Sketching (and why a first draft shouldn’t be perfect)

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This isn’t a blog post about the many benefits of sketching – that’s been covered well plenty of times.

This is about a particular approach to sketching that I usually employ, as do many others, and I’m going to illustrate it with a recent example.

Sketching (and why a first draft shouldn’t be perfect)

By Daniel Barkley

The basic concept is getting something down on paper.

This is the furthest thing from revolutionary you will hear today, but getting stuck on fine details can be a real roadblock for creativity. Focusing on details itself is not a bad thing, and I’m not suggesting that they be left to the side, to be sprinkled on top later, but they can be kept in the head and put on paper later. I’m sure this applies to some other arts as well as music, but I only know the musical specifics.

The basic concept is getting something down on paper.

When you’re working on a new piece, if you’re lucky enough to get on a roll with it, spending time writing detailled expression marks, articulations, dynamics, doublings etc., can be all it takes to make you lose your rhythm. It’s important to know what you want, and a minimum of markings can be really useful, but if you know what you want, you’ll probably still remember it two hours later, or the next day when you’re not forging ahead with new material.


This approach to sketching really depends on your workflow. If you need to work quickly to keep the ideas flowing, you’ll need to develop a shorthand. If you spend hours on every bar, then this is not so important, and your first sketch may be very close to the finished piece.

That being said, forcing yourself to use a different approach may allow you to come up with some interesting ideas.

First Draft

One of the other things I find to be a very important stage of the creative process is refining the first draft. This tends to be where I can improve a piece the most.

It might be a decent piece once first written down / sketched out, but the next layer of refinement can often bring it from ‘decent’ to ‘good’, or better. This usually involves stuff like improving transitions, making the overall flow better and more natural, and refining motivic development.

This last one is one of my favourites. It can be very effective to take a theme (or motif) that appears some way into a piece, and plant little ‘pre-echoes’ of it before it appears in full, making its eventual arrival more natural and satisfying. Of course this can take place in the original sketching/composition, but I find it happens more in the refinement stage.

To demonstrate some of the points I’ve covered, here is the sketch and finished version of the first half of a piano piece I wrote last December.

You can listen to it here, and the sheet music is here.

You’ll immediately notice a few things when comparing the sketch with the finished product.

First of all, my sketching is really messy. That’s the point! (Although music handwriting isn’t my strong suit to begin with.)

Neatness or lack thereof

The sketching is done quickly, so there’s no time for neatness. As long as you can read it, it’s neat enough for a sketch. My shorthand here includes: butchered English (“change on rpt”); repeated chords indicated by diagonal slashes; a scale run written with just noteheads; time signatures that aren’t always accurate. As well as that, you can see how little detail of articulation and expression are in the sketch.

I wrote this piece at the piano, so when I played a section, I played it with the dynamics, articulations, etc. that would eventually form the basis of the notated dynamics and articulations. There are also bits of the sketch that are very vague and confusing as to how long a note lasts – I’ve written stuff like “3 beats” under a quarter note. This is part of the musical shorthand, which allows you to find and edit issues efficiently in the revision process.

The improvement and refinement that happens after the initial creating involves smoothing out kinks (maybe a half-note works better as a quarter-note here, maybe this chord should be a little brighter) as well as removing superfluous notes / bars / sections (don’t be afraid of cutting!), adding nuances, smoothing transitions, and generally making things more effective (maybe this loud section isn’t loud enough – thicken the chords with more doublings). You can see that bar 2 of the finished piece is completely absent from the sketch – an afterthought which helped set up the entrance of the theme.

Forget perfection

This is why you shouldn’t waste time trying to make your first sketch perfect. You’ll constantly get bogged down, and every piece will take you five years to finish!

There are merits to writing slowly, for sure, and if that works for you, keep doing what works. But if you sketch often, make your workflow lean and efficient – use whatever shorthands necessary, as long as you know what they mean when you come to copy out the piece neatly!

This method of quick sketching works best for certain types of pieces and approaches, but although the example is a piano piece, it also applies fairly broadly to most types of composition.

In this video, I used the sketches of this brass band piece to show the genesis of the piece, and how it developed to become the final piece.

It’s hard enough getting any decent musical ideas onto paper / computer, so you have to use what works best for you. But to know what works best, you have to experiment and refine, much like the sketching process.

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