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My name is Jack, I obsess about how to deconstruct, create & learn music more effectively. I then write about, podcast & create courses that help you do that.

The Musician's Writing Process | Part 1

When you’re approaching composing something for the first time, the process of getting from the initial idea right through to finished product can be rather daunting. What do you do first? How do you develop ideas and should you create a basic structure before you move on? Do you plan the themes or harmony first? And when do you start arranging?

These are just some of the many questions people often have when composing. Whilst I can’t give someone a specific process or algorithm that can apply to every composing situation, we can outline an “archetypal” approach that will help beginners work more efficiently and experienced composers tweak, compare and reflect on their own process.

Whatever your level, this is not prescriptive. Once you have a good picture of this ‘typical’ process, you can skip bits and do it all in your own way and order. It’s important to remain in flow and responding to own creative impulse. This approach is here for when you get stuck.

This post will cover the first four stages:

Stage 1: Research
Stage 2: Build a Soundboard
Stage 3: Sketch
Stage 4: Setup & Plan
Stage 5: The Write-Edit Loop
Stage 6: Arrange
Stage 7: Produce
Stage 8: Get Feedback

Introduction

So why do we need a “pipeline”?

Think about the complexity in the production of any kind of product. There are many stages of preparation, handovers, polishing and approval. There are numerous people that work on a product throughout its production lifetime. Let’s use a ridiculously simplified analogy of building a house as an analogy, as it’s something we all appreciate has a process and doesn’t get done immediately!

  1. Architects design
  2. Project managers plan
  3. Resources are sourced
  4. Foundations laid
  5. Structure built
  6. Roof put on
  7. Inner workings added
  8. Cladding added
  9. Windows put in
  10. Interior decorated

At any one point throughout this project’s lifetime, there are different people working on it doing different jobs. In other words, there are people with different ‘roles’, who specialise in that particular area.

The Roles of a Composer/Producer

In the building of a house, it would obviously be really ineffective to get one person or one type of contractor to do all of the stages of the project.

As working composers/producers – however, this is exactly what we do. We may not do all of them, but very often we wear all the hats. We research, plan, sketch, write, arrange, edit, produce and market our projects from beginning to end. Even though it’s nothing like the complexity of building a house, it can get a bit overwhelming.

Whilst I’m not suggesting that you need to have a team in order to successfully complete a project, we can benefit hugely from borrowing the idea of different roles and inhabit them ourselves throughout the lifetime of the project. They help us focus on doing one thing and doing one thing well.

Here are some of the ones I think are most relevant:

  1. Researcher
  2. Librarian
  3. Sketch artist
  4. Project manager
  5. Architect
  6. Builder
  7. Editor
  8. Arranger
  9. Coach
  10. Producer & Engineer
  11. Marketing

We will get into what these do & are below. Essentially, they are ‘mindsets’ that we must move between to effectively work during our composing. Some are more useful and relevant at the early stages, some in the middle and some at the end. But it’s not always linear.

The key is to think at all times, which archetype am I embodying? Who am I being? And are they the best person to get the job done right now? (For example, you really don't want your pedantic producer/engineer hat on when you're sketching - you'll get lost in compression & reverb settings before you've written anything.)

Let’s get into the pipeline and these roles in more depth.

1) Connect with Inspiration

Archetypes: Researcher & Librarian

Start out inspired, remain connected to inspiration throughout the project and end inspired by an inspirational piece. In other words;

  1. Know what you want to write
  2. Continually move closer to writing it (whilst finding stuff along the way)
  3. Achieve your goal of writing it (or something better)

But sometimes we start writing not knowing what we want to write and sometimes we lose inspiration along the way. Losing inspiration is of course part of composing, in fact, arguably it is composing! But we also need to dispense with the wasteful periods of self-doubt that plague most creative artists. You know, the periods of:

Getting Professional about inspiration is your first step managing this and the first step in this composer’s pipeline.

1.1 Keep a Composer’s Library

Keeping a composer’s library, in general, will mean that you almost never have to ask ‘what should I write’. You will be full with inspiration, or if you’re not, you’re only a few seconds away from reminding yourself of all the things you want to write & sound like.

I will write more in future about how to keep a good composer’s library, but simply think of it as a huge and carefully curated collection of all the music that inspires you, all organised in a way that helps you think about the craft of music better.

1.2 Build a Composition Playlist

Next, build a composition playlist which contains music that will inspire you whilst writing this particular piece. As you go out and research the music you wish to draw inspiration from, think of two questions to help you build this playlist:

  1. If I had already written this piece and it was the best outcome I could hope for, what would it sound like?
  2. What elements from these tracks do I want to use in my composition?

If you’re drawing from your existing library, this will be quicker, but if you’re starting from scratch, it will take a little longer.

Your goal in this stage is to thoroughly enjoy the process. If you’ve chosen to do this bit because you’re unsure of what to write and you find yourself thinking “this is wasting my time, I need to get on with writing this…” then your mindset may be harming your work.

Your success with music is pretty much directly correlated with how immersed (enjoying) you are in the sound world you are writing for. If you are focussed only on the end result, rather than the feeling of music, then you’re not writing in a wholesome way and your process & therefore results won’t be deeply satisfying.

Your success with music is pretty much directly correlated with how immersed (enjoying) you are in the sound world you are writing for.

2) Create a Soundboard

Archetypes: Researcher & Librarian

Once you’ve got your inspiration, we want to step back and ‘look’ at it all. In other words, take it all in at once. Now, as musicians, we rarely do this because our medium is temporal. We need to borrow from the world of design to get better at this stage.

Pinterest for Musicians

One of the first places designers start is a style tile or mood board. In a sense, this is just what we’ve done with our playlist, but we need to get a little more specific with our research and find the exact bits we want to use, not just the full length of our inspiration tracks.

But how do we do this? How do we create effectively the ‘Pinterest of the composer’s world’?

Step 1 | Capturing Snippets

You want to record 10-15 seconds of the best bits that you want to use. Partially because you don’t want this stage to take up too much time, but also because they want to be instant snapshots of soundworlds you want to replicate.

I’m on Mac, and I use for this Piezo. Piezo is a super handy audio capture tool from Rogue Amoeba. It allows you to select an audio source (Chrome, Spotify, iTunes etc) and quickly record that audio.

I want to be clear here that if you decide to do this, I am recommending you do it for educational purposes only. This is not a recommendation to pirate music.

So, capture little snippets then that represent aspects/sections that you want to emulate or use to inspire you for your composition. How many? Up to you. Depending on the scale of your piece, I would say no more than 25 and no less than 5.

Farrago | Soundboards

Once you’ve got these snippets, we want to 'step back' and look at them and reorder them easily, like we would on Pinterest.

Now if you use a DAW, this may be pretty easy for you. However, even if you do - I would (if you can fork out the cash) recommend using a piece of software which is not the place you will eventually compose and arrange in.

Remember we’re trying to stay in the mindset of the researcher here. It’s not our job to know how it’s all going to work yet. Our job is to collect things that sound great.

The software I use is also by Rogue Amoeba, it's called Farrago.

Once you’ve created your soundboard, export it and save it with your project somewhere. You can always recall it later, in fact, I keep it open most of the time and drop ideas in there whenever I want.

The beautiful thing here is that you can use your own music as well as other people’s music and can keep adding & refining your sound set right throughout the project.

I got one of my students to do this the other day and we mixed up snippets from his existing piece of music and Hans Zimmer’s. It was so inspiring for him to imagine how he might be able to compose music like Hans and integrate those soundworlds into his compositions.

It’s not our job to know how it’s all going to work yet. Our job is to collect things that sound great.

3) Sketching

So at this point, we’re hopefully inspired and we have an intuitive sense of what our project is going to sound like. We don’t know how we’ll get there, but we know where we’re heading. Next, we become an amazing and prolific sketch artist.

  1. Researcher ✓
  2. Librarian ✓
  3. Sketch artist

A sketch artist feels no pressure and is not necessarily practically minded. They also basically don’t think about structure at all and are only after the inception of compositional ideas - in other words, ideas in their embryonic form.

They don’t worry about how all their ideas will come together, the just focus on exploring and coming up with short ideas to sort later.

3.1 Leave the Computer

Step 1 to being a great sketch artist is (in my opinion), leaving the computer.

For me, the computer can often distract me from thinking about my new soundworlds in some crucial ways. By nature, computers ask us to quantify everything. In other words, by ‘putting it in’ to the DAW or Sibelius, we have to commit our ideas into form.

However, there is a lot to be said for leaving ideas in the formless space a little longer. Let me explain what I mean.

3.2 Let Ideas be Ideas Longer

If you’re at the piano/guitar whatever and you’re thinking about your soundboard/soundworld and coming up with ideas, you will hopefully be hearing more than you’re playing. This is the subtle and ephemeral space that composers operate in and where a lot of ideas come from.

In other words, before you actually get the idea out, there is a period where that idea is coming into form in your mind. If you rush this stage, good ideas sometimes come out very differently to how you heard it in your head.

That being said, the computer may be the right place for you to think like this. As with everything in this post - discard and disagree with anything that’s not useful to you.

So how do you get your ideas out without nailing them down too much?

3.3 Voice Memos

In other words, low-resolution snippets of your project to help remind you of what you want to do.

Charlie Puth called his recent album Voicenotes in honour of how integral using voice memos is to his creative process. Just watch this interview with Rolling Stone. You’ll hear him talk about referencing his voice memos and ‘sonically modelling’ other artists - exactly our first two stages.

Voice memos allow you to:

1) Vocalise ideas 100x more quickly than trying to execute them

 

2) Explain your idea to yourself to clarify

 

3) Not worry about voicing, arrangement or execution

 

3.4 Add the sketches to your soundboard

You can then wack these into your soundboard to start comparing and assimilating all your work/ideas/planning in one place. You can stand back and look at a wall of ideas that include your own and all the music you aspire to be - it’s a pretty awesome thing to do.

4) Setup & Plan the Project

 

Archetypes: Project Manager

  1. Researcher ✓
  2. Librarian ✓
  3. Sketch artist ✓
  4. Project manager

Depending on your process & project, a project manager might do any of the following:

4.1 Set up templates & orchestration

Setting up your template/instruments is a vital step to take before you embark on filling out your composition. It’s the vertical part of planning. The horizontal part is structuring sections.

By starting with a template, you have something to ‘compose into’ as opposed to trying to do arrangement and orchestration on the fly.

However! This is a prime example of one of the stages that you might choose to do later. You may want to compose in a ‘reduced’ environment, i.e. just the piano – and then arrange and orchestrate your composition later.

I personally do a mixture of both, I like to have the template all set up and to compose on the piano primarily in the early stages. When I know I definitely want (for example) a trumpet to play this particular line, I will put that on the trumpet part. However, if I’m not sure or it’s too difficult to arrange at that point, I will just leave it on the piano.

This is a perfect example of a decision your project manager needs to make.

4.2 Prioritise your Workflow

You have a pile of sketches & snippets on a sound board. Now it’s the project manager’s role to organise them and to prioritise which you work on first. Some of them might be really integral to write first, whilst others are merely bookmarks to consider later.

Remember one of my favorite quotes whilst you prioritize this:

What’s the one thing, such that by doing it, everything else becomes easier or unnecessary.

In other words, are there sections which are cornerstone bits that you know will define and make up a huge proportion of the piece, e.g. the chorus?

4.3 Create a Basic Structure

Whilst the organising of the soundboard may have given a very strong idea for the pieces entire structure, it’s still worth mapping out the entire trajectory of the piece.

This can seem really restrictive in principle. But it’s liberating when you realise that the structure is there to;

  1. Focus and break down your efforts into bite-sized chunks
  2. Encourage you by showing you the limits/boundaries of your task
  3. Show you the repeating elements in your composition (woo copy paste!... sort of...)
  4. Give you something to reject and break out of later when you find something better!

Remember the principle that you need a structure in order to break it properly. Or you need rules in order to break them. That’s what makes it exciting for you and for the listeners. It’s what gives your process intentionality and rigour - rather than your writing ‘anything’ falling into a complete void of endless possibility.

4.4 Book musicians for recording/rehearsal

There is NOTHING like booking musicians into your diary for rehearsal or recording to motivate you to compose. Doing this does two primary things:

1) Gives you a deadline, so you keep working on it and are more likely to see the project through. In other words, it makes you more invested emotionally, if not financially.

2) Makes the project ‘a thing’, rather than just a lonely idea in your folders that you don’t need to be accountable for and can forget easily.

3) Connects your composing to a person. Writing for people is SO motivating and inspiring, especially as they often come up with better ways of doing things you’re trying to execute.

4.5 Organise Project Folders & Pipeline

I work with a DAW & so versions, session files, audio, backups etc are essential. Setting up a music writing project folder is essential for me. 

The beautiful thing about this at this stage is when you end up with a number of projects, you structure your top-level folders as a pipeline. Then you can effectively dip in & out of projects at different stages and as different roles.

The reality of being a musician is that you rarely write & produce all in one session. We dip in and out of the project and need to give our ideas breathing room whilst we work on others. I wake up some days wanting to be a producer and so a pipeline allows me to go straight to the producer stage and work on anything that's there.

The full pipeline for me looks like this and my project folders slowly move through from 1 to 7 (ideally!).

  1. Compositional Ideas
  2. Sketching
  3. Re-sketching
  4. Structuring
  5. Colouring
  6. Producing
  7. Mastering

Non-linearity

I said at the start of this post that you shouldn’t take this completely literally. The creative process is, of course, non-linear and won’t be as neatly tied up as this guide implies.

Do jump around if you need to. For example, I quite often need to/want to produce a section of my composition before I finish the entire thing. There’s just something about completely polishing off 10 seconds of music that allows me feel a lot more confident about the rest of the piece.

However don’t let this sidetrack you, you need to understand your own creative impulses as well as procrastination. Sometimes your desire to polish this section will unconsciously be a way to avoid having to write more because you’re scared of not being able to come up with more material or structure your composition.

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Let us know your process below! Whatever your stage of writing, experienced or beginner. I'm sure i've missed elements and would be interested in your thoughts.

Part 2 coming soon...