How Do You Compose Music?

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This is Robert Estrin here at with a really big question. How do you compose music? This is a huge subject and it is interesting that there isn’t just one answer. I’m going to give you a lot of pointers today. While there are exceptions, there are those who find a certain formula. I hate to say that Mozart found a formula, but when you consider the massive quantity of music he wrote, you’ll notice that a great deal falls into Sonata Allegro form. He wrote works other than those based upon the Sonata Allegro form. There are some notable exceptions such as his operas and his Great Mass in C minor. However, there are a lot of commonalities in the structure of many of Mozart’s compositions.

The same is true in pop music. There are some popular composers who churn out somewhat formulaic compositions one after another that are great. But all too often there is a sameness to the work of most songwriters. There are very few people who can pull that off. Mozart was able to compose many sonatas and symphonies with each one offering unique musical statements despite being structurally similar to one another.

Many composers don’t have one way of composing.

Every single piece they compose is a different way of getting there. What are some of those ways? One way is to come up with a melody. Make something up off the top of your head. Play with it a little bit and add more and more. Then, you go back and add some accompaniment. Composing a melody and then harmonizing it is one great way of composing. If you try to put every last detail in at first, it can bog you down and you’ll lose the vision of where you are going with the music. If you have a melodically-oriented piece of music in mind, this can be a phenomenal way to knock out a piece of music. Write out the melody line on manuscript paper or sing it into a recorder. Make sure you get it down somehow. Then go back and flesh out the rest of it.

Are there any other ways you can approach composing? Absolutely! You can also come up with an interesting chord progression first, then later come up with the melody. Maybe after that you come up with another chord progression. So, you can start with melody and add harmony, or you can start with a harmony and add a melody.

There are countless other ways to compose music. The more ways you can approach a piece of music, the more creative you can be. The last thing you want to do is to fall into a rut. You might come up with some sort of groove or rhythmic element that is captivating that you want to build upon. Maybe you can start with a groove, but then change the chords. You could even start with a motif.

Anything you start with that captures your interest is what you should go with.

You don’t want to compose something for the sake of doing it a certain way because you’ve been told to do it that way or you think it’s the right way to do it. That is the surest way to come up with something that isn’t engaging. You’ll know when you are on the right track when you feel a burning desire to keep on plugging away. Whether it’s a melody, a harmony, a riff, or a groove, if it fascinates you, you are on the right track!

Some last thoughts for you. Think about the structure. Some people like to consider the form first so they know where they are going in the piece in a macro sense. I mentioned Sonata Allegro form which is kind of like an A-B-A (themes, development, themes). Another type of form worth considering is theme and variations. Find a theme that you love and come up with multiple versions of it that take off in different ways. Pachelbel’s Canon is an example of that. It is essentially the same thing over and over again but you never get tired of it because each iteration is inventive. A rondo also has many repetitions with a prescribed form (A – B – A – C – A – B – A) You can try to carve out something with several recurring themes in this form.

You’ll find that ultimately it is what is genuine for you that is going to get the best results. I know that when you are composing sometimes you may hit a brick wall. Rather than going through the motions and trying to force something that isn’t there, sometimes it is better to just wait for inspiration to strike. One of the best ways to do that is to play around with notes freely until you come up with something you like and build from there.

I hope this has given you some ideas for any of you who have tried to compose. It is so easy today with modern technology to produce a large output. It used to be such an arduous task to write out scores and individual parts for an orchestral piece.

With programs now like Finale and Sibelius, you can have all of that done for you!

A lot of the great composers had their students doing copying work. Today there is technology that can do that for you.

Digital sequence programs are another great tool for composing. Plug in a digital piano and free programs like Audacity or GarageBand or professional programs like Logic and ProTools which allow you to play to your heart’s content saving anything you like. Snip, copy, paste just like a word processor except with music. It can be a tremendous time saver. You can work with an idea off the top of your head without having to write everything out, perform it, and record it. It is all instantaneous!

I hope this has been helpful for you. Again, this is Robert Estrin at, Your Online Piano Store.