Even though it can be fun playing other people’s songs, learning how to compose your own music is one of the most rewarding skills you can learn as a musician.
Music composition is a vast subject with infinite possibilities and techniques depending on what you are creating. Although we can’t cover all of those techniques here, there are some steps you can follow to help you start composing music.
Whether you have no experience or need some clarity on how to approach the process, this post will give you 7 steps to start composing your own music. Let’s get started.
Building on an idea
A natural way to start composing a song is by building off an initial idea, whether it’s a simple melody, riff, or a series of chords. Even if it’s a short idea, you can use that as inspiration to build a song around it.
From that point on, you can develop your idea with different techniques such as using repetition or answer and response. You can think in terms of musical phrases and try to connect those ideas with other phrases that either restate a point or maybe change the direction of the song.
If you have a melody that you like, you can start thinking of chords that complement it. Likewise, if you have a chord progression in mind, try coming up with a melody that you can play over the chords.
There isn’t one right way to start composing your songs and you may even find yourself changing your approach as you continue to practice writing.
Connecting what you hear on your instrument
A great way to develop musical ideas is to start with something you can sing or hum along to. This works because the notes are already in your ears and you simply have to transfer the idea to your instrument. You may also have a certain rhythm that comes to mind which you want to use for the chords of your song.
I like this organic approach to creating music without having to be technical or theoretical. Go with what sounds good to you first and then you can look into the music theory behind what you came up with later on.
If you do know what key signature and time signature you are in, you can write those down if that helps you. If needed, I recommend checking out these 3 simple steps to write your ideas on sheet music.
You can use a tool like the My Music Composition Notebook that has printable sheet music and simple guides on notation or use software such as Musescore where you can input notes from your computer.
For more resources on this subject, check out this other post on how to develop ear training to play what you hear.
Creating chord progressions
If you need some ideas for creating chord progressions, there are different theory tools you can use such as thinking of related chords (a.k.a diatonic chords). For example, if you’re writing in the key of D Major, you have these related chords which come from the notes of the Major scale:
- 1 Major chord – D Major
- 2 minor chord – E minor
- 3 minor chord – F# minor
- 4 Major chord – G Major
- 5 Major chord – A Major
- 6 minor chord – B minor
- 7 diminished chord – C# diminished chord
Generally, you could put these chords together in different orders and they would work well together because they are directly related from one scale. There are exceptions with the 7 diminished chord which has some specific ways in how its best used within a progression. For some examples, check out these easy guitar chord progressions.
Another concept you could incorporate into your chord progressions is using secondary chords. A secondary chord is a 5 chord that resolves to any chord, regardless of whether it is a diatonic chord.
For example, you could have a progression like this in the key of D Major: D Major, B7, E minor, and A7. In this case, the B7 is acting as a secondary chord or 5 of the 2 minor chord. See this post on the essential 7th chords on guitar if you’re not familiar with how to play them.
If you’ve never tried putting chords together before, start with something simple that you can build off of. As you get better at learning music theory, it will be easier to create because you know what chords will work together.
Developing a song form
As you have a good initial idea with a series of chords, you can start to think of the structure of your song. Using a variety of repeating and varying parts creates familiarity and buildup in a song.
For example, you can think of a series of chords in 8 measures as an A section. You can repeat this with a slight variation in the ending and then switch to a B section with different chords. As you write and try transitioning to different sections, you’ll start to figure out what works best for the song.
For example, a common pop song form might be something like verse, chorus, verse, chorus, bridge, chorus which translates to A, B, A, B, C, B. Another form can be something like A, A, B, A which is common in jazz standards.
Another thing to think about is using key changes for different parts of a song to make them stand out even more.
Writing down your musical ideas
Being able to write down your song in sheet music will help you to remember what you’re working on and refer back to later on. You can use the sheet music as a reference to add other parts or if you’re collaborating with other musicians that are adding other instruments to your song arrangement.
If you start learning to write out music, you’ll be able to quickly write down and remember ideas for melodies or chords. Being able to write down music or record it (which we’ll talk about later) helps you to remember your ideas when you get inspiration for a song.
You can either write your ideas by hand using a music composition notebook or using a music software program like Musescore or Guitar Pro.
Once you have a solid foundation of the melody and chord parts, you can start to add more parts to create your song arrangement. Depending on what you have in mind or want to write in a specific style of music, your instrumentation will be different.
For example, you may want to take a minimalistic approach and just want guitar and vocals. You can also experiment by adding other guitar parts or other instruments such as bass, piano, or drums if possible.
You also don’t want to add too many parts if it’s not complimenting the song and having fewer instruments may be more fitting. As you experiment with this, you’ll get better at finding the right instrumentation and balance for your song.
Recording your song
To finalize the compositional process, I recommend recording your ideas whether it’s using a DAW (digital audio workstation) like Garageband, Logic Pro, or Pro Tools. This is will help you finalize your ideas and hear how all the parts come together.
If you aren’t ready to start recording yourself using a software recording program, you can also simply record yourself on your phone or make a video so that you have a reference for the song later on.
It’s nice to be able to have a recording of the songs you compose and start to build a catalog of your music. You might surprise yourself when you go back and see how you’ve developed your music composition skills over time. You may also want to check out these 6 benefits of recording to practice music.
Learning to compose music is a skill that you get better at the more you continue to do it. Over time, you will have more clarity on how you want to express your musical ideas. Enjoy the process and keep experimenting!
Here is a recap of the 7 steps to compose music:
- Building on an idea
- Connecting what you hear on your instrument
- Creating chord progressions
- Developing a song form
- Writing down your musical ideas
- Adding parts
- Recording your song
If you want a tool to help you bring your musical ideas to reality, check out My Music Composition Notebook.
My Music Composition Notebook is meant to help you write down your musical ideas with printable sheet music for different instruments.
This ebook also includes simple guides to understand basic music symbols and concepts such as note names on the staff, time and key signatures, note values and the circle of 5ths.
Get it here!
Get the free guitar practice guide here!
All the best,