Anyone can compose music. It just takes the right mindset.

When you’re starting to compose music there are a few approaches you can take. You may find one way works better for you than others, but don’t limit yourself. Try them all and see where each one takes you. Let’s go over the three most common ways.

But before we dive into the 3 approaches, it’s important to understand that composers are usually not creating something out of nothing when they sit down to write a new piece. Instead, they’re often referencing past experiences to compose music. Maybe it’s something they’ve studied or listened to, or its coming from their understanding of music theory. Perhaps it’s just what they would like to hear themselves or even just to answer some specific musical question they may have.

So in short, composing music is about finding inspiration. Ok now that we’ve covered that, let’s discuss the 3 most common ways to help you find your muse:

APPROACH 1: Biographical/Historical

  1. Write down 2–3 important events from your life or history.
  2. Think about the emotional tone and themes of these events. What did the emotional journey look like? Where did it start, where did it end up?
  3. Map out your experience of the event and use that as the form for your piece. Choose key centers or notes/patterns that reflect your relationship with that event.

Start to develop your ideas and keep returning to the event(s) for inspiration.

APPROACH 2: Music You Already Love

  1. Make a short list of music that you love listening to, say 5 songs.
  2. Next to each song, write one thing you love about it. Maybe it’s the beat, or the lyrics, or the crazy way the trombone player blares a solo.
  3. Now take those characteristics, and start to combine them. Make a mash up. It’s the beat from “Everybody Dance Now” with the melody line from “Happy”, but in a different key, and with the emotional character of Shostakovich symphony #10 movement 2.

Use these musical qualities and inspirations as building blocks for a unique mash up piece. You know what composer Igor Stravinsky supposedly said, “A good composer does not imitate; he steals”. Composing really is about putting together different elements of music. Your goal should eventually be to create something new and unique but not necessarily before finding inspiration outside of yourself.

APPROACH 3: Forget Inspiration and Just Work

Books like The War of Art talk about just showing up. Don’t insist on inspiration to do the work. Just set a timer for 30 minutes and write whatever you can. “Write for the trash can”. Eventually if you keep showing up you’ll produce quality output. In fact often times, the best ideas usually only come after focusing for about 15-30 minutes.

Once you write a phrase, move on to another. Don’t get caught up trying to play around with them. In the early stages your aim should be to go for quantity over quality. You’ll be surprised what you come up with.

Get Organized & Stay Focused

Now that we’ve gone over how to find your inspiration, the next step is sitting down and starting that creative process! I like to use timers and a notepad, or a music practice app like Modacity, to allocate time for different activities be it composing or practicing. You can do the same thing to help you focus your efforts while trying to compose a new piece.

Maybe you want to try all 3 approaches and give yourself 20 minutes for each one. Maybe you just want to force yourself to spend a specific amount of time just working. Tracking your time is a good way to make sure you’re not cutting yourself short or spending too much time and causing mental fatigue.

Regardless of what you decide to do, it’s important to stay in touch with a clear purpose for why you want to compose music. Be it self-expression, or giving something beautiful to others, or just to celebrate how cool music is. Your purpose will inspire you and help you create more.

Marc Gelfo

Marc Gelfo

Marc has been practicing music for 30+ years. After applying cognitive science & computer science to French horn, Marc became an internationally touring symphony musician. His experience includes teaching and performing with thousands of musicians around the world, including the San Francisco Symphony.