Creativity: Writing by Hand

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I am quite strange. My wife would most heartily agree (as would nearly everyone else who knows me). However, my strangeness within the musical community is of a different sort. Nearly every other composer I know begins a project by sitting down at a computer and inputting notes using a mouse and keyboard. Others record their ideas by playing them and recording them, using an electronic piano connected to their workstation. Yet others forego the notation entirely, opting to go straight into the digital audio software and record each track layer by layer. These appear to be the tools of choice for the modern composer or music producer.

I create my music by hand. In music school, I had physical staff paper, on which I scribbled ideas with a physical pencil. I sat at a piano and “roughed out” the harmonies, painstakingly manipulating every note. Early in my studies, I would write even the final score with a pencil and paper, using notation software afterward only to neaten things up and copy the parts for the performers.

I still do this. Although I now use a tablet with an electronic pen, the process is still very much the same as it was years ago. I open OneNote, import a PDF file of blank staff paper, and begin sketching. There are no software bugs to worry about, no workarounds, no strange procedures; only me, my imagination, and the music. Once finished with this phase, I write the piece in a more complete form using StaffPad notation software (which, by the way, is some of the best notation software I have ever used). Why do I prefer this? It combines the natural feel of writing by hand with the advantages that one often wishes technology would confer. It plays back my ideas, allowing me to create detailed audio mockups. It copies parts for me. It allows me to copy and paste where needed, reducing the possibility of error (though I prefer not to overuse repetitive patterns in my music). For me, this software is true to its slogan: “Write naturally.”

After completing the project this way, I export it into software called Sibelius, which allows me to make the final product look “ship-shape” for performers. I may add program notes, performance notes, and other special markings. I may also make musical changes, though these are usually light edits (by this point, the music itself has already been thoroughly edited).

The creative work, however, is done almost entirely by hand. Apparently, this is unusual. If I love technology (which I very much do), why do I feel the need to rely on techniques often considered archaic? I have pondered my reasons for this, and, while I have found several possibilities, none of them fully explain this phenomenon. I write many of my stories (or, rather, chunks of them) by hand as well. In fact, since childhood, I have written most of my initial drafts, be they stories or music, by hand. Perhaps the fundamental reason for this is simple: I have been using this technique for the longest time, and it therefore feels most natural.

This was no more clearly illustrated to me than when I took a course in electro-acoustic composition. The course was taught completely within an audio production environment and relied completely on software. It was quite enlightening and provided me with a number of valuable skills (and was quite a bit of fun). The professor was absolutely brilliant. However, I noticed that my creativity struggled during the course in ways that it had not struggled before. For most of the first semester, I could not figure out why this was. After completing several projects that, while they received passing grades, were not my best work, I realized that the electronic tools simply felt unnatural to me. I was not sure why. I am still not.

By the end of the course, they felt natural. (I believe this is a testament to the professor’s great patience.) However, I still prefer to compose my scores by hand, performing audio production, engraving, and other software-reliant functions after the fact. Though one may be tempted to believe that writing by hand slows my process, I can in fact perform it very quickly. In fact, I can compose music more quickly through a “handwriting first” approach than through a “directly-to-software” approach. I believe this is simply because my creative process works more effectively through handwriting, while my ideas do not flow as freely within a software environment. Perhaps this has more to do with the nature of my muse than with the process itself.

Why does my muse prefer handwriting to software? Perhaps this is akin to asking, “Why does my cat prefer one treat over another?” Truthfully, I do not believe it matters. If your muse comes to you, then your process is fine, whether it is considered strange or not.

2 Replies to “Creativity: Writing by Hand”

  1. Totally agree. Where a daw might excel in instant gratification, writing out music, especially orchestral fare, is beneficial because one is not constrained by their keyboard technique. Additionally, writing notes makes the composer more cognizant of phrasing, ranges, textures (dense or light) and Often rhythmic complexity. After all, there is no metronome chugging away forcing one to comply to its tempo or meter.

    StaffPad is a revelation because it fosters traditional composing methodology but marries it with modern sample technology and professional quality audio rendering. Best of both worlds.

    1. Thanks, David! Yes, StaffPad really is amazing in this way. It does precisely what technology should do: be invisible. It doesn’t force the composer to re-think or re-learn aspects of his craft; it simply gives more immediate results. I’ve always believed that composers should learn to write by hand first.

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