How to Compose Music

In my prior post Can you learn to compose music? I argue that anyone can learn to compose music.  That argument is correct, but composing music isn’t a simple step-by-step process.

You can’t learn it on Pinterest, out of a book, or by only one teacher.  You can, in theory, teach yourself; but, it’s best to have teachers, resources, guides, books, listening materials, performances, instruments, audio gear, etc.  Even still, it is not expensive to learn to compose–all of these are merely the things that happen over the passage of time.  You don’t need many “things” to begin. 

Please remember that anyone who tells you how to compose is just telling you one way to compose.  My goal is to show you many ways, but again, this is only one website. 

Here is a starter’s guide of how to compose:

How to Compose Music

The art of composition is not just an art.  It is in truth a science and an art.  Composition is a deeply personal craft, but is highly indebted to deep study.  Good composition is informed by these key areas of study, but many composers use more or fewer of these elements due to their background and career direction.  Most good composers have:

  1. Proficiency at an instrument and/or voice (ideally an instrument and singing)
  2. Proficiency in music theory
  3. A well-trained ear
  4. A grounded sense of the history of music
  5. A pulse on the current trends in the field
  6. A community of other composers
  7. A large repertory of listening materials
  8. A curiosity for always learning more
  9. Knowledge of, and successful application of, music engraving standards
  10. Exposure to, if not proficiency with, audio technology and production
  11. A mentor/teacher (or two, or more)
  12. A library of resources (eg. orchestration books, scores for study, PDFs of music, articles for reading)
  13. A connection with real, live performers who can play and/or give feedback on your music
  14. A quiet space
  15. Pen and paper

The great thing is, again, you do not need to have all of these things at the beginning.  They grow one on top of the other, in and out of the order that I listed.

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Beginning Steps

All you really need in the beginning are:

  1. A way to learn and instrument and singing (separately).  If you can afford a private teacher, great.  If you can’t but are in school, participate at school.  If you aren’t in school, find some peers or friends.  If you can’t find peers or friends, practice alone but be prepared to make some friends.  Please note that you should always be looking for ways to fund your study, which will likely include a source of your own income (or your family’s, if you have a family support system), or financial assistance.
  2. A pen and manuscript paper.  You can use a regular pen (click here for a review of pens) and can print off blank manuscript paper online.  This manuscript book was also a staple of mine growing up.

The goal here is to learn the fundamental building blocks of music.  By learning an instrument and learning to sing (separately; you can also try playing and singing simultaneously if you really want a challenge), you are:

  1. Becoming a performer.  Composers who are performers write better music, hands down.
  2. Training your ear.  In order to hear the music you want to write, you need to have an ear.  Even if you have music in your head, training your ear through learning an instrument and learning to sing will allow you to write your music and get better at writing music much quicker.
  3. Learning how to sightread.  Sightreading is incredibly valuable–actually essential–to making the best music you can.
  4. Seeing real, live notation.  By understanding each shape, each symbol, each line, and how it affects the passage of time, the type of sound made, the pitch of the sound, the duration of the sound, the space of the sound, and much more, you understand how what you write down will make a performer sound.


But, that’s just learning an instrument and voice.  You want to compose.

And here comes the best part: once you have learned the basic concepts, start writing exercises for yourself that you can play on your instrument.

For example, if you learn the notes C D E on your instrument, start writing music using only C, D, and E.  Reorganize and reorder them.  Add rests,  Change the rhythm.  Change the tempo.  Make the dynamics grown and shrink.  Sing the notes.  Play your newly-composed exercise, and then sing it back on “la” right after.  Try singing and playing the same thing at the same time.  You really can do this.  It is incredibly hard but, as my good friend said, “Things don’t get easier.  You just get better.”

Don’t worry if you sound bad.  Don’t worry if you thing you suck.  You can always get better.  With work, you will get better, no doubt about it.  Just have a good sense of both humility and confidence.

And so now you’ve taken the first step.  By learning to play and learning to sing, you are already so much more of a musician than you were at the outset.  And with the ability to play and sing a few notes, you are now able to not just write music, but write music that you can play, that you can hear, that you can have others play.  You are on the path to becoming a composer, but you are already a composer.  Don’t get complacent, though–no one ever stops learning.  There is so much more to write.

More posts of follow, like usual.

2 thoughts on “How to Compose Music

  1. Pingback: The Basics of Music Notation – Composer's Toolbox

  2. Pingback: How do musicians make a living? – Composer's Toolbox

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