I wrote this post for those having trouble getting started with their own compositions. While it’s important to know music theory, harmony, structure, arranging, and orchestration, it’s perhaps more important to develop your own composing process. Some may argue that understanding music theory is absolutely essential to ones success as a composer, but I’m not so sure I agree. There’s several methods to approach writing a new composition, the traditional pencil and manuscript, music notation software, Digital Audio Workstation, or my personal process combining all three. There’s of course many more ways than these to compose music, but we’ll focus on these for now.
The most traditional way to write a composition is using a pencil and manuscript. In the past most composers would sit down at their instrument and start playing, when they stumbled across something they liked they would start writing it down. The benefit to this method is it’s inexpensive and can be done almost anywhere at anytime. This method can be very quick and easy provided you know how to write music, you can avoid the hassles of learning software it’s simply writing. The disadvantage with this method is you must be able to read and write music very well and have an understanding of music notation. The other downside is when composing for larger groups you’re unable to hear your composition as a whole, for example you can’t play forty instrument staves simultaneously on the piano.
The second method for composing music uses music notation programs such as Sibelius and Finale. The advantages to working this way is the software can do most of the heavy lifting automatically taking care of spacing, beaming, and note stem direction. The other advantage with music music notation software is it provides the ability to notate what you’ve played on your keyboard, and the playback features allow you to hear your entire score regardless of how many staves it contains. The disadvantages are the software can takes a while to learn, things that are simple to write on manuscript can take a great deal of time in software if your not sure how it works. Using music notation software to write your compositions is a better solution if you’re less confident in your music writing skills. Honestly, egardless if your new to composing music or a seasoned professional most of your music scores will end up in a music notation program, who wants to write ten or more copies of their music by hand.
The Digital Audio Workstation (DAW) is a highly effective way to get your compositions underway. DAW software like music notation software is a more expensive approach to music composition than using a pencil and manuscript. The advantage to using a DAW is the ability to hear all instruments in your composition simultaneously, your instrument performances can be recorded in much greater detail, and use of third party instrument samples can result in great sound quality. Another advantage is most DAW’s have score editors allowing you to print sheet music directly from your DAW. The DAW is music production software so your performances and sound quality will be best with this method, because that’s the purpose of this software, but the flexibility of most DAW’s scoring features are lacking compared to music notation software. Disadvantages to this method of composing tends to be price and the software learning curve.
My personal composing process makes use of all these methods, pencil and manuscript, DAW, and then music notation software. First I sketch out ideas on manuscript mostly simple melodies, chord progressions, perhaps song structure. With my rough sketch in hand I continue to develop my composition in my DAW, adding instruments, counter lines, and perhaps expanding the compositions structure. Once I’ve finished composing in my DAW I review each instrument track in the score editor to ensure all articulations and dynamic markings are in place, and that notes are correctly written and easily readable by other musicians. Once I’m convinced the music in my DAW is correctly represented in the score editor I export the score as a MXML file and then import that MXML file into my music notation program. Once the composition is in my music notation software I add a title page, introduction pages, and copyright information, and further check to ensure there are no mistakes in the conductors score and the individual instrument parts. When I’m satisfied I’ve made all the corrections necessary and that my composition is as accurate as possible its time to print it out.
The process you use for developing your compositions should allow you to be creative, help inspire you, be productive, and most of all be fun. Take the time to explore these and other methods and you’ll surely come up with a process that’s right for you. Whether using a pencil and manuscript, music notation software, a DAW, or some combination of the three, developing your process is important. Happy composing