The 5 most famous autodidact composers

If you are a musician, you probably agree that it’s hard to learn without a teacher. You need somebody to tell you when you’re making mistakes and how you can improve. Still, some people seem to just know by instinct. It almost seems like it’s their lack of formal training that makes them so good. Maybe it’s just that they think outside the box, or maybe they have to work harder than anyone else. This week, it’s our goal to list some of the most famous self-taught, i.e. autodidact composers!

Edward Elgar

Elgar took piano and violin lessons, but his father couldn’t afford to send him to the conservatory to study music and so he never got any additional training. Still, he is one of the most popular British composers of all time. Some of his music includes Salut d’amour and Pomp and Circumstance. 

Erik Satie

Even though Satie did go to the conservatory for a while, he was kicked out the first time. The second time, he decided to escape and join the military. His teachers described him as the laziest student they had and thought that he had no talent.

Heitor Villa-Lobos

Villa-Lobos’ mother didn’t want him to pursue music, which made him leave home early. He traveled around Brazil and learned composition by playing and listening to different kinds of folk music, as well as listening to the sounds of the Amazon. There are even stories of him surviving an encounter with cannibals, but it’s unclear if that really happened.

Anyway, he seemed to pick up a lot during his travels. He claimed that he had learned music from a bird in the jungles of Brazil, not from academies. These sources of inspiration are not hard to imagine when listening to Bachianas Brasileiras, for example.

Read more about Villa-Lobos here!

Amy Beach

The first famous female American composer, Amy Beach, was a true child prodigy. When she was a year old, she could sing 40 different songs. When she was four, she composed music even when she was at her grandfather’s, where there was no piano.

Amy took piano lessons and briefly studied harmony and counterpoint when she was 14. She was an amazing pianist and loved to perform. She learned more about composing by reading books and experimenting. When she was 18, she got married to a man who was 24 years older than her. He didn’t want her to study with a tutor, so that was the end of her training. He also didn’t find it suitable for a lady to perform, so she had to limit her performance to twice a year, and only participate in charity concerts. When her husband died, she made up for it by performing in Europe and teaching the piano.

Read more about Amy Beach here!

Arnold Schoenberg

Schoenberg never got any formal training. He only took some counterpoint lessons thanks to his friend, the composer Alexander von Zemlinsky, who later married his sister. It is likely that his lack of traditional musical education contributed to his experimentation with atonality and 12-tone music. If you don’t know much about the rules, it’s easier to break them!

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