Composing Music: A Layperson’s Quickstart Guide

Updated 2015-12-21: Added a basic explanation for the concept of the tonic note, some chord dictionary links, and a link to JGuitar’s Harmonizer in the Scales section.

Having an analytical mind like mine is great, because it means I can easily understand why a thought process works or doesn’t work, but that also comes with a downside: When starting into an entirely new field, I have trouble making the intuitive leaps needed to get going.

In order to help others who may have a similar orientation (and to mothball the urge to research and write a whole book about this when my plans for a story-plotting book are still on hold for lack of time), here are a few insights I picked up over the years which should allow basic music composition at a level sufficient to stay interested and improve (if I can ever find time to actually do it).

I apologize that it’s all so rough and incomplete and the writing’s so sloppy. It’s already taken an entire day rather than an hour or two and ballooned up to far longer than I expected.

(Note: If any of the YouTube links are geo-blocked, I’ve provided enough information that it should be easy to copy-paste the title into the search field on the error page)

A progression of notes/chords feels “complete” if it ends on the “tonic”
The tonic is the note that your brain identifies as dominant in a progression of notes and one of the TED talks I watched (I don’t have time to track down the exact one) explained that, from Twinkle Twinkle Little Star to Andrew W.K.’s Ready to Die, there’s a simple rule. A progression of notes/chords must end on the tonic  (possibly in a different octave) in order to feel “complete”.
In simple pieces, it’s most common for your brain to identify the tonic as the note you start on. Let’s take Twinkle Twinkle Little Star for an example. “Twinkle, Twinkle, little star. How I wonder what you are.” feels complete because the terminal “are” plays the same note as the initial “Twinkle” while “Up above the world so high” and “Like a diamond in the sky” leave you in anticipation because they do not.
In more complex pieces, it’s possible to start on a note other than the tonic because your brain identifies the tonic based on how the notes relate to each other. For example, if you start with an arpeggiated chord (more on that later), the first note you play might not be the tonic for the chord you’re playing and your brain will instinctively choose the chord’s dominant pitch as the tonic instead. (Chords are named after their dominant pitch, so it’s very helpful to consult a chord dictionary. I couldn’t find an all-round best choice, but is best if you don’t need audio, JGuitar has sound clips, lists the formulas for constructing chords within any scale, and there’s also one built into every Yamaha keyboard I’ve seen so far.
I haven’t had time to properly research the low-level mechanics of what makes a progression appealing, but, if you need more help getting started, you can always pick ready-made chord progressions (see also autochords) and then experiment with different keys and tempos. As 4 chords by Axis of Awesome and Rob Paravonian’s Pachelbel Rant hint at for comedy purposes, there are only so many chord progressions (and even fewer that feel right for a given genre) that you can form which will appeal to a western audience (It’s a learned thing. Musical Involvement by Donald J. Funes introduced me to the Indian Raga and Javanese systems of music but some of the very aspects which characterize them turn me off… primarily in the Javanese stuff.)
Update 2016-10-28: If you want more examples, Benny of Axis of Awesome has done another “same chord progression, many songs” medley under the name “Another Four Chords” (And, while his “Six Chords” uses more than one chord progression throughout the video, the beginning of it does a great job of showing how each step in the simple progression maps to a phase of the embellished version he’s playing.)
The simplest way to build a complex piece is by combining complementary simple ones
As with subplots when writing stories, the simplest way to bulk up a song is to take a bunch of simple melodies that work together, play them at the same time, and change them out before they have a chance grow stale… but never all at once, so continuity is preserved.
This layered structure is easy to see in many pop and eurodance songs but is especially clear with the title/menu theme to the Super Nintendo game Super Mario World 2: Yoshi’s Island. The song starts with one layer, lets the listener get used to it, then adds another. Repeat until all of your layers are present, then start swapping individual tracks within the song to keep things fresh and varied.
If you really want to see how powerful this trick can be, find some songs you like on the Share > Projects section of the LMMS website or in The Mod Archive, open them in the appropriate tool (LMMS for the former, OpenMPT or equivalent for the latter) and take a look at how they’re constructed. (Keep in mind that some of the looping will be less obvious in stuff from The Mod Archive because the file formats aren’t as advanced as an LMMS project and composers had to manually repeat their note patterns.)
Variations on what you’ve already made are a good idea
Again going back to Musical Involvement by Funes, the key to understanding how big, complex pieces like symphonic compositions work is recognizing that they’re “exploring themes”. That is, they play a bunch of different variations on a musical idea in order to guide the listener through its emotional implications.
For this example, I’ll use the rondo from “Sinfonie de fanfares” by Jean-Joseph Mouret. A rondo (from the Old French for “little round”) is a type of musical structure which plays a verse, then diverges from it, then returns. Rinse, lather, repeat.
In this piece, the trumpet first plays part A, then part B, then returns to part A, then plays part C which resembles part B but is noticeably different. Then, the trumpet and organ start to take turns with the organ parts being rondos unto themselves.
In longer pieces, you might instead see something like sonata form, which can be very crudely summarized as “Music A gets played, then music B, then they attack, parry, and riposte like duellists in a fencing match, then it ends with music B winning.”
Icicles by F-777 does a good job of demonstrating the use of these elements in a trance composition. It starts by layering loops, one-by-one, then moves to experimenting with variations on different musical ideas built around simple but appealing progressions, then finally ends by returning to where it started, similar to traditional classical forms like rondo and ternary form.
Arpeggios and related techniques
Also sometimes called a rolled chord, an arpeggio refers to playing the notes in a chord one after the other rather than all at once. For some instruments, this is your only option but, even if it’s not, it’s a great way to add more variety to your composition.
If you have a keyboard like the Yamaha PSR-E413 with an arpeggio helper function, you’ll probably find that there are a lot of different ways to do this (walking up the keys, walking down the keys, playing medleys of the single notes and two-note chords contained within a three-note chord, etc.) and they provide an easy way to squeeze more variety and interest out of a chord which you already know will work.
For example, here is one form of the infamous “4 chords” progression in LMMS (“one form” because octave doesn’t matter. You could have it go up at the end as long as that last chord is still A, C, and F):
…and here is a slightly more interesting piece of music achieved just by partially arpeggiating the second and fourth cords:
…and here’s another one, but still the same four chords.
Hopefully, that will help to get your imagination brewing.
Never discount the power of lyrics
The key to making a successful song is making something people will remember fondly. While being catchy is always something to strive for, never discount the power of distracting the listener from your weaknesses with powerful lyrics.
In fact, you could say that Rap is built upon that because it’s not really music in the traditional sense. Rather, it’s closer to being slam poetry (Marshall Davis Jones : “Touchscreen”) set to musical accompaniment.
As for making lyrics, the simplest way to make them good is to recognize two things:
First, Lyrics are poetry, where the structure is constrained by the music but the distraction provided by an appealing melody and beat forgives some laziness in the writing. Anything you can learn about writing good poetry will make you a more effective lyricist.
Most importantly, learn to use meter (the pattern of stressed and un-stressed syllables) to supercharge your rhyming scheme because that’s what makes things like Dr. Seuss books so powerfully appealing. They’re poetry for kids with strong, consistent meter.
Update 2016-10-28: Don’t believe me? Take a look at the lyrics to Bus Stop by The Hollies. It’s a masterpiece of elegant songwriting. Just the words needed and nothing more. (For example, look at how they rhyme “[at the] bus stop” with “[the] bus stops”. Beautiful.)
Second, poetry (and, thus, lyrics) can do anything prose can, whether it’s a story like The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, an essay like “If” by Rudyard Kipling, or jokes (eg. any song by Tom Lehrer).What this implies is that most if not all of the tricks for planning out high-quality writing in other formats still apply. (eg. learning to write imagery well)
For example, classic fiction becomes classic either by changing the landscape (eg. Don Quixote invented the modern novel, Frankenstein invented modern sci-fi, etc.) or by remaining relevant after it outlives the era which birthed it (eg. stuff by George Orwell like 1984).
The big trick for things like Frankenstein and 1984 is that they’re actually essays in disguise, sort of like Aesop’s fables… which means that you can use the same essay-planning tricks you learned in high school. (Come up with a thesis statement, develop an outline, etc.)
The other trick is to focus on things that don’t change… things that are part of the human condition. I was once told of an Ancient Greek play in which a father complains about how all his teenage son wants to do is lay around all day, listening to the bards and farting. Sound familiar?
Update 2017-05-23: Finally, if your goal is storytelling, consider writing a ballad, like Big Iron by Marty Robbins or The Horse Tamer’s Daughter by Leslie Fish and Julia Ecklar. (I especially recommend listening to the latter, since it’s not only a ballad, but an epic too.)
Because they’ve had over 700 years to evolve and diversify, there’s no exact definition for what is and isn’t a ballad, but the basic rule of thumb is “Rhyming couplets and roughly 14 or 15 syllables per line.”
This combination gives you plenty of freedom to focus on your narrative, since each pair of lines can form its own independent rhyme and you’ve got plenty of room to form full sentences.
I’d also like to draw attention to how how both of my examples use clever number-play to fit into the rhyming scheme. (“And the notches on his pistol numbered one and nineteen more” in the former, “Have done, have done, ye nine and one, only tell us what we’ve found!” in the latter.)
Get creative
Humans are addicted to novelty so one of the most effective ways to make your lyrics work well is to sing about a topic that nobody else seems to be paying much attention to.

At the very least, you don’t want to do something that’s overdone unless you can find a way to make it fresh again. For example, everyone’s written a love song but not everyone’s written A Summer Song by Chad and Jeremy. Everyone’s written a breakup song, but not everyone’s written Dunrobin’s Gone by Brave Belt.

I suggest looking into Folk music if you want inspiration for music on broader topics. Here are a few examples:

…and then there’s geek folk, known as filk after the fan community decided to keep a typo and make it their own:

  • 307 Ale by Tom Smith (booze so powerful you have to bend physics to make it)
  • The Gods Are Not Crazy (drunk gods) and Bones (Dr. McCoy’s character from Star Trek) by Leslie Fish
  • Chickasaw Mountain by Leslie Fish (Added 2016-10-28, I wrote a whole post about the elegant, multi-layered meaning of the lyrics in this one)
  • Pushin’ the Speed of Light by Julia Ecklar & Anne Prather (Similar in theme to Process Man, but about the experience of crewing a relativistic starship)
If you still need more help, drop by your local library and grab some books on philosophy and critical thinking. If you can make your lyrics thought-provoking like Lucifer by Don Simons and Leslie Fish, they’ll have more appeal… and remember, there’s always someone wiser than you and someone who makes you look wise. Perfection is the enemy of “good enough”.
I’ll use Lucifer as an example to demonstrate what I mean:
  • It starts out with a phrase that sounds good (let me teach you to wonder and worry) and a phrase that sounds bad (permit me to tell you how to wage war), and then spends its time convincing you that those two phrases are actually two interpretations of the same thing.
  • It implies that, before eating The Fruit, humans were non-sapient, having all the ability to “plan for tomorrow” of a pet cat.
  • It specifically says “Taste of the fruit of the tree that is knowledge”. Knowledge isn’t the fruit itself; Knowledge bears fruit.
  • It’s not just the knowledge “of good and evil”, it’s “of good and of evil and all the world’s lore”. (“Lore” being an archaic word for knowledge that’s generally used to mean “traditional/folk knowledge” in modern use)
  • Using clever variations on the same phrase, it argues the thesis that eating the apple was the right thing to do using a structure similar to a four-paragraph essay:
    • Verse one argues that a paradise like heaven is pointless if no creature has the ambition to grow beyond what they are now. (ie. if humans already live in paradise on Earth in the form of Eden).
    • Verse two argues that there was no reason for God to create the heavens if they cannot inspire a creature to reach for them (assuming a geocentric cosmology).
    • Verse three argues that a reward like heaven is pointless if no creature ever thinks outside the limits of what they are taught.
    • Verse four argues that heaven and hell are nothing more and nothing less than the possible outcomes of granting ourselves power through knowledge.
I’m reminded of how, historically, the character of Satan in John Milton’s epic poem, Paradise Lost, was historically considered to be a villain despite Milton’s claims that he’s a heroic protagonist. Now, many people agree, showing how his “villainous attributes” can also be interpreted as merely the kinds of character flaws that bring about the downfall of a tragic hero.
Whether it’s an essay, a story, a poem, or a song, the process to get to that is very simple. Brainstorm out a novel concept (follow the Pixar rule of throwing out your first few ideas as too obvious), then break it up into smaller problems, just like arguing for a thesis in an essay.
If philosophy isn’t your thing, maybe something else. Listen to ’39 by Queen and try to figure out what it’s about before looking it up… then listen again to get the full impact.
(Also, don’t forget that it’s legal to reinterpret music old enough to be in the public domain. In fact, that’s how humans built new songs for most of our history. For example, “This Land is Your Land” adapted its melody from an earlier song and Woody Guthrie himself didn’t believe in copyright.)
You never use all of the notes available to you at the same time, because only certain sets sound good together. These sets are called scales and there are many different ones, varying in popularity depending on when and where you are.
For example, the oldest type of scale (and, as Bobby McFerrin demonstrated, the most instinctively obvious) is a pentatonic scale. The black keys on a piano form one possible pentatonic scale. Wander your fingers up and down on them, and you’ll be half-way to traditional-sounding music. Play chords on them and you’ll get something that sounds like traditional Chinese music.
Each scale will lend a different feel to your music (best illustrated in the Far Side comic where a nasty-looking guy in black walks into the saloon and the banjo player says to the piano player, “Bad guy comin’ in Arnie! …Minor key!”).
In western music, the most common family of scales are the major and minor diatonic scales. In fact, if you play only the white keys on a piano (or use no sharp/flat notes in sheet music), you’re playing on the C major scale. (The white keys aren’t actually equally spaced. To walk up the keyboard in even increments, you have to play both the black and white keys.)
Transposing (playing a tune in a new key) is quite simple. Just slide each note up or down by the same amount. (eg. if C becomes D, then E becomes F because you move two keys to the right in both cases)
That’s how medleys like “4 chords” work. They transposed all of the songs they showed into the same key.
JGuitar also has a tool called Harmonizer which lets you explore which chords and scales sound good together.
Key shifts
One useful aspect of music that I don’t always pick up on (it can be subtle) is the key shift. That is, changing the key you’re playing in part-way through the song. Good, easy-to-notice examples of this include the third verse in I’ll Make a Man Out of You from Disney’s Mulan, when the song shifts up to give a greater sense of urgency to “time is racing toward us”, or just before “soon the duet will become a trio” in The Lonely Goatherd from The Sound of Music.)
Also, on a related note, I’ll Make a Man Out of You (like many Disney songs), is an excellent example of distracting the listener from a very simple melody using lyrics.
Time signatures
While not strictly necessary to play around with composition in the beginning, understanding key signatures is very helpful… especially since programs like LMMS will snap your notes to a grid by default.
The time signature of a piece of music refers to its beat pattern with the actual numbers on a piece of sheet music referring to how many quarter notes per bar. For example, 2/4 time means two quarter notes per bar (“ONE two ONE two”) while 4/8 time would mean four eighth notes (“ONE and two and ONE and two and”). How long a bar lasts in actual time is determined by your tempo (in beats per minute).
Wikipedia has some good videos illustrating how the various common time signatures look and sound.
Further learning
If you can, I highly recommend borrowing Musical Involvement and its accompanying CD of example clips from your local library, because there are a ton of little things which I don’t have time to cover that are easy to notice once you know what to look for.
For example, Syncopation. You might not have noticed, but we intuitively expect the emphasis on a beat pattern to land on the first note. (eg. “ONE two three, ONE two three” in a waltz)  Forcing the emphasis to land on another beat makes the music feel more tense and this “raggedness” is the origin of the term “ragtime”. (See, for example, Scott Joplin’s Maple Leaf Rag. Listen to the beat and you’ll notice that, in the parts where it’s clear and obvious, it’s “duh DA duh DA”)

CC BY-SA 4.0 Composing Music: A Layperson’s Quickstart Guide by Stephan Sokolow is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

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2 Responses to Composing Music: A Layperson’s Quickstart Guide

  1. Toastman says:

    Nice work. It’s been a long time since I’ve found a blog worth reading. You have a very good written style.

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