How Long Does it Take To Write a Piece of Music?

the sub-title to this could be something like

…and why can’t I do it at all?

I was asked this question in a forum and felt it was a great one as I see this asked a few times.

Originally Posted by MDTerps2015
Hey Benedict im sorry to bother you but I have asked this question to a lot of Reasonaires with no successful answer. How long does it take you from start to finish to do a track?? I know we probably work on different genres of music but I just wanted a rough estimate of what some producers spend making a track. Do you make your own sounds and drums and what is your mastering set up. Sorry to private message you but i watch a lot of your post because you seem like you know what you are doing and talking about. I watch a few producers.

Here is my answer

Thanks for the question and it is a valid one that sadly will get more noise in a public forum than sensible answers. Now this will vary a bit from person to person with many artistes taking a lot longer due to fear. However, I am bang on the average for a seasoned movie composer which is the core of a piece (themes etc) in a day.

My “day” is commonly 4-5 hours of actual time-on and in that session I will have at least a sketch of a piece if not the main structure with melodies etc. The next day I will polish and often add extra melodies and other supporting sounds like whooshes and bleeps. I’m done.

Some pieces fight a bit harder than others so I may have to came back day three but if I can’t nail it down then I have probably made a mistake and start to think about it being a b-side or album out-take, if not for the bin, as I never store failed tracks to allow the ideas to be free for me to work with again.

I make all my own sounds, commonly in the piece as I go. I have been a synthesist for 25+ years so there isn’t much I can’t dream and deliver at least a passable copy of. A piece commonly starts from playing with sounds till I find something that speaks a story to me. Then I am off. Each part leads me to the next.

As soon as I feel the piece is a wrap I do at least a first Finalize (Master) so I can listen in the evening as I read a book or just in the dark. If I don’t feel the magic then I am not happy. Once I have the magic (sense of story) then it is only a matter of time before that album is on Bandcamp.

As a little background: I sadly can’t recall the name or author of that book on composing for film so I can’t give a quote or credit. Shame, it is a good book as it is from the perspective of a real workman film composer, and not one of the fancy names. He said that a decent working composer should be able to deliver about 5 mins of music per day once themes are created. He suggested that themes may take a bit longer but not really much more.

So why can’t I do it?

Vinyl Clock
Vinyl Clock

This sort of output is not common among many forum dwellers who seem to produce a 4-16 bar loop then really struggle to turn that into a piece and never seem to release an album – or similar body of work. As I say (perhaps bluntly) it strikes me that the greatest reason that people don’t transform the loops into finished pieces (or songs) is fear. Fear that the piece won’t work, isn’t living up to the ideal… maybe I am not good enough, have nothing to say… Real think I’ll go and eat worms stuff.

I went through that a time or two a year or so after I got my first synth. Initially I had ideas that fell out, then suddenly once I had the basics of a proper studio (synth, sequencer, tape deck & fx unit) I could only make loops that sounded great but worthless at the same time. It was pretty depressing. I felt done-for.

I can’t tell you exactly how to get out of your loop trap but I can tell you why I was in mine. There were two main reasons:

  • I was trying to write someone else’s music. The time I best remember struggling, I was intent on writing a Front 242 piece just like “No Shuffle”, with that bassline. I expected that to write music I had to write as though I were someone else. I went on to write a form of EBM Industrial under the Aeroplastic Voice tag but it was a very Benedict thing in the end. The trap is to say that because you like Band X, or Band Y are hip, you have to sound exactly like them to be anybody or even heard. If you aren’t writing from yourself then you will always feel a fraud (and probably sound that way too).
  • I didn’t have a story. Now I talk a bit about story. Art all has a story or it is irrelevant. Some people refuse to accept that pop music is art. No, I don’t meant toffs with their noses in the air but the anti-art crowd who can only see art as being “farty”. Sad as any expression is art. Sure you may just want to play that set of chords or that sound, but without a sense of purpose the kids won’t really get into it. More importantly your song or piece won’t last. “Hotel California” by The Eagles isn’t a classic because the radio keep playing it. The radio keep playing it because it has a great sense of story – yes even though no one really understands what that story is. There are feelings and scenes created in there that are fascinating so it is great art. The trap was that I forgot to have a sense of purpose for my noise. As soon as I had a lyric or scene in my mind I was able to finish pieces again.

The clock image comes from I hope they don’t mind me borrowing it.

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