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Composing - what does your process look like?

Rodney Money

On V.I. avoiding work.
I compose in a way that I believe little to no one else does, or I couldn’t teach someone how to write this way. But I literally compose everything in my head first from start to finish then go to staff paper to write out the basic themes and structures, then straight into Finale for live players or into a DAW for electronic fixed media simply trying to capture the sound in which I hear within my head. For extremely virtuosic music written for live professionals with complicated runs I will often write down the rhythms first then “find” the notes. Lastly, I will take an “acoustic” instrument to figure out correct flow and ornamentation. For pieces with 3 or 4 part harmony I don’t even need to hear it simply writing the melody first, then the bass, and lastly writing in the inner lines which are my favorite. Mozart wrote in this way also (EDIT for those reading: concerning his homophony writing.)

If I am writing just for DAW then it’s not uncommon for me to have most of the composition written out. Then I will try to play in everything live keeping the natural human aspect. Next I will improvise lines using expressive sampled instruments or live instruments playing whatever feels right often discovering countermelodies and if it fits it stays even if “the math” doesn’t make any sense. Lastly I will add percussion if needed for accents, drive, and ambience. Also if I am writing solely for DAW without the intent of live performances, I will add noises just for texture and feel even if the ear doesn’t notice it. I will also commission other sound designers, musicians, or even actors if I need a certain sound, ambience, or even spoken text to enhance the composition to match the audible sound with what I’m hearing on the inside.
 
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Parsifal666

I don't even own a DAW, I'm just a troll.
Try not to smoke pot during any of the actual composition process...

or you could be maestro Brian Wilson and write a set of masterpieces completely under the influence:


 
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gregh

Senior Member
I never really noodle around or muck about til something comes up. I always have an idea for what I want and a way (or ways) to get that. I spent years playing improv from rock jams as a kid to free jazz to noise and so on. I never felt the urge to record any of that once past about 18 - in fact I was against recording improv - and I think that attitude stays with me so noodling about is not really on the cards.
I don't make the orchestral and commercial music a lot of people do here, but if I were to do so I would probably work from a fairly complete idea in my head (like Rodney Money but without the skill). That just seems a lot quicker to me
 

Parsifal666

I don't even own a DAW, I'm just a troll.
Sometimes things come out of accidents, noodling, seeing a great movie or hearing something amazing.

The thing is, I get up every morning at 4 am (cd player and headphones on while I eat ;) )and begin work at 4:45 until around 10 am on an average day. If there's a commission I each lunch at 10 and then go back to work until 3 pm, getting a couple of hours after supper as well.

Now that's every morning, so when I get up I'm writing and/or editing. I take a day off maybe three times a year.

This morning is a good example: I didn't have a commission or anything in mind, so I listened to Goldsmith's Legend while I ate my Lucky Charms and really liked a combination he made with high flute and lower-range EH, so that was what started my day; just thinking up a melody to use that combination on. From there I went back and did extensive editing and reorchestration of my fourth (crappy) Symphony, which ended up taking most of the morning and day (I was very motivated today and worked longer).

I'm just a journeyman composer, but it's my firm belief that writing every day makes you better in at least some way every day.

Or maybe I should lower my Prozac dosage.
 
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TheKRock

Member
  1. Procrastinate.
  2. Procrastinate some more.
  3. Hit YouTube/iTunes/Anything for an idea.
  4. Go nuts making a very rough version of the track.
  5. Tidy it up.
  6. Mix it.
  7. Doubt everything I did between steps 4-6.
  8. Go "shopping" on the internet for new libraries/tools to fix self loathing.
  9. Create a "better" mix from scratch, only to find out it sounds exactly the same as the first one.
  10. Repeat steps 7 - 9.
  11. Eventually break of out loop as deadline or patience limit is reached.
Bahahahahaha!!! I could have written that!
 

jbuhler

Senior Member
my fourth (crappy) Symphony
You've just now endowed it with its subtitle: Symphony No. 4, "The Crappy."

I agree with the compose every day routine, which is also how I write prose, though for parts of the year I can't stick to it due to other obligations. But I usually try to steal an hour or two at the end of days I can't otherwise compose to at least noodle about and work out a short piece even if I don't write it down or commit it to the DAW.
 

studiostuff

Active Member
No disrespect to the process of those who compose every day. But until a contract is signed, I'm hiking, skiing, trying to be available to my family and friends... and definitely not worrying about process, or deadlines, or my competition.

When my clients want me to get serious about a project, they let me know, and then I start...

I'm motivated by a serious deadline, and the inspiring work of the folks I work with.

I really believe we can take ourselves and our work a little too seriously. I bank on the theory that living this way makes me a better composter. So far, so good.
 

TomislavEP

Member
1) Long period of procrastination and escapism
2) A moment of happiness and diversion
3) Quickly capturing an idea or a motif
4) If a whole piece forms all of the sudden, record a solo piano track in a DAW
5) MIDI editing of a performance to a detail
6) Bashing my head on what other sounds and instruments to add if not doing only a solo piano piece
7) Always returning to certain favorite sounds and Kontakt libraries, but hoping to finally take the advantage of those I haven't yet touched
8) Coming up with the arrangement, additional orchestration or other elements
9) MIDI editing of every additional track
10) Drawing / cleaning of the automation data
11) Listening and adding FX here and there
12) Mixing and "mastering", according to my abilities

Actually, I'm trying to delude myself a bit by doing this list, as this process is unfortunately often much more chaotic. But I always strive toward the steps I've described. I should also mention that for the time being, I compose primarily for my own purposes and rarely work on projects that include a strict deadline.
 

Parsifal666

I don't even own a DAW, I'm just a troll.
You've just now endowed it with its subtitle: Symphony No. 4, "The Crappy."

I agree with the compose every day routine, which is also how I write prose, though for parts of the year I can't stick to it due to other obligations. But I usually try to steal an hour or two at the end of days I can't otherwise compose to at least noodle about and work out a short piece even if I don't write it down or commit it to the DAW.

:) :) :)

Your method is what I call the "staggered" approach, getting in quality time when you can and really being "there" when it is time.
 

muk

Senior Member
Mozart wrote in this way also.
Tangent on Mozart:
****************

No he didn't. Mozart wrote at the piano, with paper and pencil. He laboured extensively over every detail, and his sketches are littered with discarded attempts and corrections. The myth that Mozart invented everything in his head first, and then simply wrote everything down perfectly, is nonsense. It goes hand in hand with the stylization of the person Mozart as the rebell genius in the movie 'Amadeus'. (A brilliant movie, by the way. But as factually incorrect on almost everything it depicts as it could be. That doesn't diminish its cinematic value one bit. It just makes it a completely untrustworthy source on the life and work of Mozart.) It could not be further from the truth. Mozart was a hard labourer, an extensive sketcher.

You think Mozart wrote his 'Jupiter' symphony sitting in a room, looking out the window for a few days? Then picking up a pencil and just writing the whole thing down start to finish? It's a touching fairy tale. It's also completely ridiculous. The only thing he ever wrote completely in his head were very short and simple piano pieces. And his fabulous improvisations. They must have been impressive to experience. Yet an improvisation is not a finished piece. Not for Mozart, not for anybody. Whenever writing a piece, Mozart took to paper and pencil, and extensive sketching. Just like every other composer in history before the invention of the computer.

The theory that Mozart composed exclusively in his head arose from the fact that none of his sketches had been known at that time. But that fact does not justify the conclusion. (Similarly, Beethoven's reputation as a hard working composer was derived from the fact that several thousand of pages with his sketches survive. And here, the conclusion is apt).

For Brahms, almost no sketches are known. Does that mean that he composed in his head? No. It means that he meticulously burned all his sketches, because he didn't want anybody to see them. Luckily for us, he handed some of the sketches to his housekeeper with the instruction to burn them. His housekeeper was clever and insubordinate enough to keep them in a safe place, because she must have guessed the cultural significance of these sketches.

For Mozart, some of his sketches have emerged over the last few decades. And they paint a completely different picture of his composition process. Not a sign of having worked out everything in detail in his head. Quite the opposite. Namely they show the labourious, strenuous, arduous, process and the often misdirected attempts that stood behind his creations.

***********
Tangent end

What does that mean in the context of this thread?

Ultimately your writing process doesn't matter one bit for anybody but yourself. Experiment, try to find out what works best for you. You will find techniques that help you to write fast. Most likely the quality of the end product will suffer from writing fast. You'll find other techniques that will help you write the best music you are capable of. Most likely this will be a slow, arduous process. After a while you will know what works for you in any specific situation, and choose your writing process according to what you are trying to achieve, and the amount of time you can/want invest into a piece. In the end, it's the written music that counts. If that is great, no one is going to care if it was written on an ocarina, whistled into your ear by a dove while you were asleep, using a computer or whatever tool you deem helpful. It's the end result that counts.
 

mikeh-375

old school
I compose in a way that I believe no one else does, or I couldn’t teach someone how to write this way. But I literally compose everything in my head first from start to finish then go to staff paper to write out the basic themes and structures, then straight into Finale for live players or into a DAW for electronic fixed media simply trying to capture the sound in which I hear within my head. For extremely virtuosic music written for live professionals with complicated runs I will often write down the rhythms first then “find” the notes.
Do you have perfect pitch?
Your method isn't that unique Rodney, I too can hear inside although I do need the physical sound at times and I suspect there are more around who have the same facility (I knew several at my Alma mater). I too have also on occasion created a rhythmic map and I'd recommend that to help focus on longer stretches of linear time and form. A typical map over many bars can help establish good symmetry without writing a single note and one can then also plot dynamics, tempo change etc. In media I sometimes found it useful too, mapping sync points to tempo/rubato before writing.
 
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Rodney Money

On V.I. avoiding work.
Tangent on Mozart:
****************

No he didn't. Mozart wrote at the piano, with paper and pencil. He laboured extensively over every detail, and his sketches are littered with discarded attempts and corrections. The myth that Mozart invented everything in his head first, and then simply wrote everything down perfectly, is nonsense. It goes hand in hand with the stylization of the person Mozart as the rebell genius in the movie 'Amadeus'. (A brilliant movie, by the way. But as factually incorrect on almost everything it depicts as it could be. That doesn't diminish its cinematic value one bit. It just makes it a completely untrustworthy source on the life and work of Mozart.) It could not be further from the truth. Mozart was a hard labourer, an extensive sketcher.

You think Mozart wrote his 'Jupiter' symphony sitting in a room, looking out the window for a few days? Then picking up a pencil and just writing the whole thing down start to finish? It's a touching fairy tale. It's also completely ridiculous. The only thing he ever wrote completely in his head were very short and simple piano pieces. And his fabulous improvisations. They must have been impressive to experience. Yet an improvisation is not a finished piece. Not for Mozart, not for anybody. Whenever writing a piece, Mozart took to paper and pencil, and extensive sketching. Just like every other composer in history before the invention of the computer.

The theory that Mozart composed exclusively in his head arose from the fact that none of his sketches had been known at that time. But that fact does not justify the conclusion. (Similarly, Beethoven's reputation as a hard working composer was derived from the fact that several thousand of pages with his sketches survive. And here, the conclusion is apt).

For Brahms, almost no sketches are known. Does that mean that he composed in his head? No. It means that he meticulously burned all his sketches, because he didn't want anybody to see them. Luckily for us, he handed some of the sketches to his housekeeper with the instruction to burn them. His housekeeper was clever and insubordinate enough to keep them in a safe place, because she must have guessed the cultural significance of these sketches.

For Mozart, some of his sketches have emerged over the last few decades. And they paint a completely different picture of his composition process. Not a sign of having worked out everything in detail in his head. Quite the opposite. Namely they show the labourious, strenuous, arduous, process and the often misdirected attempts that stood behind his creations.

***********
Tangent end

What does that mean in the context of this thread?

Ultimately your writing process doesn't matter one bit for anybody but yourself. Experiment, try to find out what works best for you. You will find techniques that help you to write fast. Most likely the quality of the end product will suffer from writing fast. You'll find other techniques that will help you write the best music you are capable of. Most likely this will be a slow, arduous process. After a while you will know what works for you in any specific situation, and choose your writing process according to what you are trying to achieve, and the amount of time you can/want invest into a piece. In the end, it's the written music that counts. If that is great, no one is going to care if it was written on an ocarina, whistled into your ear by a dove while you were asleep, using a computer or whatever tool you deem helpful. It's the end result that counts.
I was talking about how he would write the melody, then the bass, then the inner lines, not just writing down music without any work whatsoever. Studies about the changes of his ink confirmed this.
 
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Rodney Money

On V.I. avoiding work.
Do you have perfect pitch?
Your method isn't that unique Rodney, I too can hear inside although I do need the physical sound at times and I suspect there are more around who have the same facility (I knew several at my Alma mater). I too have also on occasion created a rhythmic map and I'd recommend that to help focus on longer stretches of linear time and form. A typical map over many bars can help establish good symmetry without writing a single note and one can then also plot dynamics, tempo change etc. In media I sometimes found it useful too, mapping sync points to tempo/rubato before writing.
So your saying without me writing a single note in Finale or a DAW me composing the entire piece in my head from start to finish isn’t unique? I’m not talking about hearing music in my head is unique.
 

mikeh-375

old school
Oh I missed the subtlety there. So is it perfect pitch and a great memory? (he asks in a jealous way).
How long a piece are we talking about? Britten could rattle off about 12 pages of score a day and rarely touch the piano according to Holst's daughter.
I don't think it is unique as such though, there was a guy (composer) at RAM who could do just about everything from hearing and writing in his head to sight reading massive scores on the piano....jealous again :-(
 
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Ned Bouhalassa

Senior Member
When writing to image: low-volume pad/drone to anchor the key, set a little mood. Choose a few characterful instruments. Move on to writing a melodic line, or a set of chord changes, or a beat. Work on it until I get stuck. Take a break. Move to another piece, and do the same steps. Next day, I reopen the unfinished pieces, with a fresh perspective, finding them to be less of a puzzle than I remembered. Finalize and bounce.

When writing my personal stuff: get in the right ‘mood’, turn on the modular goodies, other synths and/or drum machine. Get lost in the best way possible. Forget to record. Turn everything off.
 

BezO

The Artisan
I believe my method is called Groove Up writing. I almost never have an idea when I go to write. No matter the genre, I almost always...

Lay down some drums/percussion
Start writing with a bass instrument

The resulting groove gets ideas flowing. I then...

Flesh out the progression with a chordal instrument
Tweak/write the melody
Revisit bass, progression & melody
Flesh out the arrangement/instrumentation and sound design
Listen, adjust, listen, adjust... Finished!
 

Wally Garten

Active Member
I usually start out by figuring out, in a general sense, what the piece will be:

- Identify thematic, emotional, and sonic points I'm trying to hit.
- (Usually) Set out a palette of instruments to limit choices.
- (More rarely) Set out musical challenge/limitation, like writing in a less familiar time signature, or using chromatic mediants or quartal harmony.​

Once I've put these basic intellectual constraints around the project, it's all pretty spontaneous. Because I mostly write and record simultaneously, I tend to think of my process as sculptural, rather than "writing," per se. I make a big batch of clay (recorded takes of various parts), then modify it and cut away what I don't need, until it starts to take a shape that I like. The process is more physical more than mental, for me.

I have a couple ways of getting started. Either:

- Start with the groove, like @BezO said. That works well for groove- or rhythm-oriented music. I work a lot with drum machines and synth sequencers.
- Playing short melodic lines or (more rarely) chord progressions until I bang into something I like.​

So either that groove or that melodic part will be the driver. Usually it happens pretty fast -- maybe 20-30 minutes. (That's the point of the first three steps -- narrowing the scope enough that I don't have to think much.) Then I build everything else around that key idea. That's "the rest of the fucking owl," of course -- roughly in this order:

- Writing everything else to go with the key part.
- Recording live stuff like vocals. (My vocals are not very sophisticated, and so are usually also improvised. More rarely, I write the part beforehand in the DAW, usually with a piano, maybe letting that line play as a reference track while I sing.)
- Refining the melody once I hear it in context
- Putting sections together neatly.
- Obsessively editing MIDI/audio.
- Adding ornamentation and effects.​
 

bill5

Active Member
In terms of the composition - chords, arrangement, melody, percussion, sound choice - what do you do first?
Lyrics. :) Seriously, I have far more lyrics without music than the other way around. Lyrics are much easier for me. If you mean strictly the music, I have no set process. Tinker around on the keyboard sometimes and something will hit me, sometimes it will hit me elsewhere like driving my car, sometimes I'll be tinkering with some plugins and something will hit me. Sometimes when they hear it people want to hit me too lol

As to your choices above though, for me arrangement, percussion, and sound choice are all pretty much lumped into one process and that's almost always last. Melody is generally first ahead of chords.
 
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