I've heard time and time again of composers who say "It is better [for beginners] to know your form, and have a general idea of important chord progressions before you begin thinking seriously about melodies, basslines, etc."

How does one actually go about this process of roughly sketching out the structure of your piece beforehand? How do you decide how long phrases, sections, etc. should be... or should you allow them to expand dynamically according to your melodies as you write them without prematurely confining them to said predefined space? This way the melodies would feel much more natural, and the length of the piece (or number of measures) would adjust accordingly.

I apologize if this question seems trivial, but I am in the process of writing my first serious piece, and I think it would be extremely beneficial to have a goal in mind at pivotal moments. Conversely, if this is an overly ambitious, "good-in-theory" idea, then please don't hold back in telling me so.

Thank you.

5 Answers 5


Disclaimer: I'm just a hobby composer and I'm not very original either, so anything I say can be called BS. However, your question resonates with me and I do have some answers.

I'd say form is definitely important to me. My writing usually revolves around a melodic theme and its development. Classical forms like sonata, fugue and invention are pretty good vehicles for this purpose.

That said, the form should be a skeleton that helps you to freely flesh out the idea rather than a straight-jacket that constrains what you can do. The classical forms are exemplary and offer a number of devices that help me to work through a musical idea, but if an idea pops up that isn't prescribed by the form then you shouldn't be reluctant to add that. After all you're making music, not an ikea cupboard.

The underlying ideas of musical forms, like starting with an exposition section, contrasting the initial theme with a counter theme, gradually transforming themes in a developmental section, and finishing of with a conclusion or recapitulation are more important than the exact method you use to do that.

Developmental sections are definitely a good place to let phrases expand and flow freely (as your heart tells you), however, such development is usually more effective if it is preceded by an exposition that clearly and compactly states the idea in a form that is easily remembered and recognized.

With that in mind I don't really know what to make of the advice to "plan important chord progressions ahead". Perhaps that suggestion makes more sense if your theme is harmonic rather than melodic.

Finally, I think none of the strict form thinking is required if you have a clear vision of your piece ahead. But without a strict form, it seems many compositions rapidly start suffering from an over-abundance of themes, losing all coherence, or worse, a constant repetition. Form helps me balance these two competing elements.


I have often used graph paper to create a left-to-right timeline where each cube of the graph paper represents a unit of time (say 5 seconds, or 15 seconds). I then "draw" the form, sometimes getting carried away with colored pencils and such. I then try to compose the music in-line with the formal diagram. This doesn't always work and sometimes leads to a train wreck. But sometimes the stars align and it leads to good music. Often the piece that ensues ends up bearing little resemblance to the original formal diagram.

Here is an example of a formal diagram and the resulting piece. Although, the final piece bears little resemblance to the original diagram, I believe the diagram was an important part of the creative process.

Lastly, composing is different for everybody, so if sketching forms doesn't work for you, don't do it!

Escape Sequence Recording on Spotify

Escape Sequence Formal Diagram


Disclaimer: not an expert in composition, and definitely no more than a semester college instruction in composition in classical music.

At the end of the day, what is best to do is what works best for you. Unless you're doing improv, nobody's listening to your process, they're listening to your finished piece. Results are what matter. That said, some observations:

1) Me, I'm all about starting with melody, and I am here to testify that it's a terrible idea. It's amazing what musical dead-ends I manage to write myself into this way. If there's any other way you can get your musical imagination to proceed, definitely do that.

2) Re "naturalness": nothing in music is natural by nature. All is artifice. Plan on working hard to make things sound effortless, and endlessly tweaking to make something sound spontaneous. Do not expect the free-flowing product of your imagination to be better than what you can craft it into with some thought. While it can happen that way, there's no reason to assume it.

3) In music, as in life, I'm a big fan of the idea that the reason one makes plans is not to have a plan, but to have gone through the beneficial exercise of planning. Once one has done that, one can, and often one must, throw away the plan once one starts implementing and finds things just won't go to plan.

  • Your point 1) is baffling. You're all about starting with melody, but you get stuck when you do so, so that's why others definitely shouldn't attempt to do that? Earlier today you gave what I think is a pretty useful answer about developing rhythmical sophistication. music.stackexchange.com/questions/17026/… Why doesn't work that method for melody for you? Apr 26, 2014 at 23:57
  • +1 for everything but point 1. About 2/3 of the time, I personally start out with just a melody and basic chord progression and finish with a complete song. So to each his own.
    – Kevin
    Apr 27, 2014 at 0:29
  • @Roland Bouman. I think you misunderstand. I can generate endless melody -- pretty good stuff, too, at least in my opinion - but I seem to have a knack for coming up with things that don't play nice with (1) harmony, or (2) the other stuff I was planning on having going on around it. If my aspirations are low, this is not a problem: the melody gets to do whatever it wants, and I'll harmonize it (or not) one way or another. If I want to build something more sophisticated, not so much. ETA: Indeed, that is the method I use for composition! That's where I got the idea for the rhythm post. Apr 27, 2014 at 0:41
  • Hmm. It occurs to me it might be entertaining to post some problematic chunks of score, and ask how other people might resolve them. Is that on topic? Apr 27, 2014 at 0:45
  • 1
    @RolandBouman My job as a mod is not to decide what is and isn't on-topic, it's to act as an exception handler for what the community decides is and isn't on-topic. That's why we have meta. I encourage you to bring that up again -- the last time we covered it was a few years ago.
    – NReilingh
    Apr 27, 2014 at 18:23

I guess this applies to songs as well as instrumental/compositions.

I tend to write pop/rock songs rather than 'pieces of music' so they tend to have a fairly traditional/popular structure. However sometimes it's only once I've written the song and played it through a couple of times that it becomes obvious something needs changing in the structure - a half length verse, or remove some weird part that doesn't add anything. So I have an idea of the form, but not necessarily a difinitive notion until I hear the whole thing.

Why change from the orignal plan ? Often it's something to do with the lyrics- either make more room for some extra wordage, or sometimes repeating a musical section sounds overly repetitive when it may not seem that way when sketching the song out first.

I guess it depends on what you're trying to achieve: with popular tunes, it's normally a nicely crafted piece which kind of wraps itself up in just over 3-4 minutes. But with other kinds of music like classical, film backing music, etc, you're aiming (presumably) at just getting your mood across and aren't quite so concerned about time taken or making it 'safe on the ears' like pop can be.

Here's an anatomy of a typical pop song ... explains a bit about why it is like it is, in my view:

  • Intro = Here we go.. it's a bit like this .. or is it.. but when you hear this part you will, in future, know whether to run to the dance floor or switch the radio off.
  • Verse 1 = Laying the scene
  • Verse 2 = Like verse 1, to show it didn't happen by accident
  • Chorus 1 = Ok that's enough of that, let's have something else a bit more catchy
  • Verse 3 = Return to safety of scene layed out in 1st verse Chorus 2= Here's that bit you liked last time, again
  • Middle 8 (bridge) = Another bit which doens't quite fit to give you a rest from the verse and chorus, and give a different context so that it sounds like we're starting a different song wiht the next verse- but rest assured, there will be one.
  • Solo (if there is one) = Time to show our skills, and have the song burst into life. Woa yeh.
  • Verse 4 = like verse 1 but slightly different, maybe more assertive or quiter to add some tension
  • Chorus 3 = Here's that bit you liked .. again ..
  • Chorus 4 = Re-statement of the original point of the song
  • End (or fade) = full stop, implying the point was made and now it's time to quit. Expected Duration : 3 mins 15 seconds.

Musical Form, while vital to the process of writing complex music of maturity and significance, has always been my second priority. My number one priority has always been... whether I like what I'm writing or not. If what I happen to have laying out before me isn't in any strict form than whatever. It shouldn't matter as long as it's beautiful. Tbh, I have never planned out any of my compositions beforehand, unless you consider me saying "I'm gonna write a scherzo in D# minor" to be planning out a piece before hand. So I suppose my answer would be that I wouldn't plan out my pieces before hand with sketches or spreadsheets. I just sit down and write.

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