Dots and Squiggles: Composing Music

We have spent the last two weeks talking about time management. On this blog I will write more posts discussing the systems and administrative aspects of being a composer. I feel that is perhaps the least covered content when you learn about the composer existence, and I love to delve into those utilitarian areas. But for today let’s talk about the actual stuff of this life choice: composition of music. Sometimes I find myself spending too much time on the administrative tasks because in reality they are way less scary. Writing emails, organizing data, creating templates, even networking requires less vulnerability than actually sitting down and writing: opening up your soul, putting notes on the page (or midi blocks in the piano roll) and solving the musical problem at hand. It takes courage, especially that first note. So that is this week’s challenge: how does one actually write music? 

The first thing I do when I write music is listen. I try to hear in my head what needs to happen. I learnt about this concept at Scott Smalley’s orchestration workshop in 2010. The course itself was an adventure – from his Z clef approach to his alien abduction stories. But I loved this idea of writing in your head. He spoke of how when you rely on the sounds and instruments you have at hand it can influence the result – and not necessarily in a good way. If you are writing on piano, there’s a solid chance the music your writing will be good piano music but maybe not suitable for other instruments or for the scenario you are addressing. When you build what you want the music to sound like in your mind you don’t have to be influenced or limited by any instrument, your particular set of midi samples or your own playing abilities. All sounds are at your disposal and you can write for any performance level. 

I try to start the process in my head. Develop an idea of a melody, a texture or a pattern. Then I somehow document that concept. I may sing it into my phone but usually I like to write the theme out. (For me, sometimes if I sing or play the idea out loud, and mess it up in the process, it can completely erase it from my memory! So frustrating!! So I choose to quietly write.) If I am only on my phone I will usually write in numbers. If I am home I will grab the notation pad and actually scribble out (in fairly unreadable handwriting) my thematic ideas. I’ll then move very quickly to the DAW – especially it the project is on a tight deadline (and when are they not). But starting purely in my head, and writing it down without the influence of other sounds can really open up possibilities for me. 

So: I have heard an idea, developed it in my head, written it down and then filled it out on my DAW. Inevitably I will hit a point where things just aren’t working. I’ll try out a few ideas, but it’s still not right. Again, time to listen. At the point where I am stuck I will mute the ideas that aren’t working, play up to that crucial point and then stop and listen to what comes next. I keep doing this until I hear it. The answer. It’s there – I don’t really feel like its coming from inside of me at all. It is like the musical solution is just floating near me in the universe and if I listen carefully enough I can grab it and take it down. Elizabeth Gilbert in her TED talk talks about this: the “genius”, an entity or spirit completely separate from you, that imparts creative ideas. With this philosophy the ideas come from outside of you instead of within. I love that concept. There’s too much pressure when you feel like you have to be some compositional prodigy pulling beautiful melodies and edgy concepts from deep inside. Much easier to approach it as if they are glorious ideas floating around you which you can catch and put to use. 

The other aspect of this concept of listening and writing in your head is that you don’t have to be in your studio to start the process. When I have music to write and other things to do that day as well, what I like to do is watch the cue early in the day and then get other things done while my mind works away on the musical challenge – how to solve it, different approaches I could explore. When I sit back down at the DAW I want to have at least on option ready to try out. Yes, it may not work at all but having that first “something” is so important. Even if it doesn’t work, the fact that I know it doesn’t work is still progress towards a solution. When I sit down to work I want to have something to try out immediately. This helps me launch into the workflow instead of dawdling into the zone.  The empty page can be daunting. But if you sit down with a plan to proceed the page isn’t empty at all.

When working on a film cue from a client, words really help me. I put the spotting notes up on the screen along with anything else they communicated with me. I try and really hone in on the key words they shared. Then I start working out an idea while asking myself “Is that what they were asking for? Does this really achieve the goal we have for this scene?” When I have these words again I don’t feel like I am starting with an empty page. And that makes the whole approach less intimidating. 

Along those lines it is really important to understand musically what you are trying to achieve in that scene. Music in media has a storytelling and support function. Sometimes we get a cool idea and it really hits this and that in the picture. Check it out, it really fits! And yet it doesn’t fulfill the role the music was supposed to play. Therefore it isn’t right. At the end of the day you are there to serve picture, not develop a cool idea. Hopefully there will be many times when you can do both of those things, but serving picture always comes first. Asking questions of myself as I write helps me stay focused. Does this idea work with the goal of the music? Is it too busy? Am I supporting dialogue or trampling all over it? Is this music too big for the scene that is playing out? When I’m stuck asking questions will often help unstick my writing. 

I have many composer friends that do not have a classical background. They never learned an instrument through lessons, mainly picking things up by ear. They are great musicians but they have never learned how to read. I don’t think there is anything wrong with that and many film composers have proven that you don’t have to be able to read music in order to write a killer score. However, I would encourage you to take the time to learn how to read and then develop that skill by studying scores and learning more theory. When I was in high school I was super slow at theory. It did not come naturally to me at all. I had good ears, I was a solid performer but the theory side of things was painful for me. But then when I was doing my undergrad in Jazz performance I started to really get into writing. And then it occurred to me that if I understood theory, really understood it, I could write anything I wanted. I didn’t want to be limited by my lack of understanding. So I threw myself into learning theory, and focusing on Jazz composition. My composing really grew as a result. You are a composer because you love music, right? Well if you love it, nerd out on it. I promise you, it will enrich your existence and expand your musical boundaries.  Who doesn’t want that?!

I find that something special happens when you get those notes out of the DAW and into notation. I prefer to work in Sibelius, and when one of my compositions finds its way into that software, it usually means that live components are about to happen which is always super exciting. But I also get to see it written out AS MUSIC. I put in dynamics. I consider phrasing. I see how the different elements weave in and out of each other. There is power in this perspective. I feel like it makes me a better composer when I look at music from a notation standpoint. 

We chose to write music for a living because we love music. We want to do it all the time. But the challenge of writing for a living is that it is a job. You end up writing some music that you’re not super enthused about. That’s just part of the gig. I’m fine with it. But I have found that it is important to balance client work with finding time to write for yourself. Time to play with ideas, instead of only busting them out for a client-driven deadline. You need to be protective of your creative soul – it can be a fragile thing. If it gets the sense that it is enslaved to client work forever it may get tired and grumpy and then writing will become super challenging. What do YOU want to write? Is there a concept simmering away in the back of your mind? It deserves some exploration. Make that music happen, find the time. 

In addition to writing for yourself and being creative just to have fun, you also need to be replenishing the bank, so to speak. Are you going to live shows? Are you playing music, spending time on your instrument? I mean really playing, as in having fun! Are you spending time with other art forms – visual art, films (ones you didn’t score), great books. Our inner creative self needs to be fed in order to keep operating. Feed the beast! Lately I have been playing piano every day and this has brought me such joy. Moreover it has been quality time exploring the harmonic and melodic ideas of other composers. It is a great “hands on” way to study music.

Finally, let’s talk about a super important aspect of being a media composer: collaboration.  I want to do a whole post on this in the future but for now let me briefly touch on this idea. Collaboration with another composer can really be a game changer. It is challenging, it can sometimes be frustrating, but it will get you out of your comfort zone and open you to new ideas, new ways of doing things, new sounds, simply: NEW! We create best when we are being stretched. In my experience, collaborating with a trusted fellow creative will push your limits while also being a lot of fun. And it can help you feel less isolated. Composing can be lonely but we do not have to do this alone. Open yourself up to a new approach and see what happens.

Watching the FAME Orchestra record a project I co-composed with Brendan Hogan, Impossible Acoustic.

The last thing I want to mention is this: start writing and keep writing. The only way we get better at the thing is to actually do the thing. Over and over. Ira Glass talked about The Gap – that space of time where we have the potential to do good work but are, in the meantime, producing work that is not so good! Not at all! To get through the gap you just have to do the work. There is no avoiding it. So please, start now and don’t stop. Happy composing.


  • Your Elusive Genius – Elizabeth Gilbert
  • The Gap – Ira Glass
  • Your local art museums, live music venues, bookstores
  • Any score you can be your hands on – study that score!
  • Another composer you know and trust

Next Week…..

Coming up: an examination of how to deal with marketing and social media. It’s going to be fun! See you next Sunday.

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