The Musician's Writing Process

Part 1

In this episode we look at a preview of a talk I've got coming up soon, all based around the composer's writing process.

Often the writing process can be overwhelming and confusing, but with a framework or process that we can go through we can get unstuck and back into flow.

In this episode we look at the following stages of the composing process for musicians:

  • ‍Stage 1: Research & Inspiration
  • ‍Stage 2: Build a Soundboard
  • ‍Stage 3: Sketch & Generating Material
  • Stage 4: Setup & Plan
  • ‍Stage 5: Writing & Editing

In Part 2 we will look at

Stage 6: Producing, Arranging or Rehearsing (all big topics!) Stage 7: Getting Feedback Other general points

If you enjoy the show, please consider subscribing on Spotify, iTunes or wherever you listen to podcasts (links above) and if you're feeling particularly generous you could leave a review, which massively helps the program and the work I do with Lean Musician education. Happy composing!


Auto generated

00:09 Hi, my name's Jack and welcome to the Lean musician podcast where it's all about helping composers, producers and songwriters create and practice music more effectively. Today is a slight change in the standard episode structure in that we don't actually have an interviewee, it's just me and you talking one on one. And the reason is I've been invited by a specialist music school that I used to be composer in residence for to go and do a talk to the young scholars there about composing and how they get started. The goal really is to inspire the scholars with confidence and the belief that composing music is easy if you follow your inspiration and particularly are process driven.

00:49 So what do I mean by that? What do I mean by inspiration and particularly process driven? Well, we'll get into that in the talk, but essentially like many creative fields composing and songwriting and production is very much mired in the problem of feeling overwhelmed. If you're an intermediate or beginner, you're almost certainly familiar... Everyone gets overwhelmed by all the different things that you have to do. When you're composing and can get lost during the creative process. So this talk is really to unpack at least a standard-ish model, at least from my experience of what really helps a composer go through all the stages of writing and end up in a place where they've got a lot of material, they've arranged that material well and that material is something that they intended to write at the beginning.

01:41 So the analogy I always like to use is, that composing is kind of like building a house and particularly it's like building a house in the sense that there are lots and lots of stages that require different layers and pieces and roles of different people to actually go into creating the full and finished product. If you imagine a creation of a house, you have to have at least an architect, a builder, a product manager and actual builder and then various other people who are involved... Various specialists. And the process of composition is of constructing a full piece of music that involves the plan, the harmonic outline and then the arrangement, perhaps the orchestration or the production depending on the style of music. And it can be a bit confusing if you're jumping around between those stages as you naturally have to do. You know, we don't necessarily write a piece of music straight away at the piano and then go straight to arranging and then orchestration without jumping back and changing perhaps the initial harmonic and melodic outline.

02:41 So there are kind of different stages to the composing process and it's useful to use in the beginning if you're, as I said, a beginner or intermediate composer... Really just to help you when you're getting stuck because this is not something... It's not like a dogmatic thing that you must follow per se. It's really, if you're getting stuck and you're feeling overwhelmed is to potentially come back to this list. And there is a post on the Lean Musician website so if you get to leanmusician.com and then go to the series page, you'll find the composer's process and a wealth of different articles there to help you with that. And this is one of them, the writer's process. There's also some stuff on arranging there as well.

03:19 But essentially there are a number of different stages. So the stages are

03:23 stage one, research and inspiration. This is a place where you find kind of the crux of what it is that you're trying to write and you build a kind of composition playlist.

03:33 Stage two is where you build a kind of sound board of little snippets of bits from other people's music that you'd like to write like so that you can directly inspire yourself and take charge of inspiring yourself in a kind of professional way.

03:47 Stage three is where you start sketching and also generating material. And if you're the sort of person that gets stuck in this area where you're like, hmm, how do I actually create stuff? What do I do? You know, if you're quite literal minded, which is sometimes a problem for composing because composing is one of those things where you just have to sort of try stuff and find things. But sometimes when a composer or composing teacher tells you to just, you know, try stuff, improvise, you know, it's really not helpful. So this is an area where we'll start talking about how do you actually generate material.

04:16 Stage four is set up and plan. This is kind of like a workman creating their space and making sure it's tidy and all their tools already. And also that they have a plan like, so getting the architect's plans and thinking ahead, "what am I actually going to be doing here?" and "what am I going to be writing into?" "What's the structure that I'm actually going to write into?"

04:36 Stage five is writing and editing and something that I call the write edit loop. The write edit loop is where you take charge of the problem that we all experience, which is the inner critic and turn off your internal editor and then turn off your internal composer and let the editor work and then you repeat that process as many times as you need. There's also lots of other things that we can talk about in there, like the actual structure of what you do with patterns in music and how you transfer between sections and things like that.

05:07 Stage six is producing or rehearsing or arranging, depending on the context of your piece.

05:13 And then finally, stage seven is getting feedback. And that can actually be by releasing your track online or it could be going to your teacher or to your friends or to your of your fellow band members as well.

05:24 So let's get into stage one, which is research and inspiration. Where I always try and start a piece of music, especially in the early stages of writing. If I'm really not sure where I'm going is the story... Is 'the thing'. What is the crux of this piece? What are you trying to say? What are you trying to evoke in the listener? Now this is often hard to articulate and you don't necessarily need to articulate it. You don't need to defend it or write it down like some kind of music schools might have you think that you need to defend your compositions. It's more that what are you trying to do in your head? For example, if it's a piece of film music, it's obviously going to be following quite closely or a piece of music that follows a storie's narrative It's going to follow that narrative, uh, quite closely and try to emulate the feelings that are connected to that story.

06:13 But if it's a piece of music that's emulating the genre or expressing a certain feeling or imitating, a composer or a producer that you really love, start from a place where you are connected to... Let's call it emotion, although it doesn't have to feel emotional to you, just just connect it to something that matters and means something to you. And that's what we call the story. To put it another way, for you, your favorite artists and your favorite genres will be your favorite artists and genres because they evoke something for you that means something to you. And so really when you start out your composition, you need to be clear in your mind what are you trying to connect with that's inside of you personally.

06:56 The next part of the research and inspiration phase is really thinking about the genres and the styles that you're drawing from. Now you notice obviously that this is kind of fairly obvious. If you're experienced already, you kind of think, well, obviously Jack, I'm going to be aware of the genres. This is the reason why I've put this post and this kind of talk together really is so that for people who are getting stuck at any point, they can look at this process and go, "oh, oh yeah, that's the bit that I'm missing. I'm not actually thinking about what genre I'm writing in". Because that might be quite obvious to you. You might have never tried to write without ever thinking about genre and inspiration. But then you know, many people and many of my composition students do start like that. And actually as soon as we fill that gap, they can carry on, they can move more. And you'll, you might find with the other areas in this process that you'll realize that, hey, the, the, the process of arrangement, the phase where I'm actually really thinking carefully about the style of arrangement, that's where I usually come unstuck. And so it's interesting and beneficial to you, therefore to think more carefully about that process. So if this stuff is obvious to you, just listen to it was a bit of patience and just know that you know it already.

08:05 So we spoken about the story, we spoke about the genres, but then we want to start building up what's called the composition playlist. It's something that I use whenever I'm kind of doing a piece of music for film. Anything that has a brief really. And it requires that you get quite serious about researching the music that is going to inspire you for the piece. And usually a composition playlists for me is 10 to 15 tracks. Of course it can be more, you don't want to be over 20 tracks because then you're really procrastinating and not writing. But the main thing is to use, tools like Spotify and also a website called everynoise.com which is an amazing resource, which I'll talk about in a second.

08:47 Basically to pull from different, uh, genres and styles and similar artists, to the ones that you love and a playlist of essentially a representation of what you wish your composition will sound like. The best bits. So if you were doing some funk track or something like that, you might have like James Brown and then some modern Bruno Mars. You might have some Hiatus Kaiyote in there you might have something like that. Or if you're doing a film piece, you might have some Hans Zimmer in there. You'd have John Williams, you'd have all the other like composers, like John Powell, you'd have all their their tracks and particularly their tracks that represented a certain style for the piece that you're trying to write. And you build up 10 of these and then you can sit back and listen to that and be a lot clearer and start drawing upon this material to kind of ask yourself, okay, well how do these guys arrrange, how do they, how do they construct their harmonic arrangements? How do they, how do they transition between sections? What's their rhythms? And all of those different types of questions. You can use it throughout the process to go back and inspire yourself. And you have an an initial direction and in composition and in a kind of practice, we call that a pastiche composition.

10:00 And you might think that by doing this at the early stage, you think, well, hang on Jack, you're copying, you're stealing from people. And actually if you really realize it, you know, if you look at any band over history, they've stolen chord progressions or rather just done chord progressions that have been done a million times before. And it's not just relevant to the pop world or the jazz world, it's every genre... the classical world, the film music world. There are these, techniques and repetitions that get used over and over again.

10:28 It's about how you draw from your inspiration and combine it with other bits of inspiration and then perhaps throw in a bit of your own unique ideas. So I mentioned every noise at once. It's actually everynoise.com an amazing website, which is generated, from the actual output of Spotify's API. I'm clearly not technical as I talk about that there! but basically it's using Spotify to draw upon all of its library and all of its different genres. And it categorizes these genres in this huge cloud of different tags. And then it has an amazing interface. I mean, it looks pretty basic, but actually when you start using it, you realize how amazingly powerful this thing is, is that every time you click on one of these genres, and there's some crazy names in there because you didn't realize there were so many genres. I think there's like 2150 or whatever, and it's growing all the time. So many sub genres as well.. When you click on one of those genres, you get a kind of preview of that, and then you can also click through on these little arrows to the side of each genre's name and see a cloud of all the different people that kind of best represent it on Spotify. And of course this is according to Spotify, it's not necessarily objective, but it's a very good representation. And then it goes even deeper. There are playlists that you can generate from that page and different types of playlists. Certainly something worth checking out if you are wanting to dive deeper into genres and understand more about what it is in the music that you love, that makes it tick.

11:58 So if the research and inspiration phase be clear on your story, be clear on your genres that you're drawing from and build a composition playlists that'll inspire you throughout the rest of the process.

12:09 Stage two is kind of optional, but I like to do it. And especially for beginner composers and producers and songwriters, it's quite good to do. It's called a soundboard. So a sound board is a bit like your composition playlist where you pull all of the different tracks that you've loved, but what you do is you get a little bit more granular. You find all the little bits and pieces inside of each of those compositions, those little five second ten second moments, those textures, those rhythms, those melody lines, those great brass arrangements - anything that really draws your inspiration into a particular moment and you capture that in audio.

12:44 Now you might do this with a kind of professional piece of software that you can download. I'm on Mac and I use something by a company called Rogue Amoeba and it's called Piezo. You can also use something called audio hijack pro and there are also websites that allow you to just capture small little snippets from the music that you're listening to on your computer. Now obviously I don't condone this as a thing to then share with other people that's not okay because obviously you come into copyright things and your, or not copyright things but you're actually copying music that should be bought through a streaming service or something like iTunes. But really this is for you personally. And what I tend to do is I put it in a soundboard or a workstation like logic, and then I can sit back and listen to all these snippets, these moments that really, really inspire me. And what I can start doing is building up in my mind all the different things that I would like to impersonate.

13:36 So if you're listening to a really fantastic moment that's a fanfare or you're listening to an amazing EDM drop and you're like, I really want to recreate that, or there's a really lovely moment in a song where the piano does this great kind of arpeggiated thing and you're like, how does that work? What you can then start doing is unpacking that and starting to transcribe and then emulate that style, those little things. So it's not about transcribing and emulating the entire composition. It's about taking tiny little moments and saying, sort of making these bite size chunks, much more easy for you to analyze and then imitate in your work.

14:19 If you don't have a professional piece of software like Piezo or audio hijack or anything else like that, there are, uh, websites where you can download youtube video, audio, and there are also just very simple scenarios where you can just take your iPhone or your Android or whatever, hold the microphone up on your voice memos on your, on your Android or your iPhone and just record your computer through a microphone... The quality won't be as good. But you'll still be able to hear it and then you can collect all of those sounds in one place and start thinking about your soundboard in a much more kind of quick view where you don't have to listen to every single track in order and right the way through. You can kind of preview your entire soundboard for your composition in under a minute.

14:59 Stage three is the bit that takes the pressure off writing. It should be anyway, and it's the sketching phase. I am really bad for sketching and then not actually completing compositions, but I sometimes need to give myself a break because actually the sketching phase is one of the most powerful creative phases and you need to give yourself credit that actually, creating sketches is kind of like the seeds for your composition later on. It's really important to not sit down and try and write the finished piece now.

15:31 What you're doing is you're kind of creating notes and planning and adding these, as I said, like 'seeds' to your project file and then trusting yourself that you'll find a way to create it later. So this is often thought of as kind of... What we've done so far is we've created... If we imagine ourselves as like visual designers, what we've done so far is we've thought about the brief, you know what we're actually trying to do, say let's we've, we've heard from our client what we're, what we're trying to design for them. So we've, we've thought of our inspiration, we've built our composition playlist. Then in the second stage we've built our mood board where we kind of like pull all these different things from different magazines... We've used Pinterest, we've set up a Pinterest board, whatever it is, and that's where we've used in the composition process, our soundboard and now we're in the sketching phase where we just start presenting the client or whoever we're kind of designing for all of these different ideas and getting feedback

16:27 Except obviously in the composer's process, in this process right now, the client is you! And the composer is you! So what you're doing is you're sketching, not worrying at all about what you're writing and then stopping writing and then looking at it and kind of maybe the next day or that afternoon thinking, 'is that right? Is there anything in there? How can I change that?' And it's quite good to build up maybe five sketches, 10 sketches, maybe more. But again, beyond 20, I used to be usually tell people that you're, you're starting to procrastinate and you need to move through to the next stage... It's to build up sketches and just kind of reflect on them and then let them stew a little bit and then we move on to the next stage.

17:07 Now as I said before, if you are quite literally minded, sketching can be hard because essentially you're trying to create something from nothing. And creating something from nothing in a creative sphere is really scary and really hard for some people, which I totally understand. And there are a number of different ways that you can kind of go about, tricking yourself (or maybe that's not the right way of putting it)... making it a lot easier to come up with simple material. And again, remember it's not your job to know what to do with that material, it's just your job at this stage to come up with it. And the first one we kind of looked at already, it's about drawing inspiration, but it's 'impersonating' the sounds of the things from your soundboard and from your composition playlist. Because remember who is really truly original as an artist? No one. We're all, we're all kind of drawing from inspiration from things that have been done before. So just start impersonating your favorite composers and favorite writers, whoever's, whoever's in your playlist there and start making sounds like that.

18:09 And that, again, as I said, it's like kind of transcription. It's like trying to work out exactly what they're playing, but then it's immediately taking that say it's a kind of an interesting arpeggiated pattern or really nice chord voicing or indeed a chord progression. And then taking that and kind of moving it perhaps to another key or changing the arpeggiated rhythms slightly or changing the chords ever so slightly so that it suddenly becomes your own version and your own sketch.

18:35 The next way to start sketching in a way that kind of takes the pressure off you is really vocalizing the sound that you're trying to create. And I like to tell a story quite often of one of my friends when I was much younger guy called Jamie and then we're walking home one night and he was saying to me, do you know it's really easy to write music? And I found that really funny because I wrote music and I was studying loads and he didn't play or write music at all. And so I of course was like really defensive. I was like, "no, it's not. It's really, really hard". And he said, "no, no it is. It's absolutely easy to write music. Listen." And he started making all these sounds that were like a big band noise. He was like "do bap, bap, bap, do," and he made these silly noises. And I remember laughing at him quite a lot and thinking, you know, you're an idiot, you don't know what you're talking about.

19:22 But then years later I kind of remembered that as I was talking to a student of mine and I realized that actually he really had something there. He really had a very good point because what he was essentially saying is it's like, "listen, I've got all of this stuff in my head. It's kind of rough sketches and gestures. I have no idea. Sure how to put it down, but it's all in my head. So haven't I composed?"... and that's actually kind of true because if you imagine the skill that you have as a, perhaps a beginner or intermediate or even professional composer or musician, what you have is probably a good amount of music theory and musical craft. And sometimes when you get stuck, what you're getting stuck on is, well, what do I do with that craft? What am I actually trying to create? And that's the imagination side.

20:07 And so Jamie had the imagination side without the craft. And when we as composers and producers get stuck, we have the craft without the imagination. So using your voice is an incredibly useful tool. But you know, if you're like me and many of my students, it's very easy to feel silly and stupid if you're starting to make silly noises with your mouth. So it's one of those things that you kind of probably have to get over and obviously you need to find a room somewhere where no one can hear you and start really listening inside of your head. You know, say you're writing a a huge, you know, orchestral score that's going to accompany a dramatic film. You might start hearing these sounds in your head and start doing silly voices that represent that like and you don't have to be a good singer as you can tell. Because like me on this podcast, which I'm transmitting to the world! I am definitely not a good singer, but it doesn't matter because again, it's all about the gesture. It's all about framing what you're trying to do. And that will be rhythmically, the perhaps the kind of shape of the melody, the shape of the chords, whatever it is that you can express in your voice.

21:11 And you might do that in conjunction with playing something at the Piano or your instrument of choice and just really create these very silly but kind of quite clear sketches on what you intend to do. A bit like Jamie did when we were walking home that night.

21:28 And you might capture these on audio memos. I mentioned voice memos already, but it's important to capture these if you are not too scared of people finding them and then completely taking the mick out of you. But they can, they can form part of your composing project. So if you imagine what we've got so far, we've got a compositional playlist showing us all the different inspirations and our favorite composers and favorite tracks from the artists and what they've done that we really want to draw upon. We've got a soundboard, which is a much more granular, detailed view of all of that stuff.

21:58 And now we're starting to sketch using gestures and strange voices and stuff like that to be able to represent different instruments and we're impersonating the artists that we absolutely love. And they're all going into a folder of audio memos of recordings that you can then draw upon later.

22:16 So if the sounding with your voice and the impersonation and the audio memos, doesn't still work for you or some of them don't quite work and you want some more ideas... There is one more idea that I want to transmit to you, which is that of generating material through rules. So when you write a piece of music, you need to have the initial stuff down. You need to have the obvious things like the key, perhaps the chords or sense of the harmony, the groove, (And when I say groove, I don't mean something that's groovy. I mean like any music has groove and that's the rhythmic structure behind everything that kind of gives the pieces feeling or the different sections their feeling) and then perhaps the gestures. So the key, the chords, the groove and the gestures. And so writing into that, you're going to be kind of restricting yourself anyway. So for example, if you're in A major and you're definitely in the key of A major, you're definitely not going to be playing a C natural or G natural and things like that because it's just not in the key. So you've already restricted yourself to not be playing all the notes of the piano or the instrument that you're writing on. But we can go further with our restriction. And actually restriction is a really, really creative thing because it's very overwhelming trying to write a good piece of music. You know, if I'm a teacher and I say to you, hey, write a good piece of music and come back next week, it's actually really bad for me to do that.

23:31 It's not a good teachers guidance for me to say something like that because it's very, very unspecific. What a teacher should do for someone who's a beginner is to actually say, okay, so here's your brief. I want you write a piece of music that's going to evoke a feeling of 'this'. Perhaps it's going to be in a minor key and I want you to draw upon these composers has a style and I want you to start building a melody that only uses seconds, fourths, and the occasional fifth. (So those are intervals. If you're not sure about music theory). Now immediately your brain - a bit like if were restricted to coming up with a story that was set in a certain location, had a certain type of character and had a certain type of story arc - your brain is immediately going to start coming up with the material much quicker than it would do if I said, okay, "write a good story... Go!" Because you've given someone a framework and writing into a framework or restricting a restricted set of rules can be really creative.

24:34 Now, the important thing to realize about this creation or this restriction is that it's not forever. You don't then bind yourself with it for the entire piece. The point is really having rules so that you can break out of them in interesting ways because there's no point in writing a piece of music that supposedly breaks all the rules because really, you know, you, if you haven't defined the rules then it doesn't really make sense. You know? So if you, if you say, okay, here's my framework that I'm writing into, it's in this time signature. And then halfway through you're like, you know what? I really need to change the time signature because it needs to be more interesting. Or the harmonic rhythm has to be this... per bar.

25:12 And then halfway through you speed up the harmonic rhythm that's breaking the framework. And that's what makes music interesting. Because really one of the things I remember hearing a composer say once about composing is composing, writing anything is about setting up an expectation and then delivering something better than that expectation. And depending on your experience with your listening and the genres that you listen to and the artists that you listen to, you'll have a certain type of expectation when you're listening to music based on what you love. And also what you've listened to. And when you really like stuff very often, a bit like stories and films, it's to do with that film or that piece of music. Uh, oh, sorry, I'm getting confused between the analogies here. It's to do with that piece of music, having enough, variation and enough similarity.

26:04 So it's enough stuff that you recognize, perhaps like a simple beat that you've heard many times in your favorite music and then that beat changes or it's sets up perhaps a big EDM drop, like I said earlier, and then that drop comes half a beat later or something weird. Or if it's classical piece of music, the chord progression and the strings goes up and sets up what you expect to be a perfect cadence and then it does something completely different. Not necessarily an interrupted cadence, but something else, you know, anything like that. That kind of surprises us in a way that's ultimately satisfying is what we're after in music and mixture of tension and resolution and familiarity and then variety.

26:45 So at this point in my talk, actually what I do is I'm going to ask everyone to stop and break into groups and start coming up with compositional rules that they can set up to start generating their own material. So I thought therefore this would be a good point to stop the podcast, at least for this part and split it into two podcasts so you can come back for part two of this when I release it. But for now you can - if you're practically minded and you're wanting to actually implement this - what I would suggest is to do what I'm going to do in the talk and go away and start writing some options for yourself. Let your mind go wild and think of rules that are going to restrict you creatively to write into certain frameworks. "How could I restrict myself in terms of the material of music?" You know, "could I say something like, you know, I need to add a rest in the melody, every three beats" or "I need to use a mixture of these types of rhythms or these types of intervals", or "I can only use suspension cords, every other bar" or "I need to use suspension chords in the first two bars of every four bars"... You see where I'm going with this. There's infinite rules that you can set up for yourself and explore perhaps, you know, a short little study, a short little composition that actually uses those rules to generate some material.

28:04 Cool. So I hope that was useful for you and that there's potentially some stuff there that you can go and apply directly and straight away to your writing. For now, whilst your waiting for part two, although it may be out by the time you listen to this, you can always head over to leanmusician.com and find a lot more resources on composing, producing, and arranging over there. And finally, if you're on a podcast platform that allows you to do reviews like on iTunes or Google play or something like that, I would massively appreciate a thumbs up because it helps people find this podcast and ultimately find more out about what I do at leanmusician.com

28:39 See you next time.