How do you write music? Music in 2D, 3D and 4D

When I tell my friends that I am studying composition and have them hear a recording, many of my friends ask me: “How did you write this music?”

This is the wrong answer:

When I am writing a score I write that using notation software. I use that software to play the music while I imagine the real instruments in my head and at the same time conduct the piece to feel if it’s right. I sense the music as clouds of sound surrounding me as if I am on the stage with an orchestra. Then I print the score and parts.

This is not a satisfying answer at all, because what they meant to ask was:

“How do you imagine the music before you write it down? How do you know where to put which instruments? How do you know a composition is finished? Where did the musical idea come from in the first place? How do you know those notes are right on that spot there?”

I will try to answer those questions discussing how I think of music in 2D, 3D and 4D projections on paper and in my imagination.

The way I hear music is different from the way I write music.

What I just described as the wrong answer is me checking if the result is what I wanted to write. That is me checking if the notes in the score mirror the musical idea in my imagination. What I am describing is me listening to the end-result in my head, projected normal 3D, so I will not be surprised when the music is played by an orchestra. By that time I have already composed the music, didn’t I?

I finished composing just before I wrote down the notes.

But when I am composing, this new composition must emerge from somewhere, somehow? Right? Yes, that’s true and here is how I compose:

I rest and let that new music come to me and then I try to catch it on paper.

I just sit at the piano and trust that musical ideas will pop into my brain. And then they find me. This feeling of trust is very important, when you start worrying and try to force these ideas, they won’t come to you. For me coming up with musical ideas is very relaxing, because they already existed somehow somewhere. I just have to lure them in. This is how I discovered that I am a composer, but don’t know how to write music yet.

You can trust that musical ideas will find you.

When I think about this scientifically, I think that these musical ideas are a summary of all the music I have ever heard in my life, rewired by my own brain into something new. Because often, I write subconsciously music I admire into my work. On top of that, I think of music as a memory game. I think that neurological sciences can help write music the brain will enjoy. All great composers discovered that by looking at their audiences, just the way scientists look at our brains for patterns of happy recognition.

And I love scientists because:

Both scientists and artists are obliged to overestimate the possibilities and invest in futures that don’t exist.

But as an artist I am not bound to the rules of the real world. It is my job to kindly break those rules in the most beautiful way possible. So I will describe to you what I am experiencing while I am composing in an artistic way, which will explain the process better than a neurological test on my brain:

Before I start composing I am looking at a huge space. In that space there is no sound, no sound-colors nor silence, it is void. I imagine that this huge space in my skull extends to the universe and that I have to fill it with clouds of sound-color. The space in itself is a black void, but silences in that space are not. Silences are just very soft notes. What you hear during silences is an echo in that space. (I call that ‘negative music‘.)

When I am composing, I am not imagining the real world, because there is only sound there, no music. When I am composing, it doesn’t feel as if musical ideas come from my own brain, but out of that imagined void. In that void space musical ideas are ‘flying around’ and find me.

I kindly broke the rule of normal thinking, it looked beautiful.


It’s very tricky to wrap your mind around ideas that break rules.


..I came up with the analogy of the butterflies to explain composing into more detail. We will get to the point where I explain that this huge space I am imagining and filling with sounds, cannot be normal 3D, because a composition does not fit in only three dimensions.

Composing is attracting colorful butterflies with sweet flowers

Composing feels to me like attracting butterflies with sweet flowers and painting their images as good and as fast as I can. But there is a huge difference between a painter and a composer:

I paint transparent 3-dimensional images with sound-colors. And I can also change the colors of paintings over time. And I paint a lot of images over time to get a colorful 3D animation film. And I can built a structure to layer these 3D films on top of each other. And I can shrink these structures wit layers of film into just seconds or stretch them over minutes. And I can layer these shrunk and extended 3D films on top of the originals….There are infinite options. I call this imagined world the 4D projection of my composition.

As you can imagine, it’s very easy to end up with a space filled with a creative chaos of loud thick brown-gray mists. Expressing nothing at all.

Composing means controlling the space

The big downside of just sit and let the music come to you, is that you cannot control space nor time: The butterflies keep coming and going, whenever and where-ever they like. Sometimes a bee enters the scene or a flower fades before you finished your image. You cannot leave, because you might miss the best butterfly.

You have to compose chronologically in time, because the flow of the butterflies happens from ‘now’ till ‘then’. You will never know when a composition is ready: Is that when the largest butterfly enters or when the blue one leaves?

Normally I finish writing when I am tired of butterflies, I have heard enough of them and then switch to something else, like bees, let them enter the space until they bore me.

Composing means controlling the time

This is the best way to get new musical ideas, but the worst way to make one wholesome composition. In the worst case scenario a composer ends up with a chronological series of non-related loud misty brown-gray colored 3D animations.

One way to solve this, is to keep the sound-colors and the dynamics in control and choose specific choirs for specific musical ideas. But when you do that and write blocks of changing sound-colors, your composition starts to sound extremely disrupted. It exposes the lack of unity in the architecture brutally. (Read more about this in ‘The analogy of the necklace‘)

Limiting sound-colors exposes lack of architecture as wel as creativity.

I did just that and ended up with beautiful music people liked to play. But I was not content with the end result because it lacked unity. I can’t consciously construct climaxes or musical silences. My compositions lack the conscious architecture of all those 3D images over time. The way I like to orchestrate makes this lack of unity extremely visible in the score: You can literally see unrelated blocks of music.

The beauty of it all is, that you can also imagine the architecture of your musical space in time, before adding the musical ideas and the sounds. So you can think about what to put where for how long in which emotion, without actually working with a musical idea. You can base this architecture upon numbers: When you just use the number 4, you get a very predictable, soon boring architecture. When you use the Fibonacci numbers (1,2,3,5,8,11…34..) you end up with an architecture of natural proportions.

It doesn’t matter which numbers you use, the important part is that you have to first imagine an architecture for your composition and project that in 2D dimensions in a score. This means that you will write down where you want what to happen, before you put any musical ideas in. Name how long your composition will be, draw an energy curve over the bars needed, mark bar-numbers from your number-series.

After you have done that, you rest and wait for the musical ideas to find you and you put them in their rightful place. Then add the sounds.

The score is a map for the journey we are taking by sound in space through time.

When we think of the score as a map, then that map itself has paper boundaries. But the music has only boundaries in time, music has no boundaries in space. We can go from THERE! to psst…here.. to everywhere. The journey only ends we reached a certain point in time. And there you have it: You already set that time designing your architecture. So now you know exactly when your composition is finished.

So when you ask me, how I write a composition? My answer is: “I draw a map of my imagined musical space in time, so I can show you the most beautiful path through my landscape and take take you with me on a journey from here to there to everywhere. And back again in time for you to catch the train home.

By Anneloes Wolters


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