How to Compose Music: The Fundamentals

Nothing affects the human soul like music.

Whether it’s a simple four-chord ballad, an otherworldly hymn to the human spirit, or an unhinged jazz fusion firestorm, music spans the breadth of the human experience [1].

When you start to play an instrument, it’s easy to look at the masterpieces that have been composed and get intimidated. You might say, “I’ll never be able to write anything that powerful so why bother?”

But everyone starts somewhere. Years before he wrote “The Magic Flute,” Mozart wrote a little tune called “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star.”

It doesn’t matter if you’ve just started plinking around on guitar or if you’re a virtuoso violinist who’s never written their own piece. If you’re wondering how to compose music, you can start with these fundamental steps. You can also try first to learn to read music.

Ready to start? Read on!

Know Your Theory

Every musician needs a basic knowledge of music theory [2]. Even master players who can’t read traditional notation (like Jimi Hendrix) have an innate understanding of music theory, whether they realize it or not.

Simply put, music theory is how we talk about music. It’s the study of scales, time signatures, rhythms, and forms.

That might sound a bit boring, but a foundational knowledge of music theory can help you understand why certain melodies and rhythms are effective while others are boring or just plain bad.

You don’t need to have your scales memorized to make a melody that moves you. But having a knowledge of what notes are in the key can take out a lot of the guesswork.

Before you even worry about how to compose your first song, pause to brush up on your music theory.

Lay a Foundation

Every song, regardless of style, length, or time period, is built on one thing: the beat.

Whether it’s a deep funk groove or a shapeless ambient soundscape, every song can be stripped down to a basic beat.

The term “beat” is used a lot of different ways in music, but for our purposes, the beat has two elements:

  • Tempo: how fast or slow the beat is
  • Rhythm: how the beat is divided and emphasized

When you sit down at your instrument and wonder how to compose music, set a metronome (you can tap your foot if you’d prefer). As it’s clicking, feel the tempo.

From there, build a rhythm for the song.

When you’re first starting to experiment with how to compose music, don’t be afraid to use some simple forms. After all, most of the world’s most famous songs use the same 4/4 rhythm.

If you have a keyboard with built-in rhythm settings, select one of those to get started.

You can also think of choosing a beat as choosing a style. From swing to black metal, every style has a few go-to beats that just about every song in that style is built on.

It’s helpful to think of the beat as a force that exists outside of you. After you set your beat, everything else you do is a slave to it.

Give it Harmonic Structure

After you’ve got your beat going, it’s time to build up from there. You wouldn’t write a melody based off of a drum kit alone. You have to put some harmonic structure in place.

Harmonic structure might seem like a really technical phrase, but it’s just a fancy way to talk about the notes that are being used to support the melody.

In most styles of music, we call it the chord progression. The chord progression is where a lot of songwriters get stuck when they first try to figure out how to compose music.

Many songwriters obsess over writing a creative chord progression that no one has ever used before. But remember: there are only twelve notes in the world, and most songs only use seven [3]. You’re going to repeat some notes.

After all, hundreds of great songs share a chord progression. Instead of trying to create the next great chord progression, maybe choose a common progression and work from there.

Don’t be Afraid to Noodle

Once you have a harmonic structure to work with, it’s time to build a melody.

A great melody isn’t something that you can build in one go. Dolly Parton’s “And I Will Always Love You” wasn’t written in a day.

Play your chord progression and improvise a little bit. Run along the scale a bit. Jump between some intervals. Have fun with it. (A quick note: a simple looper makes this much easier).

As you improvise, you’ll stumble across some melodies that work, and figure out what doesn’t.

If you have a small recorder–like most smartphones–record your noodle sessions and listen afterward to see what works.

Build a Motif

Every song has what is called a motif. A motif is a short phrase that repeats a few times throughout the piece. In pop songwriting, it’s the chorus. In jazz, it’s the head. In classical music, it’s the coda.

A motif helps give your song consistency. Even after a long freeform jam, returning to the motif makes the song cohesive.

Give it a Form

When most beginners start working on how to compose music, they stop once they get a good melody in place.

But every piece of music needs a form. The form is the order in which the sections of the song are sequenced.

The form is what gives the rest of the song its power. A motif is just nice you play it every other bar. But if you take a long break from it and return at the very end, it can send chills up the listener’s spine.

The most common form is a typical Verse-Chorus-Bridge format, but there are a number of forms to experiment with. Experiment with different forms until you find one that suits your piece the best.

Embellish

After the form is set, it’s time to add some embellishments. Add some extra flair.

Write some harmonies for the main motif. Add a key change to the last chorus. Add in a wicked guitar solo.

Embellishments like this can take a composition from good to great.

Still Wondering How To Compose Music?

Composing music is one of the most rewarding artforms in the world. But it can be hard to start.

If you’ve been staring at a blank grand staff for hours wondering where to start, the best thing to do is to just start.

Don’t worry if it’s not perfect right away. Composing is a skill. Just like any other skill, it takes practice.

So don’t sit helplessly at the piano any longer. Use these tips, and compose your first masterpiece!

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