The Five Phases of Composing - and Upcoming Training Course

Feb 11, 2022
Inside the Score
The Five Phases of Composing - and Upcoming Training Course

Transcription of Episode

Hello and welcome to another episode of A Composer’s Journey

So I know so many people are stuck with turning their ideas into a full piece of music. With coming up with an idea, developing that idea, drawing it out, and creating a full, finished piece of music from that idea.

And of course it gets more complicated than that, because you might have two, or three ideas, and then you need to transition between these different ideas – how do you do that fluidly and organically?

This is actually the whole challenge of composing music, really. The challenge of composing music, in my experience, is coming up with good ideas, developing them, drawing them out into an emotional or musically satisfying journey, and then finishing what you’ve started.

And I think there are different ways of teaching this – you could teach techniques – you could say “Here’s how you vary a theme. You can put it in retrograde, you can turn it upside down, you can play it backwards”. But that doesn’t exactly help you to then go and write a full piece of music.

So I think what it actually comes down to is the process you use to write. I mean the overall creative process, from coming up with that initial idea, to finishing off the piece of music.

So I want to talk about that today – I want to demystify the process of writing a piece of music, which will hopefully save you a lot of time and allow you to finish more music.

And by the way, none of what I say is science – this is art, and everyone will have their own way of doing things. But this is a process that I, and a lot of other people, find very fulfilling and helpful when trying to write a piece of music.

The Composing Framework

So there are a set of phases that you’ll generally go through when composing – let’s call it the Composing Framework, just for the sake of this episode.

Now the way I used to work, and the way a lot of people work, is you just start writing. You start writing music down, and you hope that it leads somewhere – you just have complete faith in the idea that music will just appear. You’re basically improvising, in slow motion, onto paper. Now if you have a huge amount of experience improvising, with actual formal training, this could work well. You know, Jacob Collier had years of formal training in jazz and improvisation at some of the best schools in the country, if not the world. And there are organists like David Briggs who can perfectly improvise a complex fugue on the spot. That’s not normal – that requires years of dedication to learn.

I’d love to be able to improvise a full, formally beautiful piece of music, but I can’t – not yet. Maybe in 10 years. So we have to do it a different way.

Now as I was saying, what I used to do was just start writing, and hope that the piece of music would emerge. And basically it rarely ever worked – the structure was weak, the ideas were loose, and it would generally be an un-compelling piece of music. It’d also be really difficult, because you had no idea where you were going, and you’d tie yourself in knots, you’d get stuck on where to go next, or it’d wind up being really boring and repetitious.

In fact I got so fed up of composing this way that I gave up for several years. I stopped doing it because it just felt so difficult and unfulfilling.

It was only several years later, when I was in America and met with several working composers, that I realised a lot of the more successful composers worked in different ways. They had clear phases, clear structures of working, even if they didn’t realise it themselves.

So here it is – the Composing Framework, if you will – and just to remind you, this is not a science. This is an art. But this framework can be a very helpful way for you to think about your process of writing a piece of music.

The Creative Phase

First, there’s the Creative Phase. This is a critical first stage – this is where your brain needs to be in a very creative space. A lot of composing music is about problem solving – you need a logical brain to figure certain things out. But not here. Here’s where we need to be in a creative space.

This is where you’ll be experimenting with different themes, or different ideas, different harmonies, different orchestrations.

I know that when John Williams was writing for Close Encounters of the Third Kind, he went through 300 iterations before he settled on his main theme. That’s crazy – 300 iterations for such a simple theme. But that kind of patient craftsman-ship pays off – I mean, it’s John Williams! I’m not saying you need to go through 300 iterations of your ideas, but I’m saying that it’s clear that this was part of John Williams’ creative phase.

And John Williams also typically writes his credits sequences first – the credits sequence are all his themes, all his ideas. That’s his creative phase – he’s coming up with his themes, style, harmonic language, orchestrations. And by doing that first, it makes the later stages of scoring to picture easier, because he knows what his themes are, he knows what his style is, what kind of orchestrations he’s writing for.

Or take Hans Zimmer for another example – for the last 10 or 15 years, Zimmer has been known for creating extraordinary soundscapes for each of his films; each of his major films has had a very different sound world. Well, when he’s beginning a project, before committing any music to picture, Zimmer will write a suite of ideas. That suite of ideas will just give him the chance to explore themes, explore soundscapes, and so on.

So the creative phase is really important for coming up with these ideas. And I generally believe that the longer you have for a creative phase, the more creative or special ideas you will have. Obviously there’s a limit for that – you don’t want to spent 2 years in this phase and never writing anything concrete. But if you only give yourself 1 hour for the creative phase, you probably won’t have as many special ideas as if you give yourself, say, 4 days, or a week, or whatever. As I say, Hans Zimmer or John Williams have weeks for their creative phase – they’re given the time to really explore some unique ideas. That being said, you can do this in a condensed period of time, if you’re on a deadline.

The Planning Phase

Next comes the Planning Phase. This is where we start to establish some sense of structure. We’re still being creative, but now involving a little more of the logical brain too. This is where we want our piece of music to start making sense – to start taking us on a more emotional journey. We’re planning.

Imagine setting off to write a novel, with no idea where you’re going. You might write 20, 30, 40 pages, but eventually you’ll tie yourself up. Even with a plan, you might tie yourself up, but at least you’ll know where you’re going.

So planning is where you start figuring out how you’re going to take your ideas, draw them out, develop them, and turn them into a genuine structure. And there’s maybe 10 or 12 very common structures in music – but of course rules are made to be broken. So a lot of interesting pieces base themselves on one of these most common structures, but then break the rules and go their own way.

If you look at Beethoven’s sketches and Beethoven’s plans, it’s really fascinating to see just how he draws them – he’s not writing a full piece of music yet – they’re sketches of where his ideas can go, how he’ll turn his ideas into a full flowing, powerfully structured piece of music.

The Fleshing Out / Important Work Stage

Anyway after you’ve planned out your music, you go to what we could call the “Fleshing Out” stage. Or maybe we should call it the “Important Work” stage, because this stage is where you really need to shift into concentration and focus, and problem solving as opposed to creativity.

At this point, we’re actually starting to write properly. We’re thinking about good harmony, good counterpoint. Making your harmonic lines flow, making sure your counterpoint keeps things interesting, dynamic and exciting. And this is actually a bulk of the process – but it’s hopefully enjoyable – it’s sort of like a craftsman, or a sculptor, chiselling away at a block of marble to turn it into a statue.

This is also where a lot of people give up. This phase takes work, and what happens often is, if you’re not on a deadline, you look at your music before it’s really ready, and you think “These ideas are crap. They’re not good enough. I’m going to drop this and move onto a new piece of music”. I swear it’s always at this stage of the process that that happens – I’ve felt that way too, very often. It can be painful.

But I can promise you this – whenever I’ve forced myself through – whenever I’ve forced myself to finish, even if it takes a bit longer than I’d hoped, it’s always rewarding in the end. Because if you patiently work through this phase, you’re turning your ideas into something worthwhile.

The 'Flying' Phase

They may seem boring when the piece is still unfinished. But the closer you get to the finish line, the more exciting your ideas start to sound.

In the last quarter or so of the project, it often feels like you’re flying. The closer you get, the more these ideas start flying out. And the reason for that, I think, is that you know what language you’re writing in, you know what you’re doing, you know where you’re going. And so everything starts flowing – it feels amazing.

But to get to that point, you have to go through the work first. You can’t just sit and hope for a wave of inspiration. It pretty much never happens. You work first, you write, you push through the difficult problems, and once you get to a certain point, that’s when the wave takes over and it feels glorious – almost addictive. That’s what’ll keep you coming back to write more music.

When people working in the industry say they write 2-3 minutes of music a day, it’s often because they’ve reached this point – where they know what language they’re writing in. They’ve already come up with their ideas, they’re now super familiar with the forces they’re writing for, with the harmonic language they’re writing in, the style they’re writing in, and so on.

If you’ve never written for a big band before, and then you try and write 2 minutes for big band in one day, you’ll probably be screwed, or write something bad. But if you’ve given yourself time to become familiar and comfortable in that style, and had a bunch of practice, then 2 minutes per day starts to become possible, as long as you’ve gone through your creative stages already.

The Finishing / Polishing Phase

And then there is a final point, which is a Finishing Phase, or a Tidying up phase. This is where you complete your orchestration, your dynamics – if you’re mocking up a virtual performance or writing something with a lot of sound design, you’ll want to tidy that up or pre-mix that. But this is also where you really polish your music, add that extra shine to make it special. 

So those are the common phases, in my experience, of composing – the Creative Phase, the Planning Phase, the Fleshing Out Phase, the Flying Phase maybe, and the Finishing or Polishing Phase.

And there’s obviously a lot more to each of the phases than what I’ve said here – it’s about knowing how to develop your theme, knowing how to turn your music into a coherent structure, knowing proper principles of harmony, counterpoint, orchestration, and the emotional journey. So this has been an overview of the framework, but we haven’t gone into the nitty gritty.

But imagine how different your music could be, your writing process could be, if you followed this sort of framework, instead of just writing ideas and hoping that something works. Do you think you’d enjoy the writing process a lot more if you followed this kind of process, from start to finish? Do you think you’d come up with better ideas, and finish better music? I only ask because I’ve seen it time and again, and I really do believe that it works.

What impact would it have on your music, to follow a framework like this? Do you think you’d write more? Do you think you’d grow as a composer?

Getting from your initial ideas to a finished composition is absolutely possible, and when you follow this framework it immediately becomes easier, and it will help you to grow as a composer, and finish more music.

In-Depth Training

And you can probably tell I love talking about this. If you’re on my list you know I’ve been sending a weekly email about music or composing, and they’ve received so much positive feedback – I’m so grateful for that. Lately I’ve had so many questions that I’ve decided to offer a more in-depth training on this.

So this training is going to be specifically on the process of composing a piece of music from start to finish – the idea is that you will compose a new, rich piece of music, as you go through the program. And the training is going to go deep on each of those steps I just talked about – we’ll go deep on the Creative phase, and on the planning phase – talking about how to develop your themes, turn them into a coherent structure and emotional journey, and how to flesh out your piece.

And we’ll also talk about principles of harmony, orchestration, counterpoint – the kinds of things which will really solidify and enhance your music.

My plan for this initial version of the training is that there will be 5 live calls. I’m thinking they’ll be on a Thursday, around 6pm UK time, for 5 weeks. For each call, I’m going to walk you through the process, the details, and I’ll also be responding to your questions live, and helping you solve your own problems or challenges, whatever they may be.

And if for whatever reason you can’t make the live call, then you can send in questions in advance, and you can watch a recording of the lesson later on.

And I’m sure as we grow out the training, there’ll be additional resources too – as much as you need to get the result – to finish your music, and write better music than you ever have before.

Now, one important note – you don’t have to be very experienced to go through this training. But I would recommend some level of musicianship – maybe you play an instrument to a decent level, or you have a decent ability to read music, or play music back that you hear.

If you’re totally new to music, and have untrained ears, or have very little musical experience, then this might not be for you, as I’m hoping to make this program for people who do have musical experience already.

And the other thing to mention is – you don’t need to have great tech to join. I personally like to write my music on Cubase, or Dorico – those are both software for writing music on my computer. But you don’t have to do this – you’ll still get a bunch out of the training. But the reason I like these methods is that, if you’re using them well, you can quickly play back and hear what your music actually sounds like. Of course it’s not perfect, there are drawbacks to this method too.

But in terms of running a course, it might be a good idea to have access to some kind of software for writing in your music and hearing it back – that way we can share our music with each other.

So with all that said – I hope that you’ll consider joining me. There will be a limited number of spots – I’m thinking around 30 people - in this version, so that I can really serve each person who joins me. But if you can’t make this session, don’t worry, I’ll be opening it again in the Springtime for a wider audience.

It’s going to be coming out very, very soon – watch your inbox on Sunday – I’m going to send an email out at around 6pm UK time on Sunday – that’s 1pm Eastern time, 10am Pacific time on Sunday, where I’ll be opening up registration for this program. I can tell you that this is an opportunity for you to get more of my attention than anyone will ever get in this program – to work in a tightly knit group of 30 or so students.

So watch your inbox at around 6pm UK time this Sunday, if you don’t want to miss this opportunity!

Thanks for listening, and see you next time!

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