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I have been composing using the computer for over two decades. However, I think this is not a very productive approach and I now wish to compose more often. To my understanding, very little is known about the great masters' workflow and habits. We know that Händel completed Messiah in 24 days, so that is at least an indication that in the hands of a master composer, handwriting a score is a fluent process and it can be extended over a long time.

How do I develop a workflow around composing by hand? How do I prepare the planning phase? How do I get into the habit of composing every week? And what steps could I take to achieve a constant flow between ideas and handwriting?

Here is one idea of a workflow, which I am looking for feedback on:

  1. Set the intent. Form? Am I writing a sonata? (What key would be suitable for this instrument? Etc.)

  2. Sketch ideas at piano. Gather themes, chord sequences, canonic variations.

  3. Create an outline for part A: melodic theme and bass.

  4. Finalize part A for up to 4 voices.

  5. Proceed to part B and repeat procedure for additional parts.

  6. Proceed to the second movement of the sonata.

EDIT: One of the main problems with computers is that it is difficult to achieve a flow of writing. It is somewhat easier with a piano roll editor, but for notation software one has to make decisions in two-three dimensions: note value and pitch, as well as octave. In handwriting I can focus exclusively on pitch or rhythm first. This enables the composer to stay, typically, in the melodic domain.

closed as primarily opinion-based by David Bowling, Todd Wilcox, Richard, Doktor Mayhem May 25 at 10:03

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.

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    I think it will help if you explain why you are, or feel, not productive using a computer. In general the computer should make your life easier in many ways. I assume entering notes should require less effort, undoing the latest actions, copying sections, etc. should offer benefits over paper and pencil, though I know computers are not the holy grail to every problem. – MeanGreen May 17 at 10:02
  • Handel wrote an opera overnight? Sounds like a spurious anecdote. – Michael Curtis May 17 at 13:04
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    My experience is that process is personal. You have to discover your process. As such, I see this question as too subjective. – Todd Wilcox May 17 at 14:02
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    @noumenal, nice revision. Overnight turned into 24 days! Actually, I think that is a first step in the kind of research you might do about famous composers. – Michael Curtis May 17 at 14:45
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    Marking this so I can answer when I have time - interesting question! – jjmusicnotes May 17 at 22:19
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Try researching those great masters to get more than anecdotes. You can find books on composer's methods like https://books.google.com/books?id=zaZ8mAysMeUC, in a university music library you can also find complete scores for great composers and these sometimes include transcriptions from sketchbooks, also you can find some sketchbook autograph images online if you are persistent with searching.

An example web page about Haydn....

enter image description here

Searching for a generalized objective method...

You won't find this. But you can find examples of sketches and revisions and those can give you some insight.

Beethoven will probably be the composer with the most scholarship available about compositional process.

You probably want to think about craft versus "art." Beethoven is the pivotal figure where the composer becomes regarded as an inspired genius versus a craftsman. This will come into play with what you can and cannot find. Some things were never written down, because the craft assumed much that didn't need to be written out. On the other hand, inspired genius isn't a process of revisions on a page, so that will be "missing" too.

  • Have you spent time looking at many Beethoven manuscripts? He has whole pages / sections where he has scribbled things out / changed his mind. "Inspired genius"? Hardly, perhaps when it came to improvising. Compositionally, he was restless. Also disagree with LVB having "the most scholarship" about comp process - lots of documentation on Schoenberg, Partch, and many living composers ("The Muse that Sings") – jjmusicnotes May 19 at 12:55
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Okay, there is a lot to unpack here. Let's take it step by step:

One of the main problems with computers is that it is difficult to achieve a flow of writing.

First, I'd like to signal that this statement is projection. Many composers (including myself) work best / fastest with computers. I find writing by hand to be tedious because when I write, I know what I want, to transferring from manuscript to computer becomes a giant waste of time for me.

The truth is that a computer is no different of a tool than paper/pencil/piano. The difficulty in writing flow comes from your brain. Your brain needs tools here, not your hands. That said, if you love writing with paper, then awesome, do that. You should work in a way that is most comfortable / fluid for you.

How do I develop a workflow around composing by hand?

Composing "by hand" is incidental. The workflow starts in your brain. You merely prefer to use paper to externalize your ideas, which is fine.

How do I prepare the planning phase?

By planning. By getting in there and doing some work. It sounds dumb, I know, but keep reading; I'll explain more below.

How do I get into the habit of composing every week?

Budget time in your schedule to do it. If you're normally on Facebook from 3-4p, use that time instead to write music. If you're really sucked into a project and you really love to do what you do, finding the time is easy because you always want to do it. If it's difficult for you, then something needs to change.

And what steps could I take to achieve a constant flow between ideas and handwriting?

This question is probably the most important one and the one composers grapple with the most. To improve ease between ideas and handwriting, you need to understand the creative process.


There's been a lot of research done on the creative process, especially stemming from around the turn of the century up through present day. Various theory have been popular over the years, but here is the one that makes most sense to me:

Essentially, there are three parts to the creative process:

  • Ideation (Inspiration)
  • Externalization
  • Revision

In other words, first, you need to have an idea. Second, you need to take the idea from your head and put it into the world somehow. Third, you then measure what you've done against the idea in your head. If it matches, you can move on. If it doesn't, then you revise. A given individual's ability to sensitively perceive and revise differences between these two images we call skill/knowledge/experience. The uncommonality of their original ideation we call "creativity".

This process is not linear, but cyclical. It should happen at local and macro levels throughout creating. Where people get tripped up is they don't/can't separate these processes. For example, judging before they've created anything (what we call "writer's block").

When you start phase 1, the only rule should be that there absolutely can't be any judgement. Some of the ideas will work and some will not, this is normal and part of creation. You should strive to create as much as possible.

The rate / ease at which you externalize your ideas depends on whether or not you are fluid in the medium. This just takes time and error (what we call "skill").

After you've externalized everything, then you measure: does it work? Why? Why not? What does it need? Then the whole process repeats.

You know you're done when one of two things happens:

  1. You run out of time before the deadline for the project
  2. You can't figure out how to get it any closer to what you have in your head (what I really mean by this is that your head can't figure out a way to make any part of the piece "better")

Here is one idea of a workflow, which I am looking for feedback on:

Set the intent. Form? Am I writing a sonata? (What key would be suitable for this instrument? Etc.) Sketch ideas at piano. Gather themes, chord sequences, canonic variations. Create an outline for part A: melodic theme and bass. Finalize part A for up to 4 voices. Proceed to part B and repeat procedure for additional parts. Proceed to the second movement of the sonata.

This is okay and might work for one piece, but this approach might be total garbage for a different piece. There's a wonderful quote by someone I can't remember at the moment that goes something like "the only thing you ever figure out how to write is the thing you're on" meaning that every project takes you in new and different directions.

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