The Method of Composition

This lesson focuses primarily on giving structure to your compositional process, and developing a game-plan to help you complete your pieces more efficiently.

Ultimate Guitar
I remember, when I was a freshman in high school, going to the music store and picking up my very first piece of notation software. And even more than that, I remember coming home and plugging it into my CD drive, creating my first new document, and sitting there, staring at the screen, thinking to myself, "Okay, now what do I write?" I lacked a plan for my composition. I was going to write whatever I thought sounded good at the time, from beginning to end, regardless of whether those ideas even came close to going together. Needless to say, these first forays into musical composition were not the greatest of things to listen to. If only I had taken the time to plan out my work before I had started doodling around with the piano, there might have been a decidedly different outcome.

But enough about the indiscretions of my youth, they're not what I'm here to talk about and almost certainly not what you came to read about.

Very frequently, in high schools, colleges, and even our own beloved UG forums, I see people who think that music composition is this mystical, revered art that only the gifted few get to understand. This could not be farther from the truth. Everybody can compose, and everyone can make their compositions sound awesome with only:

1. At least a cursory, but preferably a very strong understanding of music theory.
2. A definite plan of how your composition works and how everything fits together.
3. Copious amounts of patience and attention to detail.

Now, you're on your own for number 1, but fear not! If you're weak on your theory, there are numerous resources for you both on the web and right here on this very site to help you out.

Assuming your theory is up to snuff, we can move on to the most often overlooked phase of composition, the plan. Far too often people will sit down with their instrument or in front of a piece of staff paper or notational program and just write. Now don't get me wrong, the things you come up with in these sessions can be awesomely creative and you can come up with some awesome stuff this way, but I would argue that this method won't get you too far if you use it exclusively. Writing linearly, beginning to end, with this method often results in one of two things. You'll either get a bunch of very different, unique themes that don't go well together at all, or you'll get a piece with one or two themes recycled over and over and over again, without a lot of things changing. Now while neither of these things are inherently bad, they can both be improved with the aid of the composition sketch.

The sketch is actually the second step of our planning portion, the first step being what I call "genesis." This first step is where we come up with our idea. So, for example, I could say, "Well, I really wanna write a song about flight." I have now created an idea that I can build on. What about flight do I want to capture? What kind of flight? Is it a specific flight, or just the general idea of flight? I ask myself all of these questions, and I decide that I want to write a song about the specific reason birds fly south for the winter. Now, I know what my piece is about. The next step is how I'm going to capture that.

This is where the sketch comes in. In this step, we plan out the music of our song, without actually writing any notes, so that we know when and why a certain thing is going to happen. The sketch can be as vague or with as much detail as you like, but usually putting in the work during the sketch makes the actual writing that much easier. My sketches are usually excruciatingly detailed, but this is mostly just the way I operate. Here's an example of a sketch I'm doing for a piece called "Into the Air" which is for a full wind ensemble, or concert band.

Into the Air


| Brass Entrance W.W Runs Brass | Slower than
|Timpani pick-up|6/8 (Rhythms) | (Held Note)| (Rhythms) etc | SECTION I.
| Unison/Open 5ths Split |Rhythmic
| ...... | V chord.... || |aspects of
| | Release into
| | Symbolizes
| | "Take off"

Section I: c.a 96-104 bars
| A: 4 bar Ostinato in Fl/Kbds |Dance-like
| Theme is stated in its entirety, passing through band. |Completely
| Starts in Cl/Hn, then to Saxes, then Low Brass, then |state theme.
| upper winds. |c.a 16 bars.
| Other voices add "flourishes" |
| |
| B: Rhythms are slower, less syncopation. | Notice beauty
| Mixolydian scale. Melody in duet with Fl/Tpt. | around us.
| Rest of ensemble is harmony/tacet. | Calmer,
| | Reflective.
| | c. 16/24 bars
| |
| A': Theme is recapitulated in full ensem. Tpts/Cl/Sax | Running out
| have melody. Hn/Fl with countermelody. On second time | of fuel.
| introduce tones from parallel minor. Theme becomes | c.a 32 bars
| minor. |
| |
|A"/B' B is stated chorale-style in brass. A material is | Attempting to
| harmonically developed in WW voices. Chromatically | safely land.
| descending licks interrupt. Ends on Picardy 3rd, |
| transitions into SECTION II. | c.a 32 bars

I could keep going, but I think you get the point. I've got a vague "storyline" to the right, and then I talk about how I'm going to capture that musically on the left. Notice all the things my sketch accomplishes. It allows me to see the form of my piece and each of my sections. For example, the introduction is through-composed (no real form) and Section I is in a variant of binary form.

I've also covered my instrumentation, certain harmonies, how I'm going to transition between sections, and how long each section is going to be. By making this plan I can constantly check myself as to whether I'm accomplishing what I set out to accomplish and whether the individual parts of my piece work well together. It also allows me a chance to second-guess myself, because, should I want to change something, I have to convince myself to deviate from what is on paper. This provides me an opportunity to think about both my choices again, and ultimately decide which is better before continuing. As a composer, you'll do a lot of second-guessing, and this is where some of that patience and attention to detail comes into play.

Once I've gotten a definite plan down, I have a lot of freedom in actually writing. Because I already know whats going to happen, I don't necessarily need to start at the beginning, which can be a huge plus. Say I'm really excited to get the A theme of Section I in my piece I've sketched above. I can go ahead and go at it, and then I can even maybe use it in the introduction should I want to. This is a very very common compositional technique which I would be unable to do if I were forced into writing linearly. The sketch also allows me to focus on multiple planes of view. I can think about how a certain note interacts with the other notes of its motive, its phrase, its section, and ultimately the entire piece. I have a definite scope now. These are all great things to have, and ultimately allows you to have more control of your piece, which is always good. Now your sketch doesn't have to look anything like mine, but if you're at a loss, feel free to use the one above as a template to work off, just don't steal my ideas!

As for number 3, attention to detail and patience. These guys have uses during the writing of your piece, like when you can't get that one riff to sound just right and you're willing to spend the time to get it there, but where they really come into play is after most people think they're done. Contrary to popular belief, you are not finished a piece after you've written the last note. It's just like writing an essay, you have to go back and revise, edit, tweak, etc etc etc. These are the long, boring, uncreative parts, but they're the parts that really make your piece sparkle. In this phase, we go back and look at everything from those planes of view I mentioned above, how notes relate to phrases, and also how notes relate to the entire piece, and how phrases relate to sections, etc. And then we decide whether what we have on paper is really the most effective way to accomplish what we've set out to do. Again, it helps to have your sketch handy, cause here we know just what we were planning for that section, and can look that much more critically. Can you see how patience and attention to detail are important here? Make the little things right! Don't ever settle for "good enough." You have to please yourself before you can please your audience, so make it something to be proud of.

Again, just for review, here are your steps for composition.

1. Genesis (create an idea.)
2. Sketch (How do I express my idea musically)
3. Writing (... self explanatory, notes, rhythms, harmonies, etc.)
4. Revise/Edit (Fix all the little nitty-gritty details.
Note: Step 4 can be repeated a bunch of times until you're satisfied.

Well guys, that's pretty much all. Good luck, and get writing!


18 comments sorted by best / new / date

    I've never managed to get a full song done, as i can never get past the first riff. I think this method's gonna help. Great article dude
    excellent lesson! as an aspiring composer (in classical and progressive) I figured out a method similar to yours. I'm surprised to learn other people use this method.
    A good lesson but I don't like this sentence "Now don't get me wrong, the things you come up with in these sessions can be awesomely creative and you can come up with some awesome stuff this way"
    Great lesson! I've been writing mostly using roughly this method for half a year now, and it's just so much more fun, as well as easier. The value of sketching out musical ideas is so damned overlooked!
    Awesome lesson, im inspired to go write some music.
    The article targeting more Progressive music styles. What if a 3 piece alternative band wants to write a song? I mean they can just go, Intro riff leading into verse and chorus built on intro riff improvisation. Example of such structures is Nirvana, Audioslave, Stone temple pilots
    . Fair point, But id say the suggested method in this article allows for greater attention to detail, such as dynamics and changes of texture etc, just going ahead and writing as a band, everyone in the band wants to be the centre of attention in every part - Writing via a sketch helps each member see the bigger picture, hence better music is written.
    Best article on this site. Thanks a ton. Your theory articles (along with Nicolo Paganini, Yngwie Malmsteen, and other classic and neo-classical artists) have inspired me to try and write my own classical pieces. Thank you.
    The article targeting more Progressive music styles. What if a 3 piece alternative band wants to write a song? I mean they can just go, Intro riff leading into verse and chorus built on intro riff improvisation. Example of such structures is Nirvana, Audioslave, Stone temple pilots.
    I dont know, this'll help people who are huge supporters of musical theory. Alot of times, it just over complicates things to me. I will admit that music theory has its moments, but they dont have everything on DIY style melodies.