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Sketching for Music Composition and Arranging

Updated: Sep 19, 2023

When I’m planning a composition or arrangement, I usually start by sketching. Much like an artist, it’s to set the framework in which I want the music to exist. The are several important questions to ask yourself before putting pen to paper:

  • What’s it for?

  • What is your (or your client’s) intent?

  • What is the effect you are trying to achieve?

  • What’s the end-instrumentation?

  • How will it be executed?

These questions will get you started with your initial writing. Additionally, there are several steps I would recommend to ensure success while writing:

  • If my aim is idea acquisition for a composition, I do not usually write directly into Sibelius, rather I will handwrite my initial ideas. Why? In my experience, this allows me to write unencumbered by notation software playback and it forces me to audiate the sounds I want to hear. I have tried to compose in Sibelius and it usually yields an unfinished product because I second-guess my note or chord choices every step of the way. After a period of time, I will enter the information into Sibelius where I will start crafting the idea.

  • Finish your whole idea in one sitting. You can always take a break and come back with fresh eyes (...ears?), but recreating the mental or emotional state you were in when generating your initial ideas is difficult, if not outright impossible (at least for me).

  • If you have, or desire, a specific time requirement, create the form to meet that time, and then fill in the rest as you go.

  • If making an arrangement, and you want to re-harmonize, get the melody, chords, and form set, and then modify, or strip away, chords to create a fresh sound.

  • Start small: I usually start with a piano grand staff or two, and then get my ideas and rough orchestration in place, and then I’ll branch it out to a quintet (sometimes quartet), and then if the requirement is for a larger ensemble, I’ll expand it from there. The benefit of doing it this way is that it yields you more content (more on this in a future article).

The beauty of any plan, especially when it is your own, is that you can modify it as the music evolves. When working with a client, you may be a little more restricted because it needs to meet their intent, but it’s not an impossibility to deviate. Either way, it is much easier to modify an existing plan than improvising as you go.

As always, I hope this is helpful for someone out there!



Michael is a music composer and audio engineer who likes to write articles about his craft…sometimes. Sometimes he writes about leadership, space, dogs, and other cool things that might pique interest.

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