My creative process for composing new music

I recently sent out a survey to my longer-term subscribers asking their opinion on the music they’ve received and on topics of interest from which I would write and/or create videos. I’ve received lots of very good topics and questions that will feed the blog and YouTube channel for a while. So, please keep them coming!

One question was: What is your creative process?

I don’t think I have just one overriding process, but let me share a few things I do as I create new music.

Some of my music begins with some external inspiration. I’ll be listening to a tune and hear an aspect of either the groove or sound that catches my attention. If I’m listening in the car, I’ll grab my camera and take a photo of the satellite radio screen so I can go back and put the music under the “microscope”. Hopefully it’s available on iTunes.

I’ll later isolate that aspect that attracted me (the seed), noodle around with my synths or sound design stuff and see if i can bring about within (Apple) Logic that thing that inspired me. Then I’ll add sound, beats or patterns to that seed and the foundation to something starts to emerge. Now, what to do with that?

I’l play that foundation in the studio and start to play my trombone with it – recording it. Rough and probably not sounding very good. But from here, all sorts of things can happen. I might give up on it and relegate it to my unfinished song folder (it’s growing), or start to hear something. I might then go to the piano and start to play around, writing things down in my idea manuscript pad. Then I’ll go back and record the trombone playing ideas I’ve written from the piano. It ends up being a very organic process. I sometimes wish I had the talent to just hear a finished piece in my head, grab the manuscript pad and write it out start to finish, then record it. But alas, I am not Mozart!

I sometimes struggle with “where is this all going?” A new tune of mine called Metamorphosis started out as something completely different. I found a great odd-sounding infectious synth rhythm pad over which I improvised a trombone line that I really liked. I called it “Broken Jazz”.

But as the days went by I felt it was too obtuse, even for the Electrik Project, so I ended up creating a transition to a completely new groove over which I improvised. Fairly straight forward jazz improvisation accompanied with mainly a ride cymbal. Then, wanting to create the unity of threes, I created a second transition to a third groove and an ending that I really liked. In the end, I realized that I had created a sort of evolution of ideas – from obtuse to straight-forward jazz to and resolving groove fade to end. “Metamorphosis” was born.

So, most of my music is a sort of an improvised stream of consciousness evolution that often seems like it will never fully form and resolve, but after difficult perseverance, does. It goes like this: inspiration – experimentation – frustration – doubting the entire endeavor – resolution – elation.

I’d be very interested to know YOUR process and if you go through any of the six steps above.


  1. Duke on February 11, 2016 at 12:08 pm

    Hello Mike –
    Your new music project is interesting and very good.

    Don’t get to this at present but liked arranging from early on. Never found a bang-on, always works formula, however this is the gist of what helps me, especially through that “where is this all going?” phase. Hope this isn’t too off topic or “old hat”, and makes sense.

    Coming across “inspiration” happens from targeted life-long listening and transcribing. That makes me want to emulate a sound, drive or energy with other songs I like. Original sheet music with verse and words is the starting place to get the real melody, chords, and intent. Coming up with ideas that interact well with the melody is next and fun. Could be a segment of the original song altered in some way, paraphrase of an improv, or a look through the Unused Music folder ! Normally I do everything in a modular, organized sort of way with music no exception, so I piece together a “storyboard”. The shape of the whole project from beginning to end has to be clear (at least what I think I want). This fit-together and weed-out process that I came to like is flexible and gets a good sequence of events. With all the elements I might use on their own scrap of manuscript I swap things around and find interesting sequences to build on. Less is more here. Don’t want to lose focus with too many distracting new things going on unless that somehow is the point – a lot goes to the Unused folder. Hopefully you develop one phrase that stands out very different from the rest but will fit for an emphasis point or contrast. The intro and outro – maybe a couple of similar fragments stand out. Maybe not ! Getting in and out in an interesting way is always challenging and takes a lot of thought.

    Most important: everything flows together naturally, so time for a walk outside. Literally. It has to play in my mind, absolutely away from piano, technology and everything else. Say it with my own “voice” and decide what sounds “right”. Never get satisfying results any other way. You have to trust your first instinct when doubt creeps in too. Then get it on paper later with piano and horn – I can’t just write out music from my head to paper either ! A run through on piano gets a good idea if you got the sound and feel. A run through on a wind instrument tells what is awkward. I guess there is no right or wrong but a listen at rehearsal tells a lot too !

    Sometimes the music just doesn’t come off as expected – maybe it needs to be something else. I like to keep in mind a favorite story I read somewhere about the great Neal Hefti: Apparently the first version of Lil Darlin’ was Up Tempo and bounced along like some of his other songs. At some point Basie looked up from what he was reading and said, “Let’s try it at This tempo…”

    There are lots of talented musicians with inventive ways and will be interested when they chime in.


  2. Cam Millar on February 22, 2016 at 9:27 am

    Hi, (and thanks for the website you maintain and for your monthly tunes.)

    When I’m composing…. well, I listen to all kinds of music, so I often do get inspired by something I may have heard. That could be a certain ‘colour’, groove, mood, etc. which might be a stepping off point for myself.

    But most often, I’m with a pen/pencil and paper. For first thoughts of a new piece, I might not even be at a piano. (I actually never have used my trombone to ‘write’ or inspire a piece of music… but I know that certain intervals or melodic patterns I compose come from years of a physical association from playing the trombone.)

    So, with paper, I’ll sketch out what I’m hearing in ‘rhythmic curves’ (from Russ Garcia’s arranging books)… no actual notes or harmonies… just a bunch of x’s and lines and rhythmic notation that can show movement ‘up’, melody going ‘down’, possible ‘counterpoint’ ideas, etc. and even just verbal notes like “make it dark ala Miles Tutu”, or “this is a starburst effect with brass”, etc. etc.

    Then, after I sketch out a piece from my head onto paper in ‘rhythmic curve notation’, I’ll go to a piano and find out what kind of harmonies I was actually hearing in my head. Once I start writing down some music based on my ‘sketch’, the piece might even take off in a new direction I’d never even thought of during my original sketching. I have to let the music ‘lead me’.

    Also, another method is to fool around with my synths, sample instrument collection, etc. and find some new synth colours and textures that may trigger some ideas in my head.

    If my music is for a group of real musicians, I’ll usually write out a score, and then copy that score into Sibelius to put it in shape to print out parts. I’d like to try some of the new handwriting recognition software real soon (StaffPad in particular). I’m enjoying ‘Notion for iOS’ on an iPad too to see the possibilities. If I try to composer directly into Sibelius by using MIDI keyboard and keypad entry, I have trouble getting a ‘flow’ going, even though I know Sibelius very well. To me, there’s nothing like looking at and being able to spread out some real score paper in front of you to keep the thoughts in order.

    I’m going to try some writing in ‘Notion for iOS’, and then transfer that into Sibelius.

    And yet another…. I do projects in which I may just use my DAW and sample libraries and just play everything into the DAW (Digital Performer for me). Depending on the project, I may just have a few musical notes in front of me (a very rough sketch or guideline) and then just play the music in, changing it as I go, and adding other parts ‘on the fly’. Or, maybe I do some drum software composing first to lay down a foundation, and then I’ll build on the drum. It all depends on the project…. each one is different!

    Anyways, just sharing some composing thoughts here… which helps ‘kick me in the [email protected]#’ to get at it! I like your idea of the monthly musical recording of your own music!

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