More Tips?
Receive the latest blogs, advice, lessons, theory and discussion

Riley Music Academy Music Cast: Composing methods for modern musicians

FREE 10 Step Guide to becoming a better musician

Enter your details on the homepage to receive your FREE 10 Step Guide


Composing methods for modern musicians

As you know, one of my tricks for motivation is setting myself a target and a deadline.  It’s not new or clever but I have to find ways to get stuff done and this works for me.  Another useful life hack I sometimes use is social declaration.  Basically, telling someone your plans and then being accountable if you don’t go through with it.

Here is my declaration to you:

I’m frantically writing tunes at the moment because Ive booked a gig in July.  I booked the gig knowing that I had:

  • no material
  • no theme
  • no band!

Its pretty daunting and I’m nervous BUT… its making me get on and work!

I’ll probably write about how I’m trying to get in shape for this gig in a future post but for now, here is something I hope you will find useful.

Listed in this blog are some of the methods I’ve used for writing music but before we get to them, let me paint a picture of where I am:

  1. Firstly, I find writing difficult.  Not because I can’t think of ideas but because sometimes I judge myself too harshly.  I often write with the listener in mind and this can lead to the whole ‘trying to please everyone’ approach, which of course is unrealistic.  It’s hard to write something knowing that for every person that loves it, you will get, much like Newton’s Law (the third one I seem to remember; not that I know the other two), an equal and opposite reaction.  Having your art judged is harsh and when it comes from internal and external sources it can be pretty scary.
  2. I find that I sometimes try to add elements to the music to be smart and I can’t always back this up!  Experimenting with time signatures and complex harmonies can tick the boxes for the musical geeks in the audience, but is it really worth it?
  3. I tend to write in fragments and it can be difficult to stitch the phrases/sections/motifs together.
  4. I struggle to compose on my own as I much prefer brainstorming ideas with other musicians.  Conversely though, I can get frustrated when working with others as I don’t always get what I want!

So…you see why I’m nervous about this gig and why I needed to give myself a deadline to get this done?!

Lets tackle these 4 mental blocks (for my own sake as much as helping you guys out; writing this is already starting to be cathartic)

  1. To be blissfully naive is the dream.  Writing music without a care in the world and not giving two hoots about anyone else.  For those with stronger judgmental inner demons, an acceptance of how you, yourself, view music can help.  You like certain music and you may feel strongly for or against.  It’s ok to not like particular genres.  People’s reaction will most likely be 30% LOVE IT (you’re going to release it to your fans right?) 50% INDIFFERENCE (a lot of people won’t feel all that strongly about it) 15% POLITELY WITHDRAW (not that interested but will still compliment you) 5% HATE IT (dislike it enough to give a negative comment but perhaps also due to their own insecurities)
  2. Its fine to add a 5/4 section or an atonal bridge as long as it has a good feel.  Some great music has been recorded using odd time (as one example) and to the untrained ear it sounds kind of normal. It also excites the musicians in the audience if they ‘get’ the subtle complexities.  Some good examples of this would be:  Nick Drake’s Riverman in 5/4, Money by Pink Floyd in 7/4,Turn it on Again (probably late Genesis’ only good tune), in my mind, is in 6/4, 7/4 and 4/4 alternating throughout and of course Dave Brubeck’s Take Five in 5 as the name suggests! All good tunes and the ‘clever’ devices do not detract from the overall feel.
  3. Man up!  Who doesn’t write in fragments?  Nobody has complete symphonies fall out of the head…well…I guess Mozart did…aged 8…but let’s forget that!
  4. Technology is there to help and these days, it doesn’t sound that bad!  Use software to imitate the other musicians to get the sound and feel.  Then give it to real musicians to perform later (or if you’re writing electronic music, spend the time making it sound just the way you want).

So, here’s how I’ve come up with 10 original tunes over the last 3 months:

Theme – I thought of a period of my life which has strong emotions and I’ve ended up writing almost everything based in that time.  Because it has a theme I can write titles to the tunes and it gives me a framework for which harmonies to use (dark or light).

Inspiration – I’d been listening to a lot of music recently and it sort of clicked for me just before I did this interview with Tom Haines.  Bizarrely, he mentioned pretty much exactly the same thing which really cemented this idea in my mind.  For a long time I would listen to music and think “Man, thats so good, I wish I could write something like that”.  Well…it turns out, I can!  Im not saying its good yet but I can certainly put together some chords, a melody and decide the feel.  So rather than listening to music feeling envious, it suddenly gave me huge inspiration. Like a curator, I’ve been taking little ideas from here and there and it will all get chucked in the pot so that my own stuff will emerge.

Sitting down at the piano – The next step is personal to me as I use the piano to get the harmony laid out in my mind.  I use the piano because, for one, I can play it and two, it allows me to be the whole band.  I can play bass lines, chords, melodies and even rhythmic patterns.  I found this new apple app on my phone and used it to record sketches of my piano noodlings.

Framework and form – I then used this app to work out the form and compile the different sections into an almost complete piece.  I could use its playback feature to improvise over the top and determine if each section works and if the transitions are smooth.  This app is basically a modern version of a chord chart which you could easily make with a pen and paper but when there are toys to play with…you have to play!

My own play alongs – The app above is useful but the built-in sounds do not fill you with confidence.  It’s a fun piece of software but I only really use it as a glorified metronome and to work through harmonies visually.  I wanted to recreate the band and get a feel for the tunes so I used a D.A.W. (Digital Audio Workstation).  Examples would be GarageBand (or Logic if you are bit more serious about options and settings), Cubase, Pro Tools or some decent freeware like Audacity.  With this software you can create as much as you like.  You can replicate the live musicians (in my case) or you can build your tune from scratch using samples and synthesisers.  It can be a daunting task and is quite immersive if you’re not careful.  I personally like to dip in and out as quickly as possible rather than getting stuck for days in the endless recording options, mixing effects and plugins.  I am very lazy when it comes to these things.  I want things to work and work quickly so I often use the preset features and then just manipulate to suit my purpose.

Crafting the melody – This is the stage I’ve reached.  It’s on my ‘to do list’ but with my own play along recordings I can internalise the feel and harmony and hopefully a melodic line will be sent to me by some celestial muse.

Rehearsing the band – I’ve managed to find a band which is good news!  Now I just need to work with them to get these tunes fit for human consumption.  I’ve tried to balance rigid composed ideas with improvised freedom as I like the other musicians to have their own say.  This is just the situation I’m in so it won’t necessarily be the same for you.  When it comes to rehearsing though, I will need to have a very strong sound in my head and be bossy enough to get the outcome I want.

Recording – again…it’s on my list.  If I’ve gone to this much effort then I’d like to have it documented and maybe even sell a few copies.

The gig – A chance to unveil the music to the world (or just a small crowd of supporters in a town not too far from me!)

The final piece of advice I can give to you is profound and slightly morbid:

“Don’t die with your music still in you”

This was something I heard in one of these self-help audiobooks.  I dipped into this stuff for a while!  It’s meant to be a metaphor but it obviously relates to me in a literal sense.  It’s a real slap in the face and a powerful motivator.  Not that I intend to die anytime soon but I am definitely guilty of not taking the leap.  I’m hoping that the anxiety and stress of working on this project is outweighed by the benefits of actually creating something artistic.  Plus, I’ve posted this to you all now, so if it doesn’t happen you can come down on me like a ton of bricks!

I hope this is of some use to you and good luck making your own music.

Please leave a comment or if you wish to plug your own music then post below:

Leave a Reply