Tool #27: Finding a Good Workflow

I recently started a project where I’m getting paid (roughly) by the hour for composing.  I have therefore started keeping a log of my composing time, and it has really helped me scrutinize my composing workflow and habits.  I have sharpened my view on how I compose–how I plan, sketch, write, revise, etc.–by doing this careful timekeeping.  In today’s post I’d like to emphasize how important it is to find a good workflow.  It doesn’t have to be a monotonous repetition of the same process, but I feel that establishing a good workflow can put the mechanics of composing to the side and the music to the forefront.

Firstly, you have to recognize that your workflow is going to be unique to you, and at least slightly varied each project due to deadlines, collaboration, feedback, and musical elements.  With that said, there are some common areas that, when standardized, can make your composing process easier.

  1. How do you prepare, plan, and sketch?  I like to think a lot about a piece before I write anything down.  I have noticed that the times when I get the most success doing this are walking, exercising, showering, and right after eating.  I then like to write down basic descriptors of the piece, movement, or section in prose or single words in my planning journal.  I then move onto more detailed musical elements such as form, moving into musical ideas, pitches, rhythms, and other content.  I don’t do a lot of sketching because usually by the time I have planned in this manner the musical ideas have started generating in my mind and I’m eager to put notes on paper/computer.
  2. How long do you write, do you take breaks, and how does your energy level change throughout the composing process?  I tend to work in two to three hour intervals, sometimes with very brief water or bathroom breaks (1-2 minutes maximum), and there is usually a point where I can decide if I want to expend my last bit of energy and compose longer, or conserve that energy for another session and end the composing time at that moment.  I also notice that time flies by if I compose over 1.5 to 2 hours, because I get in the “zone” when I compose for long periods of time.
  3. How do you make changes to written material?  I like to review the whole movement or section to get a sense of flow, even if the changes aren’t until the end of it.  I find that since music is a temporal art I have to review changes in time for me to keep a sense of balance, proportion, and direction in the flow of my music.
  4. How do you finalize a piece? I prefer to leave the formatting/engraving and cleaning up to the last part of writing either a section or a piece.  My personal preference is to compose and get everything so it will sound right, and then clean everything up and make it look pretty (add title and instrumentation pages, format the fonts to my uniform guidelines I have for my scores, fix collisions, etc.).

How do these observations help me?

  1. I realize that my best works happen when I plan in my normal routine, and when I dedicate a lot of thought to the piece before even writing prose or descriptors.
  2. I realize that I need at least 2 hours to compose something substantial and to get in the “zone” of composing.  I can compose in shorter intervals, but I risk not getting fully involved in it.
  3. I realize that my changes have to be made with a sense of musical flow in mind.  I realize that if I don’t imagine the work temporally, my changes often sound jarring or out of place.
  4. I realize that I prefer to focus on solely musical aspects first, and solely publishing/engraving aspects later.  This ensures (in my case at least) that I get the most out of the piece musically, and then can get the best look of the piece to the eye.

How can observing your process help you?

  1.  Awareness of the things you need in order to compose (eg.  a time length, quality planning time, being absolutely alone, etc.) helps you to get the things you need and focus on the act of composing better.
  2. Awareness of your habits can fix your bad habits (eg. keeping your phone near you and being susceptible to interruptions via texts or emails) and sharpen your good ones (eg. zoning everything else out but the music, or allowing time between revisions so you can listen with fresh ears before going back to the piece).
  3. It can give you a sense of direction and confidence in the act of composing–if you know yourself and your composing process better, you don’t have to worry about the essential components of writing music, and you can focus solely on the music and not on the mechanics.

I hope this slightly lengthy discussion has helped you understand that composing can be slightly demystified and not be dismantled.  In fact, slight demystification of the illustrious art of composing can actually help your composing.  (A little science in your art can make the art better.)

What are your thoughts?  What characterizes your process?

Thanks for reading,


3 thoughts on “Tool #27: Finding a Good Workflow

  1. Pingback: Getting back in the zone « Sakari Dixon

  2. I wonder: when you actually sit down to write the music, do you write for a particular instrumentation, regardless of the desired end result—for example, writing out whole movements of a piece for four voices, and then arranging the music after completion? Do you write a whole melody out in a lead sheet format and arrange it after that? Or do you just write out everything for desired instrumentation, proceeding with harmony and melody bar by bar?

    1. I have a habit of avoiding orchestrating a simple idea; I prefer to go straight for the full ensemble. So, if I’m writing a large-scale piece I start with all instruments/voices at my disposal. It runs counter to the typical “make a piano score and then orchestrate” system, but I don’t hear just motives; I hear the result as I want to capture and discover it, and I usually want to dive right into questions of orchestration from the get-go. I must admit that my workflow is somewhat impatient in this regard, but I oftentimes just need to get it out, and I risk forgetting the idea if I don’t put it on paper in its most realized form asap. What is your process? Are you an orchestrator or a high diver?

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