The Unsung Hero

Many composers believe that writing music is just one step, which is "write the music". While it actually can work that way, it's not efficient and, most often, a waste of time. Instead, let's talk about the first step in the process of composition, and I'll even give you the formula to create endless musical ideas! Sounds good? Let's jump in ...

Note: Please note that there are many musical demonstrations in the audio version of this episode, which are not accessible in the transcript.


Let's cover one question that pops up quite often, and that is: Why do you need the gathering in the first place? 

To me, if somebody asks this question, it simply shows that this person is not seeing the value the gathering can bring to the table. And also how it makes your process of music creation easier and actually way quicker!

That's why this episode is called "The Unsung Hero". I'm referring to the gathering, and we'll have a deep dive into it in a second.

Examples of Gathering Ideas

The gathering kicks off the creative 3-step-process. It's all about getting inspired and collecting musical ideas like melody snippets, chords, and even scales to start building the sonic universe of the composition we want to write. Don't confuse this step with sketching or orchestrating; that all comes later.

The gathering is not spectacular, and it won't impress your composer friends. It's not designed to be impressive. Let's actually listen to some musical ideas that work nicely as starting moments.

Here's a dominant seventh chord moving over a descending root cycle 2.
[please listen to the episode at 2:02 ...]

Let's switch to minor 7th chords and change the root cycle below to an ascending cycle in 1s; that's a chromatic line.
[please listen to the episode at 2:35 ...]

Just for fun, here are minor 6th chords over a root cycle 6. In Diatonic theory, that bass movement outlines a tritone, and it really sounds nice in jazzy progressions.
[please listen to the episode at 3:07 ...]

Or what about a simple line? It could be something like this.
[please listen to the episode at 3:17 ...]

Ok, let's add some more movement below and almost create a bass section against the melody. The only guideline we follow is avoiding any 13s, and it will at least sound ok as a potential starting point!
[please listen to the episode at 3:46 ...]

These fragments point to a similar emotion; the best part is that they all follow technique, meaning you can write something like that no matter how you feel. You might feel sleepy or not fully energized, yet you can create such results by following a technique. Let those building blocks inspire you to do more derivative work.

The Value of Gathering

Gathering materials is like picking your set of colors, emotions, and musical elements. Once you've gathered a substantial number of things, and don't be afraid to spend some time on that phase, you will realize that the next step, that's the sketch, almost falls in place naturally.

And if you think about it, it all comes down to reducing your own risk of failure.

Let's imagine a painter who wants to paint a car in nature. So, he surely knows some of the elements that he will need to tackle, namely, the car and some things that represent nature, like a tree, a field of flowers, or some mountains in the background.

So he goes out and looks at those elements to get inspiration. That's the gathering. He might even scribble down some drafts and change the perspective. Now when it comes to the final picture, he can almost choose his favorite elements and place them on the canvas without worrying about what to draw. 

In conversations with other composers, you'll find out that almost everybody skips over the gathering part.

They don't experience the luxury of having enough things available that you can move around on the musical canvas later. But honestly, designing your sketch is way simpler if you've taken care of creating the building blocks already.

Don't create and design at the same time!
[please listen to the episode at 6:28 ...]

From the Gathering to the Sketch

Now, to recap, the gathering is your unsung hero which solves many potential problems that you can run into later. I know it's not the shiny and honorable work of a composer, and you won't impress anybody else if you played them your gathering, but do yourself a favor and make your compositional life as easy as possible.

And because we listened to those gathered ideas, let's also look into the next steps, the sketching, and finally, the finished composition.

Here's an excerpt from the sketch based on those initial ideas we've heard. It actually became a solid sketch very quickly because a lot of information was already there, and we could focus more on connecting the dots.
[please listen to the episode at 7:39 ...]

Let the gathering take care of all the groundwork before bringing in more complexity or confusion.

So, let's listen to the final piece and how the other instrument sections sweeten the sketch.
[please listen to the episode at 8:36 ...]

Who would have thought such a substantial piece would come out of some basic seventh chords over some root cycles?

But let me talk about one thing that usually comes up around this time. You might say: "Frank, this all seems to work nicely for you, but I feel completely stuck and don't have any musical idea to start with! So, what do I do to get the gathering process started?"

How to Start the Gathering Today

I want to give you one technique that works all the time! I know that it sounds completely arbitrary but if you have no idea what to do, really, start with that technique.

  1. Pick one of your favorite tracks from whatever composer and write down every third chord structure.
  2. Put those chords into a sequence, like a progression.
  3. You might want to add some structures in between or around it.
  4. You can extract a lot of melodic ideas as well. Simply switch through the voices and connect them with some passing tones.

That's almost a bullet-proof formula for creating original musical ideas. I remember that my co-host, TC, did a fantastic job taking the "Piano Concerto No. 3" from Prokofiev and used that as a giant gathering for new compositions. He wrote a ton of unique and original music, all based on the concepts taken from the piano concerto.

In the end, he presented his approach in a 5-hour-video series, and it was really fascinating to watch him apply his magic. All members of the Academy got access to these sessions, and we'll surely offer more of those in the future.

So, again, please don't skip the gathering step. It's important, and you want to use it.

Now, this brings me almost to the end of this episode. And if you've never gathered before, I encourage you to try it today before you get stuck in your next composition. There's so much you can gain and nothing you can lose.

This was Frank, going back to my own gathering and wishing you a wonderful week. Until the next time, bye.


The gathering helps you find new musical ideas and sets up the following stages in an efficient workflow. Please review the graphic of the 3-step-process one more time and find out which of those areas you need to work on.

Author: Frank Herrlinger