How do you compose Music?


 This is a question I have been asked many times over the years and although I would love to answer it quickly, it really is not simple in that way.


I liken it to an artist, who creates a masterpiece- theirs is in colour, with paint, or some other medium, whereas the musician’s canvas is sound and silence.  Of course, the artist or musician are not the only creative ones who display their skill. One look around you and you will discover someone’s skill being used in a creative way- think of utensils, designs on plates, our clothes, our vacuum cleaner or dishwasher or a chef who creates a work of art in food.  All of these and so many more needed creative skills to create them and yet, each individual put their stamp of individuality to the product.  Think of one product in your home and then think of all the possibilities and variations there are- all created by individuals with creative vision.

 Before you say, I don’t have that type of skill or creative vision ask yourself what is your skill, your passion, your natural ability.  Every time we get an idea and bring it to completion is a creative thought brought to fruition.  How many times do we say’’ what am I going to have for dinner tonight”’. There are options such as  ordering in, cooking something ourselves or maybe a family member cooks it.  All of these decisions start with a question or thought.


So too with composing Music.  There are some questions or thoughts that need to be considered before a note goes on the manuscript and/or into music software.

The beauty of the questions is that it leads to either more questions/thoughts which, will in the end give us a focus.

However the good news is that there is a process that can be followed whether intuitively and with experience or for the amateur who would like to give it a try.


Before you begin there has to be a focus.  Again it is like the artist- he/she may or may not have some vision in mind but there will be some tiny inspirational thought that will impact him/her and start the process.


Like artists, composers may compose something from a need. Many of the great composers such as Bach, Mozart or Beethoven were either employed by a court. In the case of Bach for instance, many of his chorales came from the need to have a chorale for the Sunday service. That was part of his duty as a court musician of that time ( 1685-1750)..

 Some of the great composers wrote too because they were inspired- inspired by the beauty around them or a visit to place. e.g. Hebrides Overture by Mendelssohn or Schubert’s Trout Quintet.

 Sometimes it can be a person whom they admire or it can be of course an emotional response to life. Sometimes the darkest emotional moments or  in life can bring out the creative genius in a person. They channel that darkness towards something positive.  This can happen for people suffering depression or people who are mourning a loss of a loved one.

 Sometimes the need may not be as clear cut but there is a desire to compose.


Currently I am composing Singable Sunday Psalms which I am going to launch on my site in October. More about that later.  However as I am in composing mode currently, I will let you in on how I compose.


Singable Sunday Psalms has a focus- which is to compose singable responses and verses for a congregation to sing for the Responsorial Psalm at Mass. The fact that I am composing Responsorial Psalms means I already have a text to follow- I do not need to create my own lyrics as I follow the texts from the Roman Missal. This is what is read by the lector or sung by the cantor.


The fact that I am calling my work Singable Sunday Psalms means that I also have a goal to keep in mind.  My Psalm responses need to be Singable. Often, although there are many beautiful Psalms that can be sung, some are too difficult for some congregations to sing. As a result, either a cantor sings it and the congregation cannot sing meaning that they do not fully participate or the music remains in the cupboard – lost to being heard by the world and felt with the heart.


When I am composing, as I already have the text, I  work out where the strong syllables fall naturally. From there I can work out what time signature I will use- in other words- what is natural beat- is it 2 3 or 4 or something else. This gives  me a good guide to which time signature  I choose.


Then there is a key signature to choose from both the 14 major keys and 14 minor keys.  Again, I look at the text. The text gives me a sense of mood. Some words like joy or rejoicing or mercy or praise all evoke a mood.  For example, I would be less likely to choose a minor key when the overall mood of the text is joy. 

The other thing I consider before choosing the key signature is the tone quality to match the text.  Every key has its own tone quality.  Also it is how I respond to that tone quality on an individual basis. I guess it could be likened to describing a good wine. What you may taste may be different from my taste palette. How we describe it will also be different because of our own experience. There is something similar at work here when choosing keys.


Next I work out a rhythm to match the text as much as possible. Sometimes composers use sncycopation which  places the beat in an alternative place than what is expected from the time signature.  This is used deliberately by the composer to get a particular effect.  When text is involved, this needs to be considered carefully to use appropriately if it all.


Now I am ready to jot down on manuscript or in my music software the melody I can hear in my head.  Some composers like myself sit elsewhere whilst others sit at the piano and work out their music from there.  It is a personal choice. Both are acceptable way of composing. 


Of course, with music software, it has opened up to composers the world of sound in a whole different way. Instruments can be set so that what is composed is heard and played back that way. It opens up the world of sound- like having an orchestra at my finger tips or a click of the mouse.


Being experienced with both manuscript and music software, I can compose both ways. However I have to say that I actually still prefer to jot down my original musical thought on manuscript first and then notate it into music software later.  I think this is because I am used to composing this way from my early years of life. There was no such thing as music software then.


I came across the other day a music software that can be used on the phone. An app I suppose.  It was fascinating to watch- it seems that the person uses a stylus or finger and writes music just as you would if you were writing on manuscript paper. However the amazing part of this app was that as the person notated their music on the lower stave, it was translating into music notation on the other stave- a printed version of the hand written stylus version. 

I have not tried this software myself but I intend to explore it further.  I will let you know what I think in another blog post soon.  Of course being on the phone makes it convenient for those genius ideas to be notated on the go.  Wow.   When inspiration hits me on the go at a coffee shop, I usually have some paper in my handbag/purse and jot it down. This type of software would do the same in real time. What a time saver that seems to be.

Anyway, I will keep you posted on that when I explore it further.


The other point I should make is that because Singable Sunday Psalms has a focus, it also has a place where it will be played.  Seeing that the place where it will be performed is in a Catholic or Christian Church, it gives me a style to consider- religious rather than secular. I am less likely to use a rock or jazz style of composing for it unless of course I was writing for a Mass where rock or Jazz style was acceptable ( eg Youth Mass perhaps).

If you have ever watched the film Sister Act, you will appreciate the issues of style.  This brings me to my next consideration- audience or congregation.


Everyone has different tastes of course- both in food and in music or art. Some will appeal more to one person than to another.  Think about what music you gravitate towards naturally.  It will not also be the same every time either because we are often governed by our emotional needs. For example relaxing music for when we need to relax and unwind, high energy music for our workout at the gym or to motivate us and the list of examples could go on and on.


Now for the inside scoop:  For those of you who are interested, Singable Sunday Psalms for Advent and Christmas will be launched on my website in October.  I also plan to have a recording of Singable Sunday Psalms as well (all going well and according to plan).

Because I am a musician, I have created these eBooks with the congregation and musicians in mind.  I have eliminated as much as possible awkward turning of pages during a Psalm- now more wishing we had 4 hands instead of 2 and kept in my mind as I have been composing the name of my work Singable Sunday Psalms- making them singable for not just the trained singer, but with the skills of various congregations in mind. 


In my opinion but for others to decide is that whether the musician and/or congregation have limited music skills or whether they are a trained musician like myself, Singable Sunday Psalms will cater for both groups of musicians and congregations and the integrity and beauty of the music will speak.


Looking forward to launching Singable Sunday Psalms in October. Keep you posted on updates as launching date comes closer.