The Five Stages of Composition

The Five Stages of Composition

After I finish a new composition, I am exhausted, punchy, and want a martini badly. Specifically, an espresso martini from a favorite café near my apartment. You cocktail purists out there can scoff at this flavor if you like, but I assure you that many endorse the healing properties of this delightful concoction! This little indulgence has become a ritual event signaling that the piece is finished and it’s time to take a deep breath and relax.

I think that for a lot of composers and other creative artists, there are definite stages that mark the road along the construction of a new work. Although I can clearly see the steps I go through with some perspective, in that I know basically what they are, at what point they are coming, and what they feel like, I still have to work through them in order to reach the end. This time it dawned on me that some of these points in the process feel vaguely familiar—not from a musical standpoint, but from the experience of other life events. What is that??

Bingo! It’s is sort of like The Five Stages of Grief.

With this model in mind, here are The Five Stages of Composition:

Stage 1 = Denial
Another commission! This piece is going to be awesome! I’m going to build it better, stronger, and faster!! It’s going to be easy! Right?

Stage 2 = Anger
Now how exactly do I compose music again?? Why do I remember nothing about how I wrote that last piece?! What do you mean I HAVE TO START FROM SCRATCH??!!

Stage 3 = Bargaining
Oh man, if I can just figure out this (pick from one of the following):

a) structure
b) harmonic scheme
c) transition
d) opening
e) ending
f) other

….everything else will fall into place. Right?

Stage 4 = Depression
Okay, it’s official. It’s really bad. Seriously. I’m doomed, I tell you. DOOMED.
The first performance will surely go like this:

Stage 5 = Acceptance
Oh wait! You know, actually things have sorted themselves out and now it’s not half bad. I can totally live with this.

Obviously this is not the case for everyone—each composer has her/his own process, which may or may not involve these different phases. However, according to many composer friends and colleagues out there, the creative process can be a psychologically (and physically) charged beast, which we are destined to battle over and over with every new project.

Hence the need for that martini!!

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13 thoughts on “The Five Stages of Composition

  1. Chris Becker

    I like to think of the compositional process (and like many people I like to work on a variety of things simultaneously) as being similar to gardening. You water, feed, and take care of a variety of living things that each grow and bloom in their own time. And sometimes, you can’t get that tomato plant to come up or the roses you planted are REALLY dried out due to a lot of sun. Other times, you see a healthy basil plant and wonder where the heck THAT came from. Things come to fruition and then…the cycle continues.

    So this is a less goal oriented, more cyclic way of thinking. I can’t take credit for this metaphor. Another musician I’m close to came up with it and I thought its helped me out.

  2. Alex Shapiro

    I totally relate to each of your stages, Alex! Are you sure you weren’t just looking over the shoulder of my hapless neuroses when you wrote this?

    Here in my household, when discussing The New Piece of a given moment, I have been told that the trajectory of my ongoing reference to it during my composing process can be accurately tracked like a NASA-launched satellite. It goes something like this:

    At The Start:
    “The cool new piece!”

    A week or so after The Start:
    “The new piece…”

    1/3 into the writing process:
    “That piece.”

    Midway through the composing:
    “The damn piece.”

    One vodka after that:
    “That f#$%@ing piece.”

    Sometime not too long afterward:
    “My new piece…”

    The end:
    “My cool new piece!”

    Pathetic, I tell you. It’s all absolutely pathetic. How’d I get myself into this business??


  3. Leos

    My wife tells me that she knows I’m almost finished with a piece when I refer to it as
    “that f&*$ing” string quartet, piano piece, song, or whatever the thing is. I also always have to go through the “this is a total piece of sh%t” phase before I can get to the ”that f&*$ing (insert genre here)” phase.

  4. jhelliott

    Five Stages…
    My denial phase consists of me thinking that the “incubation phase” just needs more time…more time…more time…until BOOM! I realize how little time I have until the deadline.

  5. rskendrick

    so I’m not alone…
    Great post! It’s comforting to know I’m not the only one that goes through psychological warfare trying to complete a piece. I often have to ‘trick’ myself into composing… you are not going to compose, you’re just merely going to play through the last bits of the piece to remind yourself how it goes… or just going in to play a few chords. Then, before 2 minutes is up, I’m composing, but this little ‘trick’ seems to always help me get into the studio and get moving.

  6. Alexandra Gardner

    Hi Everyone, thank you for your funny, excellent comments!

    @Chris, thank you for the garden analogy – it’s a very good idea, and so…..sane. :)

  7. danvisconti

    Whenever I finish a piece and print out my first proof copy, I usually find myself thumbing through the thick stack of pages thinking, “Egad! How on earth did I make myself *do* all of this?”

    Even printing the thing, I see those pages of squiggles pop out and can’t help feeling like an old drugstore clerk developing someone else’s negatives.

  8. Linda Dusman

    Wow, thanks for this as I am in stage 3 at the moment and it is nice to know I am not alone. And Alex, which bar makes that martini??? Hoping I am at the stage to go find it soon…

  9. Linda Dusman

    Just realized this was from 4 years ago!!! Oh well, I have been stuck in stage 3 hell for some time…

    1. Alexandra Gardner Post author

      Hi Linda – Haha! Well I think the Five Stages are kind of timeless, so I hope you find your way out of stage three very soon! I’ve moved since I wrote this, so let’s meet when you’re ready and hunt down a martini together!

  10. Henry Flurry

    Since the article is 4 years old, I don’t have confidence that the video link now is the same as it was 4 years old, but after a second of “viewing” the current video link, I concluded that the video in its current state is absolutely perfect for the article, and I laughed out loud. Thanks!

    1. Alexandra Gardner Post author

      Ha! Thanks for the heads up Henry – I didn’t notice that the video had been taken down (found another version and have added it), but you’re right, the other option worked too! :-)


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