Quick Take- How I Learned To Compose Music

This is quite a bit overdue, but hell, I’m posting it!

After coming home from MAGFest 2016, I took some time to think about how I wanted to reach out and help others achieve their dreams of composing music for games, so I wanted to take a little time today to talk about how I learned how to write music.

Believe it or not, I didn’t always know how to write music. Also, I wasn’t always good at it. In fact, I was pretty crap at writing music for a long time. It took years and years of constant practice before I finally became good at writing music.

As a child, I used to walk around my house just singing melodies that I would spontaneously make up. These melodies sounded pretty cool to me, but I never really thought about them as composing. Fast forward to my college years. I was attending Montclair State University and wanted to transfer into the music program there. At first, I tried going for music education, and was turned down. Twice!

The third time, I thought about preparing for the audition process, but realized that I really didn’t want to major in music education. So I thought about going in for composition. Funny story, besides a few shitty punk rock songs I wrote, I really didn’t have any composition experience at the time. This was in 2006.

So, how did I learn to compose? Through playing guitar! And piano, though at the time, my skills on that instrument were abysmal. I’ve definitely gotten a lot better at piano since then (through diligent practice and through lessons)- the threat of failing my secondary piano class was quite real.

I’ve mentioned before that I’m a huge fan of the Beatles. When I was first learning to play guitar, I often turned to their music as an educational source. I would spend hours listening to all of their records and attempting to play the songs. It didn’t take long before I was able to competently play a bunch of the chords they used in their songs, including some of the trickier ones. I was even able to learn basic riffs.

For some reason, learning the songs wasn’t enough. I wasn’t content with just playing the songs. I started actually deconstructing their songs, trying out new chord changes, tweaking little melodic lines, just to hear what different things sounded like. This need for experimentation translated over into classical music as well. I would take music that I learned in choir (such as Verdi’s Dies Irae chorus and Faure’s Agnus Dei), enter the notes into Finale, and then play with them until they turned into something cool and different.

I feel like this experimentation served two purposes:

  • Analysis- By studying the songs that inspired me to compose, I was able to see what made them so cool from a compositional standpoint.
  • Creativity- Changing around the melodies and harmonic progressions taught me how to construct melodies and chord changes.

So if anyone reading wants to learn how to write music, but doesn’t quite know how to get started, I would recommend trying to experiment with their favorite songs. Mess around with the melody a little bit at a time until you have something different. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with this. I wouldn’t recommend ripping off songs and releasing them as your own by any stretch, but for your own purposes, this will teach you how to write a melody/harmonic progression, which are two basic aspects of music composition.

As far as writing your own music goes, I can’t stress the importance of being able to play an instrument enough. No matter what it is, you should know how to play an instrument (or sing). The more musical skill you have, the better you can realize the music you are trying to write. If you don’t feel like you have the instrumental chops yet, do whatever it takes to get better at your instrument. Practice from a method book, learn to play songs, take lessons, anything. Trust me, your music will be so much better if you can play your instrument well. You don’t have to be a virtuoso- just able to play competently and in time.

After you spend some time deconstructing and tweaking other songs, try taking a crack at writing your own piece from scratch. Try writing something short, around 8 bars or so. By analyzing and deconstructing other songs, you’ll learn what makes a great melody and what makes a great harmonic progression. That’s knowledge you can apply to writing your own songs.

Anyway, hope this little post helps you get started writing music! Stay tuned for more blog posts later.

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