Q&A: How does a composer write music?



hello I did a Q&A video a few months ago that was actually relatively popular and so I thought I'd do another one and I put out a tweet the other day just asking if anybody had any particular questions that they might like me to address so I got one that came in that particularly intrigued me what's the best way you found to develop your musical thoughts from ideation to finished on paper so the first thing I'd say about that is it's obviously an extremely individual thing there's no one way to do it there's a lot of different composers working in very different directions and they all have very different approaches to how they actually go about doing their work in my case it's something that's evolved over a very lengthy period of time so generally what happens is I usually begin with an idea for an instrumentation that's definitely the most important thing so I actually literally cannot imagine music unless I have a detailed idea of what the instruments are going to be once I've determined the instrumentation then I can start to set about working so the instrumentation actually determines pretty much everything about the piece it determines the sound world it determines the tambour it determines the types of harmonies and the types of textures that I'm going to be writing and all of this comes out of not only the actual material sonic characteristics of the instruments I'm using but also their history and also the associations that these instruments have so I might choose to work with these associations writing music that is relatively idiomatic for the instruments in question or I might choose to work against them and do something that is noticeably unusual for that particular instrument but whatever it is I'm working either with or against that idea that image that received image of the instrument in question once I have the instrumentation what I usually do is I just sit down at my desk and I start imagining figures and/or harmonies that I think would work particularly well with that group of instruments rhythmic figures harmonies chords textures this sort of thing and I just work them out on pieces of paper really not knowing what I'm going to do with them at this stage I don't know exactly what the form of the piece is going to be I don't know what the length will be I have absolutely no idea about that so I can only start to imagine a form once I have some actual materials that I'm sitting down and elaborating the form and that what I would call the temporality of the piece the sort of temporal extension of these materials that I'm developing is encoded in the very DNA of the sounds that I'm starting to develop at this early stage of the process so what that means is if I'm writing a particular cord that cord will have qualities of relative consonants relative dissonance relative thickness relative sparseness relative tension relative relaxation it's etc etc etc and those qualities of course will become even more pronounced if the cord is embedded in a context of other cords if it's if it's part of a sequence or a a progression of chords and these sorts of materials have a temper allottee in them in a certain sense so they'll suggest a length of piece again I can work with that where I can work against it so I could take a very rich assortment of materials and do something with them that is somewhat temporarily constrained where it says though there isn't quite enough time to do them justice and that can create a particular type of tension that can be interesting or I can choose to treat the materials in a way that is completely adequate to their sort of temporal requirements all of this is actually way less abstract than it might actually sound because it really involves just sitting down and imagining sounds and so that's also something that I've noticed a lot of people have questions about because they wonder how anybody can sit down and imagine sounds mentally and write them down on paper without actually using an instrument because generally speaking when I compose I don't do it at an instrument I write at a desk that's just simply a skill that you develop over time and I remember when I first started taking composition lessons my first composition teachers insisted on developing my inner ear so that I would be able to sit down and write and not have to necessarily use a piano to know what I was doing and that discipline was very difficult at first because obviously you need to be able to hear the intervals very precisely you need to be able to hear a complex sonorities complex chords inwardly before you write them down but again it's something that you can work on you can train your ear you can do exercises you can get good at it over time it can take a few years but it's it's worth developing that skill so now I'm at a point where I can write quite complex things and have a very very precise idea of exactly what they're going to sound like mentally before I actually attend to rehearsal or before I hear the piece which you would think would be a fairly standard requirement if you're going to write something but there are strands of composition that are conceived in such a way that there's a there's a highly prospective aspect to them so this in other words the sounds and the temporal trajectories of these sounds are so complex that they need to be worked out on paper beforehand not necessarily being heard in wordly but in other words you need to write them down in order to hear them so that's a that's a very different strand of composition and I've actually I've attempted things like that in the past but I'm not actually terribly good at it I actually need to be able to have a precise idea of what something is going to sound like during the act of writing so certain composers would say well that's a limiting factor because you can only write down sounds that you are able to imagine but I don't find that limiting in the least because the the the scope of what I am able to imagine is potentially limitless so I really don't find that to be a particular problem on the other hand there is also a current in especially 20th century literature and and music and painting and all sorts of things that involves using externally imposed constraints in order to push yourself in a direction that you wouldn't be able to get to consciously so in other words imposing some form of arbitrary restraint like for example writing an entire novel without using the vowel e which is actually been done to tremendous success by the French novelist George panic so in other words you you invent some kind of absurd constraint and because you have to operate to best advantage within that constraint it ends up pushing you in some kind of unusual direction and you end up doing something that you would never have done otherwise so that actually can be a very useful technique so there's a lot of different approaches that you can take but what tends to work best for me is imagining these sounds in great great details so I mean for example right now I'm involved in writing cantata for for soprano and ten instruments and I wanted to have an interlude movement so there will be three songs and then an instrumental interlude and then the last two songs at the end and this instrumental interlude is written for bass flute vibraphone celesta and solo violin these are instrument that I know extremely well I know the bass flute inside and out I know what every register sounds like I know what a low c-sharp sounds like I know what a very high a flat with four ledger lines at the top of the staff sounds like I know what the dynamic characteristics are the relative thickness of the overtone spectrum in different registers of the instrument I also know how I can blend it with other instruments I know what the relative strength or weakness of a bass flute against a celesta is or against a violin and I take all of these sonic aspects into consideration as I'm writing once I've established these materials and I have an idea of the instrumentation then the next step is to find some kind of way to get from point A to point B so to speak within the piece so in other words where do I want to start where do I want to end up what is the overall trajectory of the piece and how do I do that again it really depends on the type of piece because some pieces are going to be directional and or process you'll in their nature so in other words you'll start at Point a and through a given process or through a given transformation that happens over time you'll end up at point B through a series of discrete steps so when you're writing a piece like that you have to know precisely what the beginning point is and what the ending point is and then you have to have some kind of a motor or some kind of way that allows you to move from point A to point B other pieces might be more exploratory and or meditative in character where there isn't so much a strong directional aspect as an intense focus on the individual moment so a lot of my pieces actually tend to work more in in that sense but even when I'm focused on the individual moment through the act of composing I still have to have a sense of how do I connect sound event a with sound event B and that involves actually the establishment of some kind of a musical grammar or language that I can deploy in the piece because I don't want to be faced with a seemingly infinite number of choices every time I sit down to write a note I want there to be walls around the piece walls around the project so that there are certain things that fit within the scope of the piece and certain things that don't that allows me to make meaningful choices and by meaningful choices I mean either again working with the grain of the piece or working against the grain of the piece but you can only do that if you have some kind of relatively defined parameters about what can and happen my writing process has a very typical sort of trajectory it's the same almost every time where it starts out exceedingly painfully horribly hideously slow at the beginning that phase can go on for a couple weeks a few weeks what's going on is I'm actually slowly discovering the potential of the materials that I'm using what I can do with them what their scope is what sorts of development might be appropriate given the nature of those materials and I know when that process is over because I can start to sort of mentally move these objects around and in such a way where it becomes very fluid and fluent and I have no trouble doing it and I have such a precise image of what those sounds are going to be and what their expressive characteristics are going to be like and what their sort of emotional impact is going to be and once I get to that state that's when I can sit down and actually start to write the score from beginning to end so the story doesn't quite end there because I tend to write most of my pieces twice and that's not something that I'm particularly pleased about necessarily but that's just how it is I mean what usually happens is I write the piece of first time it's premiered it's performed maybe a few times and then I sit on it for a few months I come back to it I look at it again and I realize given this material that I now know extraordinarily well because I've actually sat down in a concert hall and listened to it being performed and I might want to go back to the piece and strengthen it and revise a few things and get it absolutely as good as I possibly can there's no point for me in putting out a piece of work that isn't a hundred percent as good as it can possibly be I have no scruples whatsoever about taking something that I've written and either withdrawing it completely or revising it or rewriting it in certain cases and making it even stronger so the entire process from conception to writing the piece to having it performed to having it published and recorded and broadcast and everything else that goes along with that it's actually a very long process and in some cases it's been years from the conception to the work being what I would consider it definitively finished so I hope that's a reasonably lucid explanation of how I go about my work so again if you if you asked another composer that same question you would get an extremely different answer no doubt but that's how I do it so thanks for the question and don't hesitate to send in your questions I'm going to do a series of these question and answer videos I really enjoy doing them and I love hearing from you and I'll be back soon with another analysis video

34 thoughts on “Q&A: How does a composer write music?

  1. I've watched many of your videos, and they are always fascinating to me. I always get some revelation that helps me advance musically. Thanks!

  2. Samuel Andreyev Hey Sam, I am 16 and I’ve been writing music for around 3 years. And I was wondering if there was certain things you did when you where beginning. I usually write in my excess time at school but half the time the music that I am writing is obscure to me. Until I play it at home, I never really have a clear idea what it sounds like. If you could maybe shed some light on improving this visualization skill it would be much appreciated. And do you recall certain songs for intervals like Amazing Grace for the Perfect 4th? Anyways great vids they help tremendously.

  3. Hi there! I’d appreciate it if you could check out my compositions! I’m a 16 year old composer/performer and would love for you to hear my music. Thanks!

  4. So interesting! Because me as composer couldn't care less about instrumentation when catching ideas for new pieces. My intentions are in fact quite opposite. I want my ideas to be fitting the larges number of instruments as possible, so it can be easily arranged for different groups of musicians.

  5. Hi! I was wondering if you could maybe share some experiences on how your evolution from writing at an instrument to writing at your desk went. Did you actively train it? Could you perhaps also share some exercises on how to train this?
    Thanks a lot! Really interesting channel!

  6. " So I hope that's a reasonably lucid explanation of how I go about my work"
    that's about as lucid as it gets…

  7. I was wondering, from the images you used, what type graph/grid paper do you use when composing ideas? I would like to buy some myself, since it seems to give more freedom for organizing musical ideas.

  8. Thank you for your extremely detailed and fascinating answer. I think you've successfully explained something that has always confused me a little bit: which is why do classically trained musicians nearly always find composition so daunting? For me, being entirely self-taught, it's almost the opposite. I can't really stop myself from composing by accident – basically because I'm always making mistakes, and theoretically I only have a very sketchy knowledge of how to get from one place to the next. Maybe, as I know you're a fan, Trout Mask Replica is a kind of strange fusion of the two. What I found interesting in your interview with John French was that he said Frownland (which you analysed wonderfully by the way) was a more collective effort – the guitarists and bassist were given more freedom to make their own choices about the timing of the parts and so on. I think it's that combination of just incredible rigour and dedication to realising and practising the parts that you get with classical music, combined with a kind of muddling through approach which comes from the rhythm and blues, rock n roll tradition that makes the album so brilliant.

    Anyway I'll try to stop rambling now. Really I just wanted to thank you for making a great channel. I'm looking forward to watching the rest of your videos.

  9. What is your goal while you compose? What do you aim at? Do you want to produce a certain experience in the listener? Do you want to produce a certain emotion in yourself? How do you decide that a change is an improvement or that something is *done*?

  10. Hi. I have a question – do you think that by imposing limitations or allowing for something to happen one indulges in binary thinking patterns and music, being the most abstract of all arts actually allows for complete experimentation in that regard – trying out different thinking patterns other than the ones that could be said to represent number 2?

  11. Could you recommend some resources for developing an "inner ear"? Are there any books or software that you've found useful for ear training (particularly within one's imagination)?

  12. Thank you for a lucid distillation of your compositional practice. I read and write a great deal of poetry, and I find much of what you describe here resonates with the kind of painstaking, yet rewarding, practice of writing verse. While I do not disdain the contemporary taste for poetry that celebrates the immediacy of composition and a free form (or the arbitrary limitation approach you mentioned with reference to Perec's La Disparation), I find what you describe in this video far more representative of the composition of more structured genres. I like especially your discussion of the prospective element of composition; it always surprises me how complex layers of imposed structure are resolved in new and interesting ways once one starts writing – and it becomes almost a eureka moment when I work out that a dactyl or spondee, or a particular metrical length will simply not work given the conditions established. Anyways, sorry to carry on here, I meant only to thank you for sharing with such detail!

  13. Dear Mr. Andreyev: Is Bach really the beginning and the end? Si oui, pourquoi? Also, do you like Glenn Gould?

  14. Man, I couldn't be happier about finding your stuff. I really admire your work and the fact that you are, also, a youtuber, and do this incredibly interesting videos.
    I'd like to add spanish subtitles to them, 'cos I want to show them to people here in Argentina. Would that be possible?
    Cheers!

  15. the cool thing about "composition instruction" is that anyone who made this explanatory video, if they were to, the method would be COMPLETELY different for each of us. we all have our rituals I've noticed, food, drugs, drink, meditation, etc. ad infinitum… creation is so interesting because its impossible to describe it. thanks, as always. this was super interesting.

  16. I was wondering if you have any method to develop your inner ear? Maybe it could be an idea for a video 🙂
    Of course i understand that there is no standard way of doing this and that it takes years to develop.
    Great video by the way!

  17. Hello, I was wondering about one thing: doesn’t the fact that you know when starting a new piece that you will probably revise or rewrite it later block you, it make you too self critical in the moment of composing, or do you tend to ignore this and leave the critique for when you have finished?

  18. Thank you for continuing to produce such wonderful and profound content. You are one of my biggest compositional role models!

  19. Great video. I've always been curious about this myself. It's actually not completely divorced from the methods your average rock artist uses. I guess the biggest difference is that the spontaneity of rock music makes going right from idea to execution more realistic. One thing I found interesting is when you describe developing the ability to basically hear what you're writing in your head. Something I know, from years of writing songs with other musicians and playing in bands, is that anyone who takes what they do seriously can easily play by ear or plan out a riff in their head then translate it to an instrument.
    That comment does no justice to how mind-blowing I found this. Can't wait to hear your breakdown of "Leck mich im Arsch" haha.
    Cheers!

  20. Hello i was wondering what the name of your piece at the end of your videos is. Have you uploaded it here in youtube? Regards

  21. Would you have different advice for someone that's trying to composer electronic music? Composing for instruments seems pretty straightforward, but I'm not sure how to make a good electronic music piece with synthesizers and samplers

  22. I'd be interested to know your thoughts on composition competitions. When I was in music school I was encouraged to enter as many as I could. But most of them ended up costing a lot of money for the entry fees, printing, and shipping costs without any benefit. I'd either be informed that my piece wasn't selected or I would not hear back at all from the competition. Is it worth it to continue to enter into those contests?

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