The Mental Game of Composing

Composing is a lot more than putting dots on a piece of paper… Or lots of dots on lots of pieces of paper… Or even choosing which of those dots to put on which of those pieces of paper. As with anything, there is a whole world of inner goings-on that occur along with composing. For me, the mental game is often more challenging than the actual composing. All of those thoughts and beliefs about ourselves and composing can be a major obstacle to simply making beautiful music. (If you reject the notion of beauty or aspire to write music that you would talk about in different terms, this likely is still relevant.)

So today, I’m planning on taking a candid look at what goes on in the mind of a composer, or at least, this composer. The intention here is not to write an open invitation to the pity-party of the year (unless you have a spare case of red wine you want to share…), nor is it meant to be self-deprecating. It is simply a look at another part of what it means to be a human being, and specifically an aspiring composer.


I think, therefore, I am.

We’ve all heard the old  quote, but the real question is what are you thinking, and what are you am-ing, or more correctly, what are you being?

Psychologists have known for some time now that when, for example, a professional athlete competes, they do so not just against their opponent but against their own mind. The tennis player must not just beat his opponent but his own thinking as well. There are several books written about this and its relevance to musicians, including Kenny Werner’s Effortless Mastery and Barry Green’s The Inner Game Of Music.

The intent of this post is to look at this same idea of there being two games, the inner and the outer, and how that relates to composing, or at least, how it relates to composing for this composer. Let’s look at what some of the thinking that goes on in a composer’s mind might look like:

  • This piece is sh*t
  • I wish I was as good as composer X
  • What would composer X do? (Composer X could be a teacher or your Idol or your arch-nemsis)
  • I hope this piece is good enough
  • I hope the audience/performers/etc like my piece
  • You might have specific technical thoughts about what writing good music means For example, perhaps you feel vaguely paranoid that you aren’t using correct voice leading or have parallels etc.
  • You might worry about being criticised for being too romantic or too simple or too avant-garde or too whatever.
  • Why is person X having so much success? It’s not fair.
  • I wish they would commission me. 
  • I wish more people liked my work.
  • Etc.I’ve had thoughts like the above at various times. To be totally honest, pursuing a career as a composer has been a challenging journey filled with roadblocks and rejection and plenty of depressing moments. I’ve often found myself wishing for a life-raft to keep from drowning in what feels like a sea of indifference. That’s the less fun side of being a composer.

    There are a whole heap of different ways a person might try and deal with this thinking. We’ll look at some examples because there are a lot of not so great ways to deal with these:

  • You believe the thoughts are true.
  • You desperately try and fix your situation. You try and find commissions or win a competition feeling that if you could just manage that, everything would be okay.
  • You desperately try to fix your composing, thinking that if you could just learn how the successful composers do it, you would be successful too. Unfortunately, fixing your composing normally means learning to be less true to yourself.
  • You procrastinate, because you don’t need to confront those thoughts as much when you’re in the middle of baking a chocolate cake or watching your new favourite series on Netflix etc
  • You find a way to blunt those thoughts through alcohol, cigarettes or some other addiction. (Cheese and chocolate are good ones too…)
  • You assume a victim mentality. It’s the world’s fault or it’s Tony Abbot’s fault. Etc. Regardless of how many seemingly valid reasons you can point to, at the end of the day, it’s not going to help you compose.
  • You do the opposite of the victim mentality. Arrogance. You strive to convince yourself and everyone around you of how amazing you are, and if you fail, it’s not your fault, because you are, after all, amazing, right? (Arrogance is really just an extraverted/projected form of insecurity.)
  • You pray to God. (This is one of the better options, so long as you’re not also playing the victim card, and don’t end up just hating god for not fixing everything for you)
  • You give up.The question is, which ones of these are actually helpful and healthy long term? In my mind, the pray to God option is probably the only remotely healthy option on the list, however, whether it is helpful I wont comment on and leave up to the individual to decide.

Ultimately what we all want as humans is to be loved and valued, and composers are no exception, being as they are, generally speaking, fairly human. If you do find yourself challenged by your thinking, I highly recommend the following short but beautiful book by Michael Neill:

Despite being pretty cluey about spirituality and various psychological and spiritual practices, I think this book by far has had the biggest impact on my life so far, and has gradually changed how I relate to my composing and to my thinking. Michael Neill also has a great Ted Talk worth watching:

I’ll share here a few of the sentiments that really helped me and will hopefully help other people too.

1. There is nothing for you to learn, remember, practice, or do. You simply need to see that our thinking is not real, and that the nature of thought is to flow and change. Consider this. Have you ever had a moment where your entire experience of how your day was going suddenly went from good to bad? Perhaps you had a nice morning at work, and then at lunch time, suddenly a thought occurred to you: Did I turn the gas off?!

Immediately you feel tense and anxious. But what has actually changed since you left home in the morning? The gas is either still turned on or still turned off, either way it hasn’t changed. The only thing that has changed was that you had the thought ‘Did I turn the gas off?!’ And that thought changed your entire experience of reality in the blink of the eye. While you might think that leaving the gas on is good reason for concern and mild panic, that’s not the point. Reality didn’t change, but your thoughts changed and so your experience completely changed. This is how our thinking works. As our thinking changes, so too does our experience. All the time. Even when we aren’t aware of our thinking.

While we often realise that some thoughts aren’t important or worth paying attention to, there are others that trip us up. The more importance we attach to something, the more thoughts about that thing can mess with us.

For example, if you’re 6’6″ tall and someone calls you “Shorty” there is no way you’re going to be upset by it. You’ll either think it’s a joke and laugh, or if the person is serious, think that they’ve forgotten to take their meds. You’re not short, so that statement doesn’t make sense. But if you are ‘short’, you may be offended by the comment. The question is, why?

Let’s use a slightly different example. We have two 5’8 men. One comes from a family of tall men, and feels 5’8 is short for a man. The other comes from a family where everyone else in his family is much shorter than he is. Do you think both of our men of identical height will be equally offended by being called ‘shorty’? Why not?

Because when you get right down to it, we don’t view reality with a video camera, like many think, but with a paint brush. The reality we experience is drawn upon our consciousness with a our own individual interpretive style. Some paint things with sharper edges and muted colours, others paintmore  impressionistically, and still other paint their reality with a Surrealist’s flare.

2. Negative feelings are indicators of bad thinking.

If you feel bad about something, it’s because you’ve been caught up in your thinking, not because there is something actually going wrong with the world. Your emotions are to your think what pain is to your body. Pain, both physical and emotional is a warning signal to proceed with caution.

There are, however, situations in which we all think feeling bad is appropriate. Next time you notice yourself feeling dispondent or upset or annoyed try asking yourself what has changed to make you feel that way. I don’t mean if you feel annoyed at your husband, to think about how he forgot to buy you flowers for your anniversary, but rather to think about how your experience changed so quickly before finding out you weren’t getting flowers, and afterwards. In both cases, you don’t have flowers, but in one situation you think it’s okay to not have flowers, and in the other case, it’s not okay. The difference is nought but a thought.

And for example if you’re composing and notice you start feeling frustrated, ask what has changed between being frustrated and not frustrated. Perhaps it’s because you’ve been sitting there for an hour and haven’t written anything yet. But an hour ago, it was fine that there wasn’t anything written, and now an hour later you feel frustrated because there is still nothing written. The only difference is that in one situation you think it’s okay, and in the other you don’t. You are essentially making yourself feel miserable because you think there is a reason you should.

3. You don’t really need to do anything about your thinking. Despite a lot of what psychology says, you really don’t need to try to change or control your thinking. (If you have a mental illness, speak to your therapist. This isn’t intended as medical advice).

If you simply understand that:
A) Your thinking shapes your experience
B) The nature of thought is to change and flow
C) A whole new experience is just a thought away

Then there isn’t really anything you need too do, except wait for a new thought to come along.

The good thing about this perspective also is that it’s okay to have times when you’re grumpy, or a bit depressed etc. Just like you might have days where you feel more tired than usual, or you have a bad cold etc. Our mind, just like our body, can sometimes get run down and our thinking become ‘infected’. Just like with a cold, you know it will go away on it’s own, and in the meantime, take a few sensible precautions and wait it out. It will pass 🙂

4. The Kindness of the Design.

If you cut your finger, it heals itself. You don’t actively go about healing it. You don’t clot the blood, nor do you grow the new skin. Even in the worst cases, medicine is used not so much to heal the body, but to create the conditions in which the body is able to heal itself.

The same is true of the mind.

While that may seem like a huge statement to make, there is actually some new research emerging that seems to support the assertion. (There are links available here:

I’m not talking about the physical structure of the brain, but the psychological structure of the mind and our thinking.

If you brush up against some unpleasant thinking, think of it like injuring yourself physically. Don’t poke or scratch at it too much, and try and let it heal.

5. If you have doubts about the value of your voice, this parable may help:

Imagine that a man comes to you for coaching. He’s about to turn 30 and he’s decided that it’s time to ‘grow up’ and take of the family carpentry business. He wants you to share innovative marketing techniques, work with him on how to make better personnel decisions, and coach him to incorporate technology to bring the business into ‘at least the new millennium.’

But even as you’re speaking together, something’s bothering you about the conversation. He’s saying all the right things, and yet something still feels out of alignment. Following your intuition, you go back and review the client intake form he filled out when he first came to you, and to your suprise you see that his name is Jesus and he’s from a small town in the Galilean region of Israel called Nazareth.

Here’s the Question:
Do you really want to work with him on becoming more successful in his carpentry business?

What if every man, woman and child you meet has the seeds within them to become who they truly are? What if that includes you?
[Quoted from The Inside-Out Revolution by Michael Neill]

6. Changing the world is one of the worst ways to fix your mind.
So often we resort to trying to change the world in order to change the way we think or feel. But all doing this does is reinforce the importance of your thinking. Look back up at the list of possible things one might do to deal with their thinking as it applies to composing. Most are attempts at changing the world in order to change how you feel. Unfortunately, you can change the world, but you’ll still have the same painter holding the same paint brush.

7. The answer is inside you.

The answers you need will come from inside you. It’s the only place they can really come from. Not from your thinking, but from something that exists below your thinking. A deeper intelligence. A deeper wisdom. This one is harder to talk about, but sometimes the best way to get the answer you need is not to look for an expert, because you are the expert on you. So, next time you need an answer, instead of going on a fact finding mission, perhaps try just waiting patiently. Ponder it casually, in a relaxed sort of way. The answer will come in time if you’re patient.
What you’re really looking for here is an Insight, and an Insight is really just a new thought. So your answer is literally one thought away.

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