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I'm used to the Q/A format on Stack Exchange this is why I don't want opinion based answers even though the question seems like I'm asking for opinion.

Based on facts , when composing music, is there a part you should / must start off with to help you make everything fit together?

What I mean there is, is it somehow proven that starting off by writting the melody will make it harder for you to compose the drums and basslines (or the other way around it'sjust a basic example). When I'm composing I don't always start off the same way sometimes I have the melody in my head, other times it magically pops up once the background sounds are done and sometimes it feels like it came out easier than other compositions so this got me wondering if there rules out there to make it clear what is the best practice.

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closed as primarily opinion-based by Matthew Read Aug 8 '13 at 15:44

Many good questions generate some degree of opinion based on expert experience, but answers to this question will tend to be almost entirely based on opinions, rather than facts, references, or specific expertise. If this question can be reworded to fit the rules in the help center, please edit the question.

There are no such facts and any fact that claims to be so can be falsified in an instant simple google search. Recording and arrangments are different stories. –  user1306 Aug 7 '13 at 16:30
Agreed with percusse here - the terms facts and composing music don't really mix. Composition is a form of art; truly expressive art is unique to the individual; individuals maintain their own processes; therefore what works for one does not work for another and facts in artistic process as we understand it doesn't apply to composition. –  jjmusicnotes Aug 7 '13 at 16:58
No formula exists, but one individual may feel his/her method works best - for him/her.Tunes and songs are all conceived and born in different ways, vive la difference ! –  Tim Aug 7 '13 at 17:33
@Tim I think there are definite formulas that exist, in the context of classical counterpoint the harmony often writes itself based on the Cantus Firmus, and rules of the day, But this question is way too wide open to assume they're in that style. –  Alexander Troup Aug 7 '13 at 20:24
@PhaDaPhunk: This question is fairly similar: "Finding the starting point when creating a composition or score". And this question might also be of interest: "Where do musicians draw their melodies from". –  Ulf Åkerstedt Aug 7 '13 at 21:14

3 Answers 3

Surely there are no rules in composition. Everything you write is justified by your own taste. When the rules of theory apply it is merely to replicate a specific sound, for example, Classical music (the Classical time period) should be melodically based and have good voice leading and proper cadences or else it will not sound classical in nature, along with many other rules.

I would say the closest thing to a rule is that you start with something that drives your inspiration. This will ensure that what you create is "good". This judgement is one that you would make, not a listener per se. You want something that you can't wait to hear/perform again. If this is the case, then anyone with your musical preferences will likely enjoy the song. If you are performing the song, your passion will show and lure people in.

However, you don't always have to start there. I often will come up with a less than specific drum groove or some chords that are not particularly interesting or creative and use this as the foundation. I think of this as a way to reach creative inspiration. It is important that you only use this as a tool or you will find that your composition is lacking. The true growth of your piece should come from inspiration, not what is supposed to happen next.

One of my composition teachers, the late Joseph Packales (rather accomplished), would have an entire piece in his head before it got to paper. He would always ask me where I was in a piece, such as beginning, middle or end, and suggested that I should have a gameplan. He suggested making a map or broad scale view of what you want to happen in the piece. This could include melodic concepts, chords/key progressions, or just the form.

Another suggestion he gave is to practice writing. Write short pieces, less than a minute. These don't have to be incredible since they are exercises. The idea is to make a solid arrangement from beginning to middle to end. This should help your ideas come out more easily and closer to what you're attempting. The fact that the music doesn't have to be incredible allows you to keep moving forward without concern of something being "cheesy" or "boring". Make the cheesy sound good and surely your compositions will grow.

As @tim suggested in the comments, most composers will have a method or process and finding your own will expedite your output. However, always remember that some of the best work comes with the pieces that take the longest to come out. These are the pieces that we are careful with, the ones we want to be as incredible as the feeling the idea brings you. Sometimes when it is hard to get an idea out it is because it is new territory for you. This is an expansion of your abilities and the time invested is well worth the outcome, plus next time you find yourself working that same sort of problem it will be easier.

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You answered that in 2 sentences, UPVOTE –  Alexander Troup Aug 7 '13 at 20:29

Well unfortunately you're asking for something that isn't inherent in your question. You can from a non opinion based standpoint start a piece of music from any point. There is no right or wrong start point.

Stack Overflow is a site about technical answers to a given question. If you have a certain error code or are looking for how to do a specific thing in programming there are far more certain answers. The error code is caused by Blah. The way to solve this problem is blah.

Even on SO though there are times when a question is open to multiple answers. For Example "Should I use a List or an array" has many wide open possibilities and differing opinions.

Composers have:

  • Looked at a piece of artwork and been inspired to turn it into music
  • Taken a piece of text and used it as a start point to write music
  • Listened to birdsong and transcribed it
  • Taken a past composer's theme and spent hours creating variations
  • Taken the storyline or atmosphere of a book
  • Written for a specific orchestra set-up
  • Written with a specific singer/actor in mind
  • Written to try something technical
  • Written to explore a harmony
  • Written to react against an idea of what music should be
  • Written to conform with the idea of what music should be

This list really is endless and undefinable. I'd say every composition starts with an idea, but that's not true either, because I've written reems of things just for the heck of writing.

The advice that I think you're looking for is just start. Pick a note, a word, a picture and put it onto manuscript. You can have an idea or not, it's only music ;)

that is some of the advice I can give based on 15 years as a musician, but based on the direct Question:

Is there a part you should / must start off with to help you make everything fit together?


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Now I know :).. Also I think I got how Stack Overflow works by now... –  PhaDaPhunk Aug 7 '13 at 20:48
Music is a far more subjective field than computing, so the way that it's appropriate to answer is very different on here. You were looking for a solid answer so it seems like you're not familiar with the distinction. –  Alexander Troup Aug 7 '13 at 21:12

While I agree with other answers that there are no hard and fast rules for composing unless you are working in a well known idiom that is well defined such as a Bach Fugue, or a Beethoven Symphony or 12 bar blues or Bebop or Swing Jazz.

I tend to think of music in visual terms such as background vs. foreground, colors, lines, shadows, reflections etc. Translate these into the musical elements of harmony, melody, timbre, dynamics, repetitions, rhythms, changes of tempo etc.

Where I start depends on the idea I have in mind. I think of it, then hear it, then I start to play it, then I "jam" with it, stretch it, shrink it, cut it up, turn it upside down, make it go backwards, grind it and mix it, find its opposite, find its complement, thus a relationship between myself and the piece is built by understanding the nature of the idea.

Then take the best parts of this exercise and begin to assemble in a manner that fits the idea. For instance if you are working on a texture based piece, consider that there are parts of the texture that are thin, parts that are heavy and thick, parts that are like silly putty that you can stretch and pull apart, and parts that are translucent. It's up to you to discover the most significant parts and figure out a way to connect them together in a whole that embodies the original idea.

Edit, edit, edit until you have it.

Let's explore this with a simple 12 bar blues (a kind of universal template for most Blues, much Rock and some Jazz). Having suggested a 12 bar blues we already have defined 12 bars as I (4 bars), IV (2 bars), I (2 bars), V (1 bar), IV (1 bar), 1 (bar), V (1 bar) then repeat for each verse and chorus or solo. So now all you need to do is to define the key, melody (usually a vocal with words), and tempo. The harmony is already there you just have to tweak for major or minor, add the rhythm section (bass line, drums, keys, guitar), solos that usually are close to or a slight variation of the melody, and you pretty much have a song down. This is the most common start of most jam sessions since everybody knows the frame work, not much composing here, mostly improvisation within this tight frame work. However, let's say during the jam you happened to come up with an incredibly cool beat between the bass and the drums, or find a lead solo that blows you away--that's what a jam can do. Then take this and get it tight, everybody on board, and now you are approaching a finished, and somewhat original work.

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