Composition using the inner ear

Alright guys, I've been having a huge sticking point lately and perhaps someone can relate and point me in the right direction.

Back when I first started composing, I would just sit at a keyboard synth and just flip through sounds just playing randomly until I "accidentally" played something that sounded cool. From that point, usually I could kind of feel how more of the song was supposed to go, and I would continue it on from there. I grew to hate writing music this way though, because it's always basically"hit or miss", and I usually would write something of a completely random style, I had no control over if it was happy, sad, clubish sounding, techno, whatever. However I noticed sometimes, I would kind of just "hear" random music playing in my head, so I started deciding to try and write this music out. I failed a lot at first, but I've gotten pretty good at it now. I've dedicated a good part of all my time since then getting better at writing it out as accurately as possible.

The problem is, when I go from notation to actual sound, a lot of the time, I have such a hard time trying to find the sound that I'm looking for, I usually basically forget how the song was supposed to go. Even tho I have it written down, the original version of the song I heard is gone. It's frankly been down right depressing lately. Anyways has anyone here had this problem with composing from the inner ear before? More importantly, have any of you figured out some solutions to prevent yourselves from losing the piece while trying to write it out? Any input at all is greatly appreciated! Thanks guys!

You need to be a member of Composers' Forum to add comments!

Join Composers' Forum

Email me when people reply –


  • Honestly, it's down to practice. Also, having perfect pitch is nice! I have pretty good pitch (when I assert myself), but this came from practicing and practicing. I still can't get my ideas down perfectly, but when I'm struck by something, I find having my computer right next to me at the piano is helpful. Not much advice that I can give other than acquire perfect or good pitch.


  • The contradiction you meet is natural and, I think, happens with any composer. Your "inner ear" and mechanical output of the automatic notation software performers are different in principle. The latter cannot feel what you described as "happy, sad, clubish" etc. Classical notation is essentially a language for human performers, not for mechanics however rich it is with sound samples.


    You have two directions to tackle the problem:

    1) Apply a human performance (yours included) of your notated music, even using virtual instruments;

    2) Edit and combine MIDI records of your "accidentally played cool-sounding" fragments.


    Both directions need serious development of your personal technique, style, studio, writing and recording discipline, and both directions can lead to outstanding results.


  • Practise your relative pitch, which is to be able to distinguish all the intervals. That has helped me a lot. A tip is to learn to sing them, one by one. It might seem impossible at first with some intervals, like the minor seventh or tritone, but after a while they stuck in your head and you remember them. If you can have someone playing random intervals and you guessing is a nice practise too if the other person can correct you when you get it wrong.

    I bought the relative pitch and perfect pitch supercourse by David Lucas Burge a few years ago and I'm only like a third through so it may develop very slowly. Those courses I'd recommend because he is such a great teacher, though after getting an understanding in how to develop these abilities I learnt that you don't really need a teacher because it's very simple. Simple but hard on the patience because, at least for me, it has been alot of work, but I'm glad I've put down the work.

    böh a little messy but I think you understand.

  • Hey I appreciate the replies everyone! Haha let me clarify a little bit, I actually do have perfect pitch lol, (Why am I complaining right lol), My relative pitch isn't tooo bad ether. When I hear songs playing in my head, I can usually notate them pretty quickly, without any assistance of a piano or anything. I write all my important melodies on the staff, and the chords above the staff so I know what goes with it and tempo too.

    At that point, if I walk away, I can come back any time, look at my paper, and remember how the song was supposed to go. But, as soon as I start looking through my vst's or one of my hardware sounds to try and play what I've written, after a bit, it kind of overrides the song in my head. At that point, if I go back and look at the music I've wrote, I don't remember the original instruments that were in my song, it's all been replaced by other sounds. This isn't really a problem with "real" instruments, its more of a problem I deal with when trying to find the right type of synthesized sound. I guess since they're not real in the first place, it's hard to have a standard for what it's really supposed to sound like.

    I myself came up with the solution that, perhaps I need to learn all the different categories and timbre's of the synth, warm, cold, bright, distorted, analog, additive, etc. But I don't know, just a thought lol. Anyways any other thoughts are appreciated! Thanks for all the replies guys!

  • Lol you had both relative and perfect pitch XD  Well then I can't help you. Being good with the timbres certainly sounds like a good idea.

  • Hahaha, ahh man. For a minute I thought we were in the same boat, but then it turns out you have perfect pitch. If for a moment I forget you mentioned that, then I feel exactly the same way. Often I'll have ideas in my head, but putting them on paper (or computer) is just really hard. I guess it's down to practicing intervals for me.

  • I can't stand when this happens; however, I think your issue is more psychological than physical/mechanical. (Those may be the wrong terms)

    You hear something in your head, of course, it'll be hard to write down on first attempt; however, many (myself included) have run into the problem of forcing the issue! Music or creativity in general should not be forced - ever!

    This is why the saying exist: "Never finished. Only abandoned."

    I also think that you're focusing on things out of order.

    When you first sit down to write a piece, you should think of what to write first whether than how it sounds. You can do it the other way, but then you realize that a particular sound may not fit for whatever reason.

    For example: Say you want to roll a particular note (ie: on a timpani); however, you can't quite "hear" what it's doing, so you chose a keyboard like patch. Granted, it will sound not-so-good, but the sound doesn't matter here. Once you are satisfied with the rhythm of said roll, then you can go back to the desired sound you set it for.

    Another example: Let's say I'm writing a bass line using a Sub Bass patch. Not every note played is audible, so I'll end up layering it with some other instrument (ie: piano) to clearly hear what it's doing. Then tailor accordingly. If I actually end up layering the instrument upon writing the piece, fine; however, I'm specifically layering to help with composing the piece.

    If you compose by way of a DAW, as mentioned you can layer instruments: Some allow this in one track or you can duplicate said track, choosing another patch. In your case, when anxious about losing the piece, you'd probably want to go the track duplication route.

    the easiest way to prevent loss of a piece is to really familiarize yourself with it; however, get too entrench and that's all you're stuck with. Also, you need to keep in mind that pieces change! You may have the concept in your head, but it doesn't just appear on the page either verbatum.

    No one song is ever played the same way every single time unless of course, you're a performer reading from sheet music. As the composer of said sheet music, you want it played as close to how it written as accurately as possible; however, I'm sure it has gone numerous changes before the performers laid their eyes on it as there are many factors regarding the composition and performance of composition relationship. (That's another topic for another time though)

    So, to me, I see it like this:

    1) Don't force anything - walk away

    I've done this too many times to count. And not only is this true for the composition side, but the production side as well (a totally different beast). You catch more flies with honey than vinegar!

    From the composition side: what notes fit in this chord? Well, that depends on how you want to sound. However, don't think because you see a C7 means that you can't attach a b9. If anything, that extra interval (altered, btw) adds color. That's just one of many color tones in just one of many chords out there.

    I'm not saying that whatever you try to make work won't; yet, be aware that music is it's own entity. It'll work out it own issue if you let it!

    2) Realize that compositions change

    Row ... Your Boat for example. This song only uses the I-V progression and only the first five notes in the scale for the melody. (C-G; C and G(7) However, depending on the composer or the performer, we may get 4-10 chords in-between those two - which would make the same song sound totally different. Now, this is making a conscience effort to change up a song; however, it doesn't negate the fact that compositions change from start to finish. I don't think there's a song or composer out there who hasn't modified a song at least a dozen times in some way.

    3) Familiarize yourself with the piece (or part you're trying to write for)

    There's another thread on here discussing breaking the ostinato (repeated motif) habit. That's one of the ways to familiarize yourself with something which helps with writing because it'll force you to write something else. That sounds contradictory because I said not to force things, but it is not. They help when trying to formulate ideas as from these you then get themes and variations. Whether it's a string of the same note/chord played in the same rhythm - the difference will be in when a note in the melody or harmony (chord) is changed or the rhythmic pattern. (Stylizing)

    As for the part you're trying to write for, it's suggested that you listen to said instrument in that particular environment. Again, this is just to get an idea - not to necessarily copy what was heard. (ie: IN this style, the bass part does this. In that style, the piano part does that, etc)

    4) Just write it out - don't worry about how it "sounds", however, you have to understand how it sounds (what it's doing)

    If it's a melody, virtually any instrument will work - provided the instrument is transposed probably. (Yes, a bass instrument can play melodies; +12 or 24)

    If it's harmony, it's really all about the register though. Many agree that chords are played in the middle register of a chordophone (piano, etc); therefore, when reading on a staff, the notes are also somewhere in the middle. The grand staff is no exception if you really think about it. The reason being to avoid muddiness (playing to low) to twinkliness (playing to high)

    As a singer said in a song: "If you love something, let it go. If it comes back, it's yours. That's how you know!"

    Clearly, friendship/romance, but it's the same with music. What escapes you will eventually come back to you. Don't force it!
  • ^If that's a jab, no offense taken. This is generally the route I take - just explaining why that is all. :)
This reply was deleted.