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Topic: How long does it take to compose?

  1. #1

    How long does it take to compose?

    I started composing about 3 years ago using finale notepad. Loved the price.

    I could compose a piece for full orchestra at the rate of about a minute of music per hour of work.

    Now, way too much money later, it takes me an hour just to get everything set up.

    I still put most of the notes down at the same rate of about a minutes worth of music per hour of work, but thanks to Randy and David (etlux), I now work around 6-10 hours per minute of music getting everything right. Or as David used to tell me and Randy showed me how to do, I conduct my music and try to present it in as much a realistic fashion as is possible by my limited skills.

    So my question is...

    How long does it take you to get your musical ideas ready for presentation?

    Edit: From reading some of the replies, I would also like to know how long you take in the mixing end of a piece.

    That is where I seem to spend most of my time now. So that is where most of the 6-10 hours per minute comes from.

    One of the reasons I ask this has to do with commercial applications. I wonder how long it takes the guys that compose for TV to master their works. In a 22 minute TV show say with 7-10 minutes of music, how long do you think they spend getting it ready?

    "Reality is merely an illusion, albeit a very persistent one." Albert Einstein


  2. #2
    Senior Member rwayland's Avatar
    Join Date
    Jun 2004
    California Redwoods

    Re: How long does it take to compose?

    Well, Ron, I think the question has many answers, depending on composer, and where you consider the composing starts and ends. In my case, one piece took me about 45 years, and I am not yet sure it is finished. The other extreme, sometimes an idea explodes full blown without any conscious premeditation, and there remains only the problem of getting it down on paper. This is the case with a piece being performed next month at a decent venue.

    Sometimes the idea strikes while in bed, and I go over it a bit before falling asleep, which is a nuisance, because I can't get it out of my mind until I work out some detail. Then, when I begin to write it out, it may progress like wildfire, or like a rheumatic snail. Sometimes a I get a good outline stuffed into my computer, and then it takes off like a rocket. So you see, there is for me, no norm.

    Later comes the problem of a decent appearing score, quite another matter, which devours as much time as the composing. I look upon this as a separate activity, more akin to graphic art than music, and would be happy to relegate it to a copyist if I had sufficient funds.

    Organ works are easiest for me, requiring much less time than wind instruments, and I need not be concerned about the performer's oxygen supply. Next is piano. Strings take much more time because I am not intimate with idiomatic string notation and playing technique.

    Time required is also strongly affected by the type of composing; i.e., melody, accompaniment, polyphonic, form, number of parts. I don't consider orchestration separately as I consider the orchestration as fundamental to the composing and it progresses concurrently.

    Having a good sketch, or basic idea written, sometimes I can continue with it at the rate of 10 minutes or more per hour, but sometimes significantly slower. Basically, if my initial idea is sound, I compose about as rapidly as I can legibly write it.

    End note: nothing is ever absolutely final. I am a compulsive fiddler, and fiddle around with most of my works whenever I scrutinize them.


  3. #3

    Re: How long does it take to compose?

    Tchaikovsky wrote his 6th Symfony in just three weeks for piano and needed almost two years to orchestrate it. Dear old Raymond started his Symphony nr.1 the 8th of december 2008 and finished writing at about march/april 2009(?). The latest amendments took place last week.

    Next time I will spend more time for another work. It just depends on the "inspiration". And as you said, often in the middle of the night I get ideas, but never get up to write them down, they must "go down my bloodstream" to work it further.

    Speaking with Gary "it will be ready when it is ready" this is always the case with "creative" stuff.

    So don't be disappointed when things aren't going as fast as you want.



  4. #4

    Re: How long does it take to compose?

    a minute of music per hour is not bad at all. Set up some template files tho so you are not wasting time getting the file ready to compose. TUrn your computer on first thing in the morning and leave it to load everything up while you have breakfast.

    Are you still doing all your tweaking inside finale? If so you might want to consider a daw where you can make adjustments and fine tune things much quicker.

    TO start with it didnt take me long to get my musical idea ready for presentation. Then i went up a notch in standard and it took longer. So then i looked for ways of simplifying the time and ended up spending money on sample libraries and equipment that would help, and they did

    Now i pretty much can select what instrument/articulation/sound i want and put down what i need to. Then a few minutes tweeking and im there. Sadly my issue is that I have been using sample libraries exclusively for a few years now, as opposed to writing for real instruments, so if i had to write for real instruments again, im sure it would take me longer to get something im happy to present. It is necesarry to 'write for your sample library' if yo want to be able to present something top quality.

    SLightly OT - it might be worth baring in mind that the average film composer is expected to write 3-5 min music per day, which includes doing the midi mockups ready for presenting the director. Hwever a composer will often have huge templates already set up and ready to go (I have full orchestra templates ready) and a team of people to 'realize' his music both for sample libraries and real musicians. So he can really concentrate on his writing and creating the sounds that he wants. (I know a lot of film composers spend a lot of time looking for the right sounds in their films. Perhaps a more extreme example is Hans Zimmer spending 3 months to get that screechy note that represents the joker in the dark knight)

  5. #5
    Senior Member
    Join Date
    Mar 2004
    Wilton, NH

    Re: How long does it take to compose?

    Hi Ron.

    It's a big "it depends". Take my last 2 preludes, for instance.

    I sat down at the piano, started improvising. After 10 minutes I liked what I was doing and wrote it down in 5 minutes. 10 minutes in Sibelius to write it out and 20 minutes to tweak it. 10 minutes in Cubase to make a Performance. That's about an hour from the time I decided to start something to having a finished recording for around a minute of music for the g minor prelude.

    I worked on the prelude in F Major for at least 20 hours, maybe much more. Possibly much much more since I thought about it all the time when I wasn't actually composing. This took about a week of full time writing for a minute and a half.

    For my Hamlet Symphony, which was started in late 2007 and ended in mid 2009, each movement took a different amount of time. The first I wrote in 3 days of intense (12 hour/day) composing. The fourth movement took 4 or 5 months, off and on. Perhaps a couple of hundred hours total. That's not including the time (Nov 2007 - May 2008) of composing themes and working them out that I did as prep work for the work as a whole.
    Trent P. McDonald

  6. #6

    Re: How long does it take to compose?

    For a full orchestra, it takes me about an hour of writing for each minute of music. However, with smaller ensembles, it takes a lot less time. For example, I just did a two minute piece a couple days ago using three saxes, drum kit, electric and bass guitars, piano, and synth in about 40 minutes.
    Colton J. Provias
    Film Score Composer, Location Sound Mixer, and Sound Editor
    Full-stack Web Developer

  7. #7

    Re: How long does it take to compose?

    It seems the answers are all over the map, but everyone says "it depends"


    I, too, have written some things very quickly, others have taken much shorter time...

    One piece I remember in particular, a Toccata and Fugue - the Toccata took only a matter of a couple of hours....

    The Fugue, however, took over a YEAR!

    It's not that I can't write fugues, the problem is that the music was demanding that it be a double fugue, and I was resisting that path. I know it sounds weird, but sometimes music just has a sense of inevitability while one is composing - the music almost seems to want to go a certain way, or have a mind of its own!

    When I finally gave in after a year or so of chewing on the ideas, the notes went on the screen pretty quickly, but I think that time spent wrestling with the music really made for a much better end product (at least I hope so!)


  8. #8

    Re: How long does it take to compose?

    I do jazz and this subject is of keen interest to me. I solve the problem of time by finding hardware that takes the tedium out of my work. Rendering is one of my biggest issues so each track gets meticulous though never nearly as much as it probably should.

    So I purchased a digital tablet recently. I had one earlier but the pen was wired and wasn't that much more effective than a mouse. This time the pen is wireless and either I just 'get' it better the second time around or the wireless feature is having a bigger impact than I thought.

    Plus I just purchased a fader controller to hopefully speed up automation. I've never worked with one of these before so keep cost down on it and getting something of quality was pretty important. I started a thread in the JABB technical forum that explains this better.

    I also look for software that will help me. One thing about what I do as Living Waters Jazz is look for ways that I'm not actually the originator for everything so the spontaneous isn't stifled (I even bought a drum set - I majored on sax). I would love to get something or somebody else to do my bass parts. Too lackluster in my opinion. But I don't know bass as would a bass player. I also use Sonar 8 and was reluctant to upgrade from 7 to basically get a little more than I already had. 8 is much better than 7 especially if you got controllers to manipulate. Big huge time and frustration saver.

    The last thing I should mention that while I don't see as practical with Classical pieces (I did play bassoon in orchestras) I personalize the players. To keep the continuity going between songs even the bandleader Dewey Needum, has his own strengths and weaknesses. It may sound silly but it does help focus the direction of a piece in its inception knowing the players in the band.

    Anyway, that's how I try and compress the amount of time I'm working on the music. I find anything that will help to reduce the workload anyway it can. It does get expensive though.

    Just thought I throw my 2 cents into this.

    Rich Garber
    Living Waters Jazz

  9. #9

    Re: How long does it take to compose?

    Depends on the piece, I guess. Back in 2000, I wrote a ten-minute woodwind quintet in about five weeks, pretty much making it up as I went along. I'm still amazed it turned out as well as it did.

    My current main project is a trio for clarinet, bassoon, and piano, and for some reason it's proceeding ridiculously slowly. I started on it sometime last year, and I'd hoped to have it done by now, but I'm only somewhere around halfway through the first movement. It's actually turning out well, but I'm having to rewrite every passage 3 or 4 times. It's driving me nuts!
    Dan Powers

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

  10. #10

    Re: How long does it take to compose?

    Great topic, Ron - And everyone's responses are really interesting to read.

    Well - Like everyone else, I have to say "it depends"--but that's probably a given. We'll have some things that come quickly, others that take longer.

    But in your topic starter, you're talking about not only the composition phase, but also the arranging and then the recording phase. I think those may occur more simultaneously for you than some people. I think you're coming up with your orchestrations simultaneously with your compositions--?

    I tend to write new things using only piano, and I stick with that one instrument for a quite awhile. I'll use multiple tracks, depending on the needs that develop--but typically one track will have the chord progression, another will have the melody line, and another will have the bass line.

    My goal is what I'm writing to sound acceptable with that one instrument - the basic notes, rhythms, tempi are all worked out this way. I'm not aiming necessarily for it to work as a piano solo, since I'll end up with tracks that it would take 2 or 3 pianists to actually play--I just want to work with a neutral sound which doesn't distract me from the essence of what I'm doing, which is composing the arrangement of notes.

    I'll leave fragments of various pieces in that state for quite awhile, never being sure how long I've spent to get a basic version of each one sketched in. When I'm really on a roll, I may have something of the average 3:00 length sketched in over the course of two 6 to 8 hour days.

    The instrumentation phase comes next, involving not only choosing instruments, but expanding the foundation arrangement. The chord track I'll start dividing up between instruments. Which instruments I want to use on which elements determines the direction the arrangement takes. Lots of copying and pasting, re-recording new versions that work better with the chosen instruments - things like that. And there'll be sections which I need to flesh out, having a sticky note in my brain that says, for instance, "Here I need a measure of arpeggio."

    Recording and mixing is a totally different phase of course.

    The actual composition period is always the shortest of the three basic phases. Perhaps a couple of full time days, as stated above - The instrumentation and actual orchestration can stretch into weeks of work. The mixing takes me the average of a week.

    So - Maybe I'm slower than most folks, but each thing I do, whether it's totally original or a realization of something already written - the average 3:00 piece takes me several weeks to accomplish from start to finish, a month not being an unusual time period.


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