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  • Writer's pictureBill Miller

How to Compose Music in 3 Easy Steps

When people think of composers, their minds may first paint a picture of some old fuddy-duddy (here's looking at you, Ludwig) sitting behind a piano, hastily scribbling notes down with a quill on yellow, aged parchment by the light of a dying candle.

I mean, we are sort of like that, but at least we have electricity and computers to help us out.

What a lot of folks don't realize is that it is fairly easy to get started composing. A lot of times you might be composing without knowing you're doing it. Anytime you're whistling a tune you made up while doing the dishes, or creating random rhythms to the sound the tires make on the highway...that's music creation!

It's even easy to write it down and perform it.

Easy...if you're willing to put in the effort, of course. What, you thought I'd be giving you a magic button?

Right now, you're probably thinking, "CLICKBAIT! CLICKBAIT!" or something along those lines. Easy but only if we work at it?

Yes, exactly.

Think of music as you would, say, basketball. You're not going to get any better at the game by setting the ball down on the ground and staring at it 8 hours a day. Now if you're freaky, you may be that one in a billion statistic for whom that strategy actually works. Seeing as you'd have a greater chance winning the lottery, I sincerely doubt you're the former, but I digress.

My point is that you take the time to learn how to play and play well. You learn the rules of the sport. You practice dribbling and shooting baskets. You increase your endurance by lifting weights and running miles.

The same thing goes for music. You may display a natural aptitude, but you'll only get better if you put in the effort.

So here are your 3 steps:

1. Learn to Read Music.

Here, you're probably thinking, "Psh, I don't need to know the notes! I can play things by ear or by memory."

Early monks used to learn things and sing them by memory, too, in the early Middle Ages, but it didn't work out too well for them. In some cases, it would take roughly 20 years to learn the entire repertoire. Considering that there was always the threat of plague and war, some of those monks didn't live long enough to learn it all (or perform it, for that matter). Over time, we got these little marks called neumes that helped indicate melodic direction but little else.

An example of a neume. Source: Wikipedia

Fortunately, a crazy monk named Guido came up with something that over time evolved into the music staff and notes we know and love today. It gave us a means to record our music for others to perform years later.

Music is a language. You may be able to get by communicating aurally/orally, but if you can't read it, you're at a huge disadvantage when it comes to writing it. While you're at it, learning theory (aka the musical equivalent of grammar) will give you the tools you need to get better at composing.

2. Learn to play an instrument or instruments you plan to write music for.

I wholly acknowledge some of my colleagues may disagree with this, or at least the part about learning an instrument for the purposes of performing it. You technically do not need to play an instrument in order to write music, but you should still study instruments nonetheless.

Take the piano for instance. If writing music for that instrument, It helps to read up on the piano’s limitations (or rather, a player’s limitations). For example, including an interval of a Perfect 12th in the right hand or a chord with five notes spanning an octave and a half would be disingenuous, as most piano players would be physically unable to do that. And if you're wondering what a Perfect 12th is, here's a great resource to get you started. If you plan on using a computer to compose, remember that there is a difference between what a human can play versus a computer. If you use notation software, keep in mind that just because it sounds cool on a computer, it doesn't mean it’s playable.

3. Pick an idea, and write!

The next bit is probably the easiest. For some, it might be the most difficult. Sit down and put your ideas to paper.

  • If you're using a computer and are short on cash, notation softwares/sites such as Noteflight or Finale Notepad are good starter programs.

  • If you're using the hard copy approach, get as much staff paper as you can get your hands on.

  • Grab a pencil.

And you're off to the races! Let your creativity loose. There are no wrong answers.

Who knows? Maybe you'll be a famous composer someday!!!

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