Have you ever wondered what goes on in a composer's mind while sitting down to write a piece of music? This article is based on an episode of my podcast "The Composer's Life" where I discuss my personal process of composing. Read about what I say in this article as well as tips I have for you if you are a composer, or head over and listen to the podcast!
Organic vs. Purposeful Composing
The first thing that I do before sitting down to compose (because I like to use a piano) is decide WHY I'm composing. Is it to sit down and get some of my creative energy out, to write a specific emotion or thought that I have? Or do I have a project I'm writing music for, like a film? Do I want to practice writing in a certain style or using certain music theory techniques?
All of these questions help me to determine the purpose of my composition and will determine how I approach it.
If I'm going to write to get my creative energy out or just to clear my head, I call this "Organic Composing". This is when no particular form, theory, or structure is set beforehand. Whatever music I hear in my head or play with my hands is what will be written.
Getting all of my physical tools ready is the next step! I always use a pencil, eraser, staff paper, and my phone to record the music I might compose so that I can document it as I go. This way when I want to come back to it at a later point in time, I know exactly what I played without having to dig into my memory.
Once my purpose is clear and my tools are ready, I sit down at the piano and begin composing. I play whatever I hear in my head or that my fingers want to play. Some ideas are quickly put to the side while others stand out. Once I develop a phrase, melody, or sound that I love, a spark goes off inside of me and I know that I've found what I set out to create. I repeat this phrase of music over and over again. My mind grows with endless possibilities for what this could be turned into- a piano piece, an orchestral piece, performed in a park or concert hall. Once this high starts to calm down, I think about what else I want in the piece. Where will it go next? Will this begin the piece, be the middle, or end it? I make sure to record my music and any ideas that I have, then I've finished for that time.
Now, if I have a specific project that I'm composing music for, I like to review my notes about it. I may have received instruction about how long it should be, what style/genre it should be in, the type or number of instruments used, etc. If I am working with a film or something visual, I'll make sure to watch it and make notes about the storyline and separate those into musical themes that I need to compose. Once these ideas have been organized, I get my tools ready and the process is similar to that of the organic process.
Tips for Composers
Unfortunately as artists we go through times when out minds seem to run out of creative inspiration, or what some refer to as "writer's block". This can happen for a number of reasons, but I have some tips for you on what you can do to renew your energy or if you're a beginner, where to start!
1. Choose and set a time aside every single day that you will compose. This could be the same time everyday, for example, 9 am to 10 am, or, like me, you can plan each morning when you will compose that day. For example, somedays I have different things to do, so I will compose at 2 pm and another day I'll compose at 10 am. No matter what time you choose, it is important to COMMIT. Don't let anything else get in the way!
2. Prepare your physical environment before you compose. Get everything ready that you'll need- pencil, paper, computer, recording device, book, etc. Whatever it is, have it ready before you start so that you won't get distracted once you begin your composing process.
3. Put a timer on. One technique I use when I find myself without inspiration or getting easily distracted is to put a timer on my phone- most of the time I do 40 minutes. During this time, I commit to only compose and to continue until that timer goes off. Even if I don't like anything I've done, it helps my mind focus intensely on the task at hand knowing that I only have a certain amount of time to do it!
4. Plan out what you will compose. Before sitting down, know why you're composing. This will help you organize and structure your time appropriately, letting your mind be free to create without worrying about what it needs to be creating or if what you're writing will not work for a project. If you need some ideas for organic composing, try finding things to draw inspiration from. Find a piece of art, a picture, think of a memory or emotion, look outside, and write something that represents that thing. If you would like to compose purposefully but do not have a specific project, try using different music theory techniques, like writing a sonata, theme and variations, or a specific genre of music, like classical, aleatoric, or experimental.
5. Sometimes you need to step away for a time. As you either already know or will come to find out, creating any artistic piece never finishes- it just ends when you decide to walk away. Sometimes when you've been working on the same thing for a long period of time, it can get difficult to come up with new things to put into it. Know when to walk away, even if it's not the end, and come back to it later. There have been countless projects that I've started and walked away from, only to find them later and draw inspiration from what I created in the past.
I hope that this article helped you in some way, whether it was to know how I compose or to give you some new ideas on how to improve your creative process/inspiration. We're all in this together, so don't be afraid to comment if you have others tips and tricks you use!