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This is a fairly simple one, and hopefully not too wide-open to be permitted here: what approaches are available when sitting at a fresh screen or sheet of paper, or at your instrument, to create the starting point for a composition?

I'm wondering if there are preferred methods as taught in the more formal books on the subject: arranging chords first then creating melodies over them, working the other way around, adding percussion first, working from lowest to highest-sounding instruments, scoring your own instrument first, etc.

Are there very visible advantages and disadvantages to any of those particular techniques? I've been known sometimes to write purely at a computer without an instrument near me at all, I have mixed feelings about it as it means I'm not limited by my own abilities, but I'm also not "feeling" the composition as I would be if I were improvising myself.

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This question could be more focused by specifying a musical genre for the composition. –  Dave Mar 12 '13 at 17:14
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I did consider doing so, but I wanted to leave it open. I write a lot of things, from technical death metal through to sweeping orchestral stuff, through to little poppy electronic ditties. I'm a believer that there's a commonality to composition that crosses genres, so I didn't limit this to just one. –  lukech Mar 12 '13 at 17:52
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My understanding of the issue of composition is the whatever works approach. Though I don't compose myself, that's just always been my understanding of it. –  Reina Abolofia Mar 12 '13 at 20:52

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I think you'd get different answers depending on who you ask, so this may yet be closed as being too subjective.
Even the same composer may start at a different 'point' depending on the ideas they have at that moment in time.

For example, if they heard someone whistling an interesting melody in the street that day, then they may develop that melody first before harmonising it and then orchestrating it.
Alternatively they may have come across an interesting chord progression whilst at the piano and later try to craft a melody on top of it.

In the world of songwriting, Elton John and Bernie Taupin certainly worked in a very particular way (from Wikipedia):

The 1991 film documentary Two Rooms described the John/Taupin writing style, which involves Taupin writing the lyrics on his own and John then putting them to music, with no further interaction between the two.

But that doesn't mean words-then-music is the "correct" songwriting method. Alan Menken/Howard Ashman (of Disney fame) took a different yet equally successful approach (from theartsdesk.com):

When Howard and I wrote “Be Our Guest”, I said, “You know I’m just going to give you some simple French piece of music.” [He sings the melody.] It basically tumbled out as fast as my hands could play it. “That’s the form, go take it, write the lyric, when you come back I’ll write the real thing.”

In terms of more instrumental composition, Howard Goodall (best known for numerous British TV themes) describes his creative process (pdf) when commissioned to compose a Requiem. A different approach yet again!

There are many "right" ways to go about composing music, but that's not to say there aren't "wrong" ways too. How you go about composing something will depend on what it is you are composing and what you have to work with. Some good questions to ask youself:

Is it functional?
If you are writing music to serve a purpose - say, a song important to the story in a musical or a jingle for an advert - then the form and content will be heavily dictated to you. Therefore, your focus should be on the best way to communicate that message/text through your music.

Do I already have a melody/text/chord progression?
If you happen to already have some idea of what your composition will sound like then it makes sense to develop it from that point outwards. If you have a melody, there'd be no point in writing anything else without that melody in mind; from the harmonisation through to the rhythms and instrumentation.

Does it need to fit a certain genre or style?
Again, this gives you something to work with - if you're composing a Romantic-style orchestral work you know you should be including some more exotic harmonies and wide-ranging dynamics than you would for, say, a Status Quo tribute band.

Having written all that, I can sum it up as "it depends", which probably means this will be closed!

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Yeah, there's no "one true way", even for the same composer on different compositions. One day you might start with a hook, another day a bassline, another day a melody; sometimes people wake up with a fully formed song in their head! –  slim Mar 13 '13 at 14:21

If there were no specific techniques for beginning a composition, composition would likely not be a field of study. Often within composition study, the teacher will provide a set of guidelines that essentially tell you how to start. I am assuming that you are not working with a teacher here, which of course is the "real-world" case, and give you the number one rule I took from composition study:

Set limits.

Setting limits is decision-making, which in turn is composition. You need to go from a blank slate to something tractable. Some limits will nearly always be set for you if you are writing for a particular purpose. For example, if a string quartet has commissioned a piece, the instrumentation is almost certainly the string quartet, so the instrumentation, texture, and pitch ranges available to you are already limited in a specific way. Taking the abilities of the specific musicians into account is also important. If you write a work that one specific musician or group can perform, others will probably also be able to perform the work. It is too easy to write nearly-unperformable music, so keeping abilities in mind is important. If you do not have specific musicians in mind, the preferred option is to find some. If that is impractical, at least keep in mind the skill level of some "average" or "professional" or "student" musician(s) as you write.

Keep a few more things in mind here:

What if my limits don't allow me to use this really cool idea I have?

Then congratulations, you have a really cool idea you can use in a different piece with different constraints. Consider keeping track of those ideas somewhere so you don't forget them!

What if my limits are not working for my piece?

If you set the limits, you can always change them. Don't be afraid to set limits just because they might be too restrictive. You can always change them later, provided they are not set for external reasons.

You don't have to compose the piece in order from start to finish. In fact, you probably shouldn't.

On one choral piece, I had a text I wanted to use, and I knew exactly how I wanted the climax of the piece to sound. I started there. Start anywhere you want. If you are not sure how to connect one section to another, skip it and come back. If you have a melodic (or other) idea, but you are unsure where in your piece it goes, write it down somewhere anyway. You can come back to it later when you know where it fits, like putting together a puzzle. Or, maybe the idea comes from a different "puzzle" entirely. Keep track of it along with your other "cool ideas" from above.

Decisions about form from the start can really help you get pieces finished.

Form can help you reuse elements throughout your piece so that you can get more mileage out of less material. Further, form helps the piece be more coherent and, sometimes, more "comfortable" or "familiar-feeling" to the listener (if that is your goal). Form is nearly always one of the first limits I set.

As implied elsewhere, there are probably at least as many approaches to composition as there are composers. Nevertheless, you can do significantly better than "whatever works," and a composer who tells you that composing just involves "whatever works" either does not fully realize the assumptions he or she is making or does not want to reveal his or her secrets.

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+1 Truly great answer pointing out the importance and effect of consiously deciding on limits. I've never thought of limits as being a compositional driving force this clearly before. –  Ulf Åkerstedt Jun 30 '13 at 14:56

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