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I'm fairly new when it comes to composing. So far all of my compositions result from messing around at the piano, not writing a thing down. After messing around for a very long time, trying countless variations and permutations (think monkey at a typewriter for how hopeless I am), things will eventually click and I have a 3-5 minute piece.

I've never learned the conventional way to compose music, if there is such a thing. I've found that writing my ideas on manuscript paper is both incredibly tedious (especially if I'm constantly re-arranging things) and disrupts the flow of ideas. But then again, when I don't write things down I have trouble juggling all the form permutations and variations in my head and I worry that my compositions might be suffering from lack of 'theoretical' insight?

I would really love to understand other peoples' composing processes. How do you use manuscript paper/notation software? Do you construct pieces academically using music theory or just 'feel' them out at your instrument? Do you have a procedure you like to follow, or does every piece come together in a different way?

Thanks!

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    I'm not aware of a conventional way. I firmly believe everyone has to find their own process. – Todd Wilcox Feb 1 '16 at 21:10
  • Hello and welcome to Music.SE! You can click here to see our scope (what/what not to ask) and how to ask questions here. – Todd Wilcox Feb 1 '16 at 21:12
  • What style music are you composing? I think the methods and inspirations differ a lot depending on the musical style. – Michael Curtis Feb 1 '16 at 21:54
  • As interesting as this question is, I'm struggling with whether its not opinion based... And perhaps too broad. – Caleb Hines Feb 2 '16 at 2:42
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I do not believe there is any kind of standard procedure for composing, inspiration can come from anywhere such as noodeling around and playing a cool riff or melody, hearing another song and getting an idea from it, a random melody just popping into your head while humming, using music theory, etc. there really is no right or wrong way to go about composing. If you are happy with the end product, then that is the only important thing. :)

An idea that might help with your process of messing around on piano without writing things down is to purchase an inexpensive USB keyboard like the M-Audio Keystation 61 MKII and record what you play onto the computer as MIDI data. Many recording applications will be able to display this as music notation, or you could import the MIDI data into a program that is specially designed for music notation. This way the software will automatically notate your performance for you. You can also easily edit and fine tune your performance by moving the notes around by hand in the editor to get it sounding exactly the way you want. This also gives you ability to hear your composition back as a neutral listener which will reveal things you may not have heard while you were focusing on playing.

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Firstly, if you've managed to (more than once) focus your efforts to make a finished piece, you're obviously doing something right! There are a lot of people with considerable musical talent and ambition who hardly ever manage to get round to finishing anything, so you obviously know something some of us could learn from.

One thing to consider now and again is - what are you trying to achieve? Are you trying to replicate a certain style, so that you can understand how it works? Are you trying to express a feeling, or tell a story through music? Are you just fascinated by sounds and want to explore?

On the need to write a score/use standard notation, I'll draw an awkward analogy : From about the age of 7 to 16, I learned French; over about the same period, I learned to read and write music (score) in various settings. Since then, I really haven't used either skill very much. On the French thing : I only went to France once, and most of the French people I've met in my country speak decent English. On the need to use standard notation and score : I drifted away from musical activities that involved playing from a score, and when I was composing, I wanted to produce and mix a whole record; producing a score for others to play from would have been irrelevant. (Of course this isn't to say that learning French was useless - I've learned other languages since, doubtless drawing on that experience - and equally, the theory and ideas I learned in my early music education are still a part of my thoughts and ideas now.)

So really, you just have to consider why you're notating your scores. Is it to give them to others to play? Is it helping you organise your thoughts? If it's not helping you, there are other ways you can record your ideas - MIDI, video, or just a tape recorder could work.

As for theoretical insight - remember that there are many possible systems to analyse a piece of music, to express its structure, to draw the boundaries within which it moves. You will use some of these systems, whether you choose to or not. Which you select to work with consciously can be a creative choice.

If you feel you haven't find a good process, why not write each of your next dozen pieces using a different process?

  • Find a dusty old theory book - the kind that likes to tell you the 'rules' of music - and follow it exactly.
  • Spill a few drops of tea on some blank score paper, and write musical notes round the outlines of the stains to create the shapes of the musical lines
  • get two tape recorders. Record yourself playing a very simple line. now play that back, adding another simple line live with your instrument. repeat.
  • Go back to your dusty theory book. Now write a piece that breaks all the 'rules'.
  • Write a piece that expresses the saddest story on the news today.
  • Pick up an instrument you've never played before and try to make the most complicated piece you can physically manage to play on it.
  • Write ten pieces, each lasting no more than 7 seconds. Each must have a beginning, middle, and an end.
  • Find what your three favourite chords are, and write a piece using just those, with a simple melody added on top...

... and so on. I'm sure you can think of better ones.

Another thing I would say is : get your music out there! I'm one of those terrible people I mentioned in the first paragraph, always fiddling around with some idea or other and rarely finishing anything off. Get it on YouTube, on Soundcloud, or just play it to your friends. Or don't, if you don't want to. Whatever you do, just make sure what you are doing makes you happy...

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    some good thoughts. Does anybody even have a "tape" recorder anymore. Oh wait - there was that one person who posted a question about recording TO a cassette tape (I'm pretty sure it wasn't you) - Lol. Plus 1 for putting so much thought into this answer. Now go finish one of those songs you started ;-) – Rockin Cowboy Feb 2 '16 at 1:18
  • @RockinCowboy ATM I have a big old reel-to-reel in my spare room that I'm using to digitise all my dad's tapes from the 1960s... I'm also finishing off the job of digitising my old cassette tapes. Maybe I have tape on the brain more than is befitting a young man, or maybe I'm just old now too... – topo Reinstate Monica Feb 3 '16 at 10:56
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I'm with you on the not interrupting the flow of ideas. I am sure there may be composers who think about music from a different perspective and might find it easier to sketch out their ideas on paper. Maybe that's the way their ideas flow. I admire folks who can start writing notation (using a computer these days) and know what it will sound like before they play it. I'm not one of those. And I don't plan to start. It's not the way the creative part of my brain works - at least as far as music goes. I do like to write down my lyrics so I can look at them as I create and expand upon them.

The way I look at it, music is something you "listen" to. You can't really "read" music in the way you read a book. It is meant to be heard. So I think there is a great deal of value to composing on an instrument - and piano is certainly one of the more versatile instruments to compose on.

I have successfully written many complete songs, composing the melody, arranging the music and writing the lyrics. I compose on guitar (although I would love to improve my piano playing skills so I can also compose on piano). My definition of composing is that I sort of "hear" a melody in my head and I find the chords that go with that melody and then I write down the chord progression.

Disclaimer: I write country, folk, pop, blues and maybe some low key rock'n'roll. Classical music written for an orchestra may require a more academic approach.

Most of the time I have written some lyrics as I am composing the melody and I may write out the lyrics on a piece of paper and space them according to the meter and rhythm and phrasing of what I hear for the music and how that fits with the lyrics. Then I play chords to confirm that they match the melody in my head and once confirmed, write the chords above the lyrics where they go.

Once I have established a basic chord progression for the chorus and the verses, I may write the rest of the lyrics and decide if I need a bridge in which case I throw in a variation on the chord progression leading back into the final chorus. In most cases I try to make my verses and chorus different. I might use a pivot chord to switch the order of my chord progression - even if I use the same chords.

Before I attempted to compose music, I listened to music. I listened for many years starting at the age of 1 month or so. By the time I was ready to write my own music, I had a large database of musical phrases, melodies, rhythms and chord progressions in my brain. As soon as I learned to tap into that database in my head - and extract useful information that I was able to piece together into a song, I was a songwriter/composer.

It wasn't until after I started writing songs that I even learned much about theory. In the beginning I just knew that if I put a Cmaj, a Dmaj, and a Gmaj in my chord progression it sounded good - like some of the songs in my memory banks. It wasn't until later I learned that G C and D were the major chords in the key of G and that if I was in the key of G I could also use an Em and a Bm and an Am and they would all work.

As far as memorializing my melody - after I write out my chord progression and play through it a few times, I record a guitar vocal on a digital recorder in mp3 record mode - and then store the file on computer. After tweaking it for a few days, if I decide it's a keeper, I will use my Boss BR 800 multi track recorder to lay down a drum, guitar, vocal, harmony and lead guitar and if I get really ambitious a bass guitar. I can then finalize and master the recording after mixing it the way I like it, and convert to an Mp3 file and put it on my computer and e-mail it to my friends. I can even send it with a word document of the lyrics to the US Copyright office and receive a certificate of copyright.

The only music notation I know how to write is chords and that's pretty easy. If I want to notate a C chord I write "C" (imagine that). If its a C minor I write "Cm". That's about as complicated as it gets for me but it's all I need.

If I record a song in the studio, I let the session musicians listen to the basic guitar/vocal prior to the recording session and come up with their own parts to play over the vocals and to play during any solos. They never require anything more than a lead sheet with the chords written above the lyrics so when they listen to the guitar/vocal they can see what chord I'm playing at any given part of the song.

One thing I have started to do more of, is to analyse music that I like to try to understand what it is about the music that I like. Is it the rhythm, the chord progression, the range, the instrumentation, the structure? And then when I find a formula I can replicate, I use it to write an original composition of my own. That's as analytical as I get on the music part.

So I suppose that you might say that for the most part, I just feel out the music at my instrument. There is more of an academic process to writing the lyrics, but that's another subject for another day.

If you are more of a visual type thinker, there might be some value in learning to write out the music as you compose so you can see patterns and apply "theory" to exploit those patterns into something unique. But I am going to spend whatever time I am able to devote to music - feeling out and creating more original music. I'm too old and life is too short to go back to school.

There might be some related and useful information in the answers to this question Use of music theory in composition. And if you have an interest - here is a more detailed explanation of how I "write" music when I compose: What I do instead of transcribing my music into notation

Have fun composing, no matter what methods you employ.

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There really isn't a set process on composing as it is much more of an art than a science. I don't think I've ever used the same process twice when composing a piece especially since every piece is different in nature as you don't want to just write the same piece over and over again.

Sometimes I have a nice melody or riff that kicks off the composition, other times a harmony that I find intriguing starts the process, other times I come across an idea or concept that I want to explore and figure out how to work it in a composition, and sometimes I'm approached to write a piece for some project. These are all very different scenarios and how the processes goes from there is also very different. Sometimes I'll focus on solidifying what I want the form to be. Other times I'll try to harmonize and writing a melody for what I have. Other times I want to nail down the instrumentation, style, or feel first. It varies very much from piece to piece greatly depending on many different variables and some never see the light of day.

The one thing you should keep in mind is that composing is a very write and revise process. There will always be things to add and parts that can be tweaked. There does come a time when you need to release your work to the wild and even then

Even in a composition class the process is not defined. If you were taking composition classes, you would be introduced to topics and then be told to write one as an assignment. While it doesn't teach you the exact process, it gives you a very important concept that will flesh out your composition process which is a deadline. This forces you find a process to write things you may never touch again and in a way is exactly what you need to progress as a composer and gain valuable experience in the art.

A last note is that theory will immensely help you compose in a few very different ways. First and most importantly, you can look at pieces you like and decompose them and learn from them. Second you can use it to fill in the gaps when you are truly stuck or don't know what to do.

In short, compose how you want to the way you want to. It's really all up to you.

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You're doing it "right". Just let the music flow from you. Sometimes you'll sit for hours and achieve nothing. Sometimes you'll hit on something that moves you in minutes.

Just do me a favour and at keep your smartphone handy so you can record snippets of something when it's good.

In short though, just keep doing what you're doing.

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I do it the way I was taught to do 4-part harmony. If there are words, write out the words. Write out the melody; figure out the harmony; write the bass part and notate the harmony; add the inner voices. Rinse and repeat within any step or across all steps. As you go you will discover structural similarities you want to exploit, think of alternative harmonies, etc. Doing all that on MS paper these days is a waste of time. I use Finale.

DO NOT work at the piano unless you really know what the hell you're doing, i.e. you already have extensive experience of doing it 'on paper' as above, or in your head. Otherwise all you will write down is easy piano licks. Or easy guitar licks, or whatever other instrument you may play.

Of course if you're writing a symphony or a double fugue it's a little different ;-)

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I recommend you don’t abandon your current methodology, but just build on it for now.

A key thing is you haven’t really written anything until you write the song down. You literally have to fix your song in a medium to have written it. Playing it and keeping it in your head doesn’t even legally get you copyright on it. So you need to choose some method of writing that suits you.

As far as songwriting goes, manuscript paper is obsoleted by MIDI recording. You may want to print manuscript out from the MIDI later for musicians to play, but writing on score paper by hand is something that you would only choose to do if you really, really enjoy doing it that way.

If your piano has MIDI output, connect that to a sequencer and just freeform record your playing. That is also “writing” the song. Then once you have something that clicks, your 3–5 minutes will have been captured as MIDI that you can build on. For example, if you have a melody and some harmonies, you could overdub a bass part, add some drums. The drums can be played on the piano through drum sounds or you can use drum loops.

If you record a melody, some harmonies, and a bass part as MIDI, as well as a basic drum part as MIDI or loops, then it is amazing how that can be orchestrated in all kinds of ways. You could write lyrics for the melody and sing it, you could arrange it (or have it arranged) for a small band or large orchestra, choose almost any lineup of instruments, arrange it in various genres. Those basic parts can be expanded into almost anything.

A key thing is to write regularly. Either on a set schedule like 1–5 times per week, or a couple of times per week when inspiration strikes. That way you not only get better at songwriting with each session, but you build a collection of songs that you can refer back to and learn from in a larger way. For example, noticing that you are only writing slow songs and therefore attempt some faster songs.

Finally, I highly recommend that you finish each song. Once you have that part that clicks, develop it until you have melody, harmony, bass, and drums before you move on to the next song. Otherwise, you can end up with many song fragments and no actual songs. There is a lot of learning that happens as you finish the songs, and that ends up leading to better songs as you go.

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There are more ways to do this than you can shake a stick at. I'll detail my way. Your mileage will vary - that's as it should be - but I'll be leading up to some points that should be relevant to you.

I generally come up with a melodic idea first, which I work out as a theme or as a contrapuntal subject (depending on the nature of the idea) - my tendencies as a composer are quite contrapuntal, so that even the voice leading of comped chords acts as if the chords are composed of distinct voices. Others may (and, I suppose, often do) start from chords.

I do this work directly in notation software (an older version of Sibelius in my case); I used to do it with pencil and paper back in the days before personal computers. I don't write at the piano, even though most of my works are for keyboards of various sorts - I know my way around keyboards, and I check the work for practicality later when I'm done. Working directly in score allows me to see how the voices are developing, which makes keeping track of them much easier. This is akin to what you find when you state, "But then again, when I don't write things down I have trouble juggling all the form permutations and variations in my head..."

Note that I am not pushing working away from the keyboard as ideal - it works for me, but you seem to generate your ideas directly at the piano. That's fine - Beethoven and Schoenberg didn't write at the piano, but Haydn and Stravinsky did. Very great music has been written either way.

However, it seems to me that you are probably attempting to write music of a fair complexity, so that you are having to juggle "the form permutations and variations". My own experience is that, when the musical form has elements of juxtaposition and montage in its transitions between themes and tonal areas - call it an "architectonic" view of form - then recording and mixing tracks becomes a very good way of "notating" the work. If, however, one theme and/or tonal area grows out of another - call it an "organic" view of form - then notation in a score comes into its own.

For me, the latter is normally the situation. I'll work up the opening idea, and, as I do, I get a pretty fair idea of where the music has to go - not necessarily what the subsidiary themes will sound like, but what kind of themes they have to be, which tonal regions they need to articulate, approximately how long they have to be. I will then take my initial idea and write it from start to finish in order (which is a bit unusual), polishing as I go. When I break off work for the day, there may be just an indication of the next notes in each voice at the end, or I may have a skeleton of the important voice entries for the next phrase or two; the last phrase up to that point will be listenable, but subject to change as the voices are spun out later later, and everything else before that will be in polished form, subject to revision only when I check the piece for practicality at the end.

Now, I'm not going to advocate this as the way for you to write music - not at all. Other people sketch their themes out-of-order, and connect them up by working on transitional passages, and that method may very well suit the nature of what you are writing. As my strength as a composer is contrapuntal, my own themes and modulations tend to grow out of each other. If I try to get too detailed ahead of time, the voices don't hook up in the most effective way from section to section, so I keep the general goal of a passage in mind and adjust voice ordering on the fly to make the best transitions possible. I can do this because I have an unusually good memory - I can and do keep ideas associated with working sketches in my head for years. When I do sketch out later sections ahead of time, it is generally just for "proof of concept", e.g., such-and-such a thematic idea can be played simultaneously with another idea, and they'll work well together.

The important takeaway from all this is that my methods are optimised for my own characteristics and strengths as a composer (and this optimisation is an ongoing process). Part of becoming a composer is learning to assess your strengths and weaknesses realistically, and adjust your workflow processes accordingly. For my kind of music, detailed sketching of a theme ahead of time results in a very nice section that just doesn't grow out of the preceding materials, and my music is about flow and growth, so I end up having to rewrite large chunks of it anyway. That's a real waste of time, eh?

So you'll have to adjust your working procedures to suit your own goals and musical characteristics, and the person who can best analyse your needs is going to be yourself (and you will make mistakes along the way, so it will be a continuous process). The best any of us here can do is to make some guesses and very broad suggestions...

...which I'm going to proceed to do:

  • You work at the piano, which is perfectly fine, but it does make sketching with pencil and paper tedious.
  • However, you feel a need to organise and structure your work, presumably because it's starting to evince a certain complexity of structure, and you want that structure to be more optimal than is possible to get by recording a straight improvisation (i.e., the structure needs a fair amount of tweaking).
  • Presumably your music doesn't break into self-contained sections that can be recorded, imported into a DAW and spliced into place (or you would probably be doing just that already). Possibly you are finding that how you get from theme A to theme B is as important as the themes themselves, and that writing to score captures this characteristic best for you. (If not, do try the recording/DAW route. There's absolutely nothing wrong with montage-style, "architectonic" music, and this might be the handiest way of structuring it.)
  • If notation is best for capturing what you are trying to do, then the problem is to minimise the interruption to your workflow. Try using a GUI-based notation programme. (Musescore is easily capable of all the usual tasks, and it's free. You can purchase a professional grade programme like Sibelius or Finale later as your need for their capabilities grows.)

I find that entering the notes takes about the same length of time as with pencil and paper, but, for your style of working, there is the important consideration that programmes like Musescore (or Sibelius or Finale...) are capable of playback, which means that you can keep composing while working in the notation programme (while the iron is still hot), and then go back to the piano to check playability and to get your ideas for continuation in order. What this would mean for you is that the time spent notating is less separated from the actual process of composition, less of an interruption. (I would not suggest importing a MIDI stream into your notation programme - I have yet to see a score created by importing MIDI that doesn't require more time spent making the score legible than you would spend entering the notes yourself, for all but the simplest music.)

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