• Krisena

Composing Checklist

Music is made up of so many things! Melody, chords, pitch, timbre. There are also so many ways to make it, and so many things to consider when you make it. To help keep track of all it all, I've made a checklist that you can refer to when you work. After all, you wouldn't want to forget anything, right?

The idea of using checklists was something I got when I studied architecture. The whole field was so new to me and I was introduced to everything so fast that it was kind of overwhelming. There were so many variables to juggle that I made a list of them all to make sure I didn't forget anything when I worked on my projects - any weaknesses the professors could bring up against me in a critique.

You can use the checklist to find a weak point in your work when you don't know where to improve, or to check if there's something you've forgotten to address in your music.

You can download the complete checklist in PDF form here.

Friction points

These word pairs are dichotomies or extremes on a spectrum that are always in a conversation with each other or vying for attention. Focusing on one can take attention away from another. In those cases it can be important to address the other side of the coin to create balance. Sometimes you might even have forgotten to address the friction point altogether.

  • Identity / Character

  • Unity / Variety

  • Compliment / Contrast

  • Details / Whole

  • Local / Global

  • Cross-section / Plan

  • Horizontal / Vertical

  • Break / Continuum

  • Contrast / Balance

  • Contrast between Balances / Balance between Contrasts

  • Additive / Subtractive

  • Silence / Sound

  • Background / Foreground

  • Process / Result

  • Dynamic / Static

  • Change / Stability

  • Meetings / Partings

  • Introversion / Extraversion

  • Friction / Flow


Having the complete collection of musical elements in your head at all times is important so no option is left out for your creativity to spontaneously act on. You don't need to modulate these variables all the time. That would be too overwhelming for the listener. However, every aspect needs to play a role in a rich, full-bodied musical experience.

  • Lines

  • Timbre

  • Texture

  • Dynamics

  • Mood

  • Tempo

  • Figure

  • Harmony

  • Rhythm

  • Pitch

  • Character

  • Melody

  • Form

  • Expression

  • Volume

  • Ornamentation

  • Transitions

  • Silence

  • Articulation

  • Genre

  • Lyrics

  • Style


Lines refer to musical lines, like the part that a violin plays, or a line that is traded between several instruments. A line is a melody, in the sense that everything kind of is a melody - even the chuggings of a rhythm guitar.

The words below describe possible musical characters that lines can have. A "walking" line is a line that moves mostly stepwise with a steady rhythm in a moderate tempo. Speed it up and it'll feel like a "running" line. A "rolling" line can be a line of constant triplets and so on. It's pretty intuitive, so use your imagination.

A piece of music will usually consist of many different kinds of musical lines that contrast and compliment each other, so it can be useful with some prompts like these.

  • Walking

  • Crawling

  • Running

  • Rolling

  • Limping

  • Jumping

  • Flying

  • Droning

  • Waving

  • Floating

  • Galloping

  • Staircase

  • Alternating

  • Alberti

  • Dotting

  • Crumbling

  • Stabbing

  • Zig-zagging


A piece usually needs a variety of different kinds of textures for contrast and relief. Here some you can use:

  • Monophonic

  • Heterophonic

  • Polyphonic

  • Unison

  • Melody / Accompaniment


Sometimes it might be useful to refer to a list of different forms or form types to get ideas for how your piece can unfold.

  • ABA (tertiary)

  • AB (binary)

  • Verse-Chorus

  • Refrain

  • AAAA...

  • Impromptu

  • Rotational

  • Sonata

  • Review and Reject

  • Chain

  • Medley

  • Rondo

  • Variations

  • Circular

  • Dialectic

  • Montage

  • Collage

  • Moments

  • Developmental

  • Unresolved breaks

  • Illuminative

Development techniques:

This is a list of different, codified ways to alter a motive for use in motivic development. For further explanation, check out the article on motivic development.


What are the reasons a listener will seek out this particular piece of music? What kind of listener are you writing for? What kind of value does the music bring to the table? This is almost like a personality test for your music and your listeners.

Some people just want to feel the groove, man. Others seek out music to experience a specific mood. Others again don't even listen to music, but think all the crazy music theory things you did are cool as heck.

  • Sensuality

  • Logical interest

  • Narrative

  • Emotion

  • Inventiveness

  • Fantasy

  • Fellowship

  • Challenge

  • Atmosphere

  • Identity


Different instruments will have different roles at different times in a piece. A flute can be the lead instrument in one moment and play rhythmic supporting figures in the next.

Roles can also be combined into more specific categories. A "rhythmic lead" may be a rap vocal - well complimented by "accompaniment harmony".

With this checklist, you can make sure all the different roles in a full texture are filled, and also quickly find a compliments to existing material.

  • Lead

  • Rhythm

  • Harmony

  • Ornamentation

Modes of working

Different people work differently. Still, it's always worth moving outside your comfort zone. Maybe a new way of working will give you a much needed perspective on your music? There may be neglected aspects of your music that will only become apparent to you when working in certain ways.

Working with an instrument clues you into writing idiomatically - writing in a way that works well for the instrument and isn't too technically demanding. Hearing the sound can help your imagination figure out exactly what would sound exciting on the instrument in question. It may even reveal certain instructions you need to give a performer.

Similarily, working with visual analysis, you can extremely quickly figure out the character of a background part you want to write. You immediately see that everything you've written in the current part is very rhythmical by all the "black dots" on the paper, so you know that a more "white note" synth pad is exactly what's missing.

I encourage you to try all the methods, and to never truly neglect any one in particular.

  • With hands, directly with instrument

  • Analyzing patterns visually in a full score

  • Listening with closed eyes

  • Algorithmic production of material

  • Empathizing with a specific instrument's part

  • Drawing a visual representation of the piece

  • Dismantling and reassembly of a different piece

  • Artistic exploration

  • Solution-searching

  • Oblique strategies


It can be incredibly enlightening to empathize with other links in the chain to inform your own work. Are there ways you can prepare the score so it's easy to understand for a musician? Or an engraver? What would an engraver see if they looked at your score, and what information that's valuable to them they wouldn't they see?

Similarily, what would a professional arranger do with your work that you haven't done yet? You may think that it's a stupid question, since you're not a professional arranger, but sometimes just pretending to be another person is enough to get a completely fresh perspective on what you're doing.

  • Composer

  • Physicist

  • Historician

  • Engineer

  • Arranger

  • Engraver

  • Conductor

  • Musician

  • Recording

  • Engineer

  • Mixing

  • Engineer

  • Mastering

  • Engineer

  • Publicist

  • Curator

  • Manager

  • Audience

Remember that these lists are not exhaustive, but I tried to write down a variety of useful facets. Many of the categories also overlap or are subsets or supersets of each other. Don't worry about it.

For the sake of brevity, I haven't elaborated on what any of these words mean. If you have any questions about any of the words, please ask me in the comment section below. I will answer to the best of my ability. I also welcome any suggestions for words to be added.

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