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From the Mind to the Page: A Composer’s Tips for Optimizing your Creative Process: Part 2

From the Mind to the Page: A Composer’s Tips for Optimizing your Creative Process: Part 2

By Lukas Stanley

If you haven’t already read Part One of this article, I would recommend reading that first. It can be found here:

In Part One, I discussed how to make the most of your creativity by effectively setting a writing schedule that coincides with your creative peaks during the day, having a plan when you sit down to compose, and how to go about setting up some of the fundamentals in a new piece of music. But there are more ways to enhance your creative output both in quality and quantity than just having a schedule and picking what key to write a piece in.

In this article, Part 2, I will discuss a topic that plagues composers, young and experienced alike, without effective strategies to combat them: The pre-compositional process. I will also give a disclaimer here that I a primarily create art music, although many of these strategies could easily be applied to commercial music or any other genre.


Let’s get down to it. I have some bad habits as a composer, habits that make it difficult sometimes to write music. Hopefully this article is a place where you can learn from my mistakes, because I’ve spent a lot of time figuring out how to write better quality music more efficiently. I have found myself resorting, in the past, to sitting down with pencil (or computer mouse) in hand, blank staves in front of me, waiting expectantly for a good idea to jump out of my head onto the page. As if I’m going to start writing notes in measure one, write them in order until the piece is over, and have a satisfactory piece of music sitting in front of me. If you have ever tried this you will probably agree that it is a difficult way to get the creative juices flowing. What you need to start is a concept, an overarching idea, of what the project looks like. The more ideas you can get down in this stage, called the “pre-compositional process,” the less work you have to do when actually writing the music out and getting to that final product. Below are seven strategies that I have collected from professors, friends, and my own experiences on how to pre-compose. I have tried all of these to varying degrees of success, but not every process works for every composer, or even for every piece of music, so I’m sharing all of them with you in hopes that at least one might make you a better creator of sound.

1. Graphic Overview

Have you ever found yourself with a really great idea for a piece of music, but by the time you start writing it the initial idea starts to lose focus? If I were a music doctor, I would probably diagnose you with a forethought deficiency. One method of pre-composition that I have found to be particularly effective at combating this is a graphical overview. This is a really good way to get down a large quantity of general ideas, without becoming bogged down by the specificity of melodic or harmonic plans. You can use lines and other symbols to indicate instruments, register, textures, and essentially any other musical components that you think of, over a linear timeline. This way you can see the shape of a whole piece from the start, and then gradually fill in specific notes, and work gradually towards a final piece of music. This is also a common technique used in the analysis of 20th century art music, because textures and large formal ideas are often easily represented by chronological graphical representation. An example of such that I found useful in the past can be seen in this visual analysis of Stockhausen’s Gesang der Jünglinge (1956), uploaded to YouTube by user carlintuitive:

2. Word Sketch

A word sketch is something that works well for people who organize their thoughts better in writing than in images, although this method can easily be combined with a graphic sketch. This method involves creating a written outline of a piece, identifying key sections of the piece and subsequent detail in as much depth as you need. For example, you might indicate under a section titled “Development” that the strings enter with an ominous diminished chord while the trumpet plays a blaring melody in the upper register. This particular syntax does not indicate specific notes or harmonies, but it does evoke a clear musical image and mood that will be easily recalled when you are filling in all the details later.

3. Sample Mock-up

This method of precomposition is different than the others listed in this article because it relies on using pre-existing music to create new musical forms. Essentially what this method accomplishes is the creation of a temp track for your music. Begin by thinking of what kind of mood or style of music you would like to evoke with your own piece. Then find a piece of music that already accomplishes this. Cut an excerpt that represents the duration you want for your own piece from this one into your favorite digital audio workstation (DAW).

Continue in this manner for each section of your piece and splice them together with crossfades or other appropriate transitions, and in no time you can have an overview of the shape of the piece you want to create. This is a very fast way to work, and to draw clear inspiration from existing music that you enjoy and wish to emulate. The risk of this method is the same as working with any temp track: it is easy to become limited by the pre-existing musical materials. If you use this method, use it only as a quick, initial step into something that involves more of your original content.

4. Emotive overview

Similar to a word sketch, an emotive overview is something that I have used specifically for collaborative projects. For example, if I were writing a five minute cue in conjunction with a visual media (film or TV), how the music makes the listener feel is going to be very important. If they should feel at ease, stressed out, pumped up, etc., these are all emotive cues that are vital to take into account during the pre-compositional process. Create a sequential map of how the audience should feel over the given duration and make some decisions on how you are going to get there, particularly if the changes in mood are abrupt or there are a lot of them. This also holds true for concert music. In the absence of a multimedia presentation (i.e. traditional concert music), the emotive content almost needs to be more blatant because there aren’t visuals enforcing extra-musical ideas on the observers.

5. Motivic Outline

Jumping right into writing some music down is great if you just came up with a great melody or musical fragment. How you take that motive and manipulate it over time though, is what separates amateur music from professional music. Even a short motive of four notes, when properly placed temporally and masterfully manipulated can drive an entire piece of music. If you don’t believe me, listen to the first movement of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. So what you can do is take your motive, and make a list of all the possible ways to manipulate it: transpositions, reordering of notes, retrograde, inversions, rhythmic expansions and contractions, etc. Decide on what versions of the motive you like and how you want to present them over time. Whether you are writing EDM, indie-rock, or neo-classical art music, melody is going to be a driving factor and having a clear picture of how to treat it over time is something to think about up front. This will save you many headaches as you set out to write.

6. Meet with Performers

If you are writing concert music, as I primarily do, meet with performers that play the instruments you are writing for, particularly if you are not familiar with the instruments. This is a good opportunity to build connections and learn what different performers are capable of, because in the rapidly expanding world of extended techniques there are an infinite number of sonic possibilities for instrumentalists. Not only will you be able to test some preliminary compositional ideas with them, but the collaborative nature of such a meeting might also provide you with further inspiration and direction on a piece of music. I have found this method to be particularly useful in my own experience, having recently written a piece for solo bassoon this way. It was severely lacking in direction, but then I met with a bassoonist, talked over some ideas I had for the piece, and within 24 hours the entire thing had been written.

7. Brainstorming

A lot of what has already been said in this article about the pre-compositional process could be categorized as “brainstorming.” However, going beyond strategies for starting to write a piece, actually brain-storming should not be overlooked. Give yourself enough time without distraction to just think about music. Let your mind wander and have liberty to stumble upon interesting inspirations and ideas. In a world that moves very fast technologically, we are often too overwhelmed by notifications, emails, and deadlines to just stop and think for a few minutes. In part one of this article, I talked about how Tchaikovsky would go on a walk every morning, feeding the birds and enjoying nature as he gathered compositional inspiration. It was an integral step in his pre-compositional process. I would highly recommend doing something of similar effect – it will clear the mind in a way that more easily permits creativity. I can almost guarantee that you will find yourself writing more effective music if you do this.

A Few Tips

Don’t spend too much time on this part of the process. If you can, get it all out in one sitting. Breaking up a pre-compositional session might result in losing a train of thought that could take days or weeks to get back, if at all.

Pre-writing is also a great anti-writer’s block strategy. If the piece is well-laid out ahead of time, it’s going to be a lot less likely that you will hit a wall and not know what to do. 
Don’t be afraid of trial and error. One of the best parts about living in the digital age is the flexibility we have when it comes to creativity. If you want to hear what two melodic ideas sound like when they are overlapped, just drag them on top of each other in your DAW or engraving software and play it back. It takes virtually no time at all, and simply experimenting with positioning, layering, and effects can sometimes lead to really interesting and unexpected results. Chances are, no one else is watching you compose. If you end up with something that sounds like garbage, just Ctrl+Z and try something else, no harm done. 

I hope that you have found some new strategies here to begin writing your own music and I wish you the best of luck in your compositional endeavors!

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

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

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.
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.
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).
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
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

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
Wake up, read/study, drink tea
Go for a walk to gather inspiration / take notes of compositional ideas
Compose sketches at the piano
After lunch
Go for another walk
Afternoon tea, read the paper, meet visitors
Compose and orchestrate the sketches from the morning
Walk, play piano, supper, write letters, play cards

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

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.
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:

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.
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.
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.
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.

(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.

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.
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