I think the number one problem players without much knowledge of music have is thinking that good music questions need to include music theory or score clues. If you don't know any music theory or can't read a score, then you'll have no idea what makes for a good, unique, memorable theory or score clue. If you can't look at a score and figure out what aspects of a piece are unique or memorable, then I advise against trying to use clues straight from the score. Similarly, if you don't understand Spanish, you wouldn't try to guess that some lines of Don Quixote you don't understand happen to be memorable clues; instead, you'd try to select clues you do understand.
So if you don't understand music theory and can't read a score, what can you do? Luckily, there are many possibilities.
Instrumentation: Every piece of music uses at least one instrument. Sometimes, the instruments are unusual, and therefore memorable. For instance, some instruments are fairly rare; not many canonical pieces use a glockenspiel or a saxophone. Other times, instrumentation is unusual for deviating from established formulas. This takes a little more research, but let's say you find out that a standard Classical-period orchestra uses two oboes. However, you find a Classical-period symphony that uses three oboes (this is all made up from the top of my head). This could be a good clue! If a piece has an unusual number or arrangement of instruments for its time, then something like "Unusually for a Classical symphony, this piece includes three oboes" might be a good clue. Obviously, this requires looking up a little bit of the history of music and learning what instrumentation was standard in each period, but I think that's a lot easier to look up than trying to decipher a score.
Solos: Some pieces have really memorable solos. When listening to an orchestral work, it can be really tough to isolate specific instruments if many are playing at once. However, it's much easier to figure out which instrument is playing a solo. Sometimes when I'm not familiar with a piece of music, I go to YouTube and type in "[name of piece] solo" and see what comes up frequently. If something has a ton of hits, it might be a significant solo. Program notes are also a good source for this information. Once you've found a solo you think is memorable/significant, it's important to add context. When does the solo play? Does it represent any theme/character or quote any other piece of music? Is it a notoriously difficult solo? Is it played in an unusual style? Does it dramatically shift keys from the previous music? Is it truly a solo, or do any other instruments play during it? All of these questions can help you craft a memorable clue.
Musical quotations: Sometimes, when reading program notes, you'll be told that a piece of music quotes another piece. These can be good clues! As before, context is important. Why is this piece being quoted? There's usually some reason; Tchaikovsky doesn't quote La Marseillaise in the 1812 Overture just because he liked how it sounds. Is it a recurring quotation? Does it come from another piece of classical music, or is it a folk song? Are there words? If so, what do the words mean? When I'm trying to write a tossup, and I find a quotation clue, I like to look up the piece being quoted and listen to it, then listen to the original piece and try to find the quotation. This can dovetail with the above two points: is the quotation played by unusual instruments or a solo?
Performers/performances: Sometimes, performers are renowned for performing certain composers. Did a performer premiere a work? Was it written for him or her? Did he or she give a renowned concert featuring it? If you're not sure whether a performance or premiere was historic, I again advise you to look up program notes. In Google, I usually type in "[name of piece] program notes" and look for webpages of major orchestras. If you keep finding a particular premiere or performer mentioned, then odds are, that's a memorable clue! It's important again to remember that context is key. One performer may have premiered many works; when was this premiered? Was it a special occasion? Did it take place at an unusual location?
Genres of music: Particular genres or types of music are prominent in classical music. For instance, waltzes became popular in a specific historical time period and context and are almost always in 3/4 time. Does this piece include or quote a particular style or dance? Is the time signature or instrumentation unusual for that style or dance? If a piece includes a waltz in 7/4 time (as a hypothetical), that could make a good clue.
As an aside, I've mentioned key changes and time signatures so far. However, I understand that many people don't have the knowledge to tell what key or time signature a piece is in. If you think you've found a good key/time signature clue, but you aren't sure, I recommend asking someone who knows more about music. If you can't find one, you should either do enough research until you're confident your clue is memorable, or select a different clue.
Finally, here's an example. For last year's ACF Nationals, I wrote this tossup:
To go line by line:12. This instrument shares a solo with an English horn over soft strings in Aaron Copland’s Quiet City. Three of these instruments introduce the song “We have built a stately house” in Brahms’ Academic Festival Overture. The second movement of Respighi’s Pines of Rome features an offstage solo for this instrument, which uses the high clarino register in J. S. Bach’s second Brandenburg concerto, where it plays the opening solo of the third movement. In a composition by Charles Ives, this instrument poses The Unanswered Question. The funeral march that opens Mahler’s fifth symphony begins with a solo for this instrument. Joseph Haydn wrote an E flat major concerto for this instrument, which is played by Wynton Marsalis. For 10 points, name this brass instrument for which Jeremiah Clarke composed a “voluntary.”
Trumpets are everywhere in classical music, so I knew I'd have a ton of possible clues to use. I started with a clue about a shared solo from a piece that's in the repertoire, but not really famous. If you've heard this piece, you should have an idea about what the other solo instrument is from this leadin.This instrument shares a solo with an English horn over soft strings in Aaron Copland’s Quiet City.
Here's a clue combining instrumentation with a quotation. Someone who is really familiar with the Academic Festival Overture is likely to know what this sounds like.Three of these instruments introduce the song “We have built a stately house” in Brahms’ Academic Festival Overture.
Another solo clue, combined with an unusual location and a specific movement to let players trigger a memory.The second movement of Respighi’s Pines of Rome features an offstage solo for this instrument,
This is a technique clue I discovered in my research. Someone who knows what the second Brandenburg concerto sounds like has an advantage here.which uses the high clarino register in J. S. Bach’s second Brandenburg concerto,
And now, more context about the second Brandenburg concerto's use of the trumpet. I considered this solo more famous than the one in Pines of Rome, but less famous than the upcoming clues.where it plays the opening solo of the third movement.
If you've listened to The Unanswered Question, the specific instrumentation is extremely clear. If you don't know which instruments question and which answer, you're at a disadvantage.In a composition by Charles Ives, this instrument poses The Unanswered Question.
This is a really famous and prominent solo; I made sure to give the context of a funeral march and the position of the solo in the music (at the beginning, in this case) to make this unambiguous.The funeral march that opens Mahler’s fifth symphony begins with a solo for this instrument.
A famous performer of the trumpet. I would imagine many buzzes here if not already.which is played by Wynton Marsalis.
Really narrowing it down at the end here to help people with very little knowledge.For 10 points, name this brass instrument
Ending with a very famous piece of music with "trumpet" in the title. Probably not the very easiest clue in the world, but I imagine this is a giveaway for a majority of teams at Nationals.for which Jeremiah Clarke composed a “voluntary.”
Note that all of these clues are specific and contextual. To write this question, I wrote down some famous trumpet clues I knew already (Marsalis, the Trumpet Voluntary, the Mahler 5 clue) and started looking up trumpet solos, where I found many of these other clues. I don't think this is a perfect tossup, but I think it's filled with useful and buzzable clues that won't frustrate players with musical knowledge, and I hope this post helps some of you write solid, non-frustrating tossups going forward.