How to compose music, fast

Posted by Adrian Earnshaw on 6th October 2019

One of the answers to what seems like a sleight of hand magic trick is templates. One of the easiest things you can do to speed up your workflow is by creating a template map of tracks in different styles. I don’t mean just one template but lots of them.

In this post, I am going to share with you some basic tips on building just one template using an electronic music track. This process can then be repeated for other styles of music that you wish to write in. Although the screenshots I have provided are from Cubase, this article is not specific to any particular DAW. You will, however, learn the best way to set up a template and how to flesh out a basic arrangement map.

"One of the answers to what seems like a sleight of hand magic trick is templates. One of the easiest things you can do to speed up your workflow is by creating a template map of tracks in different styles."

Choices, Choices

The first thing to do is to find several tracks in a number of styles. I would start with a style that you are comfortable with writing in, just to get a feel for making a template. Once you have done it with something safe and familiar you can then apply the same logic to other styles. To avoid any copyright infringements I will demonstrate the process of mapping out the track arrangement using my own compositions.

Before we set out on our journey a little tip. When mapping out arrangements you will find that a lot of the arrangements are built on 4, 8, 16 or sometimes 32 bars before something changes and transitions on to something different to keep the piece fresh and moving. It is no coincidence why this is so as we human beings, sorry for any aliens that may have dropped in to read this, love evenness and hearing our music with a little symmetry. There’s nothing to stop you experimenting with an odd number of bars within your loop. It may, however, make the track sound imbalanced and uneven.


Lets take a listen to the track first of all :-

Let’s open the DAW of your choosing and locate the markers track on the sequencer view timeline. Depending on the DAW you use, you may have to insert this as a new track or it may be in a view menu. The track Globetrotter has a steady beat and you can map this out in one of two ways. Either import the track into your DAW or listen and map it out by ear. I would suggest the latter as it helps develop your analytical ear.

The instrumentation for this track is quite minimal but it still sounds like there is a lot going on. This illusion is achieved by the use of counter melodies and sequences. We are not however going to map out the absolute minutia, just a basic map to get things started and enough to provide a framework on which to build. For example, you will place a marker when the pads start or you a new drum track layer is introduced. When you have finished your marker map it will look something like this:

GlobeTrotter 5


Taking a brief analysis of this track we start with a layered atmospheric sound. This segues nicely into quite a dense pad sound, which has been achieved by layering a number of tracks of differing timbres. If we look more closely at the markers I have placed, the chords change once every two bars. So although the track tempo is around 120 bpm it actually feels half this speed. As an aside to give an illusion of speeding the track up you could then move to one chord per bar. This is a handy way of stepping up tracks in the perceived tempo without playing with maps.

Simple Tip

Just focusing on this last tip for a minute you could set your metronome to 140 bpm. Start your track by playing a chord every 2 bars, giving the feeling that the track is at 70 bpm. The listener is lured into a false sense of security thinking this will be a slow burner of a track. Then if you have your composition split between part A and B (binary form), the second half would change to one chord every bar. By doing this you have doubled the feel of the track but without altering your tempo map.

Okay, back to the Globetrotter track. After an eight-bar section, we set off the bass sequence that will underpin the whole track and give it that cool Berlin School feel. We next bring in a subtle drum track to support the elements we have already built up. Around 32 bars later an arpeggiator is brought in and follows the general chord structure of the track. All we are doing is marking down when these elements make their appearance. It doesn’t matter what they are doing in terms of notes as you will be adding your own composition to this map. For those old enough to remember, it is like making your own painting by numbers map.

We continue to steadily work through the track jotting down notes and adding markers at the main points something different occurs or is introduced. Once finished you will have a basic map of around 10 marker points.

Building the Template Further

Building a template by mapping out the track using markers is only the start. You can go one step further by adding your go-to synths and drum modules. For me, I always start my tracks using Omnisphere and StylusRMX. So why not insert synths of your choosing into the track and set up all the outputs so they are routed to separate audio outs ready for bouncing down to audio.

I will address the reasons why I always bounce my MIDI tracks to audio in a separate article. But once you have inserted your go-to synths you can save the track as a new template. This is a great way to help the writing process along. All you need to do is fire up the studio and getting writing as everything is ready and in place for you to start.

Templates in Practice

Lets take a look at another track I composed called Epoch of Realisation. First, let’s listen to the piece in full before we try to map this out:

Epoch of Realisation Part 1

You can see in the image below that the map for this track is not complex. I have mapped this track out to start with an ambient pad noise that moves into a synth line. This second entry comes in after only 4 bars and continues on throughout the entire piece. We then have a third entry bringing in a piano sound with a drone pad underneath.

Now, if you have listened to the track you will be thinking that the map does not bear any semblance to what is going on. This is because although the track started out with this simple template the ideas pulled it in another direction. When we move to the second half of the track it moves further away from the map.


Epoch of Realisation Part 2

This is an example of how, although you have a template, you do not have to stick to it rigidly. There is always room for you to take your idea on a different path. The original track was one I ripped from a Tangerine Dream CD and although I started out wanting to make a similar track the creative muse took this in another direction.

So there you have it a simple method of helping you speed up the composition process. If you do this with a couple of tracks from different genres you will have templates to get you up and running when the muse strikes and also deadlines loom.

Closing Out

I have published this article previously but thought it was time it got a much-needed update for this new website. If you enjoyed this post then please follow me on Youtube, Twitter or like my Facebook page. You will then be able to keep up to date with all the latest news and music releases. If you have any ideas of your own or questions then pop them in the comments below and we can start a conversation, helping each other.

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