In many respects, there are no hard and fast rules that dictate how you compose music. You certainly do not need to have formally studied music in order to write pieces. In particular, in the world that we live in, music takes many, many different and wonderful forms from John Cage to Stormzy to music from the indigenous people of New Zealand. All of these diverse forms of music do have some common elements and in my opinion, it is the understanding and application of these elements that is what is needed in order to compose music.
How To Compose Music
Let’s look into this in more detail. Music, regardless of its origins, can be analyzed into several common elements. These include but are not limited to, rhythm, melody, harmony, texture, and structure. In its simplest form, these elements, when put together, create a composition. Not all of these elements are necessary for every composition and there are other aspects of composition that could be included too. For the purposes of this article, I will limit the selection to the one above.
It might seem hard to believe but think for a moment about gamelan music from Bali. This music is highly percussive and driven by layered, repeating rhythmic patterns we often refer to as ostinati. There is a clear structure to the music, melody and the blending of textures that create a compelling sound. Choose any piece of contemporary popular music and you will also find it has a structure, often verse-chorus, harmony, melody and perhaps most importantly, rhythm.
Music from the Western Classical Tradition such as Haydn, Beethoven, Elgar, Stravinsky will have each of the elements I describe. These are presented in a wide variety of ways and this skillful use of each of these elements forms the basis for a study of composition.
One essential aspect of learning to compose is to listen to the work of other composers. This does not mean you need to make a study of the Renaissance Masters even though there are merits to doing this, but to listen and analyze the music you are interested in. This will help you break down how the music is composed. Perhaps on first listening, try to pick out any rhythmic patterns that may be being used. Try to clap or tap them to yourself, then with the track to see whether you have them correct. Next, listen for the melody. Can you identify where the melody goes up down and whether it mostly moves by small steps or bigger jumps? Often it is a combination of both.
The structure can be one of the more tricky ones which are why if you have been able to hear the rhythms and melodies you may be able to hear the structure of the piece. Certainly, if you are working on the symphonies of the romantic composers because that is what interests you, then having a score will help hugely in enabling you to identify melodic themes and overall structure.
Beginning with a more modest piece, say a Schubert Lieder, may yield easier results and will pave the way for a deeper understanding of more complex structures like fugue or sonata form. Alternatively, look at the 32 bar jazz standards. This will easily show you how an ABA form works and is usually quite easy to hear as well as read.
The was a piece is structured is also dependent on chordal patterns. This is certainly true for tonal music that tends towards a dominance of the first and fifth chord of any given key as these are commonly agreed to be the chords that are the strongest in any key.
For instance, in the key of C major, the chords of C and G are the most ‘important’. Tonal harmony is not as simple as that, but if you have this as a starting point it helps see and hear the more complex picture later.
The actual method of beginning a composition can be a challenge in its own right. If you are experimenting and at the early stages of learning to compose, keep your options modest and a little restricted to start with. You could perhaps, consider just working on writing some ‘riffs’ using a ‘pentatonic scale’. By ‘riffs’ I mean short melodic ideas of maybe up to eight notes only. The pentatonic scale is most commonly made up of the 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 5th and 6th notes of a major scale and is the basis for a surprising number of famous tunes including ‘I Got Rhythm’ by George Gershwin. This shows that it is not something that trivializes composition and can be used to tremendous effect.
Working with a keyboard can be very helpful when trying out your pentatonic ideas as you have the opportunity to hear what you are doing rather than guess. You may also, if the keyboard has the function, have a rhythm track running in the background to generate a certain ‘feel’ that could inform or influence your riffs. If you have access to a computer with a sequencing program like Garageband, Logic, Reason or Cubase, then you can either play of click in your riff ideas into the software and it will play it back to you. This has the advantage of not needing to notate the music you are composing and the immediate possibility of layering your riffs to form a piece of music.
A note of caution, if you are using software make sure that if you are writing for ‘live’ musicians, that it is playable by them as software can do many things that humans cannot. For some pieces, this is very useful but can lead to poorly realized compositions.
Building your compositions on the work of other composers or songwriters can be a useful way to start too. ‘Borrow’ some chord progressions you like from your favourite composer, all be it Mozart or Ed Sheeran, and compose your own melody over those chords. Once you have the new melody, take out the old chords and see if you can find others that work even better.
There are many approaches to composition. Developing a ‘good ear’ for music by careful listening to and interacting with it will further this process. Alongside this, a grasp of the basics of music theory will also bring more coherence to your compositions. Remember, the rules are all there to be broken. Be bold, creative and with only the limits of your imagination to work with. Learning to compose is like any other creative pastime. It takes dedication, hard work, and considerable patience.