In this series of articles, I will address, not the specifics of how one composer worked versus another. Instead, I am going to take a bird’s eye view of the music composing process.
[Update: 2019] I’ve written some more on the process of composing, and I think you’ll enjoy these articles as well.
- Failing Before You Start: The Pre-composition Stage
- Everyone’s Doing It, No One is Talking About It: Sketching Music
- Video: Five Minute Speed Composing Session
- All Articles and Videos on Process
The Composing Process is Personal
The music composing process is a personal one. Every composer that I have ever met, or read about, has their own unique process. Some, like Mozart, are famed for being able to compose an entire piece of music in their head, and then write it down.
Others, like Beethoven, struggle with an idea for years, putting down fragments of sketches in notebooks, only to realize the full form of the music years later.
But where are the consistencies? Is there anything that all composers do, regardless of how they execute their process?
Know Thyself: Self-Reflection
My goal is not to give you a roadmap for composing your masterpiece. If I were to attempt that, I would undoubtedly fail.
My goal is actually to give you insight into your own process of composition.
One of the great similarities between all of the great composers, was their keen intellect and ability for deep, reflective thought. Not only did they read about and discuss philosophy and the nature of the universe, religion and themselves – they were also very deeply in tune with what they needed to accomplish in their process of composing.
How Do You Get Your Best Ideas?
Some composers prefer to improvise their compositions, writing freely and letting ideas flow.
Other composers prefer to write down specific themes, and then let their subconscious come back to them later.
Still other composers would work out their music systematically, step by step, using formulas and mathematical equations.
None of these methods are better or worse than any other. The end result still needs to be music you composed that you can live with, and hopefully enjoy.
In fact, they are really just ways of generating ideas. Generating ideas is only one step in the process.
First, all music must be initially inspired, whether in complete form, in fragments or even in the idea of mathematical equations.
Without an initial spark, or “fantasy,” as Max Graf calls it, there is no music. This is the inspiration that brings us to compose.
How composers get this inspiration is as varied as the musical product themselves. Some get it from reading, others observing the world. Many have inspirations from life events.
Inspiration may not be in the form of a flash of brilliance in your mind. It may be one note. Or maybe a rhythm. It may just be a word describing an emotion – love, hate, fear. Whatever the inspiration is, you must be able to recognize it.
Inspiration may not also come immediately. Many composers are fond of writing down many ideas, improvising, or just playing freely until they hear something they like. Then they’ll write it down or play around with it.
What About When I Have No Inspiration?
Sometimes, you will not have inspiration. What do you do? You need to stir your imagination. What works for me, is to feed myself with as man sources of potential inspiration as possible. I read about music theory, I try new techniques, I listen to new composers, I’ll play different instruments… but most importantly, I’ll force myself to write down music.
If you write down music, ideas will come eventually. Sometimes you have to work to be inspired.
Sometimes inspiration is not enough. If it were, then everyone would be a great composer. That is because everyone is inspired by something. Everyone has emotions and almost everyone wants to express themselves in the most true way possible. But the great composer has to be able to do one thing above and beyond others. This is the suppression or even removal of inhibition.
Inhibition, or letting the conscious mind throw away ideas before they have germinated into something more powerful, is the enemy of inspiration. Some composers struggle with this more than others, but all great composers have come up with a process of removing inhibition from their minds while composing.
The first sketches of an inspiration may not be the best you can make with that inspiration. Inhibition will prevent you from even getting those first sketches down.
Raising Your Composition Like a Child
Composing can sometimes be like raising a child. You give birth, and it is the most beautiful thing in the world.
But after a few hours, you realize that this little thing, poops, cries, scratches, needs to eat, and seems to wake up immediately after you fall asleep.
But if you tend to its needs, feed it, change it, love it, teach it – you will end up with another fully formed soul, that lives on its own. It creates its own magic.
Composing is the same. Do not suppress your inspiration. There will be plenty of time in the future to say whether or not an idea is worth pursuing. For now, just go with it.
Leave a comment about how you find inspiration and remove inhibition.