Thoughts Before Composing a Piece of Music

Creating a piece of music certainly requires some fantasy and inspiration, but mostly it’s about crafting and implementing a well-thought-out design.  The following presents many of the questions composers will have resolved before committing a single note to the blank page.  How explicit this process of answering the questions is often depends on the experience level of the composer (typically student composers will need to write these out in detail while master composers may plot most or all of this out mentally).

This is not meant to be an exhaustive battery but a jumping off point for creative thought.

1.  General Description of the Piece

-Will it be programmatic?  Have any extramusical meaning(s)?  Or will it be absolute? Abstract?

-Of what personal significance is it?

-What will it communicate to the world?

-What is the novel construct (if any)?

-Why is anyone listening?

2.  Title

-Does it clearly convey the intended meaning of the piece (reflected in the Description)?

3.  Audience

-For whom are you writing? (Educated musicians, enthusiasts, general public, peers…)

-How will your methods reflect your desire to reach this audience?

4.  Skill Demands

-Is the piece intended to be played by students, amateurs, or professionals?

-Will it conform with general publishing standards of difficulty?

5. Formal Scheme

-Will the piece be in one or several movements? (Each movement needs to fit in the descriptive arc of the piece. Determine proportions between movements.)

-Outline sketch of the piece or of each movement (ABA, rondo, sonata, theme and variations…)

6. Length

-Based on Skill Demands and Formal Scheme

7.  Performance Medium

-What timbres are required to express your meaning?  (Wind band, orchestra, percussion ensemble, piano solo…)

-What role will each color play during major formal events?

8.  Style Overview

-Where is it on the continuum from traditional to avant-garde?

-Focal ratio of melody/harmony (traditional) to texture/timbre (avant garde)

–Impacts on the importance of beat/meter (strict to free)

-Broad-based possibilities:

–Direct imitation of old style (unironic and unaffected use of traditional idioms)

–Quotation/Juxtaposition of old styles within contemporary framework

–Appropriation of old styles to contemporary idioms (neo-classicism)

-Availability of Extended Timbral Techniques (e.g., multiphonics, key sounds, color fingerings, muting, unusual playing area/striking media, etc.)

9.  Harmonic Language

-Consider balance between consonance and dissonance

-Broad-based possibilities:

–Tonal/Modal (prominent pitch centering)

—Traditional (Common Practice; heavy emphasis on “resolving” dissonance)

—Non-Traditional Triadic (ranges from modal borrowing to panchromatic usage)

—Non-Traditional Scales (e.g., whole tone, pentatonic, octatonic)

–Atonal (avoidance of pitch centering; consideration of continuum of dissonance)

—Chromatic/Free Tradicism



—Other row/cell structures

—Free Chromaticism

10.  Melodic Usages (consideration of developmental depth)

-Broad-based possibilities:

–Cellular (micromotives; unordered rhythmic sets)

–Motivic (ordered rhythmic/melodic sets of high salience)

–Thematic (distinctive melodic phrases)



–Proportionality (common in the Renaissance; base unit defines relationship to other durations in a given space; e.g., determined proportion of 1:3:2:1 where the basic unit is a quarter note results in subsequent values equaling 3 beats, 2 beats, and 1 beat; subsequent values can be subdivided and/or silent)

–Musique Mesuree (primarily for use in vocal music but may be adapted to instrumental use; rhythmic values are portioned out according to syllabic emphasis)

–Ostinato (repeated verbatim deployment of an idiosyncratic rhythmic motive or phrase)

–Durational rows (predetermining rhythmic cells within a serial framework; developmental operands may be applied to the row)

–Interval Exploration (predominately using one interval)

11. Texture

-Textures can be realized as Tutti or Less Than Tutti

-Common textures:

–Monophonic (one nonharmonized line; large ensembles: octave doubling may be used)

–Homophonic (chorale-style harmonization of a line)

—Primarily isorhythmic?

—Limited rhythmic independence?

–Heterophonic (one dominating part, other subordinate parts of accompanimental nature)

—Consideration of accompaniment technique

–Polyphonic (more than one equal part simultaneously)

—Free counterpoint

—Limited imitation

—Structured imitation

—-Canon (following voices may be developed with augmentation, diminution, etc.)


—-Ground Bass

—-Chaconne (repeated chord succession)

—-Passacaglia (repeated theme in bass)

–Pointiliste/Klangfarben (costant timbral contrast of primary importance)

—Atmosphere or foreground

Any of the above melodic/rhythmic concepts may be further developed with the following operands (may be combined; rhythm/pitch considerations may be combined or separate)








-Rhythmic Displacement

-Significant Recontextualization

You can download a Worksheet for Precomposition here.

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6 thoughts on “Thoughts Before Composing a Piece of Music

  1. I compare music to creating a visual piece of art.
    Will I paint the picture or use crayons, pencils or chalk?

    Will it be impressionistic, modern, abstract or realistic?
    A portrait or landscape?

    However, if I was being paid to write Rap music, ( is that an oxymoron?) I might ask other question such as :
    Etch-a-sketch or Magna-Doodle?
    What really pisses me off most?
    Would I really need copyrights to every song I m pasting together or would it become my own mash up?


    1. Whether you even could have a copyright depends on if the songs in the mash-up were public domain or not…. 😉

      I like your comparison to the visual arts. All the arts are unified in a fundamental sense, after all. It’s just a difference of medium.

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