Q&A: Understanding WHY

“Hey Alain,

I come to you to ask for advice. I need help with structure and I am hoping you could perhaps point me in the right direction to discovering more about it.

I’ve read/been taught about developing a theme and using variation etc. but rarely do people in books, the classroom or forums talk about structure (Beyond ternary, binary, rondo etc.). And not just basic song structure but the bar by bar structure.

I can work with ABA easily enough but within the “A” what motivations are there to take the melody where it needs to go? Obviously with film there’s an inherent structure but with video games & concert it’s more up to the composer.

I feel that my skills in orchestration, melodic and harmonic writing are becoming quite fluent, but I still get quite stressed out when it comes to structure. Lately I have been using music from other composers as inspiration for structure ideas. During which I always wonder – “what motivated this section here” or “how did they decide to repeat this section here”. For film, it’s obviously tied to the structure of the action on-screen.

I’ve tried a variety of things – drawing vague imagery for ideas, a string of emotional/thematic keywords, a story-line I create etc. all of them have worked sometimes but none of them always work. I really want to speed up my process so I can write more music. The one I use most often is the story-line I create for a piece but so often a decent emotional story arc does not necessarily equal coherent musical structure.

During a brief time with formal music education they spent so much time telling us how to analyze music for its theoretical elements – structure (Binary, Ternary, Rondo etc.), key, tonality, modulation etc. but rarely on the emotional motivation of the composer…the “why” I suppose.

I have many books on music but none really deal with this issue. I feel there’s a logical link I am missing somewhere (and lack of practise?).

Hopefully that all makes sense.

Kind regards,



Hi Simon,

I know exactly what you mean: you want to understand the WHY behind the composition decisions. I had the same question and doubts, and I know many of my students did as well, so I have some advice for you.

First, realize that is mostly an issue of personal aesthetics. Everyone will have different solutions to creative issues. You have a motive or phrase and pretty much everyone will go someplace different with it.

The goal is for you to have an understand first the technique/craft of writing so you can see the creative options available for you and why they work, and second, you have to know what YOU like.


Technique, theory and all of that is CRUCIAL. The depth and quality of your ideas will grow through study, our creative ideas are built on what we learn and hear. If musical creativity was innate then every 5 year old kid would be writing symphonies!

And furthermore, technique removes doubt, which also enables creative freedom.

Study technique and expand your creative horizons.


Study the repertoire. But don’t just observe what happens “here’s a flute doubling” or “here’s the motive repeated”, this means very little if you don’t know WHY! (ScoreClub courses always focus on the WHY, as you surely know already.)


Our brains are wired to look for patterning. We find patterns beautiful and we follow them by instinct. I suggest you look at Gestalt theory if you haven’t already.

So once you have an idea, take a moment to find what patterns you have set up and that will give you some sense of where to go.

Don’t just keep writing random stuff, follow your patterns!

And when you study scores, look for patterns as well!


You talked about telling yourself stories in your email, and that something I tried that as well with little success.

It can be successful if the listener is privy to the program in your music (the story) but ONLY if the music has internal logic.

(Speaking of internal logic, the course Motivic Mastery deals a lot with structuring of ideas so they are logical and therefore memorable, perhaps have a look at the table of contents to see what is in there.)

One of the issues with programmatic music is that you can’t always have your listener reading what the story is before a piece is played, so the music really needs to stand on its own in terms of logical patterns and logical continuation as PURE music.

If you would like to use a story to guide you writing, I suggest using a metaphor that speaks to our shared human experience. Let me explain.

I wrote a saxophone quartet where I used the stages of grief as a guide, that was my metaphor.

But I never explained it for the audience because I felt that the way the moods followed each other really made so much sense, because it matched our human experience and didn’t need to explained.

Just imagine music going from shock to pain, anger, depression and then acceptance and hope. It just flowed so easily and made sense!


And that brings us back to personal aesthetics.

With a foundation of technique, knowing why they work, how your listener perceives patterns and musical logic, you are building your creative foundation.

And from this you make your decisions, and those are aesthetic and personal. (And again, it will build and develop and change and IMPROVE over time as you continue to study.)

The thing that you can’t learn in a course is what YOU like. Your tastes will change and evolve as you study BUT they will remain your own.

To really get to know what your musical tastes and personality are, I suggest the following:

Listen to music as a listener.

Put on some music and stop being a composer for a second. Just listen and pay attention to when gets your ear to perk up and when you lose interest. Don’t try to figure out why yet, just listen.

Then go back to the piece and pay attention to those moments again and try to figure out WHY you reacted as you did with a more superficial, simple view of a regular listener rather than theoretical/technical.

And then start breaking it down in musical terms, paying attention to how often things repeat, how much were ideas developed and how were they developed.

This will build your understanding of what makes YOU tick as a listener and therefore as composer, and then will inform your own decisions as you write.

Hope that makes sense! Doing this made a world of difference for me, so I hope it works for you too!

Thanks for the great question Simon!


August 30, 2017

1 responses on "Q&A: Understanding WHY"

  1. This is awesome info and advice – thanks to Simon for the question and Alain for the tips!

Leave a Message

About Alain Mayrand

Alain is a working composer, orchestrator, conductor and orchestrator. His credits include "Elysium", "Ender's Game" and more.

Read more about Alain on the About Page

ScoreClub Newsletter Signup

Get access to FULL free video lessons upon signup.