The Composition Process

Music, especially composition, can be seen as a system of sound organisation. What that system is has differed throughout time: church modes, fugues, tonal harmony, dodecophany, total serialism, chance music etc. These systems show us how composers have approached the issue of “sound organisation”;  in other words, composition. These systems are still alive today, and all can be used by the modern composer in varying degrees. How a composer sets about putting these tools to use is a unique process that each composer has to grasp themselves. Some will use manuscript until their desk is covered in scraps of paper, some will go straight onto composing software, and some have completely abandoned scores all together, in favour of electronic and electro-acoustic music.

However, many young composers, especially at a school/university level, often worry about the “right” way to compose; there must be a magic solution that covers all their needs and creates perfect music every time. This is the cause of a lot of stress among composition students, myself included. But I am here with a message of hope, and here it is:

There is no right way to compose.

Composition is all about trial and error. If I went back and saw the first drafts of some of my works, they would nothing like the finished product (even though I would argue that a piece is never “finished”, but that’s a different story). Whole sections had been added where I felt an idea needed more space, new timbres are added when the ones I already had weren’t working, time signatures have been changed, and pitches moved around, all to better achieve my compositional vision. My composition process is unique and tailored to how I approach music. Once I have an idea, I get it down as quickly as I can, normally onto software such as Sibelius. This musical fragment often comes with a vague structural outline already, as well as the ensemble I see it for. For the past six months, I’ve even been working with MIDI composition, removing the need for a score all together, and exploring a totally new sound world. I also have a review process; at the end of each day, I write down everything I’ve done in all my pieces so that I can see my progress.

What works for me however, won’t work for everyone. My tips for finding a composition process would be:

  • Work out you shape your ideas – on software/manuscript/recording etc.
  • Don’t be afraid to leave a piece if you get stuck on a section. Just make sure you go back to it once the issue is fixed!
  • First drafts are just first drafts. They are not the final piece.
  • If you’re not sure if something works, ask. Singers and instrumentalists will nearly always know more than you about what the voice/instrument can do.
  • Have a review/tracking process – notebook/spreadsheet/wall charts. Anything that can show you what you’ve done while composing.
  • If the way you compose isn’t working, change it! If it works, then keep doing it!

It takes time to find that balance between music making and music “organisation”. If someone suggests a way of approaching music, try it. If it doesn’t work, try something else. Composing isn’t an exact science, there is no right or wrong way to do it. Just give something a go; you never know, you may find the perfect way for you.

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