Wednesday, July 1, 2015

From the Mind to the Page: A Composers Tips for Optimizing Your Creative Process: Part 1

By Lukas Stanley 

The creative process is a tricky beast to tame. A lot of the time, it seems as if creativity is intangible and difficult to even conceptualize. Bursts of inspiration strike at random and sometimes inconvenient times. Here is a question I have asked myself many times: why are there days when I can sit down and write quality music and the next day not a single good idea comes to mind? While there isn’t a single, ubiquitous answer, I can offer you some advice from my own experiences on how I have made the creative process less elusive and something I can use as a tool to optimize my compositional output. 

I am writing this to be geared towards music composition, but many of the concepts can be applied to any sort of creative endeavor.

1.     Know What Works for You

It might sound like I’m leading off with a cop out, but knowing how to play to your own personal strengths and weaknesses is the number one piece of advice I could give any composer. For starters, people have different peaks of creativity throughout the day. I usually experience the best creative concentrations in the early afternoon and between midnight and 2:00am. If you are a morning person, maybe you like to sit down with a cup of coffee at 6:00am and start putting notes on the page. Every person is slightly different in this regard, so try different things and figure out what works for you.

Try writing music in different ways. If you have never written notation by hand with a pencil and paper, try that for a change. If you have never used a digital audio workstation, try using one. There are a lot of tools out there to use, and knowing which ones you are most compatible with is the first and easiest step to success.

2.     Create a Schedule

Knowing what kind of time structure gels best with your creativity is sure to give a boost to your productivity. I have encountered two main camps of composers with this regard: some compose in short (less than one hour) sessions throughout the day while others compose in large (1.5+ hours), pre-determined blocks of time. Experiment with these as you are able to and figure out what works for you. Here are some advantages and disadvantages I have found in each:

  • Pros of working in short time blocks: Smaller goals are more easily attained. If you have 20 minutes to write music, you could make your goal to write two or three measures. Then when you achieve that small goal, the feeling of accomplishment and motivation carries you into the next session.

  • Cons of working in small time blocks: It might be difficult to quickly shift in and out of a composing mindset throughout the day. If shifting gears quickly is not your thing, this option might not be for you.

  • Pros of working in long time blocks: Getting a lot done all at once. With this method you can sit down and write a substantial amount of work, all within the same train of thought. Ideas have room to breathe and be experimented with. If use this method, make sure to set goals for each session that are realistic. It can be more difficult to anticipate what you are actually capable of accomplishing over a longer period of time.

  • Cons of working in long time blocks: Burning out and losing focus. If it is difficult for you to focus on a detailed project for a long period of time without losing focus or becoming frustrated, working in long time blocks might not be for you.

I like to plan out my week hour by hour to make sure everything important gets accomplished. I try to work the rest of my schedule around the composing times that I know work best for my creativity. Usually my blocks for composing are 2-3 hours and I have at least one per day. Some weeks I will get lucky and have a totally empty Saturday that I can fill with an eight hour composition binge (often followed by an eight hour Netflix binge).

There isn’t a right or wrong when it comes to scheduling your composition time as long as it is productive, consistent, and works for you. In fact, sometimes I use a mix of the two methods depending on what my schedule looks like on a particular day. Having a regular routine is the important part – you can’t just wait for inspiration to strike. If you have found that what you are currently doing isn’t working very well, change it up and try the other way.

3.     Structure Your Composing Time

Whether you are entering MIDI sequences into the DAW of your choice, notating music into an engraving program like Finale or Sibelius, or even handwriting sheet music, structuring your composition time with goals is another way to optimize your creativity for maximum production. The famous Russian composer Pyotr Tchaikovsky is one of my favorite models of this. Every day he followed this schedule:

7:00 Wake up, read/study, drink tea
9:00 Go for a walk to gather inspiration / take notes of compositional ideas
9:30 Compose sketches at the piano
1:00 Lunch
After lunch Go for another walk
4:00 Afternoon tea, read the paper, meet visitors
5:00 Compose and orchestrate the sketches from the morning
7:00 Walk, play piano, supper, write letters, play cards
11:00 Bedtime

Take note of how he used his two blocks of composing time during the day: in the morning session he would write sketches at the piano; in his evening session he would orchestrate these sketches. It’s a very simple structure and while I’m sure that he probably had more specific daily goals, incorporating a broad system of goals like this into your routine will give you a place to start. He didn’t just sit down with a blank sheet of paper in front of him and wait for the ideas to emerge. If you don’t already, I would highly recommend writing out a detailed schedule like this. Set goals in your schedule. For example, write “on Monday from 10:00-12:00 I will write 20 measures of music for [name] project.”

4.     Secure the Fundamentals

Now that we have talked about when you will be composing, let’s dig into the how. Creativity in itself is nothing without some basic tools for effective execution. Even when you are inspired and you feel on the precipice of a masterpiece, you must first decide on some fundamentals of the music.

Instrumentation: This will depend on what the nature of the project is. If you are writing a sentimental film cue, maybe you just want some delicate solo piano playing. If you are writing a chiptune for a video game, knowing what synthesized sounds you will be working with should be one of the first things you do to get the project rolling. Immersing yourself with other music in the genre you are writing will give you a good sense of what an appropriate instrumentation is. It might be that you are working on music for a film or video game project, in which case some parameters might be predetermined by a director, but if you have free reign over this aspect of the music, make deliberate and informed choices. Instrumentation might also be determined by what resources you have access to. If you have limited resources, don’t be afraid to get creative. An entire film score could be written with a piano or a string quartet on a budget and still be very effective.


Key center: There are 11 standardized major and minor keys, as well as seven modes for each of those key centers. So how do you know which key to use? Does the music modulate at any point and why? These are good questions to answer before starting a project. Knowing what you want your harmonic language to feel like is a good way to start getting that great idea from your head into real music that other people can enjoy. Here’s what not to do: pick your favorite key and write the music in that key. Every key has slightly different colors and connotations. Familiarize yourself with what keys other pieces of the same style are written in, because people hearing your music will create associations with existing music. For example, if you are writing a cue for a game that takes place in the medieval era, you might write in a Dorian mode. If you are writing something uplifting and positive you will probably want to write in a major key (Ionian). If you are already a very experienced composer, or you are just a theory buff, you might also take into consideration when using atonality, bitonality, micro-tonality, non-pitched materials, and other 20th century ideas about harmony and extended techniques are appropriate. These concepts can create very distinct and effective sounds for the stage and for multimedia collaborations. Here are a few considerations for picking which key center to use:

o   Instrumentation: If you are working with live instruments, pick a key that works with your melodic and harmonic content to create the most idiomatic music for these instruments.

o   Difficulty of the key for performance: Accomplished musicians will be able to perform in any key, but there are tonalities that resonate better with certain instruments. For example, the keys of C, G, D, and A are really good for string instruments because of the strong sympathetic vibrations that the instruments produce on their open strings.

o   Range of the music: If the music goes too high or too low in a certain key, consider moving it chromatically to accommodate the range. While you might not discover this is the case until you start sketching melodic and harmonic ideas, it is good to keep in mind early on. This is especially pertinent when writing music for acoustic instruments. Typically, you will want to maximize an instruments full range potential. This means structuring the piece in a way that both the lowest range and highest range are taken advantage of. Using a key center that effectively accommodates your use of the instrument’s range is a staple of idiomatic instrumental writing.

o   Historic connotations: If you are writing a piece that is supposed to sound inspired by a particular piece or composer, consider using the same key center that they used in a related work. For example, if you are writing a piece that is supposed to mimic the drama of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, consider writing your piece in C minor.

Style (or genre): Putting yourself in the shoes of your listeners and figuring out what style of music creates the right mood to achieve your artistic goals is a key item to not just identify, but to fully conceptualize before you begin to write. The style is created by carefully combining instrumentation, orchestration, harmonic language, texture, timbre, articulation, and dynamics. Each of these elements is vastly complex, and the ways in which they can be combined are infinite.

Now that we have a solid foundation for setting a schedule and securing the basics of your composition, there is music to be made! In part two of this article, I will further discuss how to optimize your creative process. The topics covered will include strategies for an effective pre-compositional process, and how to overcome writer’s block as a composer.

Until next time, happy composing!

About the Author: Lukas Stanley is a composer, violist, and music educator in Michigan. As an active composer since 2006, his works are written primarily for local concert performances. However, he is also passionate about creating new music for film, video games, and other collaborative projects. To find out more or to contact Lukas, visit his website at

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