The music business used to be characterised by artists disappearing into the studio for months on end and emerging with an album for expectant fans to get their hands on at some time in the future…Streaming and social media combined to turn that model on its head, heralding the era of the always-on artist. Now, artists fear the consequences of not putting out a single every month.

In 2012, for example, the Spanish National Research Council published an analysis of nearly half a million songs released between 1955 and 2010, which showed that the “diversity of … note combinations … has consistently diminished in the last 50 years”. And pop music isn’t just becoming more similar; taste-makers are also focusing on a smaller subset of songs. “Radio stations … are pushing the boundaries of repetitiveness to new levels,” noted a 2014 article in the Atlantic. “Top 40 stations last year played the 10 biggest songs almost twice as much as they did a decade ago.”

I used to compose music exclusively on paper, in a nice fancy Leuchtturm1917 music notebook to be precise, but recently have been doing all my composing in my DAW. Here’s what I’ve come to realize:

The problem with staff paper

When I was working with paper I felt like I was trying to work out a complex math problem. I would have a musical idea, write it out, then try to purely theoretically suss out what should happen next rather than let my ear guide me. I would try and solve my musical idea by thinking almost entirely in terms of melody, harmony, and rhythm because those are the elements of music which lend themselves most naturally to written notation. Only once I feel like I had finished the piece on paper would I put it into the DAW to start working on a recording.

I think I had the musical version of “When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail”, or rather, “When all you have is staff paper, all you see is melody, harmony, and rhythm” which is a problem when there are so many more elements of music to be considered.

Using the DAW to compose

I feel that by working directly in the DAW I’m letting the idea itself and my ears dictate how it develops rather than trying to think how the piece of music should theoretically go. I also feel like I’m sculpting the idea more rather than trying to brute force it into something. Working in the DAW I’m much more likely to listen back to what I’ve done, make an adjustment, listen to it again, and make another change. It feels like what I’m composing is developing more organically.

It’s shockingly easy to forget when you’re so caught up in writing music on paper that music is actually meant to be heard and listened to. I think I was guilty of not listening to what I was writing as much as I should have, whereas working only with the DAW really forces you to listen to what you’re composing.

I also feel like I’m much more likely to come up with more interesting ways to create music using the DAW. Before if I wasn’t happy with something, let’s say a chord progression for example, I might have just scrapped it entirely or made changes to the progression itself until I was satisfied. Now I might try changing the instrumentation, changing balance, adding extra textures and timbres to try and make it work.

Neglecting production and recording elements

Composing purely on paper also meant that I didn’t often consider how elements of production and recording could and should be used as part of the composition process. It’s easy to feel stuck when you are purely thinking in terms of melody, harmony, and rhythm but sometimes the missing piece is a filter sweep, a synth, panning, or special effect like delay.

No more staff paper?

All of this being said, I still keep staff paper on hand for a few things. Sometimes it’s faster to jot down ideas on paper rather than play them into a DAW with a MIDI keyboard, or manually adding MIDI notes. I also find it’s still much easier to see musical relationships between ideas when they’re written out in notation.

I don’t think I’ll ever abandon having staff paper with me when I’m composing, but I am going to try and make more of an effort to ensure it helps rather than hinders the creative process.