My compositional process
Thought I’d write up a personal analysis of my composition process. It’s one that has changed and adapted over the years, but it’s in a fairly solid state now, to the point where I can break it up into simple steps.
- Mood. I need to feel creative first and foremost – otherwise nothing happens. I am at my most creative when I’m isolated or in a quiet area and have time to think for myself. I cannot be stressed, that slows the process down to a crawl or halts it entirely. Even when I don’t have much else to do, I seem to remain thoughtful and introspective, and it’s at these times of relative calm that my creativity begins flowing and I feel like writing something to get my thoughts out there in some shape or form.
- Stimulus. Once I’m in a creative mood, I will search for a germ of an idea. A set of feelings that I want to explore. An event that happened in my life or somebody else’s. All I often need is a word or two, which usually boils down to an adjective and noun (such as “crushed hope“). Or if there’s a particularly cool word I’ve heard recently (such as “Petrichor” or “Kugelblitz” – thanks vSauce :P), I will base the theme of the piece around just that word and what sort of things it conjures up in my mind.
- Ideas. This is usually done on paper before. Not a score sheet, though. I scribble down very basic and possibly indecipherable lines, symbols and words onto a spiral notepad, letting my ideas come out in the way that my brain feels most comfortable with. This is almost stream-of-consciousness, but I do need to consciously ensure to notate all the musical ideas in a format that I myself can understand.
- Key. I always work within a key, so I decide what that’s going to be almost immediately, within step 3, although sometimes I might only have a tonal structure of melody in mind, and then search for the ideal key to put in based on which sounds best for the feeling I want to evoke with the piece. 99% of the time, I pick a minor key, but my favorite minor keys to work in are E and F. Not really sure why. For me, A minor feels a little cheap by missing out all the black notes and making chromaticism feel jarring. B minor kind of feels a bit awkward to work in due to the actual pitch of the notes (it can be hard to pitch low guitars or basses in this key) and D minor is a key I just hear everywhere, although it’s fun to work with. The rest of the minor keys (including all the sharps) are usually fine.
- Realizing. This is when I actually start to put the music together. I open up my editor of choice, Cakewalk Express 3.02 (which is an old, old, old version of the Cakewalk software still around today – it was originally distributed on 3½ floppies!) and begin writing. I start out with what I consider to be the main melody of the piece, whether it makes up the opening verse, the chorus, or the middle section, and start building the full piece around it.
- Structuring. Regardless of whether it’s a vocal melody or not (and it usually isn’t), the main melody is usually the centre of what I will call the “chorus” of the piece, and I will usually repeat that section three to four times to flesh it out nicely and ensure there’s something that sticks in the listener’s head. I then break it up with some new melodies to create segments that build and develop between the choruses. There are nearly always three tracks being played at once. I add accompaniments and counterpoints as I see fit. Underlying chords are frequently done with synth strings or choir, or sometimes piano. I listen back to the track many times as I write, to get further ideas, or to see if any interesting harmonies (either on the lead instrument or the chord structure) leap out at me, which they often do. I almost always add a key change to the end of the song to bring a distinct sense of change before its completion.
- Finalising. The track is done! Or so I claim. Usually I have to give it a really good listen several times over before I decide I don’t wish to do any more to it. If I’ve been working solidly on the piece, I usually end up a little burnt out so I come back to the track the next day after a sleep, and it’s then that I start picking out errors I made which I didn’t spot before, like a bass that doesn’t match a melody or a snare drum which is a 32nd note out of place. This part of my compositional process also involves tweaking parts of the drumbeat to keep the track varied in terms of percussion, although in some cases I’ve been known to put all the key melodies down first, and leave the bass, or even drums, until very last (as I did with “Handle With Care”).
You can have a look on my YouTube channel, to which I’ve uploaded a few videos of me actually composing and working on various projects for friends of mine. They are all related to tracks I’m finishing, however, so there are sadly no videos that talk through the whole of the creative process yet, but I think I will do something like that in the near future.