perhaps, the most common mistake that authors make is in trying to include too much content, particularly in their first books. Teachers bring me stacks of lecture notes—years worth—wanting to write enormous tomes about everything to do with their subject matter. But the most useful (and thus marketable) books are focused on just a small group of topics. So, get focused, and use your best working title as your north star—your guiding light. Try to arrive at three solid titles that you would feel comfortable with naming your book. Don’t forget subtitles! They can provide additional information. The goal is to describe your content in an inviting way. If you get a publisher, their marketing team will likely help you to hone the actual title.
If you are shopping your book to a publisher, the working title can actually be as important as your proposed content. With so many of the hundreds of thousands of music books in print, there is a lot of redundancy. I find that similar topics get presented at the same time by independent authors. Like the invention of the automobile, ideas seem to be “in the air,” and multiple people pick up on them at the same time. Publishers will be looking for fresh takes on the material—hooks to make the reader say, “I want this book about guitar scales, and not those other ones.” A good title can have profound influence on this, and given similar proposals, a publisher will likely lean towards the one with the sexier title.
Once you have your working title, articulate as much as you can about your intended readers. What do they know, before they pick up the book? Can they read music? What scales can they play? Be specific. Among the most difficult aspects of writing (and teaching) is in making sure that everything you say is comprehensible. If you say “Dorian is like natural minor without a flat 6,” and your reader doesn’t know what natural minor is, your reader will lose heart and put your book down. Not every book must start with the Big Bang, work its way through the dinosaurs, and finally arrive at the first caveman who banged two rocks together and invented rhythm. But the prerequisite knowledge should be keenly in the author’s mind, and perhaps articulated in an introduction or quickly reviewed in a preliminary “basics” section.
I imagine several types of readers, and often have specific people in mind, as I write. For this article, I imagined four readers, to represent the types of readers likely to want to write books about music. The first is like my childhood piano teacher. She was a nice lady, who had taught for many years. Her style was to be disciplined about technique, and to hold recitals with extremely elegant cookies at the reception, afterwards. She’d be looking for an overall approach to writing, with anecdotes to provide a human element.
My next imagined reader is my first composition teacher, a philosopher and an compleat musician, who likely knows more about this subject matter than I do, but will scan it anyway, looking for useful tips.
Third would be my grouchy, much trod-upon high-school band director, who was very practical, suffered no fools, admired military precision, and would shout when the BS got too deep. From this article, he would want an academically sound, assessable system that yields a predictable outcome. And he wants to make a few bucks doing it.
Fourth would be an electric bass teacher I know at Berklee. He’s a nuts and bolts hip cat, always close to the thrill and party of playing music. He wouldn’t have the foggiest idea of how to write a book, and would only want to do it if it was fun and helped him “spread the love” of music.
By keeping these readers in mind—these people who would be likely to read this—I can make sure that they are all well served. The nice lady piano teacher would not feel included if I wrote too much about guitar effects. My band director wants precise directions about how to do it, so I will minimize content about “expressing your feelings” here. In this material, my rock bass player is likely to be least comfortable with the subject matter, and he will be much on my mind when I’m trying to make sure that I’m explaining the process simply, with ample preparation. At the same time, I need to keep my sage composer/academic from getting bored. So, articulating these characters helps keep me from losing my intended readership.
Note that I didn’t mention music engravers here who want to fine-tune the way their notation appears. Much as I like those people, this article is not intended for them, and I won’t waste any space in accommodating their needs, here. To do so would be distracting from my primary audience, and I don’t want to do that. But I can recommend my online Finale course to them… or a number of books they might purchase…
With your audience articulated, it’s time to write a few sentences about the book. Fill in the blanks: “In this book, readers will learn to….” List five objectives the reader will accomplish.
In this article, readers learn to:
• focus their book concept
• address the needs of their readers
• organize their thoughts
• write an engaging, useful book
• overcome writer’s block
Think in terms of writing marketing text, to sell the book. What will your readers get? Why should they buy it? Don’t just list intended chapter titles. Frame this list in terms of benefits. It will become your constant assessment tool, throughout the writing process, to confirm that you’re covering your intended bases and not straying off topic.
The next step is to brainstorm a list of topics about your subject, whether you not you actually plan to discuss them in your book. The idea is to list everything necessary to do the tasks discussed in your book. Back to the book about guitar scales, you might list all scales you’d discuss, how to read notes and rhythms, how to tune a guitar, how to plug in an electric guitar, how to hold a pick—everything necessary and relevant to your subject. If they are going to be reading the scales, that means that they must know how to read traditional notation and it is a topic you should list. Take your time at this, and be complete. List topics even if you know that you are not going to actually teach them in your book. Knowing what’s needed will help you make sure that you are not losing your intended audience. Expect between 40 and 200 topics on this list. Less, and you should be more specific. More, and you will more likely be looking for a subset to actually include. More is better than less.
Once you have your list, put the topics into the right sequence. Find the topics' dependencies on one another, sorting out the chickens and eggs. Before you present the Dorian mode, your reader must know what a “mode” is. More subtly, you may want to present major and minor scales first, as it will be easier to define “Dorian” in terms of these known structures, rather than starting from scratch.
When your list is in sequence, look again at your objectives. Do your topics support your bullets? If not, brainstorm and sequence some more. Are some topics beyond the scope of your bullets? Lightly cross them out; they are probably for a different book. Alternatively, update your objectives, if you are absolutely certain that the book would be improved by doing this. In this process, you will come up with a complete list of relevant, focused topics.
With your sequence of topics in order, scan the list, and look for logical groupings of ideas. Name these groups, if possible. This could reveal to you your table of contents. Likely, you will omit some of the topics particularly at the list’s beginning and end. Again, these could go in a different book.
Then take a step back and admire your table of contents. It should be magnificent! The topics will be a complete rendering of your overall concept, in an order that flows naturally and intuitively. Your readers will be engaged because you are taking care of them so well. Your path will seem inevitable and correct.
This table of contents will be your roadmap and meditation, as you write your chapters.
8. Chapter Structure
When you know what you are going to write about, you are ready to figure out the format for each chapter. Chapter structure will depend on your content. Recurring chapter designs are often useful for books about technique, such as the book about guitar scales. Every chapter (or “lesson”) may conform to a similar structure. Every chapter in the guitar scale book, for example, might begin with an explanatory section in which a scale is presented, with suggested fingerings. Then there might follow a series of exercises. Finally, you might present an “etude,” in which the scale is used in a musical context. This is a common “template” for books about music technique: Theory, Practice, and Performance. Look at the music books on your bookshelves, and see if there are any such approaches that seem to work well. Web sites such as Berkleeshares.com offer free excerpts from many music books, and they are also a great resource for ideas about how to structure your own books.
If your book more text-based, rather than teaching physical techniques, you might still have some recurring structural elements. Chapters might begin with short conceptual introductions. They might end with “workshops” or “projects,” in which the reader can put the ideas to work. Generally, chapter lengths should be roughly consistent. About twelve to twenty pages is usually a good length for a chapter. Shorter, and the book can seem fragmented, though this certainly works well for some topics. Longer, and it can seem endless, and your reader might have a hard time digesting the material. Figure that after each chapter, the reader will put down the book, take a rest, and try to assimilate what they have just learned. Try to balance the length of your chapters, and don’t vary their length by more than 100% or so unless you are certain that it’s necessary.
In this way, your book will have a consistent rhythm. It will seem deliberately crafted, and in a way that makes your reader feel that you are looking out for their interests, and doing all that you can to help them understand your content.
With your table of contents and your chapter structure figured out, you will have a plan for your book, which you can then fill in with examples, explanations, and instructions. Don’t stray too far, and only modify the structures you’ve designed if you are certain that you are improving the book by doing so.
All this planning will help you stay on track, crafting content that is in support of your best ideas. You will find that “writers’ block” won’t hold you back because there is no longer a blank page to fill. Your structure will propel you forward, as topical suggestions are in front of you, which you know are in good service to your higher intentions.
You are then ready to write!
Jonathan Feist is the series editor of The Berklee Practice Method, co-author of its Teacher’s Guide, and editor of over 100 other books and online courses about music, technology, business, and culture. He teaches music online at Berkleemusic.com and presents seminars about writing. Jonathan holds bachelor's and master's degrees in composition from New England Conservatory of Music. He is Managing Editor of Berklee Press.