How to Compose Music

Getting Started with the Art of Composing

So you want to become a composer? The rabbit hole goes very deep and there are many things that you need to know, not just to get music down on paper, but to have that music actually move people in any meaningful way. Whether you are a classical composer, looking to learn about sonata form, or you are a singer songwriter, I think you will find plenty here to move you along your journey.

Who Am I?

I won’t go into too much detail on this page about me. If you are interested in my story, you can check out my about me page. I love to compose music, and I love to teach people about composing. But over the years I haven’t had much of an opportunity to get lessons. This, while on the surface could seem to be a problem, has actually taught me much about teaching myself to compose.

Music Composition in a Nutshell

Composing music is a both a skill that can be learned and a talent that can be cultivated. To improve, you have to focus on improving. The process of improving happens through specific directed exercises that incrementally advance your understanding of all aspects of the technical side of music.

Understanding the mechanics of composing will not make you sound mechanical.

Start With Basics

  • The Fundamentals of Music - Why you should focus on learning, or re-learning the basics? In this article I talk about the basics of not just composing, but being a musically minded person. Having the skills to look at and understand written music, or to play back by ear something you’ve heard, or even just listening to music is very important, and should be cultivated by anyone wanting to learn the fine art of music composition.
  • The Stages of Learning to Compose Music - Where are you on the path to becoming a composing master? Not all people are at the same place in their efforts of learning music composition. It is very important to take a step back and evaluate where you are in the spectrum of knowledge. Why? Well for one, it will give you focus in what you are learning, but almost more importantly, it will allow you to accept what you compose, based on your actual knowledge of the craft of composition. You can’t be too hard on yourself if you want to write like Mahler, but you’ve only been composing for a month.

Start Composing Now

This series of articles was written for the beginner composer in mind. Where do you begin to learn music composition? What kinds of stuff do you need to have? Do you need a computer, a piano, or a pad of sheet music?

  • How to Compose Music, Part 1 - The Composing Mindset. Music composition first starts in the mind, and having a clear mind and an acceptance of who you are is key to clearing your conscience for creativity.
  • How to Compose Music, Part 2 – The Home Composing Studio Setup. Once you’ve got the right mindset, it is important to create a space for yourself to get away and compose. You may also be interested in this article about having a composing sanctuary.
  • How to Compose Music, Part 3 – Melody or Harmony First? The age old question of the chicken or the egg, just rehashed. The answer may not be what you think.
  • How to Compose Music, Part 4 – Start Composing Now! Now that you’ve read all about music composition, it’s time to start. With all this talk about theory, and fundamentals, the most important thing you can do to become a better composer is… actually compose something.
  • How to Compose Music, Part 5 – Simple Musical Form for Composing. Are you looking for some direction in your compositions? The place to start is musical form.
  • How to Compose Music, Part 6 – Simple Functional Harmony. Tired of C, F, and G chords? So am I. Learn how to harness harmony. After this, you’ll want to get into more detail with Unlocking the Secret to Diatonic Harmony.

Free Composing Software

There are many ways to compose. I am personally a big fan of getting away from the computer to do your initial creative work, coming up with melodies, key harmonies, themes and so on at the piano with nothing other than a pencil and staff paper. But computers offer a great tool for realizing your music beyond the initial stages. One of the keys to this is the computer can play your music back, without error and without having to practice. While this can be a problem, tricking you into writing music that isn’t actually playable (assuming that is what you are going for), it can also mean that you are able to hear your creations in ways that composers of the past would be drooling over.

The best part is, you don’t have to spend a ton of money. In fact, you don’t have to spend any money at all. There is a great notation software program called musescore, and it is available for mac or pc for free. The sound is usually not the greatest, but you can also look for SF2 sound files on the internet and load them into the program.

Musescore

A great place to learn about using musescore is http://www.musescoretips.com/

Sign up for the Free Beginner’s Composing Course Below

Finally, I have put together a free music composition course, that covers the basics of what I’ve talked about in the previous articles, but it also takes you step by step composing your first classical piano piece. This is a great little course and I highly recommend that you sign up. When you do, you’ll also get occasional emails from me about things that are going on at artofcomposing.com. It is still relatively early in the stages of this website, and I plan on many more things in the future. One of which I am really excited about is a full membership site, that covers in great detail the aspects of composing full sonatas and symphonies. If you want to be notified of the membership site when it is coming, then sign up for the free course.

Sign Up for the Free Beginner's Composing Course

  • 8 videos covering the topics of melody, harmony, form, and actually composing your piece.
  • Worksheets for each lesson.
  • Step by step from your first note to your last.

Comments

  1. Kathleen Bryant says

    Hello. So I was wondering if you could put something out like, step by step for composing something. I mean like if you want to compose then do this and this and then this. Thank you!

    • says

      Kathleen, funny enough, I already have two things similar to that. I highly recommend signing up for my free beginners composing course. The sign up form is just above the comment section on this page, and at the bottom of each article on the site.

      After you go through that, if you want to compose a longer piece in sonata form, I have an ebook called, “Composing Music in Sonata Form” which takes you through step by step from basic idea to completed piece. You can find a link to that book in the menu bar under “Sonata Form Book” or just go to http://www.sonataform.net.

      Hope this helps.

  2. James Harris says

    I just wanted to “Thank you” , and “Thank you again” for your hard work, time, and effort . I’ve have been struggle for years as a beginning piano player, and trying to figure out what works, what doesn’t work, and what sounds good. I know ultimately that decision lies with me, but this SO helpful and I am extremely grateful.

  3. Roland says

    Hello,
    I have an extensive background in music. Sometimes, i get “stuck”- where do i go next? Do you address this?
    Thanks

    • says

      Hey Roland. Sorry about the delay in getting back to you. I’ve been working construction on an island the last few weeks and have not had a lot of time. Getting stuck is a problem we all face. These are the best ways I’ve found around it.

      1. Understanding exactly where you are form-wise in your piece. This doesn’t necessarily have to be any type of classical form, but all pieces have some kind of form or shape. Step back, and look at what you want the music to do overall in the point your stuck. Do you want it to increase intensity? Maintain intensity? Does it need to repeat? Develop the original ideas? Add new ideas? Close out old ideas? These are all different formal functions and just learning those gets you a long way.
      2. Try taking your original ideas, break them down as small as possible and then modify them separate from the rest of the composition. This allows you to basically chop up and destroy small chunks and not have the internal pressure of having to “develop” your piece. Your just playing with an idea. This normally generates new ideas. Try changing the rhythm, or the harmony or flip things around or over.
      3. Go on a run or exercise. This is the #1 thing. This always rejuvenates me, and I recommend it for everyone. If you can’t exercise for some reason, meditate. Just clear your mind. Listen to some good classical music.

      Hope this helps.

    • says

      Just below the main article on this page, there is a red sign up box. Just enter your information, and you’ll receive and email for the course. As of right now, there are only 7 videos, but I am working on an updated series soon.

    • says

      Just below the main article on this page, there is a red box with a sign up form. Put in your email, and then click the sign up button. After that, you will receive an email asking to confirm your registration. After that one, you’ll receive your email with the link to the course hub page.

    • says

      Click on this link which promotes the app, and which includes an “independent” (?) review. I, personally, am not impressed by the description of this program which actually boasts that “It does the dirty work (of composing) for you”. To me, that’s like saying, if you want to bark, then get a dog {:-D

      Musescore looks much more to my taste.

  4. says

    Hi Jon,

    I’ve just finished studying your lesson one in “Composition 101″ I had long in mind,composing a piece based on the acronym FACE, which of course, is meant to help one remember where the notes are in the treble clef.I tried out various combinations, and the one that pleased me most was the melody C-A-F-E.

    I had every intention of carrying out your advice to write a second bar, inverting the opening 4-note theme; that theme,however, although I liked it as far as it went, sounded incomplete to me, so I addled a couple of twiddly -bits, namely two A sharps in succession. . I then started the inversion motif, but found, to make it sound right to my ear, I had to depart from the original theme, “returning” as it were with Bflat-A-Aflat-A-F-C . I like what i have so far, and, already, I can hear in my head, somewhat of a natural progression, which I will follow up apart from the 101 course, which I look forward to continuing

    I doubt that you will be much miffed by my departing from my ‘homework assignment’, indeed, I hope that you will feel gratified at providing the base for launching an opus that I I am excited at creating, using your methods of inversion; retrograde; and inverted retrograde.

    All sorts of ideas spring from your writings, Sir,and I look forward to sharing musical ideas and experiences with fellow composers, when your website is ready, meanwhile, perhaps I can join in the discussions within your blog, if you will kindly direct me to it?

    Best wishes,

    George Garrett.

  5. TSmith says

    So, I’ve started a song on my electric piano but I don’t know where to go from there; it’s a minor and dramatic one person duet kinda thing. I can play long intricate tunes when someone else has written it down but I can’t seem to make my own. So I pretty much just have an intro to a song that could very well never get finished. How do you turn something into a complete piece of music?
    I’m using the chords g with g# and a#, and c with d# and e with a recorded tune.
    ALL MINOR

    • says

      I recommend going though the free beginner’s course, and following a specific form, like small ternary form. It will allow you to develop the piece in a logical way. Once you get good at following the form, the process of developing a piece will become ingrained in you and you can start to create your own forms.

  6. cesar santana says

    Hey, im spanish. Does your program help people in ALL genres? (Like salsa or merengue etc). Im extremely intrested.

    • says

      Cesar, the course is based in the fundamentals of music composition, so it will apply. The specifics are geared towards classical composition, but understanding how the phrasing, harmonic movement, and form of larger classical pieces work will spill over to other styles. None the less, I recommend signing up for the free course and checking it out.

  7. Jesse says

    Hey! Your music is awesome! What program do you use to write/record/produce your music personally? I would it if you would give me your email I also have other questions regarding how you write your music. I love composing as well but am having a hard time starting out as I don’t know anyone who composes, let me know any tips you have in regards to a beginner :) Thanks

    • says

      My process is usually like this. I get my initial ideas by composing on paper with a pencil, usually at the piano, although I am trying more and more to compose away from instruments.

      Depending on what I plan on doing with the idea I will then move to either Sibelius (when I plan on having sheet music and trying to get it played by real people) or Digital Performer (when I am going to create an elaborate mockup on my own).

      I recommend you go through my beginner’s course, and read through my articles. They will probably answer a lot of questions (and hopefully raise new ones). You can email me through the contact form.

  8. Max says

    What about if I would like to learn something more towards jazz (but not in its pure form, which I don’t like) to then incorporate this knowledge to writing full tracks of a more contemporary nature. Would you give me an advice?

    • says

      Learning the fundamentals of music composition will apply to any style you want. Straight ahead jazz tends to work within the guidelines of traditional tonal music, with some obvious freedoms taken. Modern modal jazz is a little different, but improving your process of composing will carry over no matter what genre you write in.

      • Max says

        Hey, thanks for you answer. Do you think I could start from your sonata book? I’m not sure how advanced it is. I don’t enjoy classical music too much but I sooo don’t understand the logic behind planning a composition and building on top of an idea (motive?), but it seems this book could help, possibly.

        I’ve learned scales and modes, I can play through some of them (just up and down). I know how to build most not very complex chords; although, can’t really improvise with them, that’d be just too quick for me to be able to orient myself. So I know just the basics. Also, reading notes is quite a slow process for me.

        What do you think? I’m not very interested in super complex stuff, which music conservatory books will offer and it seems like nowadays you can get away without it anyways, unless you’re a very traditional musician.

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