How Do You Start A Composition?

Hey guys,

hope you are all doing well. I want to know from you how you usually start a composition.

Do you have a template to start with? Do you just open Kontakt or whatever sampler or sound source you use and start throwing sounds around? Do you start with a specific instrument like a piano and then work from there? Do you play chords or begin figuring out a melody first? Pulses, or rhythmic pattern? Laying out harmony first?

Whatever your approach is, write it down! I think it will be interesting for all of us!

Kind regards,
Alexey (JLX)
@jlx_music

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Hi Alexey… I’m more hardware based …so I usually have 3 rack mount hardware synths plugged in when I launch say a club or house genre template … I tap tempo my bpm first …then lay down a bassline …I add drums after the bassline …as drums are pretty much static, if you do drums first you will fit your bassline around the drums so your are force fitting your bassline … I’d rather force fit the drums around a melodic bassline … once that’s set up its usualay a melody then chords …just saying …on occasion it’s the melody line, chords bassline then drums …just saying

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That is interesting Keith, I heard that Hans Zimmer often add percussion last in his compositions, even though he is a very rhythmic composer. He also mentioned that the drums come last to augment the rest.

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hello
when i start a new composition ( with or without a specific theme) i try first to define the progression, the tempo, the key
then only with the piano i try to compose a little melody or little mockup to keep all of my idea
then i build my setup in cubase, what i need in instrumentation ? it takes times i know but in this way i have only the instrument i need to have the color i need for the composition
after that i use my mockup and i try to do my best to orchestrate it with all the other instrument

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Hi, Sometimes I sit down with a phrase in mind for a particular instrument. Other times I go through a library to see if a particular instrument or combination interests me. I’ve been trying to write something every day and focus on completing it (not the same day). Often it sounds nothing like my starting point. I’m also telling myself it doesn’t have to be “good”, it just has to be.

I went through Kenny Werner’s book “Effortless Mastery” to help with performance. His advice works really in almost every creative endeavor.

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I find templates to be a blessing and a curse. For orchestral stuff it makes total sense to have everything to hand to start off with. I have got some templates for electronic stuff but sometimes find them limiting.

Sound design and synth patches can be amazing starting points. I’ll do a sound design session. Then sample chop up and resample sometimes then work on a track in a separate session. I know a few electronic artists work in this manner. Sketch out the basic form and go from there.

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I don’t have a set rule for starting a track. Sometimes it will be a melody that I have going through my head, or a flowing chord progression with some suspended notes in their. I do, however, tend to add drum/rhythm tracks last so I can let the melody drive rhythm changes rather than the drums driving the melody.

If I am feeling completely maverick or creatively barren I will role some virtual dice, usually 6, and take the numbers as notes of a predetermined scale. It is amazing what melodies this process uncovers.

As an example I pick up my random scales app that I use for piano or organ practice and press the button. Whatever scale comes up is the key to write in, then roll the dice. If we have C harmonic minor and the dice throw up 5, 1, 3, 3, 6, 2 then we play with the notes G, C, Eb, Eb, Ab, D.

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Super interesting stuff @Adrian! Never thought about it at all! Definitely a good idea if there is no idea :slight_smile:

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Ah yes I have heard of the rolling the dice idea. But wait, what about poor scale degree 7, I feel sorry for him :wink:

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I have approximately one orchestral template, mostly Spitfire based, that I often use as a starting point for pure orchestral pieces, but other than that, I usually start with an empty project. (Well, I have a “template” for that as well, but that’s just a disabled Ozone 9 and Reference 4 on the master.)

Part of the reason I’m using an i9 rig with all libraries on SSDs is that I want to be able to leisurely load up whatever I need from my collection. I’ll usually “hear” parts of a composition with timbres and all in my mind before I dive into it, and it sort of goes both ways; I tend to “hear” various arrangements and melodies in the timbre of an instrument - so however I start, it’s important to find the right sounds for the job.

As for composition, it depends on genre and style. Sometimes, it starts with a theme or melody that everything is built around. Other times, I just have a “sound” with a vague idea of scales and themes, so I start with a chord progressing, on build on that. In some cases (often, with more “lively” classical style writing), I start with an approximate chord progression, work out a theme over that, and then start reworking the chord progression to follow the variations in the theme.

When it comes to arrangement, I occasionally sketch using a full strings ensemble or (less commonly) piano, but usually, I just start fleshing out the full arrangement right away, one instrument/section at a time. As long as everything runs live, and one can edit multiple tracks together in piano roll/staff/whatever, it’s perfectly workable, and once that’s done, all that remains before mixing and mastering is some tweaking of articulations and expression.

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You’ve heard all those stories about number 7, well they are all true and he should be left well alone :laughing:
one does not want to ‘diminish’ his stature too much though.:rofl: (sorry for the bad joke)

haha, well I like diminished chords, at least for dark atmospheric tension music :stuck_out_tongue:
Sadly no 7 side dices that I know of though, and I played my fair share of D&D lol :wink:

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Well you could use this https://www.mathgoodies.com/calculators/random_no_custom and just press the enter buttons 5 or 6 times to get different random numbers.

I usually start by writing a complete piano piece for two sets of hands, or even 3.

I also, as someone said above, add percussion last. I don’t want drums to mask weak programming of the various choirs.

And often harp is last of all—it’s like sprinkling magic dust on everything.

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Regarding your last part, I agree, sprinkles last. Which imo includes scale runs, transition effects etc.

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Thank you guys,
really interesting as everybody has different approaches. Now I write down shortly how I start my compositions:

Unfortunately, I’m still building my template, I want basically all of my instruments be in there. Of course not all of my patches, (would be crazy), but definitely all the basic stuff. Strings Sections, Brass Sections, Wood Sections, Pianos, Drums, E-Drums, Heavy Cinematic Drums, Guitars, Basses, Synths, SFX, etc. I am going into the direction of 1000 tracks, so I need a good organisation, and that takes some time…
I just realised how fast you can just through in ideas, if you have already your sections prepared, as well how fast you can duplicate your midi-files and copy the patterns to other instruments. I think in the long run you save a lot of time, so you have more time for others things as well.

I am a keyboardist, so normally people think I start with a piano and move from that. However it’s not the case at all. I almost never use the piano as my starting point, if I know that the piano won’t be my major instrument in a production. I am more creative as well music-wise, when I just take a patch, and see what musical ideas I connect to that specific sound. If I have no idea after 10s I go to the next patch, it’s that simple.

My strategy varies if I start with a progression or with a melody. I either re-harmony the melody, or if my chords are layed out I write a melody over them. This approaches give me more creativity, but takes more time to perfect the idea.

What I do as well, I try to record just a “perfect” take myself. Let’s say I can’t play what I have in mind, so I just practice it until I can do it constantly “ok” and only then I record that take. I lose a lot of time, yes, but I am 100% sure a real human being / player can definitely play my music. If I am not sure, I send a take to a colleague, who plays that instrument and ask what he thinks. I guess you know JXL or Brain Tyler, when you follow their channels. He told once that his recording sessions are always re-composing his music, because the arrangers know what is best for the orchestra to shine. But you can only learn it when you really focus on learning the super specifics of that instrument and take your time to study the little nuances.

If I am stuck, I don’t through dices, I just go to another production or even a mix, to just go away from the current music and forget about it for a while to be more fresh when I come back. Definitely works for me.

Because I am a mix-engineer too, I know how many problems can occur, if the arrangement are not fully “figured” out. Too many layers, too much stuff going on, lack of focus, bad choice of sounds, etc. So when I approach my music, I always take my time to figure out, what the tracks really need, and what I can through away. Lately I was taking a trailer mix course and you can’t believe how much that guy needed to adjust, so the music could really shine. It’s not rare to see projects that are 80+ tracks, because this is what I know myself: “The more I put in, the fatter, bigger and punchier my music will be…”, NO! Not at all! The better YOU figure out, what your music really needs to shine, making room for your melodies, breaks, accents, etc. the less you need to fix it later on in the mix. Sometimes I still find that a lot of tracks are too over-composed, and it’s hard to focus on the main idea. Here is a good example, that you don’t need to over-compose anything and just stay true to your original idea:

Similar to what HZ has done with “Time”…

Kind regards,
Alexey (JLX)
@jlx_music

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Since I am very new at this music stuff I
usually just get away from the computer and lay back and just hum melodies
and rhythmic ideas

  1. And when I think I have some pretty good then I go to the Mac
    and start to slowly practices each musically idea on my midi keyboard or guitar
    so I can actually play it well enough to record each part
    That one way I start

  2. Another way I start is just place my hands on the piano or midi keyboard or even on my iPhone garage band just hit randomly or randomly on just 2 intervals anywhere on the keyboard and just listen :ear: closely to the new sounds and see if I can hum a melody to it
    and then as I am still learning but try to see if I can find basic chords to go with that particular sound

  3. This is more of out of the box ideas
    I try to recreate a sound from scratch Completely dry no wet effects to get in the way and start to slowly layer and listening to each and every part I start to glue together and slow introduce one effect at a time to hopeful start to create a one thread by on thread of sounds

  4. I also try to force things together if it is all possible or try to look for patterns

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This is also a good good method for getting a different sound, and focusing on new perspectivs.

Link to an online version

http://stoney.sb.org/eno/oblique.html

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Oh now that you mentioned this, I have actually heard about this before. Thanks for the link and tip Aske! :slight_smile:

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I tend to start by THINKING about what I’m hoping to achieve. I know that sounds a bit pretentious - like, surely EVERYONE is thinking about what they want to achieve before they start, right?

Surprisingly, I’ve found not.

A lot of composers just jump straight in, open their DAW and then try to figure out what they’re doing.

For me, that’s a bit like a painter setting up their canvas, getting all their paints prepared and mixed and setup on their palette, before they’ve even decided what they’re going to paint, or even what the purpose of the painting is and what size of canvas / type of medium that purpose might require.

So I take a step back, I think about what type of piece I’m aiming to create, and then what musical elements will create that style. What timbres? Tempo? Meter? Structure? Possibly even harmonic and melodic ideas, or interesting things that I might want to experiment with (like if I want something to be disorientating, maybe there’s some odd mathematical formula I can find to create a trippy rhythmic pattern).

If there’s a story I’m trying to tell with the music, I’ll think about how best to tell that. I did a film once that was all about clockwork, so I created the majority of the score with “found sounds” of any kind of mechanical equipment I could lay my hands on.

So for me, personally, STORY and CONCEPT is the most important thing. Once I have those down, I find the actual music comes a lot easier, as all of the THINKING is already done!

I also liken the process to an author mapping out their book before they start writing. That said, I’ve heard that Steven King just writes without any real plan at the start - so there’s clearly merit in that method too!

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