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How do I compose music?

This being more or less the 10th anniversary of writing my most popular composition ‘Finchdean’, it seems a good time to post on the subject of writing music.

People have often remarked on my ability to compose a variety of original compositions and want to know where my ideas come from. It’s a question that, when asked, I struggle to answer in a meaningful way. I think it is because unless you keep a diary of what happened, precise details are easily forgotten. Once the job is done you leave the often hard work behind, enjoy the composition for what it is and start thinking of the next one.

The process of composing can sometimes seem an immense and hopeless struggle. At first nothing works and it is very tempting to give up! Sometimes when ideas are not flowing, it is a good idea to stop and try an alternative approach. Or in other words, it’s good to have a willingness to experiment and realise when an idea is not worth keeping. Some experiments fail, some lead to satisfying results and on very rare occasions can be the start of something outstanding. I see my composition ‘Finchdean’ falling into the latter category. It began as an experiment in writing with different tremolo patterns, then gradually other ideas fitted into place and soon it became much more than just a technical study.

Other times, particularly with my earliest compositions, it was as if ideas just entered my head and the compositions materialised bit by bit. I would improvise on the guitar, write down the first ideas as best I could, then listen again and try to imagine what should happen next, or which direction the music might go in. I would also go as far as saying sometimes it was like the music was being written for me.

There has also always been a process of reviewing the music, being honest about what I was hearing and prepared to rewrite (or replace) whole sections of a piece. It has really helped being able to assess my own work and realise where things were not working or might be improved. It is very easy to write music that repeats an idea too often or to include ideas that don’t belong. On one occasion I was writing a piece (as a continuation of a short prelude) and discovered later that there were too many ideas going on at once, realising there was enough material to write three separate pieces.

I remember being told by a flamenco guitarist in Granada that sometimes you can start a composition with an idea that forms an ending or middle of a composition. Sometimes you don’t know how a piece is going to start or end until you have worked out how the middle (or main section of the composition) will be.

Thinking of my 10 years experience in writing music, I’m not sure that I am much closer to finding the perfect answer to the question of how I write music. Perhaps the best response is to say there is no single method or rule. It requires (amongst other things) musical experience, comprehension and imagination, the ability to self critique (also willingness to accept constructive criticism from others) and perseverance.