how to compose music

How to Compose Music

How can you learn to write the music you love, and how do you create music that others will want to hear? This article explores methods and approaches successful modern Composers and Writers use to bring music into the world. Beyond playing an instrument well, Composers need specialized techniques for writing and production, so they can hear their music played by others and get their music heard by the masses.

In our discussion of how to compose music, we will explore:

  1. Basic musicianship skills
  2. Inner hearing
  3. Harmonic awareness
  4. Writing melodies
  5. Writing chord progressions
  6. Traditional methods
  7. Jazz and pop music styles
  8. Technology tools for Writers
  9. Getting your music produced

Writing music and creating your own compositions is an incredibly satisfying experience for anyone engaged in music. It is also hard work and requires strong musical skills. Whether you are writing your own songs, composing a short piece of music for use in a video game, or composing a symphony, the process of creating music will be similar. Each Composer draws inspiration and ideas from different sources and is influenced in their musical choices by those who came before. Their methods of getting the music from their head onto paper, a recording, or the stage will differ, but the skills needed and the most useful methods and techniques can be adequately described. Composing is a process that can be learned and taught, and many musicians take courses and lessons in order to learn how to compose and write original music.

As legendary Guitarist and Composer Frank Zappa said, “Art is making something out of nothing, and selling it.” Original compositions are indeed intellectual property and can be monetized through licensing or sale. Aspiring professional Composers and Songwriters should develop the know-how to legally protect their works. I have covered this topic in previous articles on how to copyright and publish your music, how to sell your music on iTunes, or stream for profit on services such as Spotify. In this article, I will focus instead on the creative aspects of composing and writing your own music, based primarily on Western styles of popular and classical music.

Musicianship Skills for Writers

Becoming a Composer or Conductor does require the ability to play at least one instrument well, along with strong musicianship skills. I’ve described these skills in a previous article: ear training, reading, writing (transcription), performance, blending, and understanding of phrasing and rhythmic feel in music. I also believe that having a large repertoire is of great use to a Composer, since learning to play copious amounts of music is a specialized kind of training for the memory and also for muscle memory (whether playing or singing). Besides these basic musicianship skills, Composers need other specialized musical skills such as arranging, music production, and improvisation. This last skill is especially important to Composers, as there is a close relationship between composing and improvising. I like to say they are two sides of the same coin:

  • Improvising is composing speeded up.
  • Composing is improvising slowed down.

Mozart, one of the greatest Composers of his time, was known to improvise at the keyboard for hours at parties. The ability to create original improvisations on your instrument (or voice) is indeed very closely related to the core process of composing music. With both improvising and composing, you must first “hear” the music in your head, and then use your technique and skill to either play it immediately on an instrument or write it down, which takes a bit longer. Both improvising and composing skills can be improved with ear training, transcription practice, and sight singing exercises, all practices focused on improving the memory. A trained musical memory is a great asset to anyone wishing to perform or compose music.

Inner Hearing and Ear (Memory) Training

Have you ever had a song stuck in your head and can’t get rid of it? We call that an “earworm” and most people have had this annoying experience. If you can hear music like that in your head, you understand how inner hearing works. We are able to hear a melody in our mind without it being played in the air. Musicians have worked diligently to develop inner hearing as a useful tool for writing and playing music. We use inner hearing when reading music, to play a rest for example. When performing a rest, you should stop playing or singing and quietly count the duration of the rest in your head so you won’t lose your place in the music. This example shows why inner hearing is a useful and important musical skill for performers. (Incidentally, there are two known remedies to get rid of an earworm: either replace it with another, hopefully, less annoying song, or sing the song in your head to the very end of the song. I make no guarantees on the efficacy of these methods!)

After using inner hearing to make up a melody in your head, the next step is to write it down or play it on your instrument. You can also use your voice for this, and many Composers use solfege syllables (do, re, mi, fa, sol, la, ti) to translate the music from their head. It is possible to practice this process of transcribing the music from your head to paper, and then singing it or playing it back on an instrument. Students in music school usually take classes in ear training, as this helps you to become more proficient in writing down the music you hear, and in reading the music on a page. Practicing ear training is the best way to improve musical memory and recall.

Harmonic Awareness and Rhythmic Grooves

So far we’ve focused on inner hearing and writing down melodies, but the composing process is not limited to this. Most listeners will pay the most attention to the melodies they hear, and may not be too aware of the harmonies in a piece of music. We will return to writing melodies shortly, but we should at least consider the harmonic context of the melodies before we go any further. Melodies can exist on their own, without any harmony. We call this monophony, which means literally “one voice” or “one sound.” If we listen to Gregorian Chant or a solo singer or horn without accompaniment, this would be an example of monophony. (Note that there can be more than one voice or instrument playing the single melody.) As soon as we add a second melody to counter the first melody, or we add a chord progression played by an Accompanist, we have polyphony.

Most of the music we hear on a daily basis is polyphonic. We are used to hearing melodies accompanied by a chord progression or with harmonies layered on top of it. Keep in mind that a bass line is also a melody and when we add a bass line to a melody we will also have polyphony. Some Songwriters who play guitar or piano will start composing by creating a chord progression. Not all, but most music is tonal, that is, centered around a key center that exerts a gravitational pull and feels like “home” when we return to the center of the key using a harmonic cadence (series of chords that resolve to a musical gravity center).

It’s interesting to note that there are no rules about what chords can go together, only conventions, or typical progressions such as I-IV-V-I (using Roman Numeral Analysis). This means that any chord can be proceeded or followed by any other chord, offering virtually limitless combinations of chords in a sequence. The bass note of the chord, or root motion, will also create a melody separate from the main melody. With practice, one can learn to identify chords heard in a progression, and inner hearing also applies to the harmonic context. Along with melodies, we can hear chord progressions and rhythms in our head, and then write them down or play them.

Now that I’ve mentioned rhythms, it’s worth mentioning that creating a groove along with the chord progression can be an integral part of the writing process. There are songs and sections of compositions based around rhythmic figures or grooves. This is a common way of writing and everything I’ve said so far about melody and harmony also applies to rhythm and groove writing.

All music has phrasing, just the way speech does. Most (but not all) phrases in popular music and jazz consist of four bars. When we write chord progressions and melodies we need to always be thinking about phrasing and form.

Writing Melodies, Chord Scales

A melody is an organized sequence of notes. Just as any chord can be preceded or followed by any chord, any note can also be preceded or followed by any note. If we just choose notes randomly, however, it usually does not lead to a pleasing sound. Having studied the different ways that melodies are constructed, it’s clear that each Composer has his or her own unique approach to melody writing. If you are starting out, it is fine to imitate the melodies you like to play and hear in your writing, but the ultimate goal is to forge some new creations that feel unique to you. Composers spend their lives and careers creating original music, and it’s not always easy, because sometimes it seems like everything has been done before. This is true for chord progressions and melodies. Many artists have been sued for “stealing” melodies, when in fact they might have never (consciously) heard the original piece they are accused of stealing. They just happened to create something very close to what had already been created by another Composer. It happens.

So how does one learn to write truly great melodies? Ha…if I knew the answer to that I probably couldn’t explain it to you in an article. What we know is that through the centuries there have been some true masters of musical composition, from Bach to the Beatles, whose music has endured. Most, if not all musicians will undertake a serious study of all that has come before, carefully analyzing the music universally recognized as great. The more one knows of what has come before, the better chance one has of also creating something great.

Without getting too technical, we can think about melody in terms of movement: breaking down each phrase, it has a direction (up, down, or level), it has movement from note to note of either steps (a half-step or a whole step), or leaps (greater than a step). The leaps can be either small or large intervals. (An interval is simply the difference in pitch between two notes, whether played together or in sequence.) Each melody note also has a relationship to the key of the song and the key of the moment, that is the chord happening concurrent to the melody notes. This kind of analysis is called chord scales and is used when harmonizing a melody such as for a vocal or horn arrangement.

We should also consider the duration of each note, which is directly related to note density, which refers to how many notes happen in a measure or phrase. Some notes of longer duration that are also notes in the chord or key might be target notes and others of short duration moving stepwise to a target note could be called either passing tones, or approach notes. Don’t worry if you aren’t yet familiar with this kind of terminology; as you learn to analyze written melodies it will become more familiar to you.

Musical Form and Chord Progressions

Now that we have considered how melodies are constructed and how they interact with chordal accompaniment, we can return to considering chord (harmonic) progressions. Whether songs or symphonies, all music has sections, which we sometimes call form. Technically, the word form can refer to anything from a measure or a quarter note to the whole composition, but for our purposes, we use it to mean a section of the music, such as a verse, chorus, interlude, stanza, refrain, intro, or outro. With longer pieces of music there can be many sections; when sections don’t repeat we say the piece is through-composed. Most compositions have sections of the form which repeat, maybe to bring back or develop a theme. Songs which have the title of the song in the chorus will sometimes call the chorus a refrain. (Keep in mind that Songwriters are also Composers.) Terminology is applied differently across genres so it’s not always clear what people mean by these terms. All musical analysis happens after the fact, so what we choose to call a particular section of music doesn’t change the actual music that is written or played.

Within these sections of the form, there are shorter phrases. All music has phrasing, just the way speech does. Most (but not all) phrases in popular music and jazz consist of four bars. When we write chord progressions and melodies we need to always be thinking about phrasing and form. Music that just comes out naturally will also have a definite form, so we don’t always think about form in advance, but it is always there as an underpinning. Whether starting to build a composition by writing a chord progression with a groove, or harmonizing chords to a melody, we will tailor our notes and chords to the phrasing, which taken all together leads to determining the form of the piece. In contemporary music, especially rock and pop, chords often play a key role in the composing process. Most Songwriters and Composers play piano and/or guitar so that they can hear their chord progressions as they write.

Traditional Methods

There have likely been Composers for as long as there have been humans. Anyone who devises a melody and puts it into the air in the form of sound waves might call themselves a Composer. As we’ve been discussing some contemporary compositional techniques we should also look at the history of composing. It’s perhaps only during the last thousand years or so that musical compositions were written down. Preceding notation, music was strictly an aural form of expression which was passed down from generation to generation. During and after medieval times, Composers used written scores more and more to compose for solo instruments, small groups, or orchestra. All of the parts were contained in a single score, and the individual parts were copied onto manuscript for each instrument. Now we have music notation software such as Finale and Sibelius that allows us to input notes to scores and parts via the computer. We can even hear our compositions played as a MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface) file.

Prior to the electronic age, the task of manually writing scores and copying parts was slow and laborious. It still is somewhat so, in spite of the technology tools which allow us to accomplish writing music more quickly. For Composers, the new technology doesn’t really change so much, as the music is still music, and the process of composing follows pretty much the same steps.

While it’s not always easy to get new music performed and heard, where there is a will there’s a way, as the old saying goes. Use your musical creativity to develop your own compositional style and get your music heard. It’s a wonderful feeling of satisfaction when you hear the music you wrote and witness the enjoyment of the musicians playing and the audience hearing it.

Jazz and Pop Music

Jazz is considered classical music now, as it has been around for over 100 years and is taught in conservatories. A progenitor of jazz music is the blues, which has been around even longer. I mention this in the context of the modern Composer’s awareness of what has come before. As jazz takes its influence and material from many sources, so does pop music. Many chord progressions and melodies in modern music can be traced back to the classical music of the Romantic period. It’s useful to think in terms of the styles of music that exist and where your own compositions might fill a niche, based on what you prefer to listen to and write.

Especially in bebop and jazz, Composers often create new melodies over established song forms and chord progressions by improvising solos and then writing them down. Since a chord progression cannot be protected by copyright, it’s perfectly legal to take chord progressions from existing songs and write new melodies and lyrics. This then becomes a distinct original composition. This explains why many songs share the same chord progressions, as you might have noticed.

In rock and pop, many Composers “write” songs using guitar or piano, and perform those songs without writing them down first. This was the case, for example, with the early Beatles’ songs. Neither Paul McCartney or John Lennon were adept at music notation and used the recording studio and rehearsals to compose their songs. This method of composing is just as legitimate as a composition that is written down before being played. Although it helps to be musically literate, reading and writing music is not a prerequisite for being a Composer. Music is an aural art form that does not need to be written down to exist.

Technology Tools for Writers

As previously mentioned, there was a time when Writers and Composers wrote everything out by hand, creating scores and parts, or perhaps wrote their songs in a recording studio, committing their ideas to tape. Some Composers still work this way. There are, in addition, many wonderful new tools provided to Writers by technology, from synthesizers to notation and digital recording software. These new tools make it possible to do on a laptop what used to require an orchestra or a full recording studio to accomplish. Some schools have started accepting students using their computer as a musical instrument. The software has become so powerful that composing and production have merged into one function. The Writer can create and manipulate music and sound in an efficient way Composers could only have dreamed of just a few decades ago. Writers don’t need a studio anymore to hear their new compositions.

Getting Your Music Produced

In spite of all this new technology and the advances in the digital music world, there is something wonderful about hearing your own music played by actual musicians. The fact that the technology can do so much has not made studios or orchestras obsolete, at least not yet. When a Composer writes for any instrument, they must be able to hear and understand the way a performer would play the music on the instrument. This does mean sometimes renting a studio and hiring musicians. Symphonies and orchestras still perform in concert halls under the baton of a Conductor. Many Composers prefer to hear their music conducted by someone else before they attempt to conduct it themselves. Of course, a Composer should have some conducting ability, but they are often so intimately familiar with what they have written it is difficult to hear an orchestra attempting to play it for the first time in rehearsal. They will rely on a proficient Conductor to breathe life into their new music using a live orchestra. Most Composers prefer this live experience to hearing the MIDI files of their work played.

There are many festivals where orchestras perform new music, and professional and semi-professional orchestras often commission new works from Composers. Schools and community organizations have orchestras and other performing groups to play new music composed by students and faculty. If you can develop a budget, you could hire musicians and a studio to play your works. Other Composers have made a good living writing music for films and visual media, or even video games. While it’s not always easy to get new music performed and heard, where there is a will there’s a way, as the old saying goes. Use your musical creativity to develop your own compositional style and get your music heard. It’s a wonderful feeling of satisfaction when you hear the music you wrote and witness the enjoyment of the musicians playing and the audience hearing it. If you have music inside of you, and you feel the world needs to hear it, study and use the techniques in this article and more to get your music listened to.

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