Using a DAW vs. Normal Method vs. Writing by Hand

I find there are several ways you can approach composing and they all feel different. In many ways, this comes back to difference between planners and pantsers, terms affectionately used by authors to describe people who begin their writing by planning the book (planners) and people who just throw themselves in a ‘write by the seat of their pants’ (pantsers).

With regards to composing, the same two seem to exist. I know several composers who plan the architecture of their work in advance, but personally I normally find this too abstract to invoke any really excitement or interest in actually writing the work.

However, one thing that I believe effects composers much more than authors is the interface they use to compose. For example, a compose can write by hand with pen and paper at a desk, or by hand with pen and paper at an instrument, or directly into a typesetting program, or using a Digital Audio Workstation (Aka Logic or Fruity Loops etc).

I have recently started exploring using a DAW as an initial way of capturing ideas through improvisation, something I’m interested in pursuing further over the next few years of my PhD, if only to be proficient at using them in case I get the chance to do any film work. What I noticed, however, is that using a daw as an interface requires you to think differently, and you run into different obstacles and limitations. This lead me to thinking further about the other two methods of composing that I have used (pen & paper at a desk, and pen & paper at the piano). I would summarise my feelings about these three modes of composing as follows:

Composing by hand at a desk: Counterpoint
Composing by hand at a piano: Homphony (Melody & Accompaniment)
Composing at a DAW: Layers


Working at a DAW is quite a different way of thinking than working at a piano. The main reason for this is that your main method of input is through performance on a midi keyboard, the software capturing in real-time what you’re playing. What makes this interesting is that you’re somewhat forced to think in terms of layers. You have to lay down each track one at a time.
There’s also an inherent technical disadvantage to anyone not highly proficient at the piano (like me); Your entries will only be as complicated as your technical capabilities will allow, where as, writing at a piano, you only need to work at a pace of probably 6-10bpm, and there’s very few people who can’t achieve similar blistering speeds regardless of their age or training.

The main problem I find with writing like this is that you start with an initial idea you want to lay down, perhaps it’s an accompaniment figure. Great. But at some point, that figure will change, but you (or I, at least) wont know where that point will be until you’ve recorded a melody. Or if you start with the melody, you know that your harmony may want to wander, but you wont know how or to where until you write it. So it feels a bit chicken-and-the-egg for me.

Essentially, you end up with a string over overlapping layers. (See the image below) It’s quite an interesting musical approach, and I find it to be a really fun way to play around and create interesting sonorities. For me, it feels like a logical next step for composers who use improvisation as a way of generating musical material, giving you the ability to improvise not just with melody and harmony (say at a piano) but with timbre and texture as well.

Logic Image
Here is an excerpts of something I was having fun with in logic. This is just a few brass chords followed by tubular bells that are suspended out of the brass. I like the effect. This is the sort of timbral and textural improvising that you can do which doesn’t naturally arise from piano improvisation:

There are several further benefits. Some sample libraries can give you the access to a virtual instrument in place of a real instrument to experiment with, and as a virtual instrument is really just an instrument that has been recorded and programmed to respond to midi input, it could be a useful way of exploring an instrument’s sonic capabilities. A perfect example of this is the IRCAM Prepared Piano which you can prepare however you like and then play with using a midi keyboard.

At the moment, my composing method can be described as “Butt on seat at the piano and write what comes up”. It works well for me. I could extend this somewhat by using sound libraries to enhance the feedback I get from the piano, but I’m not sure that it’s really necessary as I can always hit play on StaffPad and get that feedback with the playback.

However, I’ve always been somewhat captivated by the promise of freedom that sound libraries offer for composers. The ordinary way of writing requires you to hear and notate something, and produce a polished score, then (unless you’re well established) find musicians to realise that score. As a young composer, finding musos to realise a work is probably one of the worst things about being a composer. Not because there aren’t wonderful musicians, but because my instrumentalist peers are normally very busy with their own musical pursuits, and because paying them what they deserve to be paid to rehearse and perform/record is virtually impossible for me. Imagine trying to pay a Symphony Orchestra to rehearse and record a work. We’re talking tens of thousands of dollars.

So the freedom promised by Sample Libraries is that you can more directly go from your imagination to a finished recording that people can hear. Sadly, getting Samples to sound even vaguely convincing requires both a very good sound library and a considerable amount of tweaking, and some very solid hardware with which to run your DAW and sample libraries if you’re working on large projects.

None the less, it’s something I think I’d like to explore because it is a different way of relating to music, and as I talked about in a different post, writing music is, for me, about holding a mirror up to our consciousness to see what’s there, and exploring this may well be the opportunity to hold a new mirror up and see what happens.


The most common way I write at the moment is to sit at the piano and write. While I’ve written by hand on several occasions, I find writing at a piano to be the most engaging process, because it brings the performance and improvisation element into connection with the notation element, where just writing by hand feels quite disconnected from actually playing music. The feeling of physical movement is quite an important part of music making for me. Musical gesture is very physical, the tension and release is felt physically, and it’s easier to sense and experience that through actually making music than it is just sitting at a desk.

When working this way, there is generally a sense of flow and being ‘in the zone’ which I also find hard when writing purely by hand. To be honest, I think I just find writing music at a desk a horribly boring thing to do. The same is true of working at a desk using Finale. It feels like doing homework more than writing music. But at the piano, each new sound and direction the music goes in is exciting and intriguing.


One other common way of making music is through improvising and transcribing those improvisations – or parts of them – to make works. I know quite a lot of composers for whom this is the first point of departure when making music.

This is something I have tried as well, but often find vaguely overwhelming. There’s just too many ideas often!

Another thought that occurs to me as well, is that a large part of why I enjoy writing is finding out what’s going to happen next. Just like if someone tells you the end of a book, it kind of ruins the experience for you, I think part of me actively tries not to think ahead because I want to be captivated by that musical journey as it unfolds. I want to experience and enjoy its unfolding. Perhaps this is also why I resist planning music; If I know what’s going to happen it’s no longer exciting, but instead becomes more of a chore where I’m merely filling in the blanks and connecting the dots.

When improvising, ideas often unfold in an intuitive way, but once that unfolding has happened, I don’t really feel compelled to sit down and turn them into notation so much, and if I do, I feel like I’m transcribing more than composing. That’s not totally accurate, and somewhat of an overstatement of things, but to some degree that’s how it feels.

I’m hoping that exploring improvising using Sample Libraries and a DAW etc could help a bit with capturing the excitement of improvising, and make me think and explore timbrally in addition to melodically and harmonically, all the while minimising the gap between the composing and the transcribing components.

I think one of the products of my PhD could be an album of works made solely using a DAW and Sample Libraries, along with notated scores of the works. That’d be fun!!

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