How to Compose Music: A Step By Step Guide

Published: June 27, 2024

Composing is a process; it can be learned and taught.

It requires you to think critically about a piece’s structure and arrangement and the use of different musical elements, such as melody, harmony, and rhythm.

Basics like reading music and knowing chord progressions can make a big difference in your compositions.

However, learning how to compose music requires steady practice to make progress.

Also, there are several online courses in music composition that teach theory, skills, and production software.

With the right knowledge and tools, you can turn your musical ideas into reality and share your songs with everyone.

So, whether you’re a beginner who doesn’t know where to start or an intermediate composer ready to see if you have what it takes, this post is for you.

In this post, we will walk you through a step-by-step process for composing music and discuss the essential tools you must have.

How to Compose Music?

1. Exploring Musical Genres

So, often, people ask, can I teach myself to compose music?

The answer is yes, and it starts with exploring different genres.

As an aspiring composer, you must explore your musical genre choices.

It broadens your musical vocabulary and exposes you to different structures, techniques, and emotional expressions. It enriches your creativity and helps you develop a unique compositional voice.

Being open-minded towards various styles of music allows you to:

  • Expand Your Skills: Different genres employ unique rhythms, harmonies, and instrumentations, which can enhance your technical abilities.
  • Gain New Perspectives: Each genre offers distinct cultural and historical contexts, providing fresh perspectives and ideas.
  • Avoid Creative Blocks: Exploring unfamiliar genres can inspire you when stuck in a creative rut.

Here are some of the most popular genres you can explore:

  • Classical: Known for its complex structures and rich harmonic language, classical music spans from Baroque (e.g., Bach) to contemporary (e.g., John Adams).
  • Folk: Rooted in traditional and cultural expressions, folk music often features acoustic instruments and storytelling lyrics.
  • Rock: Characterized by its strong beats, electric guitars, and vocal hooks, rock includes sub-genres like classic rock (e.g., The Beatles) and punk rock (e.g., The Ramones).
  • Jazz: Noted for its improvisation and complex chord progressions, jazz ranges from early styles (e.g., Louis Armstrong) to modern (e.g., Miles Davis).
  • Electronic: Electronic music utilizes synthesizers and digital production techniques, including styles like techno, house, and ambient.

Critical listening involves paying attention to various elements of music, such as melody, harmony, rhythm, and texture.

You should analyze how different instruments interact, how the music is structured, and how dynamics and articulation create the effect.

Most importantly, inspiration can strike at any time, so it’s important to capture ideas whenever they come.

Keep a notebook or use a digital app to jot down musical thoughts, lyrics, or melodies. Recording snippets of music using your phone or a portable recorder can also be valuable.

2. Developing Musical Proficiency

So, when you want to know how to start composing music, you must know how to play an instrument.

Playing an instrument helps you internalize musical elements like melody, harmony, and rhythm, which are essential for composing.

Here’s how proficiency in an instrument enhances the composition process:

  • It allows you to write and convey ideas more effectively
  • It encourages you to improve, leading to new and original musical ideas
  • Being able to play what you compose provides real-time feedback
  • It improves your communication as a musician

It’s a common misconception that you must be highly skilled in an instrument to start composing.

However, you just need to have:

  • Basic proficiency
  • Focus on creativity and expression
  • Dedicated time to practice regularly

Moreover, to develop proficiency, you must collaborate with experienced musicians to learn insights, techniques, approaches, and styles to expand your knowledge.

It is important to know that musical proficiency is a continuous journey. Therefore, you must be open to learning new instruments, techniques, and musical styles.

3. Understanding Music Theory

Music theory is the framework that provides a set of tools and principles that help songwriters understand how music works, allowing them to create coherent and compelling pieces.

While creativity and intuition are essential, to learn to compose music, you must provide a structured approach to problem-solving and idea development by learning music theory.

Also, you must familiarize yourself with concepts such as notation reading and chord theory.

Notation reading is the written language of music. It uses symbols to represent pitches, rhythms, and dynamics. Chord theory involves understanding how chords are constructed and how they function within a piece of music.

Here are some of the most famous examples of chord progressions:

  • I-IV-V-I: One of the most common progressions in Western music, found in countless pop, rock, and classical pieces.
  • Ii-V-I: A staple in jazz music, this progression creates a smooth and satisfying resolution.
  • I-V-vi-IV: Widely used in pop music, this progression is known for its emotional and uplifting feel (e.g., “Let It Be” by The Beatles).
  • Vi-IV-I-V: Another popular progression in pop and rock music, known for its versatility and appeal (e.g., “With or Without You” by U2).

Music theory helps you translate ideas into compositions. Here’s why it is important:

  • It provides the vocabulary and tools to express your ideas clearly.
  • Music theory offers solutions and alternatives when faced with a creative block or technical challenge.
  • It allows you to experiment with unconventional ideas while maintaining coherence.
  • It facilitates communication with other musicians, ensuring your ideas are accurately interpreted and performed.

Therefore, understanding the principles of notation, chords, melody, harmony, and rhythm empowers you to craft songs with technical proficiency and emotional resonance.

4. Setting the Tone and Theme

Choosing a theme serves as the song’s core message or idea, guiding the lyrics, melody, harmony, and structure.

It provides direction and focus, ensuring that all song elements serve a unified purpose. A well-chosen theme makes your song relatable and memorable, helping it resonate with listeners.

A love theme might inspire sweet, flowing melodies and warm, major harmonies, while a theme of loss might result in melancholy, minor chords, and melancholic melodies.

Upbeat themes like celebration or triumph often feature faster and more lively rhythms, whereas introspective or sad themes might use slower tempos and more subdued rhythms.

The choice of instruments can also reflect the theme. For example, an intimate acoustic guitar can convey personal storytelling, while a full orchestra can enhance a dramatic or epic theme.

Consider these composition music tips to know how your audience will perceive and connect with the theme:

  • Relatability: Choose themes that are universally relatable or that resonate with specific emotions and experiences of your target audience.
  • Emotional Journey: Consider the emotional journey you want to take your listeners and evoke a genuine emotional response.
  • Cultural Context: Be mindful of cultural references and contexts that affect how your theme is perceived. Themes can have different connotations in different cultures.

For example, the song, Summer of 69 by Bryan Adams evokes memories, longing for the past, and bittersweet feelings. Meanwhile, the song Eye of the Tiger by Survivor brings feelings of victory, empowerment, and exhilaration.

Most importantly, clarity in conveying the intended mood is essential for songwriters.

Use consistent imagery and metaphors in your lyrics, and ensure all musical elements (melody, harmony, rhythm, instrumentation) support the intended mood and help listeners connect deeply.

5. Structuring the Composition

Song structure refers to organizing different sections within a piece of music.

It defines how a song is built, outlining the sequence and repetition of verses, choruses, bridges, and other parts. Understanding song structure is essential, providing a roadmap for your composition.

Recognizable patterns create a sense of anticipation and satisfaction, making the song more memorable. These patterns balance predictability and surprise, which are key to keeping listeners engaged.

Here are some familiar song structures used in popular music:

  1. Verse-Chorus Form (ABAB): For example, Rolling in the Deep by Adele tells the story, and the chorus delivers the main message or hook
  2. Verse-Chorus-Bridge Form (ABABCB): For example, Shape of You by Ed Sheeran bridges the verse and chorus, leading to a final, climactic chorus.
  3. AABA Form (32-Bar Form): For example, Judy Garland’s Somewhere Over the Rainbow uses jazz and traditional pop; the B section (bridge) offers a contrast before returning to the familiar A section.
  4. Through-Composed (ABCDEF): For example, Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody offers a more narrative and experimental approach in each section.

While traditional structures provide a reliable foundation, experimentation is essential for innovation. Add variations, like inserting an extra chorus or a pre-chorus.

You can also combine elements of different structures and introduce tempo shifts to keep the listener engaged.

Moreover, you must balance creativity and structure with a clear framework that helps organize musical ideas, infuse personal expression, and create patterns to create something familiar and fresh.

6. Crafting the Melody

The melody is the most recognizable and memorable part of a song, serving as its central thread.

So, as you continue to understand how to learn music composition, you must start crafting the melody.

Here are the three techniques you can opt for to create memorable melodies:

Motif Development

It is a short, recurring musical idea that can be developed and varied throughout the piece. The motif is reinforced through repetition, slight variation, inversion of the motif upside down, and playing the motif backward.

Stepwise Motion and Leaps

Melodies that move in small, adjacent steps are easier to sing and remember. Strategically placed leaps can add excitement and surprise.

Phrasing and Structure

Create phrases of similar lengths to provide structure. Use a question-and-answer format to create interaction within the melody.

Here’s a 5 step melody-crafting process that you can follow:

  1. Start with a Motif
  2. Develop the Motif
  3. Choose a Chord Progression
  4. Refine your Singing
  5. Test and Improve

While working chord progressions, you must ensure melody notes fit well, create contrast, and maintain interest.

Keep the melody simple and avoid overly complex lines. These melodies are often the most memorable. Also, ensure the melody is easy to sing. Lastly, repetition should be used wisely to make the melody stick in the listener’s mind.

A well-crafted melody can evoke strong emotional responses, drawing the listener in. The melody often contains the hook and can convey the emotional arc of the song, guiding the listener through the story or message.

7. Adding Layers to the Composition

Once you have a melody, the next step is to build chord progressions that complement and enhance it. Here’s how to approach this process:

  • Determine the key of your melody
  • Choose chord notes that align with your melody
  • Start with chord progressions like I-IV-V-I or ii-V-I 
  • Try different chord substitutions or inversions

Adding rhythm, bass lines, and other instrumental parts is essential for creating a full, dynamic composition.

Rhythm provides the underlying pulse of the music. Choose a rhythm that complements the melody and enhances the song’s feel. Establish a groove that fits the style of your song, whether it’s a steady beat for rock or a syncopated rhythm for jazz.

The bass line supports the harmony by emphasizing the root notes of the chords. Create a bass line that complements and interacts with the melody, adding depth and movement.

Also, introduce different instruments to add texture and color to your composition. Use additional instruments to create counterpoint (independent melodic lines).

Here’s how you can incorporate harmonies for depth and variety in your composition:

  • Layer voices to create rich, multi-dimensional vocal lines.
  • Experiment with thirds, fifths, and other intervals.
  • Use instruments to double the melody or create harmonizing lines.
  • Introduce harmonies gradually or use them selectively to highlight specific sections.

Most importantly, maintaining balance and cohesion allows you to adjust the volume levels, distribute frequency range, maintain theme consistency, and create smooth transitions between sections.

Seek feedback from fellow musicians and be open to their ideas and suggestions.

8. Documenting the Composition

Documenting your compositions through scores or charts keeps your ideas preserved, facilitates communication, rehearse, and finds areas for improvement.

Do you know the difference between musical scores and charts?

Here’s the difference based on definition, detail level, and uses.

DefinitionDetail LevelUse
Musical ScoresA musical score is a detailed, formal written representation of a composition, including all parts for all instruments and voices.Contains comprehensive information, including individual notes, rhythms, dynamics, articulations, and sometimes lyrics.Commonly used in classical music, orchestral works, and complex arrangements where precise notation is crucial.
ChartsA chart is a simplified version of a score, often used in popular, jazz, and contemporary music.It includes essential information such as chord symbols, primary rhythms, and song structure but needs the detailed notation of a total score.It is ideal for genres where improvisation is joint, and musicians need flexibility rather than detailed instructions.

Here is the guidance on creating and updating charts throughout the composition process:

Initial Draft

Outline the song’s structure (e.g., intro, verse, chorus, bridge). Notate the main chord progressions and melodies.

Refinement

Add rhythmic notation for more clarity, especially for complex sections. Continuously update the chart as the composition evolves.

Finalization

Ensure all necessary details are included so musicians can understand and perform the piece. Make a clear, legible, organized chart with marked sections and transitions.

Moreover, it adds clarity with detailed documentation, reducing errors. Charts and scores streamline the rehearsal process and provide a consistent reference.

Also, you must use precise, legible notation with standard musical symbols and section labels and avoid page turns during complex sections.

9. Bringing the Composition to Life

Real musicians bring emotional depth, nuances, and expressiveness to a composition that digital playback often needs to improve. Also, interpret and add their personal touch to the music.

While digital playback tools (like MIDI or DAWs) help compose and arrange, they have significant limitations:

  • Digital instruments often need more subtle nuances of timing, dynamics, and articulation that human players bring.
  • Digital sounds can’t fully replicate the emotional expressiveness of live musicians.
  • The energy and interaction among live musicians create a dynamic performance that digital playback cannot achieve.

You must arrange a suitable recording environment with good acoustics and quality equipment. To capture the best performance, plan for multiple takes. Also, feedback can be used to make real-time adjustments to the composition.

Also, you must not underestimate the power of live performance, as it helps you with:

  • Audience interaction and reaction
  • Dynamic interpretation of your music
  • Unrepeatable moments add spontaneity 

Real musicians can help you further refine your work based on live feedback and realize the potential of your composition.

10. Continuing the Creative Journey

The journey continues as you learn how to compose music.

Keep collaborating with experienced mentors to gain valuable insights and guidance, drawing from their experience and expertise.

Fellow composers and musicians can offer diverse perspectives and constructive criticism.

However, it is essential to approach feedback with an open mind and see it as an opportunity to learn.

Here are some key strategies for refining composition based on feedback:

  • Carefully consider the feedback you receive
  • Decide which changes are most important and address them first
  • Experiment with suggested changes and iterate on your composition
  • Maintain your artistic vision while incorporating feedback

Expanding your reach involves actively seeking opportunities via:

  • Live performances
  • Competitions and festivals
  • Online platforms
  • Publish online
  • Collaborate with other artists, bands, and ensembles

Understand that setbacks and rejections are part of the creative journey. Use them as learning experiences to grow and improve. Set specific, achievable goals for your musical development and work steadily towards them.

Acknowledge and celebrate your achievements and milestones, no matter how small. This helps maintain motivation and a positive outlook.

Essential Tools for Music Composition

Learning essential tools for composing music is important for turning your musical ideas into polished works.

These tools, including instruments, notation software, and DAWs, enhance your creativity, improve efficiency, and help you produce professional-quality music.

Instruments

Instruments are the primary tool for composing music. It allows you to explore melodies, harmonies, and rhythms firsthand.

Popular choices like the piano and guitar are favored for their versatility and ability to play chords and melodies, making them excellent tools for songwriters.

The piano’s wide range and harmonic capabilities enable complex compositions, while the guitar’s portability and different playing techniques offer unique creative opportunities.

Experimenting with various instruments can spark fresh ideas and new musical perspectives. Each instrument brings its distinct sound and style, enriching your compositions.

For example, wind instruments can introduce unique timbres, while percussion instruments can add rhythmic complexity.

Moreover, the voice is a highly versatile instrument. It can help you develop melodies and ensure it resonates well with singers and audiences.

Recording Device

Properly capturing musical ideas is essential to preventing the loss of spontaneous moments of inspiration. Recording devices like smartphones, tablets, and laptops are invaluable tools.

Smartphones and tablets are especially handy due to their portability and built-in recording apps. These allow you to quickly capture melodies, lyrics, or rhythms on the go.

Laptops offer more advanced recording capabilities, which are suitable for developing more detailed compositions.

Physical notebooks also play a great role in jotting down ideas, sketches, and lyrics, providing a tangible way to document creative thoughts.

Benefits of accessibility and organization of recorded ideas include:

  • Easy retrieval of ideas
  • Efficient workflow management
  • Avoidance of idea loss
  • Streamlined creative process
  • Enhanced collaboration
  • Consistent idea development
  • Quick reference for inspiration
  • Time-saving organization
  • Better tracking of progress
  • Improved productivity

Moreover, you can also opt for digital note-taking and organization software like Evernote and OneNote. These platforms allow you to store audio recordings, written notes and even scanned handwritten notes in one place.

Notation Software

The transition from handwritten notation to digital format has revolutionized how composers create and share music.

But do you know how to compose your own music using notation software?

It allows quicker modifications, the ability to share compositions instantly, and the convenience of storing numerous pieces without physical limitations.

Using notation software offers the following benefits for composers:

  • Achieve accuracy and clarity
  • Ease of editing
  • Playback functionality in real-time
  • Suitable for publication
  • Time-saving features like templates and layout

The most popular software options available include:

  • Finale: Known for its robust features and flexibility, Finale is a favorite among professional composers for creating complex scores.
  • Sibelius: With an intuitive interface and powerful capabilities, Sibelius is widely used in educational and professional settings.
  • MuseScore: An open-source and highly versatile option, MuseScore provides extensive features comparable to paid software.

Digital Audio Workstation (DAW)

Digital Audio Workstation (DAW) software is central to modern music production. It offers an all-in-one solution for recording, editing, mixing, and mastering audio.

So, how do I compose my own music using DAW?

It helps you manipulate audio tracks, apply effects, and arrange their compositions digitally. This software transforms raw musical ideas into polished and professional recordings.

Here are the following aspects that DAW allows you to perform:

  • Recording: DAWs enable recording multiple audio and MIDI tracks from instruments and vocals directly into the software.
  • Mixing: This process involves balancing the levels of different tracks and applying effects like reverb and EQ.
  • Mastering: It involves enhancing the sound quality of the mixed track, ensuring it sounds polished and professional across various playback systems.

Here are the two best user-friendly DAW options for Mac users:

  • Logic Pro: A powerful and comprehensive DAW, Logic Pro offers a user-friendly interface, a vast library of sounds and loops, and advanced features suitable for beginners and professionals.
  • GarageBand: Ideal for beginners, GarageBand provides an intuitive interface and a range of basic recording and editing tools, making it easy to start creating music quickly.

Here are the most popular software for PC users:

  • Pro Tools: Renowned for its industry-standard capabilities, Pro Tools is widely used in professional studios for its high-quality recording, editing, and mixing features.
  • FL Studio: Known for its ease of use and flexibility, FL Studio offers a wide range of tools for creating electronic music, including powerful sequencing, sampling, and mixing capabilities.

Composers and producers must choose the tools to enhance their music production workflow and DAW software’s functionalities.

Frequently Asked Questions

Is composing music hard?

Composing music can be challenging as it requires creativity, knowledge of music theory, and technical skills. However, practice, dedication, and the right tools become more manageable and rewarding. The difficulty varies based on experience, but the process is highly fulfilling for those passionate about music.

Conclusion

Composing music is a multifaceted journey that blends creativity, technical knowledge, and continuous learning.

Developing proficiency with an instrument enriches your understanding of music and enhances your ability to translate ideas into reality.

Understanding how to compose music and learning theory provides a strong foundation for crafting melodies, harmonies, and rhythms, making your compositions more structured and expressive.

Setting the tone and theme of your composition ensures that your music communicates the intended emotions and resonates with your audience.

Structuring your composition within familiar formats helps maintain listener engagement while allowing room for creative experimentation.

Crafting memorable melodies and adding layers of instrumentation bring depth and variety to your music, making it more captivating.

Documenting your compositions through scores or charts ensures that your musical ideas are preserved and easily communicated to other musicians.

Bringing your compositions to life through collaboration with real musicians adds a unique energy that digital playback cannot replicate.

Continuously seeking feedback and refining your work based on constructive criticism helps you grow as a composer and improve your craft.

The path to becoming a skilled composer is ongoing, but with dedication and passion, you can create music that inspires and connects with others.

Keep exploring, experimenting, and evolving—your unique voice as a composer will shine through your music.