There are many different processes for writing music. There is no right one or wrong one, it just depends on what works for the individual, and that is something that each writer must determine for himself. The fledgling writer can try different ones, or change up on each piece.
For myself, I have found something that works consistently for me. When I was much younger, I tried many different processes and finally determined the “routine” with which I was most productive and organized. When I started out, in high school and college, I was able to find and purchase miniature score pads, where I could start by doing a sketch that would itself turn into a score. This worked for awhile, but I found I would eventually have to copy it all over again because the miniature score was too small to be legible by anyone else. This was before computer notation.
I believe it was when I was writing a commission for the Buddy Rich band that I finally decided on my process. I tried starting with the score itself, but that didn’t work for me. What I ended up with was the following and I have used it every since. Now mind you, I have used many variations of this since, especially in the beginning stages (research) for writing and composition or arrangement.
- Lead sheet
- Sketch (templates)- 4 staves, 6 staves, 3 staves
- complete detailed
- digital score (Finale or Sibelius)
- edit parts
Now let’s pick apart and detail these process points.
This is the melody and chord symbols (if any) only. On my classical pieces, this is more like an “ideas” sheet, with main
themes and some ideas for variation/development, with key centers sometimes but rarely indicated. Usually with pencil and paper, one or two staves.
I have various sketch templates that have been devised in Finale.
- 4 staves for for large jazz ensemble
- 6 staves for orchestra with strings
- 3 stave for smaller ensemble
Let’s take for example the large jazz ensemble.
(4 staves -treble & bass, treble & bass. The upper two saxes/woodwinds, the lower two brass) (diagram 1).
If it is an arrangement for a vocalist or featured soloist, I add another single staff above. I write on this with pencil.
Placed are melody lines, chord changes, rhythmic slashes when actual melodic lines not decided, rhythmic slashes and notation (below staff) indicating what rhythm section will be doing (swing, even 8ths, Latin, tutti rhythms etc.). This includes devising an intro and ending, transitions, modulations, development areas. This is essentially the creative part, establishing the form, where you spell out your ideas (diagram 2).
Number the bars.
Fill in existing loose sketch with counter lines, accompanying ensemble rhythms and lead lines (diagram 3). Label (with words).
COMPLETE DETAILED SKETCH
Fill in existing sketch with all harmonies and voicing (diagram 4).
This means going through the piece from beginning to end three times.
I use Finale or Sibelius (and perhaps Dorico soon). Transfer all notes onto the computer using keyboard input or manually. I usually start with the woodwinds, then trumpets, trombones, bass, piano, guitar, tuba, French horns, mallet percussion, drums, and hand percussion, in that order. I write and print my scores in concert (diagram 5).
This is often ignored by many arrangers, and this is crucial. And this is a pet peeve of mine. Instead of just printing out the parts, they must be examined in detail and formatted to make sure they are spaced legibly, have any instructional notation in the right places (ie, “2nd X only,” or “Play 4 Xs”), make sure the D.S. and coda (if any) are separated and indented properly (see Diagram 6A & 6B).
It is important to make sure that all melodic lines read in the simplest enharmonic way possible (see diagram 7A-wrong way, and diagram 7B-correct way).
It is best that all rehearsal letters are on the far left of a system. It is best if the coda mark is on the far right of a system (diagram 8).
Make sure that slash marks with chords above appear correctly.
Make sure that all headers or footers (page number, song title, part name) appear in the proper places on every page.
I believe it is best to have bar numbers below the start of every bar, multi-rest bar numbers centered below rests (diagram 9).
On the score I like bar numbers to be large enough to be readily readable centered above bars on top stave, and enclosed in a box (diagram 10).
That’s my process, and I don’t intend to say that mine is for everyone. In a masterclass by Bob Mintzer, which I helped organize a few years ago, he said that once, by necessity, he started arranging right onto the score. It was during an airplane flight where he needed to have the arrangement done at the end of the flight, and that has been his process ever since. I’ve known a few arrangers who have simply started writing parts, no score.
The point and goal is be suitably and comfortably organized in order to best support your creative efforts.