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Topic: How do you begin a new piece?

  1. #1

    How do you begin a new piece?

    I was just wondering how people here begin writing a new piece of music. Do you begin with a chord progression, and write some melodies for it? Do you do it the other way around? Do you start with the basic melodies, and then go back and add orchestral color? What kind of process to you tend to go through to make a piece complete?

    Do you look for inspiration from a story, an emotion, a memory, or perhaps somebody else's music?

    I'm just curious to find out how some of you begin creating a new piece of music.


  2. #2
    Join Date
    Oct 2000
    Orcas Island

    Re: How do you begin a new piece?


    Great question! Composers have different ways of starting their magnus opus. For me it often starts with the melody and the orchestral ideas blossom from the basic melodies. From the melody comes thebasic framework is develop with the help of what I learned about harmony, counterpoint, orchestration, etc. Sometimes the ideas are spontaneous, other times there is playful experimentation and sometimes hard work.

    Inspiration for the melody often comes from "stopping the world" and seeing things in a new way. It can come from just observing - the smile of a child, the chaos that's part of life, the anguish and despair you see in someone, or the joy and exhilaration of others. Epiphanies are extraordinary so prying yourself from the ordinary and creating a new environment can also help the start of a new piece.

    Gary Garritan

  3. #3

    Red face Re: How do you begin a new piece?

    I usually start with a drink


    It literally is all of those things for me. Inspiration comes from every direction. Many times I will rely on some prompting from my wife, who is a very skilled writer and visual artist. We work very well together, where I will help her with her editing and she will often help me with looking for creative direction or mention a cross-section of compositional "bases" to cover.

    Very often I will hear the opening and the close, and all I need to do is tie things together. I most often feel like I'm not composing as much as orchestrating ideas that are being handed to me en masse.
    Houston Haynes - Titan Line Music

  4. #4

    Re: How do you begin a new piece?

    I'm not nearly as sophisticated as Gary in my philosphy of creation! I have 2 basic methods - 1) melody first. This usually just pops in my head with a motif or something and I expand it from there. I add some harmony and play with the two together to see where it leads. Often I'll "accidently" play a harmonic progression and that leads me to a new melodic idea. I usually write at least my initial stuff at a keyboard. Since I'm a keyboard player this is very efficient for me.

    2) the other way I write is what I do when I have a brain fart and can't come up with anything. I'll sit at the keyboard and start playing something - anything. I'll play with different progressions, create ostinatos or something to see what i can inspire. Usually I can eventually get the melodic idea going pretty quickly after I give myself a basic harmonic groove. Since I'm unashamedly a commercial musician, I usually write for a specific target. Because of this the juices don't always just flow, and I have to give myself something to start with. Harmony is usually where I start. (I also put grooves in my head and imagine something while I play with the harmony).

    Another thing I do to create if I'm really having writers block is to turn my recorder on and start playing a song (usually a jazz standard or something, sometimes even a folk melody) and start creating alternate harmonizations for it. If I makes sure to pick a song I know kind of well, one I may know enough of but not specifically know all of it, then I start creating new material by default when I get to the part I don't know. Then I just play and see where it goes. I can usually sit down and do one of these sessions for about an hour and come up with 4-5 melodic ideas, from which I can add more substantial harmony and build an arrangement.

    THEN, when I've got my basic melody, and basic harmonic ideas, I start a basic arrangement - one in which I focus on the feel, layout, and form of the song/piece. If I have an orchestration idea I'll often write it down. By this stage of the process I'm almost always at my sequencer (logic) mapping the song out so I have something to build on. If I get that perfect flute counter-melody I'll throw that in real quick, but don't want to distract from the big picture. Some of the arrangment is based on real form, and some of it is just based on what feels good. I kind of mix the two together. Then after I get all the BIG picture taken care of, I focus on all the details.

    I find this method to be the quickest for me, as I'm often on deadlines, and keeping the big picture in front of me helps me push through quicker. There has been the rare occasion when I start with details. I was working on an overture for something once and woke up in the middle of the night with the idea. I had so many detail ideas I just started sequencing them as quickly as I could to get them out. Then I went back and fleshed it all out, but eventually I did have to do the big picture overview. I don't think this step can be over looked if you want a well balanced composition!


  5. #5

    Re: How do you begin a new piece?

    For me, it changes from piece to piece. Usually, though, I'll start with a small idea--this could be anything from a chord progression to a few notes of a melody to a short rhythmic motive--from which the rest of the piece just seems to flow. Getting started is usually the hardest part, and often I'll have to start a piece 3 or 4 times before it gets going. Once I get a good start, though, the rest of it usually (not always!) seems to follow quickly.
    Dan Powers

    "It's easier to be a composer than it is to compose."
    --Ray Luke (1928-2010)

  6. #6

    Re: How do you begin a new piece?

    Mine usually starts on guitar and four-track, then I rearrange it for piano and then orchestrate...

    I have a lot of acoustic guitar tracks sitting around waiting to be realised, I just have more fun going through all the four-track tapes than I do developing them...
    Alan Lastufka | www.BelaDMedia.com
    Producer/Artistic Design | Content Producer

    20 Things

  7. #7

    Re: How do you begin a new piece?

    I have two ways of working which seem to get the job done:

    1. I try to start AWAY from a piano or computer, usually at a park bench, driving aimlessly in my car, or sitting in a comfortable, quiet place. I don't sing or bring any instrument, or even a pencil or paper, I just sit and try to imagine the piece. (This is not to say that I have some amazing internal ear, I just hear what I can and imagine the rest). I fiddle around in my head and try to imagine the piece unfolding until I have a pretty good sense of it.

    Once I have a sense of the piece in its entirity, I will sit down (still away from piano/computer) and write what I can without using any notes. Using text, pictures, diagrams, etc. I try to sketch out a blueprint of the piece. This includes textures, contours, structure, basic rhythmic gestures, instrumentations, etc.

    Once I have a pretty good blueprint, I'll go to a keyboard (or sometimes jump right to SONAR/GOS, if it's well beyond my piano chops). Since I alreay have the piece charted out, at this point I'm essentially "coloring it in," -- basically I'm just choosing the notes! I try not to be *too* strict about the blueprint, or this part would get tedius--I tend to keep brainstorming at this point, cutting and pasting, juxtaposing different ideas, trying different ways of harmonizing and texturizing.

    Of course after that I have to transfer it over to Finale and make a clear score and set of parts, but that's another story entirely...

    2. Another method I have found that seems to work is what I call the "What do I want to hear next" method. I'll start (at the piano or in SONAR) with an idea and let it germinate rapidly then jump to whatever my gut wants to do next (it's fairly arbitrary, but it usually contains a germ of a previous idea). Usually one idea doesn't last much more than 30 seconds or so, although it will be brought back in other settings. This is a fun way of working which is rather quick and yields high energy, fun pieces. I probably wouldn't use this for something large scale that requires a great deal of structural cohesion, but it's fun for small, schizophrenic pieces...

    To hear pieces I've written using this method, check out www.soundclick.com/schmlud -- the pieces "Schmlud's Last Ride," "Little Monster," and the Shenanigan movement of "Prayer and Shenanigan" were all written along these lines. And these were performed by (*gasp*) live musicians. I've been avoiding sharing this site, but here it is... I feel naked.


  8. #8

    Re: How do you begin a new piece?

    I don`t know if that question can be answered really. There are as many ways to start a new piece as there are people making music. Here`s one of the ways I start; I choose my "sounds" that will work well along side of each other and then try to find a basic melody or mode,maybe only 4 or 5 notes in length (simplicity at its finest). Also I think of what I would want to hear as a music fan, and getting into a space where the ego isn`t present. Kind of like eastern meditation I suppose. The whole process is a bit ineffable really but that`s basically how I start.


  9. #9

    Re: How do you begin a new piece?

    Well, for my symphony, I did like Stravinsky did and hum out various ideas until I find one I like and I write it in on some paper, I work with these I ideas once I have them with harmony and rhythm once I have all the ideas I need for the piece.

  10. #10

    Re: How do you begin a new piece?

    I think Improvising or learning something in a genre I have never tried is the most helpfull for me. I found more often then not just relaxing and improvising on the keys often yields things you often wouldnt think of. Improvisation I think is an underated form of composing, its spontanious. It also is good practice for unusual fingering

    Learning things also in a genre that is not what you normally listen to or play seems to add to things as well.
    Then there is the old start with a piece of paper and scratch your head for a few minutes Or just a spontanious melodic idea jotted down and saved for later. Like they said above there are so many ways, I dont think I have one particular method that always works. But once I do I use the staff, things just seem clearer when done that way for me atleast. But not everything I have done was done this way. Sometimes it was all on piano.
    Nicole Davis

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