Sketching in Music

Music always seemed like a natural place to continue my investigation of the performing arts and sketching. I’ve played the saxophone since I was ten years old and I love jazz. But after some false starts, I’m not sure it’s the best way to explore the act of sketching. Improvisation in musical performance is based on extensive practice and a deep understanding of the nature of music. As a sketching technique it’s inexpensive, plentiful and disposable, all important qualities, but it isn’t quick or timely and there just isn’t much for service designers to glean beyond the importance of the work ethic.

For a while I abandoned music and explored other facets of sketching, but then I stumbled across information about how Mozart and Beethoven approached composition. I realized that there might be something for service designers to learn from classical music rather than jazz.

Contemporaries of Mozart held the romantic notion that he composed “automatically, intuitively, and without conscious effort.” They saw the writing as a simple mechanical process that channeled the music from his head onto paper, ready for the symphony. But over three-hundred sketches and drafts have survived to the present day to cast a different light on Mozart’s compositional approach.

The historian Ulrich Konrad has written extensively on these techniques in Mozart’s Sketches [PDF 1.1MB]:

Mozart noted down his sketches almost exclusively on separate sheets of paper, using ink. He had no use for “sketchbooks” and almost never sketched in pencil. […] The reliable report that Mozart also used a wax tablet or slate when producing his sketches is one we should do well to bear in mind, for, even if it does not extend our knowledge of the sketches themselves, it reminds us that sketches could be erased after they had been written down. If Mozart worked in this way, it means that he had little sense of any need to keep a sheet of paper once it was filled with sketches.

This suggests that the sketches were tools for thought, rather than a conscious effort to document ideas. Konrad categorizes the sketches into four major types, all written in a special handwriting Mozart kept for private use:

  • Sammelblätter – pages containing a variety of apparently related sketches for possible later use.
  • Werkblätter – pages with sketches for a single identifiable work in progress.
  • Zufallsblätter – pages with diverse and apparently unrelated sketches not connected with identifiable work in progress or a specific finished work.
  • Skizzenpartituren – more or less completed scores but written in Mozart’s “private” hand.

According to Konrad, these sketches rarely represent the final form of a theme but indicate various levels of development in the creative process. Far from a straightforward transcription of Mozart’s musical genius, scholars have followed the development of ideas from barely decipherable individual notes and snippits to several bars of a melody to completely fixed passages with several parts in a rough score. The sketches are a means for developing these ideas, not simply recording them.

Service designers can learn from this approach. First of all, sketching works at several scales and at several different points in the design process. A sketch could encompass something as small as a moment concept or an individual touchpoint, all the way up to a complex service encounter. Designers should always be prepared to capture ideas, and that means never being without a notebook and something to write with. If we were to follow Mozart’s example, service designers would keep one notebook for raw, incohate sketches and a second for more developed versions of those ideas. For me the front and back halves of a Moleskine notebook might serve the purpose.

Designers should also consider keeping a larger notebook for more refined sketches as threads make their way from the smaller notebooks. For example, Mozart often focused on the formative lines of one particular voice or instrument in the larger composition. These “sketches-in-extract” were designed to explore a particularly striking musical element — the harmony or a counterpoint for example. For me this recalls Twyla Tharp’s focus on the “spine” of a choreographic performance; the central motivating element behind her compositions.

We can follow this idea into the work of Ludwig van Beethoven who sketched more than any other major composer. His sketches mainly consist of simple melodic lines, or feature them prominently. The composer sang or hummed as he took his daily walks and sketched on loose pieces of paper.

In Beethoven’s Compositional Process, William Kinderman classifies these sketches into four major types:

  1. Movement plans – Beethoven’s overviews of entire works or movements, in outline. Incipits of movements often appear, sometimes connected by words showing briefly what the intended order of sections or movements is to be.
  2. Continuity drafts – Single-stave drafts for entire sections of works, for example, expositions, development sections, or codas. The obvious purpose of such drafts is to lay out the material of a section over a large formal span and to work out both the continuity of the content and the length and proportions of its subsections.
  3. Sketches of intermediate length – Sketches serving a variety of elaborative purposes. Sometimes these supplement continuity drafts; sometimes they are independent entries designed to try out solutions to a multitude of types of compositional problems.
  4. Small-scale sketches – Either for works in progress or those to be worked out in the future, for example, motifs, fragments, jottings, “concept sketches,” and similar entries. Some of these entries may turn out to supplement other sketches and even composing scores or autographs representing fairly late stages of a given work.

What interests me about Beethoven’s sketches are the larger scale explorations of movement plans and continuity drafts. As Kinderman puts it, “in many cases, the apparent purpose of sketchbook entries is to work out the larger proportions of a given section, its thematic and motivic content, its harmonic direction, and its larger phrase rhythms.” Here the compositions are being sketched at a macro level. This goes far beyond sketching moment concepts or touchpoints. Beethoven shows the potential for sketching entire ecosystems.

Later in this series I’ll explain some sketching techniques that service designers can adopt to do exactly that.

. . .

This article is part of a series on how to sketch a service based on techniques from the performing arts.

How to Sketch a Service
Sketching in Choreography
Sketching in Film
Sketching in Screenwriting
• Sketching in Theater


  1. Hi Jeff – Great article. It’s nice to see such a thorough examination of other creative processes applied so thoughtfully back to our practice.

    I wonder, too, whether there are things Service Designers can learn from practitioners of graphic notation (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Graphic_notation). Many of the composers experimenting in this form were/are looking for alternate ways to express and communicate music, to free it up from the structure of classical notation, to let them experiment and uncover new sounds and ways to conceive of music.

  2. Jeff

    Hi Sarah,

    Thanks for the pointer to graphic notation. I’ve seen something like that in choreography but not in the context of music.

    From a sketching perspective it would be interesting to learn whether musicians are using the notational framework as a creative and generative tool. In choreography the notation seems to be used mainly for recording ideas after the fact.

  3. I suspect you’ll find something similar to choreography with the musical graphical notation. I suspect the technique is more user as a recording tool and a way of communicating to performers what types of sounds to make.




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