How To Make Music: Starting From Scratch for the Complete Beginner - Careers in Music
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At its heart, making music is a creative endeavor, which can offer you a fun and interesting way to express yourself while sharing your thoughts and feelings with the world.

If you’ve never studied or learned music the traditional way, the good news is you can start wherever you are and make immediate progress on your own by learning and doing. I’m going to give you some ideas and pointers on how to do this while having a lot of fun.

For some, learning to play a musical instrument might bring up images of grueling long hours of tedious practice. Achieving greatness at anything certainly requires dedication, persistence, and a lot of hard work. Learning to create music is a bit like cooking, drawing, filmmaking, or any other creative activity: there are some basics to be learned, and you can get some pretty good results without necessarily “going pro.”

I can cook up a decent meal at home for my family and friends to enjoy, but I’m not about to open up a chain of restaurants. Applying yourself to music-making could look a little like that. You’re probably not going to become famous overnight, but hey, you never know! And you’ll never know what you can do if you don’t make some effort to bring out the music inside of you and share it with the world.

So, let’s get started.

Here are the basic steps to follow to learn how to make music:

  • Get your music recording gear together
  • Learn basic music theory
  • Understand the basic elements of songwriting
  • Set up your recording area
  • Learn music production skills
  • Get familiar with mixing and mastering
  • Promote your music for distribution

We’ll delve into each of those steps deeper as we go along.

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Start at the Beginning

You could start by asking yourself why you want to make your own music. While I firmly believe that music should always be fun and stress-free (hey, we’re not flying jumbo jets here, or performing surgery on people with life-threatening illnesses!), it’s also fine to have some ambition, too. Maybe you want to make music to impress your friends and family, or turn music into a side-hustle. Or maybe you really do want to become famous.

There’s nothing wrong with any of that, but getting clear with yourself on your goals is important as it will help guide you towards your destiny as a musician, and help you to create your art with true purpose. You might feel that you just have this great music inside of you that the world needs to hear. I will be the first to tell you to just “go for it!” Doing music can be a way to relax and have fun. Whatever your motivation, use it to inspire you and guide you confidently in the realization of your music dreams.

You will find that there are others on similar journeys, and there is always strength in numbers. Find new friends who share your passion and build community. Besides the new friendships, you can learn from each other.

Music is a collaborative art on many levels, so as you embark on your journey of explorative learning, consult with others who can help you. Don’t feel you have to go it alone. It doesn’t have to mean finding a “teacher” per se, but thinking of yourself as a learner is a good attitude as you immerse yourself in this new creative realm. And, it might not hurt to take a few lessons from an expert.

Get Your Music Recording Gear Together

How Do You Make Music at Home for Free?

So, you’re sitting at home, thinking: “What do I need? What are the costs? Where do I start? Fortunately, there are many free tools and resources you can take full advantage of in your quest to make music at home.

Start with Google and YouTube (Google owns YouTube). Experiment with some queries and spend some time studying the results. There are excellent blogs (like this one) and video tutorials that are free and offer sound advice. If you are the kind of person that learns by watching, spend more time with the videos. If you like to read, access the blogs and written resources. I like to do both when I need to learn something.

It’s just amazing how much you can learn online for free. With YouTube tutorials, take note that sometimes additional useful tips might be found in the comments section, when those are enabled.

Besides blogs and video tutorials, there is some free software available to help you create and record your music. For example, GarageBand is Apple’s free music creation software that comes preloaded on Apple Macs, iPads, and iPhones. GarageBand is like a fully equipped music studio loaded with instrument and vocal sounds, and also includes a library of lessons on how to use it.

You will also find many free plugins and VSTs (stands for Virtual Studio Technology) which emulate the sounds from instruments such as piano, drums, guitar, strings, and synthesizers. These free resources are widely in use by musicians today at all levels of expertise and ability.

Can You Make Music with Just a Laptop?

Yes, you can make music with just your laptop. If you want to make music using a laptop computer, I’d strongly suggest you buy an Apple. Apple’s operating system (OS), is rock solid for music production, and more intuitive compared to a Windows system. Apple is also more idiot-proof and has fewer problems. Whether it’s an iMac or a MacBook will not make much of a difference. A recent iMac or a MacBook model will have the processing power you need. Get one with at least 16 GB of memory.

You will also need music production software, called a Digital Audio Workstation (DAW). Your Apple computer will come with GarageBand, and you could also get Logic Pro X, Ableton Live, Pro Tools, Cubase Pro, FL Studio, or Reason. Most people start with GarageBand since it is free, and it makes sense to progress from GarageBand to Logic Pro X, which is like GarageBand’s big brother. You’ll likely need some other hardware and peripherals, more on that next.

How Do I Start Recording Music at Home?

Beyond the computer and DAW software, you will probably want to buy some other hardware and peripherals for your laptop music-making. You will want a decent microphone; an entry level large diaphragm condenser microphone is the best choice for a start. You will want a good pair of studio reference headphones, which are designed specifically for music production. (If you are serious about music production you should avoid the popular consumer and fashion headphone brands.)

Working with the virtual instruments that come with your DAW, you will want to edit notes or chords using a MIDI controller device. (MIDI stands for Musical Instrument Digital Interface, and has been the universal standard for how computers and digital musical instruments talk to each other since the early 1980s.) MIDI controllers come in different forms such as a pad controller or a keyboard, and will also allow you to manipulate the parameters to modify your sounds.

Other items on your shopping list will likely include an audio interface (an external device that you will connect to your computer via USB or thunderbolt), and a set of studio monitor speakers. You won’t need an external mixer, since the DAW software already has this.

A complete entry-level package (not including the computer or DAW software) could run you as little as $800.00, and upgrading to pro gear might run a few thousand dollars more. Compared to what a complete recording studio used to cost; this is a pittance. Once you cover the basics don’t worry too much about the equipment and just focus on the actual music production process (more on this below).

Learn Basic Music Theory

Should you learn music theory? Of course, you should! I never understood why some musicians resist learning the basic theory behind music: how to read and write, spell chords and scales, and analyze and understand rhythms, melodies, and chords. It’s actually not hard at all, and if it seems hard then you are probably using the wrong materials or have the wrong Teacher (if taking lessons).

Imagine that you lived in a foreign country where you had learned the basics of how to speak the local language, but could not read the language at all. You wouldn’t be able to read a newspaper, read signs, read a restaurant menu, leave a note for someone, or understand written instructions of any kind. At some point this would become a source of frustration, wouldn’t it?

Learning the basics of music theory absolutely doesn’t need to be tedious or difficult, or even take a long time. There are excellent tutorials on YouTube for free, lots of well-written blogs on the subject, and getting a few books or taking a few lessons with a good Teacher certainly wouldn’t hurt you in any way.

As with learning anything, you will need to apply yourself and make some small effort, but the rewards will be immeasurable and are sure to only increase your joy in music-making. Trust me on this. You will want to learn and understand music theory to the best of your ability.

Understand the Basic Elements of Songwriting

One of the best ways to learn about songwriting is to listen analytically to a lot of songs. Choose artists and songs you love, so that it will be a fun and rewarding experience. The best musicians spend a LOT of time just listening. It’s okay to have music on in the background, but analytical listening means you are paying close attention to the different sections of a song, and what is happening in each section.

For example, most songs start with some kind of an Intro and will then go to a Verse or a Chorus. Most, but not all songs will have a Bridge to provide contrast and relief to the repetition of the verse and chorus. There might also be an Instrumental Solo or a Vocal Ad-Lib section. Then at the end, if the song doesn’t Fade Out on the recording, there will be a Coda or an Ending.

Maybe you are listening to instrumental music and there is no vocal. It doesn’t matter, there will still be distinct sections (all music has this) and you should practice listening intently to identify when and how sections begin and end. Usually there is a Melody and a Chord Progression, too.
Count the bars for each section and make a graph of the song form. The more you listen, the more you will learn to notice the various elements, and your understanding of how music is put together and how songs are written will grow.

All musicians are influenced by what came before them, so we are all “standing on the shoulders of giants,” so to speak. It’s also interesting and fun to trace back the influences of the artists you admire and to learn about their influences.

As you listen and learn about the elements of songwriting and composition, allow yourself to be influenced by the greats in music. As Jazz Composer Duke Ellington purportedly said: “There are only two kinds of music, good and bad.” Listen to great music, and do it with an analytical approach, and notice how what you hear influences your own musical creations.

Set Up Your Recording Area

This brings us to the subject of room acoustics. In order to make the critical decisions in the production process, such as adjusting the frequencies, balancing the relative volume of different instruments, and adding digital effects (FX), you might need to add some thoughtful acoustical treatments to your studio space.

For starters, use the largest room you can for your home studio. Try to use the length of the room to your advantage, by positioning your listening location so that you have the long walls on the sides. Absorbent material like acoustic foam, carpets, or a couch will help to unclutter the sound. Bare walls are reflective surfaces that make it hard to hear what’s going on in the music mix.

If you use acoustic foam, don’t cover all the walls with it. Put some around the area where your speakers are. You will likely need to experiment to come up with the perfect solution. You might consider visiting some professional recording studios in your area to study what they do to enhance the room acoustics for recording, listening, and mixing.

Make sure that you pay attention to ergonomics when designing your recording space. This means that your chair should be comfortable, the desk you use and all other furnishings should contribute to making the space comfortable enough for you to spend a fair amount of time in it. You should consider the lighting and ventilation. Check that your ventilation doesn’t make a noise that could affect your hearing or perception of your recordings.

Learn Music Production Skills

I think about producing recorded music as having three distinct phases: pre-production, production, and post-production. There are important decisions to be made at each stage of the process.

The first phase, pre-production, involves choosing your material, arranging the music, deciding on your recording method and the gear you need, and anything else which could be considered a part of the planning phase. Production is the actual recording of the music, which involves laying down tracks using live or electronic instruments (voice is also considered an instrument). Most music electronically produced today uses synthesizers, loops, beats, samples, and MIDI sequences, so capturing live audio might not be the main priority here.

Choosing the sounds, sequences, loops, and beats for a song might be part of pre-production, and then recording them into your initial mix would be considered part of production. Overdubbing parts, adding effects, panning (placement in the stereo mix–usually left or right), and other manipulation of the sound parameters happens in the production phase.

Post-production involves everything from creating the final mixdown to the mastering phase, as we will cover next. When completing your final mix, you should aim for having the finished track sound as good as it possibly can, so that you are happy with it and proud to share it with others. Post-production might also include the promotion, artwork, release plans, and distribution of the recording once it is finished (more on this below).

Get Familiar with Mixing and Mastering

The finishing stage of the recording, mixing and mastering, is usually done by a specialized Mix Engineer and/or Mastering Engineer with different equipment and experience. The Engineer should be a separate person, as a fresh set of ears is needed to make the important final decisions on how the music will sound.

Mixing and mastering is like a polishing of your final mix. Overall dynamic levels are adjusted so that they are in an acceptable range to sound good on different playback devices. Adjustments might also be made to the EQ and effects. Multiple songs in an album will be matched in level (volume), and if a physical copy is being made, such as a vinyl or CD pressing, there will be a few seconds of silence added between songs.

You might also ask the Mastering Engineer to add the meta-data to your tracks. Meta-data is the digital information that makes your song searchable in a database or on the web, and is important for tracking the use of your music and for getting paid royalties when your music is used by others.

Mastering Engineers usually charge by the song, so you might want to shop around to compare the costs and services provided. Can you master your tracks yourself? Probably, yes, but it’s really a good idea to have someone new listen with an objective view towards adding the finishing touches, so that the track you already love will sparkle and shine even more.

Promote Your Music for Distribution

After your recordings are finished, you will face a whole new set of challenges on getting your music out so the world can hear it. Beyond mixing and mastering, post-production could include duplication (if there are to be physical copies), artwork, jacket design, photographs, liner notes, and promotional strategies for the release, distribution, and sales.

You will probably want to upload your music to streaming platforms like Spotify, and to design a promotional kit if you are planning to shop your music to labels or get live performing gigs. You should absolutely make sure to add the meta-data to your tracks so that the distribution and sales can be tracked, and you might also want to self-publish or seek a publishing deal with one of the major publishing companies. You could also write a marketing plan.

One of the nicest things about this part of the process will be the feedback you receive from your listeners, which will validate the quality of your work and prove its value. Everybody has their fans, and so will you! Positive reactions from listeners will inspire you to create more music.

Learning to make music and then continually improving your musical and recording skills is a worthy goal indeed. The most important thing is to just start where you are and dive headlong into the learning process. Everyone has music inside of them, and can realize the joy of getting that music put into a form where others (and yourself) can appreciate it. The sooner you start, the sooner you will see the rewards of making music.

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