Instrument Profile

How to Start Writing Music at Any Age

By Nadje Noordhuis

Writing music for the first time may seem like a very daunting task. With considerations such as melody, harmony, and rhythm, where do you start? A wonderful feature of original composition is that there is not just one way to begin to write; however there are a few methods that will help get the ball rolling. One way to begin is to use computer programs such as GarageBand or Band in a Box, but this article will focus on ways that don’t require expensive software.

Preparation

Materials Needed

  • Something to record your ideas, such as a cassette tape recorder, minidisc recorder, or internal mic on your computer
  • Something to notate your composition, like music paper and a pencil or a notation program such as Sibelius or Finale
  • A musical instrument (optional)

Listen to a few of your favorite songs and see if you can identify some important musical patterns. Are there contrasting sections? How many? How long are these sections? Do the pitches in the melody repeat? Does the rhythm of the melody repeat? What kind of mood do these songs create? How do they accomplish this? Are they in a major or minor key? Do they stay in the same key throughout the piece?

Write down your thoughts—these will form a little scrapbook of ideas that you can use later.

Next Steps

Once you’ve gathered your materials, let’s follow the next steps to create your composition. 

Decide on a style of music you would like to write, such as classical, rock, jazz, or folk music. Think of a corresponding mood, tempo, and instrumentation. For some ideas, listen to a few pieces in your chosen musical genre. What combination of musical elements does the piece contain that make it fit into that category? For example, does your favorite rock tune have a steady beat in 4/4, a slow moving melody with repeated notes and emotional lyrics? What are your favorite sections and why? Write down your initial direction for your composition. Will your piece also have lyrics? For this article, I am choosing to write a simple piano piece in a classical style. It will have a medium tempo and a happy mood.

Decide on a form for your composition. Most musical compositions are made up of sections that are the same (repeating sections) or different from each other (contrasting sections). How long will your composition be? How many sections will it have? Remember that every style of music has its own set of common forms, such as a 32-measure AABA form in jazz standards, or a 12-bar blues. You may like to stick to one of these forms or make up your own. My advice would be to keep it simple! For example, if you break down your composition into two contrasting sections of eight measures each, you have enough material for a 32-bar AABA tune! I will use this form for my composition example.

Use your tape recorder/computer/minidisc to record some ideas. Use your instrument to come up with some riffs. Use your voice! Sing little melodies. Do this for at least 10 minutes. Be free to play or sing whatever you like—it doesn’t have to be perfect or ready to perform at this point. No one has to hear it except for you. Go for it!

Listen to the audio clip of me thinking of some ideas for my composition….

Listen back to your recording. Is there anything that stands out to you? Is there an idea that you think you can develop into a classical melody? Have you created your first chord progression for your rock song? Can you decide on an opening line of lyrics for your jazz or pop tune? If you haven’t found something that you like thus far, you can always pick notes and rhythms out of a hat. Remember that your melody or chord progression isn’t long or complex at this point. The melodic idea that you decide on will become your first musical motif—a two or three note idea that will become the foundation of your piece. See if you can notate this on paper—clap the rhythm and sing or play the motif on your instrument. My motif will be the following idea:


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Now that you have your opening motif, what are you going to do with it? You have some options—you can extend it, shorten it, play it backwards, repeat it, make up something a little different or completely different from it. By doing this, you are creating a musical phrase—a more complete thought or idea—from your motif.

Here is my example. Notice how I have stated my motif, played the pitches backwards with the same rhythm, and then finished my phrase with a different idea.


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Since I am writing two eight measure sections, I will extend my initial four measures to an eight measure phrase by repeating my idea in a different key, ending with a little change to the rhythm.


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In almost all styles of music, there is a contrasting section that adds interest to the piece by presenting new material to your ear. That is one of the functions of the ‘bridge’ in pop or rock songs, the B section in jazz tunes, and the Development section in classical sonatas. To write a contrasting section, repeat steps four and five, trying not to play your original motif. Can you think of a different rhythm? Will your melody move by steps or skips this time? Will you use repeated pitches? Does this section have a different mood?

Here is my contrasting section:


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At this point in the compositional process, you have created a couple of contrasting sections—now how will you arrange these sections in your piece?

Think of your original form. Does what you’ve written fit in with your initial concept? Feel free to make changes. Does your piece seem whole or do you need to write another section? How does your piece end? What would you like to add to your piece so you could perform it? Do you need to add a bassline or left hand piano part? Do you need to write a harmony part for a different instrument or singer?

You don’t need to know a lot about music theory to start writing chords in your music. Just try different ideas out until you like what you come up with! You might even be able to get some ideas for harmonies from pieces you’ve played.

For my composition, I will alter the last line to make my melody sound more conclusive. Then I will add a left hand part to give my piece some harmony.


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More Musical Composition Tips

Your choice of instrumentation is important. Each instrument will give your composition a certain tone quality. Why have you chosen the instruments for you piece? Does it fit the mood of your piece? Could you substitute other instruments? Which ones would you choose and why?

Dynamics add musical feeling to your composition. How can you add dynamics to your piece to express your ideas? What kind of articulations are you using in your composition? Would including some accents, slurs, and/or staccato notes help to express the emotions in your piece?

If you started writing a melody this time, try writing a bass line next time. Mix it up! There is more than one way to write. Which one works best for you?

The term classical guitar specifies two things:

  1. The instrument: An acoustic guitar with nylon strings constructed generally in the tradition of the builder Antonio de Torres Jurado (1817-1892)
  2. The technique: using the fingers and thumb rather than a pick

More Tools for Composing

  1. Customize and print staff paper for free.
  2. Download Finale Notepad. This free program, which allows you to print your music and even play it back, is an excellent introduction to notating music with your computer.
Got the hang of composing?

Share Your Music!

What does your piece sound like? Email a recording or score of your composition for a chance to have it published on the Bloomingdale website!*

*Recordings should be in mp3, MIDI, WAV, or AIFF format. Scores should be in PDF format or scanned in JPEG format at 300 dpi resolution.

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