The 3-Step Process

Way too many composers don't follow any process when creating music. Guess what? You won't control your musical outcome if you don't know HOW to get results. In this episode, Frank shares his best practices for setting up a process so that you turn into a music-making machine!

My Confession

For many years I didn't follow any process. I jumped right into Cubase and wrote bar after bar, section after section. Sometimes, the results were as expected, but most of the time, the tracks developed an uncontrollable life of their own. And this felt like gambling. Well, this all is not necessarily a bad thing, but what really annoyed me was not being in full control of what I was offering to my clients.

How are you supposed to build confidence in your skills if you don't know what you do?

It's not a healthy way to picture yourself and your musical career.

So, at some point, I saw the need to structurize and organize my process of composition to repeat the successes. And by the way, if you write music as a hobby and don't want to pursue a professional career, that's great. Still, having a proper process can optimize your working time as a composer so you can focus on other things as well. It's just a matter of working smarter.

I already talked about the importance of sketching, and sketching is one of the three steps in the process we'll dive into, namely gathering material, sketching out the rough musical ideas, and developing the ideas further. Let's touch upon every step separately.

The Gathering of Materials

In the gathering phase, we collect all kinds of musical ideas that might be useful for the sketch, such as melodies, harmony, rhythms, maybe just a vertical structure or a motor, maybe even just a bunch of intervals.

And I do understand that this can sound a bit abstract to some of you, but believe me, the intervals are a fantastic starting point for inspiration and getting lots of ideas down quickly.

It's completely up to you how much material you want to gather. We will start a feedback loop that will lead to even more ideas once you've found something that works. So, please don't be afraid of any 'wrong' ideas. In fact, there is no such thing as a wrong idea. 

The worst thing that could happen is that you won't use all the material you've gathered. That's it.

This step is mainly about emotional decision-making. When you start composing, you should have an idea in mind already about what you want to write. Is it a love song or the main title for the next "DC vs. Marvel" show on Netflix?

Whatever it is, you should have an idea to base your gathering on. Whatever materials fit into that emotion should be written down. We collect everything that could be helpful to create the actual music later. Little building blocks that we can put on the canvas and move around in the sketch.

The Sketching

Next, we want to organize those ideas a bit more. That's the sketching phase. Let's bring the elements in order, create repetitions and contrast. Technically, we define structure and architecture, but emotionally, we start writing down the story. Shape and describe your main characters.

That's musical storytelling, and it even makes your life as a composer easier!

 Also, don't be afraid to go back into the gathering from here, as you will come across more interesting ideas; that's the feedback loop I talked about. This feedback loop is very fruitful and a fantastic source of inspiration. So, gathering and sketching work together very well.

You might have noticed that many film composers write a suite before they go into scoring the scenes. That's a very similar process. It's a huge gathering and sketching all at once. Although nobody forces you to write a sketch or suite, it's very beneficial. This will save you a lot of time and mental calories later.

Developing the materials

After you are happy with the sketch, it's time to flesh it out. So, let's orchestrate the ideas. We take the sketch and help it transform into a full piece of music. We want to decide about the instruments we want to write for, and we can even add more things around the sketch, like sidelines, decorations, doublings of notes, etc.

The 3-step methodology is a proven and most practical way to structure your process of composition.

It gives you a lot of freedom and full control at the same time.

Maybe some of you want to interfere and say: "I don't need a process! I always reached my goal without any process!"

First of all, that's great to hear, and congrats to you!

Why is this process smart?

But let me assure you, jumping into the development from nothing is actually an uphill battle and very complicated as you have to deal with different things simultaneously.

Here are just a few of those things:

  • What is your melody?
  • In what register does it appear?
  • What's the orchestration around it?
  • Is there a chord progression below your melody?
  • Do you need to follow a timeline like a script or a scene?

If you went through the gathering and sketching, almost all of these questions are clear and answered already. So, you've made the big problem into many small ones. And that's way easier to tackle, and you will get to result like this way quicker.

Some of you might know that I didn't follow any process for the most part of my musical career and jumped directly into developing my initial ideas from nothing. And it took me ages to finish a composition. Sometimes, I didn't even finish it because I got frustrated. I never really understood how some composers can crank out a ton of music every week so consistently. Until I figured that it might be better to establish a robust process that I could follow. And maybe that also sounds familiar to you?

Let me quickly tell you why separating the gathering and sketching from developing is so beneficial.

Essentially, they occupy different parts of the brain. Gathering and sketching are emotional procedures, while developing is a rational procedure. And you can't use both parts simultaneously. Just try it, and you'll see that you can make decisions about whether or not something fits into a musical context quicker and even more accurately.

Don't mix your logical decision-making with your emotional one because it will only slow down the overall process.

Here's a quick test for you.

What is 13 plus nine?

Now, please tell me your answer and how you felt during the calculation.

I bet you didn't feel anything. Well, at least I hope that you're feeling entertained right now; and maybe even intrigued or motivated to create a better musical life for yourself.

Well, why not start today? This was Frank, best always, and see you in the next episode.


The gathering phase can be the most abstract, while the developing stage can be overwhelming at first. Therefore, we suggest you start with sketching and build into the other areas later.

If you're interested in learning the complete process and saving hours every day, please consider joining the academy.

Author: Frank Herrlinger