Around 15 years ago, I sat in on a little talk with Apostolos Paraskevas, a Greek composer and guitarist (among other things) working at Berklee College of Music (in Boston). I got to spend a couple of days hanging out with the guy, but the best thing he said came in that little informal talk with some composition students.
One of the college students asked, “How do you compose music?”
Apostolos got this odd look on his face, then he smiled slightly and said, “Asking a man how he composes music is like asking a woman how she gives birth.” The he shrugged and went on, “You just push, and if you don’t push, you’re lazy.”
I think the student was hoping for a more technical answer, like what part of the music he thought of first: melody, harmony, or instrumentation, or what sort of tonal systems he uses, or even whether he uses software, paper or works at an instrument. Some people thought the answer was silly, but Paraskevas gave a professional’s answer.
The point was, doing the work was more important than the technical process employed. In other words, work habits are far more important than formulae.
This is a great part of why I don’t put much stock in writing manuals – not because the advice they give is bad, but because writers read them and focus on the wrong thing, namely doing their work a certain way and striving for a certain product rather than first establishing their capacity to simply work.
It’s the same thing with music composition. There are so many different ways to approach the art, so many different approaches to tonality and harmony, and so many different interfaces to utilize that no two people can be expected to work in the same way. What’s important is that an artist put in the time to work in which he will develop his own process that works to produce the art he wants.
Regardless of the art, you won’t develop your work skills without first working. You also won’t develop the technical capacity to produce the product you want without experience. You’ll never find your voice while trying to figure out how other people do things.
Apostolos said later, “I am Greek, so my music is Greek and will always be Greek. Your music must be yours.” This was mostly as a response to technical discussion of certain aspects of his music, particularly his use of mixed meter. The point was the same: You’re focusing on the wrong things.
This is part of why I wrote Keys to Prolific Creativity – artists are often focusing on the wrong things. Get your creative life in order, build your process, and the rest will start to fall in line.