When I begin composing, I usually don’t hear anything in my head beforehand. Instead, as I sit at the piano, I start to play, striking sounds, chords, phrases that feel almost random, and differ in rhythms and tempo. I have joined the piano in conversation. In listening to it, the aural feedback is immediate, and draws me in. Eventually, some notes start to select themselves, and I have ‘caught’ something (usually quite small) that I am hearing, that I want to explore. I start extracting certain phrases that begin the composing process. The most exciting times for me are a little further along, when I can sometimes literally hear a possible sequence of musical notes in my mind that is not yet on the page, and continues the musical idea.
When I land on a key, I usually stay for a brief while and then I inevitably stray, using it as a point of departure. I like ‘errant’ notes, notes that move in unexpected and often discordant ways. I’m drawn to shifts in rhythm and lyrical phrases, contrapuntal lines that meander unexpectedly—that provide change, and serve to wake up the mind and surprise.
To use a metaphor for painting a canvas: if I start with wanting to depict “sky”, I will almost immediately want to introduce shadings, and modulations in texture and palette, because that is the interesting part--to go after the elusive qualities of “sky”. And I am looking for ways to render movement.
At various and frequent points in the composing process, my hands on the piano keys help me find where I’m going next. So I respectfully consider their inclinations, even if it is not what I intended to do ‘consciously’. Frequently, my hands get ahead of my listening; and I have to repeat the phrase, or the gist of it, in order to get it down on paper. It is often a long process, and I have learned to be patient about my ‘inadequate renderings’ as I progress.
In my experience with music making, I’m often, though not always, involved in exploring ways to express my ‘ felt’ (emotionally based) experience through sounds. Sometimes it is a way of my rendering a sense of place, sometimes an internal place, but not always. While I may have my own feelings and associations, I don’t expect the listener to agree with my reference points. The listener and performer and I do not necessarily have the same experience or meanings; but we do share the process of listening.
Stepping back from the actual composing, it seems to me that music provides us with a direct sensory access to the power of our subjective experience of the "present". Psychologists have made this analogy when discussing the process of feedback in communicating. Since music moves through time, we repeatedly experience a series of past and present moments, which are knitted together so that most of the time we are unaware of the shifts.
Perhaps our brain processes a series of "present" experiences, in music (aided by attributes like shared tempo, repeated rhythms, and themes, a lyrical phrase), in order to help organize what we hear. It is not hard to imagine that our mental processing of music is sequenced in ”bits”, (maybe just a few seconds long.) Our brain could theoretically reintegrate these bits, even unconsciously, to give us a sense of coherence and continuity over time.