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  • Writer's pictureDave

How to Understand Your Compositional Process

Every single composition masterclass I’ve ever been to, someone has to ask: What is your process? And usually, we don’t actually ever get into what the process is. We usually talk about everyone’s interesting quirk, like the type of pencil they use, or drinking a certain tea, or whatever. And that is all fine! We all have different ways of getting into the work. But, I do think there is a process of sorts. These are some of the things that I have learned about the Process of Writing Music.

First is Dreaming. This isn’t even the beginning, it is more of a prelude. I think of the Dreaming Stage as a rough awareness of the project. For example, I know that a reed quintet is coming to school and that I am going to write them a piece. But, this opportunity isn’t the next thing on my docket, it is a month or so away and I am still working on another piece. I’m aware that a project is coming, but it is on the back burner, it isn’t the priority. During this time, I use my listening to get the sound of the ensemble in my ear. Or if there is a concept that I want to explore, I might tailor my listening to that (exploring timbre, intonation, etc.). Dreaming is fun because the piece is just a possibility, it could be anything.

Second is Discovery. The work begins. You are finding the building blocks of the piece you are going to make. You are finding the ingredients to the dish you are going to cook. You haven’t quite started piece it all together but you are finding the identity of the piece. Discovery is messy. You aren’t going to find the ideas in a logical fashion or order. You won’t necessarily know how all of the ideas fit together, you won’t be able to see the full sequence. This is okay. The piece is elemental at this time, it isn’t supposed to have everything mapped out crystal clear. But, you should find around 3-5 ideas (probably more) that are going to become the cornerstone of the work. Even though you have started the work, there is still going to be a lot that you don’t know about it. Embrace the not knowing.

Third is Drafting. This where you will spend the grand majority of your time. Drafting is where you start to put the sequence together. Drafting is the work of connecting the dots and putting all of threads together. Keep in mind that you may not have discovered all of the threads yet. This is okay. A first draft is supposed to be a first draft. It is supposed to be rough around the edges. It supposed to be missing some details. Works of music are complicated. And sometimes you need to see the whole thing before you find the next layer. The more times you get to work through the piece the better. You may surprise yourself with some of the amazing ideas that you find in a second draft, ideas that might seem so integral to the work that you can’t believe they weren’t there from the beginning. Again, making music is not logical, it makes no sense. The ideas come when they do and drafting is the art of putting them in sequence. This will be the most variable part of the journey. Everyone will have a different time with this step depending on the timeframe and scope of their project. Ideally, you get to make at least a first and second draft before moving on.

Fourth is Defining. This is the completion of the piece. You are finishing the grand majority of the creative work and are making final decisions. This is the final draft and deadline is looming. This can be a stressful place to be, I know it is my least favorite part of the process. But, it is essential. You are confirming and defining the identity of the piece. Ideally, this will include making cuts and additions as needed. I find it significantly easier to do cuts than to need to pad up a section. But your ear will tell you what you need to do. The more you finish works, the better you will get at it. It is a special skill set and it takes time to develop. Remember, the deadline is not your enemy. It is your friend. Without the deadline, we probably wouldn’t finish the work.

The Final stage is Delivery. You are completing most of the non-musical tasks to make the work deliverable and shipable. This includes making Parts (if needed), making a title page, making an information page for the score, making a key for non-standard notation (if applicable), adding your bio, etc. Part of this is making program notes and putting them on the information page. Sometimes performers will request a MIDI version. This may or may not be applicable to your piece. You will also want to register the work with BMI or ASCAP, which ever you chose. I use BMI, but they both do essentially the same thing. Pick one and move forward if you haven’t already. The most important part of this stage is the handing over of the deliverables. You want to give everyone exactly what they need and you want to gracious and thankful while doing so. Remember, without performers, our music doesn’t get played. So, show your clients that you appreciate them and that you are thankful that out of everyone on Earth, they chose you. After you deliver, you’re done. Unless you are involved in the premiere or the performance, But that is a topic for another day.

How do you write music? What is your composition process like? Which stage do you like the best? Which stage do you struggle with the most? I would love it if you told me in the comments. I read every single one.

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