Composing music is a tradition practically as old as humankind itself, with instruments such as flutes carved from animal bones discovered in the archaeological record and dated back over 40,000 years. Music has always played an essential, central role in human life, accompanying great battles and historic expeditions, community events where groups came together to trade resources and ideas, even being used as a conduit to communicate with the almighty during spiritual ceremonies. Music composing methods change gradually over time, with popular styles and rules reflecting the zeitgeist of each era.
Classical music composing developed a 12-note scale of regular semitone intervals which has since become ubiquitous in popular music, at least in the western world. Instruments like the piano and guitar are tuned to this scale as standard, and it has become the common vocabulary by which some melodies and chords sound pleasing and familiar to our ears, while other combinations of notes are discordant, unsettling, and even scary. This melodic tradition is so ingrained in the culture by now that you probably know the scale intuitively even if you have no formal musical training. But as you learn how to compose music, it is worth considering the diverse range of emotional effects that can be produced by different pairs or combinations of notes played together.
One especially interesting and significant point in the history of music was the invention of polyphony. Back in the 12th Century, as Notre Dame Cathedral was being constructed in Paris, music was less widely accessible to the general public and served a quite particular function in the context of the church. The priests would chant scripture in Latin – in unison, meaning all singing the same note – and the sound reverberated around the vast stone cathedrals. Back then, hearing more than one note played or sung simultaneously would have sounded more like a mistake, clashing out of tune, than a nice chord. However, as Notre Dame was designed and built on such an epic and unprecedented scale – the ultimate tribute to God – the men found that their voices in unison no longer filled the space. They chanced upon an innovation, some chanting a second note while others sustained the first to create a chord, thereby discovering how to start composing music in polyphony. This practice was called ‘organum’. It is almost unthinkable to us now that music didn’t always have this complexity, but actually we had to learn how to appreciate the sound of polyphony; these men created something so revolutionary that it became standard.
The German composer J. S. Bach was another remarkable innovator, also writing music for an ecclesiastical setting. His methods of composing music have been imitated, recycled, and reevaluated since the 18th Century, with general musical norms being established as a result. Bach’s works are meticulously arranged, drawing on mathematical balance to create patterns of harmonic organization that set the trend for a lot of influential music composed in more recent history. He often split the orchestration into four parts, each complementing the others harmonically, emphasizing a sense of perfect balance and adhering to strict rules of music theory. It is fascinating how our familiarity with a certain musical language has developed over many centuries and generations of experimentation, repetition, and gradual conditioning; traditional western and eastern scales have emerged through history and they sound very distinct from each other.
With the 20th Century came the emergence of recording technology, which prompted a rapid acceleration in the evolution and diversification of different music genres and sounds. Classical music represents the peak of creative innovation within the technological limitations of the past: acoustic instruments, sheet music written on paper manuscripts, and one-off live performances which audiences would have to commit to memory for the rest of their lives. In contrast, recorded music allowed people to repeat a piece as many times as they liked, encouraging a deeper listening and learning experience. The modern era brought a mass-democratization of music, with more people from different classes and diverse backgrounds newly able to access and afford instruments and equipment, learn music composing for themselves, and reinvent the rules in their own way. This led to an exponential increase in the pace of music evolution, a curve which shows no sign of flattening out any time soon.
Composing Your Own Music
Let’s explore the basic building blocks of a music composition. Composing refers to the initial writing side rather than the recording and producing stages which often follow. With composition we are focused less on processing audio and more on the actual musical notes and arrangement. A composition can be vocal or instrumental, and is made up of melody and accompaniment, chord progressions, rhythm, tempo, and dynamics. If you feel you need tips for composing music, it can be really helpful to listen to songs or artists you love and try to analyze the shape of them and deconstruct the sounds. Most songs in a pop style follow a consistent verse/chorus structure, while various dance music styles also have common, repetitive formulas. Copy these examples until you get more of a feel for music composing on your own.
Chords are a major component when thinking about how to begin composing music for a new project. The two most common types of chord are major and minor; major chords sound upbeat and convey a sense of optimism, while minor chords are more serious and somber, often communicating struggle or sadness. Musicians play with combinations of these to build and resolve tension in a piece. One famous example from classical music is the ‘Picardy third’, where a sad-sounding passage in a minor key hits a major chord on the final beat. This positive resolution gives the piece closure and a feeling of completeness; after all, everyone loves a happy ending. The Picardy third can frequently be heard in the works of Bach and his contemporaries, suggesting as it does a kind of divine, religious hope that comes at the end of a piece (or, indeed, a life).
The most common chord structure in classical music is the triad, which comprises a root note plus the intervals of a third and a fifth above it. However, a lot of more recent music, especially jazz, experiments with adding notes to the basic triad that can introduce discordant tension or intrigue; a ‘seventh’ chord is a popular example of this. While perhaps the most common and traditional way of composing music is sitting at a keyboard, having to learn lots of music theory in advance, modern DAW (or Digital Audio Workstation) software usually features an automated chord engine. Using this, you can play one note, select different types of chord, and it will fill out the chord for you. This can be a great way to learn about different types of chord and try out how you might incorporate them in your music.
Another ‘key’ piece of the composing puzzle is the key signature of the piece. This means which note is the root and informs how the rest of your chords and melodic elements relate to it. Instrument parts written in the same key will blend nicely together and complement each other, while clashing keys create dissonance. A piano keyboard is a good visual reference when deciding what key you’re composing music in. The key of C-major consists of all the white keys, so if you start at C and run your hand up the white keys for a full octave, you have played a C-major scale. With time and experience you will gain a clearer understanding of the physical shapes of the different keys and scales.
A lot of music is composed in just one key, but many works also make use of modulations within a piece. A modulation is where the music pivots from one key into another. The effect is very dramatic, and musically quite sophisticated. This is another thing Bach is famous for innovating before it was widely popular. Knowing which modulations ‘work’ harmonically usually requires some background music theory knowledge, although in the modern era it is increasingly common for musicians to be self-trained, learning ‘by ear’ without formal training. On the one hand, there is a lot of theory to learn and much of it can be quite dry and technical. However, another way of looking at it is that there are endless possibilities for freedom and experimentation.
Back in the classical days, the only means of “recording” a composition so it could be reproduced was writing out the notation on paper sheet music. Now, with the aid of technology, you can learn how to compose music on the computer. There are various kinds of scoring software that speed up the process, much like how a word processor offers more editing functionality than writing out a text with a pen. You can even start composing music online with software that opens in a web browser window, or sidestep traditional notation altogether; most DAWs let you draw in MIDI notes or play live on a MIDI keyboard and the software writes out the classical notation automatically.
As time goes on, the main skill in composing music tips more and more towards the relationship between musician and technology, rather than the composer holding the entire piece in his or her head with no means of playing it back other than assembling a room full of live performers. A modern DAW is a professional recording studio and a full symphony orchestra rolled into one, plus whatever other sounds you can dream up, all run from one computer. Software sampling platforms such as Kontakt provide you with a rich world of realistic-sounding acoustic instruments, recorded in top professional studios then chopped up and prepared so you can drop them into your project and edit with ease.
Music composing for cinema and TV is a massive global industry in the modern world. It is typically characterized by that signature Hollywood sound of big, bombastic brass and strings, although genres like sci-fi make heavy use of futuristic synths and more electronic tones. Many film composers lay out first drafts of their projects using virtual instruments on the computer as placeholders, before recruiting an orchestra or session musicians to record the final mixes. Indeed, as the audio quality of sample libraries keeps improving and you can now find industry-standard composing tools in software form, it is increasingly common to hear sampled instruments in the finished versions. This is especially prevalent composing music for TV, or the rapidly growing field of video game soundtracks. Video games are quite novel because the story doesn’t follow a fixed linear path from start to finish; rather, the player dictates the pace they play at and when to do what or go where, so many hours of soundtrack must be recorded and arranged in a much looser, more flexible way.
Of course, the price of a lot of professional-grade software runs into the thousands, but many manufacturers offer basic or ‘light’ versions of their programs so you can try out the tools and get acquainted with the first steps of how to compose music for beginners without a large financial commitment. For example, Komplete Start is a production suite offering a bundle of studio-quality synths, loops, and effects for free. Many other sound libraries are available online, and you can grow your collection with Expansions – available in every different flavor – when you’ve mastered the basics and are ready to take your music composing to a new place.
Music is all about creativity and expression. Making music is like writing a story. While naturally it will be useful to pick up some music theory education – and you can find a wealth of great resources about composing music online – you can also learn how music works by simply starting, learning by doing. If you focus too much on book learning and rigid, conservative rules then it won’t be fun, engaging, or personal to you. It might help you find inspiration if you bear in mind the fact that breaking rules helps push the evolution of music forward in directions we can’t even imagine yet.