Sunday, January 26, 2014

Finding Time to Compose — 5 Tips

   Is finding time to compose or write a challenge for you? I suspect it is for most people, at least some of the time, and so I offer some thoughts and suggestions on this topic:


   First, it helps to understand that composing is a skill, like playing piano, shooting a basketball, or public speaking. As a general rule, the more time spent developing a skill, the greater one's level of achievement. 

   Also, skill development proceeds more efficiently if done on a regular basis. This is why music teachers usually advocate practicing daily to their students, even if the period of practice is short, rather than cramming all of your practice-time into one extended period per week. Studies, such as this one, have confirmed this.

   The one caveat to these general rules is that mastery of a skill is not just a matter of accumulating, say, 10,000 hours of practice (see 10,000 Hours May Not Make a Master After All, for example); the time spent developing skills must be done intelligently.

   For example, if you practice a Beethoven sonata every day for two hours, but never pay attention to fingerings, dynamics, phrasing, structure, or even wrong notes, you will likely not progress very quickly, if at all.

   If, on the other hand, you practice the sonata for twenty-five minutes a day, work out good fingerings, work on difficult passages slowly until they can be played cleanly, stop when you make a mistake to figure out what caused it and what will correct it, and experiment with different phrasings and articulations until you find ones that make good musical sense, then you will will assuredly learn to perform the sonata more quickly, and much better.

   Applying these principles to composition, this suggests that your development as a composer will proceed more efficiently if you can compose on a regular basis, even if for a relatively short period of time (such as 25-30 minutes a day), if done intelligently. And if you can fit in two composing sessions a day, that would be better still!

   For what it's worth, my experience has been that daily or near-daily composing does not necessarily make the process flow smoothly, but it flows considerably more smoothly than otherwise. I think this is because the music keeps "simmering" away in my mind on an ongoing basis (including when I fall asleep and wake up), and not just when I am sitting at my computer actively trying to compose.

   Regular and ongoing engagement with your work-in-progress makes it easier to resume composing next time you are in your workspace. On the other hand, when I go through periods in which I don't compose for days or even weeks at a time and then try to return to it, I often struggle, feeling like I have no idea what I am doing (more so than usual, which is a lot!), making for a slow and angst-ridden process.

   Are you convinced yet? If so, the next challenge is finding time to do this!


Five suggestions; other suggestions welcome in the "comments" area below!
  1.    Q: How many psychiatrists does it take to change a lightbulb?
       A: Only one, but the bulb has to really WANT to change.

       Just like the old lightbulb joke, you must start by genuinely wanting to find more time to compose. It has to be a high priority. I'd like to become a better guitarist and pianist, but until I am convinced that these goals are really important, I am not likely to spend much time pursuing them.

  2.    Make a schedule that includes regular times for composing and try to follow it. If you find it difficult to follow, modify your schedule, and continue adjusting it until you come up with a schedule that works most of the time. Remember that all you need is about 25 minutes of composition a day to experience the benefits described above, at least until more time is required in order to meet a deadline.

  3.    Try to compose at roughly the same time every day. Our bodies work in natural rhythms ("circadian rhythm") that can affect us to varying degrees and in various ways during the course of daily life.  If you can train your body to be in "composition mode" at a particular time every day, you will probably find that your creative impulses will be primed and ready to go at that time. And if mornings (for example) aren't working for you, try setting aside a different time of day for your daily composing.

       Composing at the same time every day is something that a great many composers seem to have had in common. Maynard Solomon's 1998 biography of Beethoven states, rather enigmatically, that the composer's "daily routine reflected his adherence to an exemplary standard of behavior” (Solomon 51), which perhaps supports Anton Schindler's description of Beethoven's daily routine in his largely-discredited Life of Beethoven (1840):
    "Beethoven rose at daybreak, no matter what season, and went at once to his work-table. There he worked until two or three o' clock, when he took his midday meal. In the interim he usually ran out into the open two or three times, where he also 'worked while walking.' Such excursions seldom exceeded a full hour's time."
       Erik Satie, in his A Day in the Life of a Musician, claimed, probably with tongue in cheek (but possibly not), that he was "inspired" daily from 10: 23 to 11: 47 AM, and again from 3:12 to 4:07 PM. He would also walk 10 kilometres from his apartment on the outskirts of Paris to Monmartre every day.

       Morton Feldman described his routine as follows: "I get up at six in the morning. I compose until eleven, then my day is over. I go out, I walk, tirelessly, for hours." It was a revelation for me to discover how common it was for great composers to compose at a specific time every day.

       A fixed routine seems to be true of other creative people as well, such as writers. This article in The Guardian tells us that Charles Dickens wrote from 9 AM to 2 PM every day, "after which he would walk incessantly, and put his mind in neutral." Others find their best time of day to write is in the evening or late at night.

       Esther Freud, a novelist whose work I should probably know but don't (although most people are familiar with her famous great-grandfather), has offered this advice about writing (from The Guardian):

       Find your best time of the day for writing and write. Don't let anything else interfere. Afterwards it won't matter to you that the kitchen is a mess.

       Mason Currey, author of Daily Rituals: How Artists Work, writes

       There are certain behaviors that cropped up over and over again in my research. A large number of novelists and poets, for instance, wake up early in the morning and try to get some words on the page before other obligations kick in. Composers, I've found, almost invariably take a long daily walk. (

       This habit of taking a long walks is, by the way, one I recommend highly! 

  4.    Another great suggestion from Esther Freud (also from The Guardian article cited above), but one that has been expressed by many creative people, is this: 

    Don't wait for inspiration. Discipline is the key.

       If you make it a habit to compose at a regular time every day (say, from 8AM to 11AM ), you will likely find that your brain provides you with all the inspiration you need during that time.  Inspiration can occur at other times, of course, but if you sit around waiting for it, you may find yourself waiting for something that never arrives.

  5.    For those times when inspiration strikes while you are away from your piano, computer, or other composing aid, always carry manuscript paper or a manuscript sketch book, and a pencil around with you, and jot down ideas when you get them. Beethoven apparently always carried pencils and sketchbooks around, and it seemed to work pretty well for him! You can also record your ideas on your "smart" (sic) phone or tablet (e.g., iPad, Samsung Galaxy, etc.), using GarageBand (Apple), Symphony Pro (Xenon Labs), or other app.

       If, on the other hand, you consistently ignore the inspired thoughts that jump into your head at various times of day, you are in effect training your brain not to be inspired, which is obviously not a good habit to develop.  Now, before you get too hard on yourself, know that everyone ignores their inspirational impulses at least some of the time; there are times when it may be impractical to stop what you are doing and record your inspired idea. But just jotting down one inspired idea per day is enough to keep those thoughts coming.

   Among the difficulties of composing, writing, or any time-consuming solitary pursuit, are that it takes time, it can be frustrating to the point of psychological pain (something I know well), and it takes tremendous discipline.  The positives, for me, are finishing a piece knowing that it is as good as it can be at that point, hearing it performed well, and receiving favourable or constructive feedback from performers and listeners.  But I don't do it because of the positives; I think I do it because I need to.

   Finding the time to compose on a regular basis does not make composing easy (although some days it can be), but it does make it easier than composing sporadically.

   Please let me know your thoughts on this, if you feel so inclined!


Andrew said...

I had never thought of organizing a specific time of the day to compose. This is a very interesting topic. On most days, I find myself randomly choosing an order to complete my work. Therefore I am not maintaining a consistent daily cycle. I was previously aware that practicing intelligently can be efficient, but creating a consistent routine is also something to experiment with. It makes sense as to why something like this would be effective. It is comparable to other daily habits such as when one eats or sleeps. This seems to be worth giving a try.

Colin Bonner said...

I read this blog post in the beginning of the semester but in re-reading, now over the semesters half-way point, I've extracted different observations.
In the beginning of the winter I thought "of course, compose a little bit each day" EASY?!. My composing habit became this: get as much done for other courses during the day, practice, eat, etc... and only at the day's winding down would any composing begin––at least for a little bit. These quickly became pretty frustrated and fruitless attempts.

Noting the habits of some mentioned composer's, composing early in the day then allowing time to reflect on your work throughout the rest of the day seems to be a method of choice. I've noticed throughout my university career that my most meaningful output (writing papers, completing/understanding assignments, practicing) comes from working first thing in the day. I can see this being exceptionally true for composing; using the mind creatively and critically before the baggage of the day is piled on. For me I think that may be where my problem lies: by the time I get to composing its merely another assignment to finish rather than a meaningful piece of music.
Unfortunately I work most afternoons and my classes are exclusively in the mornings, so creating with Beethoven-esque routine is highly unlikely. However, with my accumulating frustration and general distaste for my own output, I plan on taking better advantage of the morning Saturday/Sunday hours rather than lying in bed hoping some guardian angel will either hit my snooze button or even make my coffee for me.

Hell, I'm sure I could even swing some extra 6am weekday composing at least day a week. S'pose it can't be too bad with a little romanticizing/divine aid.

Kelly Perchard said...

I read this blog earlier in the semester and commented but it appears the comment did not show up! I am glad I did read it earlier in the semester though, because there were a lot of interesting tips and tricks I would have never thought about for composing. I think when I read this post it was around the time of the second project, so for the first project, I had just sat down the night before for hours and tried to work something out that fit the criteria. I remember how awful and stressful this was, and vowed I would not do the same again for the next project. The part I found most interesting was taking walks. I have started just walking around campus if I have an hour before class starts or so. Whether it has been beneficial or not, I'm not entirely sure yet, but I do know that adding to my compositions a little each day is what has been most helpful for me. I have avoided leaving it until the last night for quite some time now and I find it much easier and much more relaxing.

Becca Spurrell said...

I really should not have put off reading your blog entries for so long because I am quickly realizing how much they really could have helped me!

It seems like a pretty logical concept to call composition a skill but to be honest, I never really thought of it as being one that requires consistent and regular practice like playing my instrument. Even if it's writing out simple harmonies and repetitive melodies at first, I can definitely see how practicing daily can increase my skill in composing. Who knows? Maybe in time my little compositions I do daily will sound as intricate as my projects!

As for your suggestion to choose a specific time every day to compose, I can imagine many people thinking "ah that will never work for me, inspiration will never come. I need to write when I have an idea in mind!" And I almost thought the same thing until I remembered something my Uncle told me last year. He is also a composer, and for those who doubt the ability of your brain to give you the inspiration you need to write the same time every day, consider his suggestion:
Any time you come up with a cool idea to compose a piece around but you are nowhere near your computer (walking/at work/etc), weather it's a cool intro, an idea for a possible combination of instruments, or a melodic idea, call your home phone from your cell. Let your answering machine cut in and leave a message with your idea, humming it or describing it as needed. If you don't have a home phone, leave yourself a voice message or written memo. Eventually, you'll have saved up a fairly large bank of ideas that you can use on those days where inspiration is just not coming!

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Josh McCarthy said...

I feel this is a pretty generic blog that could help composers and people who want to start composing as well. In my case what I found helpful about this article were points four and five. There are sometimes that I'll be in a creative funk and I can't seem to get inspiration from anything, but then I feel that maybe if I just sit down and try and work out a nice melody, the juices will just start to flow, and they usually do. And for point five, I HATE the feeling of when I'm out somewhere and a melody or idea pops into my head and don't know how to "save" it so I remember it later! But it happened recently actually, and I thought, why not take out my phone and record myself humming the melody! And it worked obviously and I went home later that day and started working with the idea.

Sarah-Beth Cormier said...

I definitely agree that it is important to compose every day. It gets the brain in the creative habit. I used to think that scheduled composing didn't work for me, and that I would have to wait for inspiration, but of course that's no way to be a working composer. Once I began to be more disciplined in finding time to compose, I discovered that almost invariably, I began to create effectively after five to ten minutes of frustration; before, I just gave up too early to reach that point, and never realized all I needed was time to settle in, rather than inspiration. I do find that I prefer longer, less interrupted periods of time, since once I am in the rhythm of composing I want to write until I've temporarily exhausted my ideas. This means that, since my schedule is quite variable, composing at the same time is difficult. Since life is always hectic, I hope instead to achieve the mental discipline to compose whenever and wherever I choose to, or need to. I believe that inspiration is only a small, though critical, part of composition, and that intelligence, thorough understanding of the craft, and a creative disposition carry most of the work, rather than a series of magic "lightning bolt" moments.
On a final note, perhaps I've always loved walks for a reason! I should take more.

Josh Penney said...

I think 3, 4 and 5 will be helpful for my composing. I find the hardest thing for me to do is find a solid amount of time to compose. I personally like composing when I have a large amount of time free (say 2-3 hours) however that is typically not the case. I think if I can find solid times in the week to do it, and do it every week, I could get a lot more done. I often try to do this on the weekend, however my weekends are very different based on work and gigs. Some Saturdays I can sit down and compose all day, while some I hardly have time to eat. Regardless my problem is not finding the regular time to compose, so I think doing this will solve a lot of productivity problems.

Carrying manuscript would be a great thing too. I find when I'm not composing, I'm often thinking about my pieces in progress, and what exactly I want to do in say the section that I'm working on. Sometimes I'll get a great idea on how to proceed, and then when I sit down after a days work, it's gone. I think have something specifically for this will help me organize my spontaneous ideas and make me more productive as soon as I sit down to write.

Peyton Morrissey said...

Second year of music school seems to be the busiest time I've experienced in my life thus far, so my days seemed to be planned very precisely, and because of this I happened to be composing around the same time every day (the later evening). I find this helpful because I know it's coming up in my night so I have time to mentally prepare. Also because I compose at night I find waking up in the morning and reviewing what I have written provides me with new insights and a fresh set of eyes, in case I had been stuck on something the night before.

Since the second point seems to be working well for me, I think incorporating the other tips would also be quite helpful!

Robert Humber said...

I've realized that even when you're not in a 'creative mood', it's still possible to put down lots of good work on paper. However, so far I've had trouble finding time to compose every day for a couple of reasons...

This semester has been my first semester involving composing as work. I used to hardly ever compose, apart from short marathons when I happened to be feeling overly creative. Now I am forced (which is great, I love it) to compose at least semi-regularly in order to get all the assignments done. I'm only used to composing under perfect mental conditions (just as an example, I remember listening to Stravinsky for the first time very loudly in a car and afterwards being extremely motivated to be creative and compose). I've started to develop a skill to compose under more circumstances but there are definitely still some days when I plan to take time to write and just can't. I'm hoping to further develop this over the summer.

Secondly, things are just so stressful and busy that it's hard to be in the mind frame. The best work I've done this semester has been mainly done during stress free days full of relaxing walks around the pond while listening to music and several cups of tea...

However, I COMPLETELY see the advantage of trying to take time to compose every day, simply because that's what all the best did, at composing and otherwise. Roger Clemens didn't wait for a day that he felt particularly inspired and say 'gee, I think I'll practice some baseball today'. It's just a commitment worth making to develop a skill, like anything!

But yeah, the thing about taking walks does not surprise me. I've found them to be a great way to clear the mind, on nice days that is. After composing I find myself very worked up and taking a walk really helps to blow off some steam.

Sarah Bartlett said...

I really wish I had seen this post at the beginning of the semester.

As a first-time composer, I thought inspiration would be bestowed upon me once I started classes (a girl can dream!), like I would suddenly become a wealth of knowledge on how to compose music. This was not the case. My first couple of pieces were rotten. But as the semester progressed, I found myself having more interesting ideas and becoming proud of my compositional output. Regardless of this though, I never took the (right) time to get ideas down - I would sit down at the computer and hope something would appear in finale, after a long week of papers, assignments, and sleep-deprivation. Knowing what I know now, I most definitely would have allotted some time each day to work on my compositions. Working on something a little bit every day instead of trying to crank it out at the end of the semester is definitely the way to go: not only does it make the assignment easier to do with less stress, but you then can take the time to make sure you're writing the way you really want your pieces to sound instead of madly writing some garb to meet a deadline. And as someone who takes more time to get my ideas down, I can testify that this blog is a definite help. Perhaps you could write another one with some more tips for the coming months?

Adrian Irvine said...

This post has already seen thorough traffic, and much of what I would like to say has already been said. I would, however, like to comment on your mentioning of the circadian rhythm. This semester I had two rather involved compositional projects underway simultaneously, a band piece for seminar and a string quartet for electronic music. Something I realized early on into working on both of these projects was that each had an optimal hour for output that was unique. While I did manage to work on both pieces at a variety of times ranging from first thing in the morning, to the middle of the night, I found that I made the most progress when I stuck to these optimal hours. For the string quartet, I found the most success in the late afternoon on weekdays and in the late morning on weekends. Both of these were times that I found it virtually impossible to work on my piece for band. My schedule of inspiration for my band piece seemed to begin at approximately 8 pm and continued until as late as 3 am, and once again, in these hours any attempts that were made to work on my string quartet were incredibly uninspired and frustrating. Needless to say this, if nothing else, has made me a believer in the importance of schedule when it comes to creative output.

Also, walks are AWESOME. I am looking forward to the approaching months and the many hours outdoors that they will (hopefully) bring. Nothing beats wandering in the sun with your thoughts!

Duane Andrews said...

I've found having a practical reason for writing music to be the best motivator for establishing a regular composing schedule. Being in a composition class is certainly one great way to find practical motivation with assignment deadlines but i've found that outside of school I'll sometimes create a reason for writing something around the same time I come up with an idea or use an opportunity such as the Gower Community Band competition or the provincial Arts and Letters Awards as a motivator.

I also find the idea which was mentioned above of musical simmering fascinating and that part of the process feels vital to me and only happens during periods when I'm regularly working on a composition.

Andre McEvenue said...

I actually finished reading Mason Curry's book earlier this year, so I've been thinking about this a great deal! I have tried a number of these approaches and suggestions and most of them have proved to be very helpful. One roadblock that I find difficult to overcome is that I don't have very inspired or concentrated work after I finish eating. But if I don't eat a large breakfast, I won't have the stamina to work for long periods of time, and I find that mornings are the best and most productive period for me. I have not yet resolved this issue, but I do find it very frustrating when I set time aside to write, and then have no progress because I feel lethargic. I suppose for me, eating and sleeping well is one of the most important things in order to get the most out of my time.

Josh Chancey said...

When reading this post, I found the last comment in particular very intriguing. By ignoring inspiration, I am effectively training my brain to not have those inspiring thoughts. This to me, seems like a brilliant way to think about the compositional process and it never really occurred to me to think about it in this way, even though the process is simple psychology. From now on, I will carry a recording device and a note pad with me at all times, as I often find my best ideas come to me at the most unideal times. In addition, I found the concept of composing at the same time daily intriguing. I have found that following such a process has helped me in the past, and I should keep developing those positive habits in composing.

Kassandra-Anne Demers said...

I am a huge advocate for short and focused practicing because what is the good of being absent minded for 2 hours? Sure 2 hours in the bank but not so productive in the end. Practicing in my opinion is about refinement and paying attention to the small details. I should definitely take this more focused approached to composing. Especially when time is so valuable. I often find myself at the end of a long day of course work, practicing, studying ect… completely exhausted and thinking ok I have a bit of time before bed to compose. It’s not always great. I need to apply equal importance to composition. Even if it is my minor it still deserves daily attention and structured practice. I didn’t realize that our bodies function in a natural circadian rhythm. This is good to keep in mind to get the most out of our scheduled composing time slots and to be as focused and as productive as possible. Thanks again for another great tip!

Anonymous said...

I find it interesting that many great composers had a specific time of day during which they composed. I just assumed they wrote whenever the mood struck them, or when a genius idea popped into their head. Personally, I am a very structured person, most days are scheduled to the minute, and if I stray from that schedule, the day usually becomes unproductive, after all, the devil finds work for idle hands. Going forward, I would like to add time for composing in my own schedule. I never really thought about how it's much like practicing an instrument, but evidently, any skill requires discipline, focus, and detailed practice.

Erika Penney said...

I found "Don't wait for inspiration, discipline is key" a great piece on information. I find it interesting that many composers believe that composing certain times of the day was in their best interest. Personally, I would always find the time of day I was in the best mood, or if the weather was nice out. I found it easier to sit down and compose because I could easily find something that was inspiring. I never thought of picking a specific time of day like I have done while practising my applied instrument. I have found that composing in different places has an impact on my compositions. I'd like to know if I had composed at the same time each day how different my work would have been. As many have said above, second year is one of the busiest, therefore I do not know how I would of managed to succeed in doing so!

Nader Tabrizchi said...

I really find it interesting how you say that "the music keeps "simmering" away in my mind on an ongoing basis" during the times in which you might be composing daily. I always found it difficult to leave one of my compositions for a few days and come back to it, so I completely agree with putting in intervals of time into a composition "daily" or "near-daily". The few times when I composed and left it for a couple of days I found it quite hard to get back into the right mindset. I basically was looking at my composition asking myself how I came up with this, or this sound is not what I am looking for anymore. I think that I should put in more intervals in my day for practicing my composition. To my next point I also find the statement about composing around the same time each day to be compelling. I never have been able to stick to a proper schedule when composing, sometimes the evenings, sometimes the mornings, to put it in perspective my times are all over the place. I will certainly start to experiment more with this idea as well as the idea of finding time throughout intervals of the day as I find these both interesting aspects and ideas about composing.

Shane Tetford said...

I was also unaware of the fact that many great composers did their work while adhering to such a strict schedule, and it is interesting indeed. I have become disciplined with keeping the same daily practice routine, and it now feels like a normal part of the day. When it comes to composing, I tend to write music more sporadically than I probably should, and I know that doing it more regularly and at similar times each day would help.
I would say that finding sufficient time to compose has been a slight challenge for me, especially over the last year. However, even if you are not siting at your computer with notation software open, there is still a lot you can do. I have found that most of my creative work and generation of ideas has been done while doing other things, such as walking and driving. This allows me to get started much faster when I sit down to write music, as I already have a good overview of what I want to do with the piece.