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Hey all, 

 

Out of curiosity, how do you compose?  What is your process?  

 

Do you sit down at the keyboard, or the computer, at the same time every day with a cup of coffee and work diligently until something good comes out of it?  

 

Or does inspiration strike when you least expect it, and then you rush for a piece of paper before you forget that brilliant idea?  

 

Do you start with chord progressions?  Work phrase by phrase, one part at a time?  Write the entire melody, and then go back and fill in the other parts?  

 

How do you work?  

 

 

(I work a bit every day, phrase by phrase, and part by part.  Then go back and read through each part while playing the whole thing, and be sure that each part makes intuitive sense from a sight reading perspective, and adjust chords if it doesn't, add dynamics, accents, etc, let it sit for a few days to clear my head, and then come back with fresh ears for a last check.  At that point I'm heartily sick of the piece, so I keep everyone's comments in mind for the NEXT piece, but don't usually do much post-feedback editing.)

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I think anyone who thinks you need to wait for inspiration to hit you before composing is doing it wrong. You have to just sit there and do it, and if you get inspired along the way, great! If not, you'll learn a lot while you're working away at material that doesn't want to budge, until eventually the need for inspiration is negated. Personally I compose for 4 hours every day, and I've experimented with more time but I find that amount the most productive. In the past i've gone straight at every composition with only a vague plan in my head, and that's worked pretty well for me; though for my latest piece, a 10-15 minute work, I spent a few days planning out various tone rows, structural ideas etc. before I started, and it's helped a lot so far.

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I improvise at the Piano. When I find something I like, I'll determine exact pitches and rhythm. Most of the time, I'll already have some remote idea of a gesture in my head and I'll mess around with it on the piano but sometimes, I'll just noodle aimlessly and discover something in doing so.

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I think it really depends on which kind of music you want to write. I've found that improvising can often lead to exciting pieces but they often lack structure. If you instead decide on a form before you begin writing it will make your piece seem more coherrent. Anyways I think a mix of improvisation and structural awareness can lead to the best pieces. 

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I do it in a few ways.

 

For example, sometimes I just need to sit down and carefully write a skeleton of my composition, and other times the music comes by itself (usually when I am falling asleep haha) that's why I always have pen and paper prepared and I slowly collect all my ideas, and then later on play around them and I do lot of thinking.  But I like to (and I really try hard to do that) imagine the whole piece all together (the goal, the vision) and later on, I am figuring out the details and how to reach my (hopefully) original vision. Then it seems much easier to write it as a whole. The process of envisioning is harder.

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Just as Gretchen, I don't have a "single" process, but rather several ways to get my musical work done.

 

I can only write music at night, on weekends or on vacations, so I try to make my best from these short spans of time. That also means I can't really "wait" for an idea to come up spontaneously (although this also happens). While commuting from my home to my work and back, I spend most of my time playing with musical ideas in my head (which can be anything from a full melody to a simple harmonic progression to a rhythmic cell), so that when I actually sit down at my desk, I have something clearly outlined before actually writing it. I tend to build a piece around one or perhaps two main ideas, bridging them together (that's where structure becomes really helpful), and trying to find what techniques and devices work best in transforming these ideas into something different but still recognizable.

 

Sometimes I find it useful to try and imagine what my favorite composers would have attempted to do with such an idea - or alternatively, what they would have never attempted ;) .

 

On the other hand, this becomes such a natural, mechanical thought process, than sometimes a theme or passage pops up into my mind unexpectedly - in which case I try to crudely write it down (yes, I try to carry paper and a pen anywhere I go), so that I might come to it later and develop it into a "real" piece. There are even instances where a rather annoying tune comes up again and again, even across the years, almost like grabbing me from the throat and demanding itself to be composed or else.

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I usually find great inspiration by listening to a variety of other composer's works, then I sort of make a collection of all my favorite chords and rhythms and start creating something from there. As they say, good artists borrow, great artists steal. If you can take someone else's creation and re-invent it into an original work in and of itself, then I think that's one way of making good music.

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i double-click on the sibelius 6 icon, press command-N to create a new file, fill out the dialog box and then start entering the music with the computer keyboard and mouse

 

i don't really write by hand anymore but when i do it's a simple matter of finding the right size of manuscript paper and a mechanical pencil with lead in it

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This has been asked before, but still useful to hear thoughts. I recognise many things that others have related here.

 

I can, when neccessary, force myself to come up with ideas. Some of these will be formulae for generating ideas that I have devised. Sometimes I will think about an existing work and try and recompose it in the style of myself so that it becomes a different development altogether. But where there is sufficient time, I like to begin just by thinking about the sound of the ensemble or instruments involved and devise a gesture accordingly.  If I wish to write a piano work, what sound or features would I like to include in the piece? Does this provide an opening or should it come later? Can I think of other ideas that will work with the first to create a series of 'hit points' that define the structure of the piece? Now go to the piano to try them out and then notate on Sibelius. Again the works of others can be a stimulation, to adopt a gesture or timbre from, but the majority of features do end up being original.  Once a few ideas are in place a better idea of how to connect them needs to be thought about and so the piece takes shape. The playback button on Sib/Finale has been highly contraversial but one thing it will always provide is a rendition of the structure of a piece. A lot of time is spent refining the proportions of a work, whether more or less music needs to be added to any particular place to improve the direction and balance of the music. 

 

I hope to recommence formal studies next year and one thing I am keen to test whether I should adjust my process to produce stronger works. At present i sometimes feel as if I concentrate too much on creating quality ideas but am not judicious enough to deploy them as well as I might. In particuar, I find it very difficult to set aside good ideas for the sake of the work's coherance, and often move things around that I should just remove. I think I have got better at this from a few years back and can spin out fewer ideas for longer in a more convincing way, but still would like to improve further.

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I get into "composing mood" when listening to great pieces of music literature. I say to myself: That was really great! Can I do something similar?

I always start immediately with notation; I got used to hear full orchestra as it sounds when composing for it. I don't do it by piano unless I compose for piano. At first, the formal approach is too short so after listening to what I wrote I get in between and make it longer, bar by bar until I am satisfied.

I prefer composing "absolute music" but I have also written several programmatic works. And it's easier to find title when doing programmatic music. My titles are usually traditional. I love composing concertos, symphonies, sonatas, sonatinas.

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I love this topic!

Well actually It depends on a situation a lot.I can get a good idea while walking through a forest or a city and just record it to a dictaphone by simply humming the melody.

Also I sit down the piano and just play something until I find a cetrain idea in my playing which I actually like and I start to wonder what it is about and where can I go with it.When I have a good melody or a motif I think about it all the time.It just sounds in my head and I can hear it developing further.Sometimes It takes so long to finish something because I'm always reworking and remaking it until I'm satisfied.Usually when I comose something late at night,I record it and then the next morning I listen to it and make a statement.It always feels very different.

And I also get inspired by sounds.When I play the guitar I'm just inspired by the sound of the guitar and it helps me get different ideas.Same with string sections or brass sections.

And sometimes I can listen to a piece of music which I like and it inspires me to compose something similiar.

So it depends really on the situation.Either I can get good ideas in my head and either I can get them by playing the instrument

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Do you sit down at the keyboard, or the computer, at the same time every day with a cup of coffee and work diligently until something good comes
out of it?
 
I have too many obligations for this kind of structure, work and family takes precedence.
 

Or does inspiration strike when you least expect it, and then you rush for a piece of paper before you forget that brilliant idea?  

 

This also doesn't happen. If a melody or idea comes to me, I'll generally make a mental note of it and then hope that I remember it when I sit down to work. I like to carry my moleskin around with me to jot things done when I get ideas, but more often than not it just gets used as scratch paper to work on when I'm already sitting down specifically to write

 

Do you start with chord progressions?  Work phrase by phrase, one part at a time?  Write the entire melody, and then go back and fill in the other parts?  

 

I usually spend some time jotting down sonorities that approximate the sound world I'm looking for and mess around with them. I don't know how you could write just a melody and then go back and do the rest, or do any part without considering the other parts at the same time. Generally my compositions will slowly increase in length as I continually change everything that bothers me as I go. So I will work some ideas out, and then listen to it several times, make some changes and add some material, and then repeat for however long until I'm sick of it or need a break or just feel done for the day.

 

I am trying to get out of the habit of improvising in Sibelius. For the piece I am working on now I spent several months without writing anything down, just knowing that I had to write a piece for my friend and thinking about different things I might want to do. When I moved into a new place that had a piano I started messing around on it from time to time until I found some chords that interested me and I started making notes in my moleskin. For several more months I studied the chords and worked out different harmonic possibilities and doodled some gestures that caught my attention, slowly progressing into trying to find specific textures.

 

Eventually I decided on a general length and formal layout (5-8 minutes with two climaxes, a medium one followed by a longer buildup to the main one and then a short conclusion.) and started messing around with my various ideas to see which ones felt appropriate for the exposition.

 

Which was just this week, so I have about 5 hours of Sibelius time on this piece, but I have been working on it since the beginning of the summer.

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i often find a melody when i hear someone or something make a noise that sounds melodic. for instance, i once heard someone ask someone else for a piece of gum in the hall. their question eventually turned out to be in the key of G minor. i changed the rhythm slightly to make it fit into 3/4 time. then i began to develop on this theme with my own ideas and such until it turned into an oboe duet. i already showed it to my music teachers and we are going to perform it during the dessert concert near the end of the school year. 

 

 

btw, the dessert concert is where all of our smaller ensembles (such as oboe duets or woodwind trios) perform and everyone brings desserts and everyone eats desserts and it's a jolly time for everyone.

 

 

as for sitting down at a keyboard and thinking up ideas, i've never successfully done that. every time i sit down at the piano i start playing things that i already know and then i'm trapped playing old songs. i've done it a few times while jamming on the oboe or dulcimer, but i've never finished one of those songs.

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There was a thread from a long time ago that was really interesting and insightful, but I can't track it down.  

 

Either way, here's me:

  • Poke a piano.  
  • Write down some random crap.
  • Save everything.
  • Find the 6% of stuff that's not garbage.
  • Play it a lot.  
  • Refine / Revise
  • Don't forget to write it down again.
  • Keep poking.
  • Throw it away and start something else.
  • Do this 7 or 8 times.
  • Eventually find something that works.
  • Work it baby.
  • Finished? 
  • Print it.
  • Get real people to play it.
  • Start again.

Here's what it looks like at step 2 or 3.

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There was a thread from a long time ago that was really interesting and insightful, but I can't track it down.  

 

Either way, here's me:

  • Poke a piano.  
  • Write down some random crap.
  • Save everything.
  • Find the 6% of stuff that's not garbage.
  • Play it a lot.  
  • Refine / Revise
  • Don't forget to write it down again.
  • Keep poking.
  • Throw it away and start something else.
  • Do this 7 or 8 times.
  • Eventually find something that works.
  • Work it baby.
  • Finished? 
  • Print it.
  • Get real people to play it.
  • Start again.

Here's what it looks like at step 2 or 3.

I love looking at work like that! It's so intriguing to get into your mind (the composer) as you work things out musically. :P

 

As for me, I'm actually the polar opposite of Robin. I've tried time and time again to use manuscript paper, but since I'm an egregious perfectionist, I end up throwing more paper away then I keep by a lot. So, to save from hurting the environment further, I just use Finale and a keyboard that's by my desk. That way, mistakes are never visible and can be easily forgotten rather than erasing on paper or scratching out. Mind you, I'm not a supporter of this mindset, it's just how I am. xD After I get something done as good as I can make it, I THEN write out the perfect score on manuscript paper, copying it exactly as I had written it on the program. With this method, there are no writing mistakes on the paper, it's pristine, neat, and the copying down via hand helps me memorize the score as I have it at that point. 

 

When I'm composing, I think through the basis of the piece and first ask myself: "Why am I composing this? What do I want this piece to portray?" Up to now, 99% of my pieces have been practice pieces to simply get better and are as much of an imitation of an earlier style as I can get. This isn't because I want to dedicate myself to these styles, but I want to eventually, as a mature composer, be fluent, compositionally, in all previous styles as much as I can. This way, I can have many influences upon my future work. Plus, learning the old styles helps to master the fundamentals that allow for our modern style(s) nowadays, anyway. 

 

I've come into the habit of actually hearing most of the beginning idea and it's melody and harmony as it goes instead of playing around on the keyboard to determine it. Although, I definitely use the keyboard for musical progression and idea development. Like most, I have trouble forcing my ideas, but I can in a pinch, I believe. Although, I've not had to do that yet. Composing is a lot like writing a story - you kind of have to have a basis for the plot (mood of the piece), the characters (the harmony) and the theme of the story (melody) already thought through... at least for me, anyway. Practicing writing is a good way to practice composition sometimes, at least for the process part of it. I used to write a lot, and now I compose, so it feels very natural for me as far as processes go in the fact that I've become accustomed to it and it's routine. :)

Edited by MuseScience

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... I just use Finale and a keyboard...mistakes are never visible and can be easily forgotten...

 

I wonder how many of your "mistakes" would have turned out to be amazing music, if you weren't so quick to delete them! Might be a worthy experiment for you "digital only" composers - force yourselves to work out the kinks on an idea you would normally have dismissed.  :hmmm:

 

I know how it can be frustrating, and the (relatively) instant gratification of hearing something that sounds OK is satisfying, but for me, the satisfaction comes from taking "something" and extracting that tiny bit of greatness from it. The cliched "diamond in the rough"... or the less glamourous "polished turd"  

 

R

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i often find a melody when i hear someone or something make a noise that sounds melodic. for instance, i once heard someone ask someone else for a piece of gum in the hall. their question eventually turned out to be in the key of G minor.

 

If you don't know of it already, dig the Happiness Project.  It's kinda amazing.

 

http://www.happiness-project.ca/

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It is possible to brainstorm in Finale or Sibelius, just like with pencil and paper.  I usually have a bunch of disjointed possible ideas copy and pasted to the end of the "fairly settled" part of a score in progress.  Sometimes they get used.  Some get deleted when I'm done, some are moved to a new file to be possible starter ideas for another project.  If I'm trying to decide between two chords, sometimes I'll have both written, smooshed on top of each other for a while, until I decide for sure.  Makes the playback sound delightful while I'm still in progress, but I know what I mean.  And I write in notes to myself of possible other ideas using the staff text function that you usually use to write in dynamics and playing instructions.  Just because you're digital doesn't mean you play it all in with a midi keyboard and keep the first run-through without editing.  (:

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I actually do exactly as Robin does... except I do some of my brainstorming (actually a lot of it) in Finale as well. While I do enjoy being able to write things down normally (it's so much more satisfying), I do love the benefit of having it played back instantly whenever I please. Unlike Monsieur MuseScience, I like to keep the 'mistakes' and preserve them as much as possible. In fact, on my laptop I have a folder with several files dedicated to copying and pasting away the ideas I don't use immediately for later use. Whenever I need something to fill a section of a piece and have no idea what to do, I turn to these files. I have them for different ensembles and everything! Piano, string quartet, choir, string orchestra, etc. I call them my "Purgatory files" where the ideas await entry into the next life. 

 

My one huge problem when I'm composing is that I come up with an idea and it's fully fleshed out harmonically and everything... but when I try to determine which key it's in I have to plunk around on the piano until I find the right key. At which point I've gotten distracted and no longer am sure if I'm in the key I originally intended and I often forget the harmonic figures I had come up with that were so perfect just 5 minutes ago. This problem arises from the fact that my best ideas come to me in the shower... which isn't the most convenient place to jot things down at a moment's notice. Wet, naked and covered in soap isn't exactly the ideal state to be in if I'm gonna rush to the piano or try and grab some paper and a pencil desperately. So by the time I'm in decent condition to go figure it all out, the ideas have become muddled and are slipping away. It's frustrating as hell. On the bright side though, it gives me a scapegoat for my mediocre compositional achievements. I just blame it on the shower. And the boogie. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mkBS4zUjJZo

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