In 1924, a friend of George Gershwin advertised that his new concerto would be like nothing anyone had ever heard and would ultimately revolutionize classical music. The problem? The concerto hadn’t been written yet—and Gershwin initially refused to write one. A few weeks later, New Yorkers were introduced to “Rhapsody in Blue.”
Gershwin is a rare example of a music composer who can pull a concerto out of thin air and blow people away with its innovation. And while you might have that potential buried deep inside of you, there are probably a few things about composing a song that you should know before you set a goal to become the next Gershwin (we fully support this goal, for the record).
In this guide, we’ll walk you through the basics of how to compose music like “Rhapsody in Blue”—or whatever it is that you want to compose.
How to Get Started Composing Music
Knowing the basics of music theory is a prerequisite for pursuing a career in music production or mixing songs. To learn how to compose music, you’ll need to have more than a basic understanding of key signatures, major and minor scales, and chord progressions.
Before you dive into this step-by-step guide, it’s crucial to refresh your existing music theory knowledge—or if you’re starting from scratch, spend a few months digging into the nitty-gritty.
If you’re at a beginner level, these Skillshare classes are a great place to start:
- Music Theory for Beginners: Read and feel musical rhythms like a pro
- Music Theory for Beginners
- Music Theory Fundamentals – Beginner
- Beginner Music Theory Lesson: The Nashville Number System
If you’re slightly more advanced, consider signing up for these Skillshare classes:
- Music Theory Comprehensive: Part 4 – Modes and Counterpoint
- Music Theory 6: Seventh and Suspended Chords
- Music Theory 101: Major Sharp Keys
In addition to upping your music theory game, there’s also a small shopping list we’d recommend. First, grab a music writing pad. These are usually available for less than $10 and enable you to notate an arrangement the old-fashioned way: with a pencil and pad.
If you’re looking for a more technology-driven solution, there are several apps to choose from. Two of the most popular options are Notion and Sibellius. Not only do these apps make it easy to compose music digitally, but they include instrument sounds that allow you to listen to your creations. However, both options are very expensive. For those of you just starting to learn how to compose orchestral music, consider starting with the less flashy, but also less expensive pencil and (music) pad.
Step 1: Improvise
I polled a few music composer friends of mine to see how they begin a new piece. The overwhelming consensus was that the early stages of music composition are all about improvisation. They all said that their favorite compositions evolved from unstructured sessions at the piano, during which they simply played around for a while.
If you’re a more advanced pianist than I am, you might be able to sit down at the piano and just start, well, playing. Occasionally, you’ll even walk away with a theme or melody that you know will be the backbone of your next composition. But improvising on the piano can feel like staring at a blank page when you need to write an essay. Without any agenda, you could stare blankly at the ivory keys for hours and walk away feeling like you’ll never write anything.
When that writer’s block is hitting you hard, here are a few things that you can try.
- Listen to your favorite music and try to play along. I’m a self-taught keyboard player, and listening along to my favorite songs while learning how to compose piano music was an incredibly productive exercise. See if you can identify and play the melody of the song. Once you do that, add your unique twist to the parts.
- Play with other musicians. Getting together with other musicians is probably something you’ll be more comfortable with after the pandemic ends. But even if you’re trying to learn how to compose classical music, these jam sessions are sure to reignite your creative muscles in new ways.
- Practice your scales. Major and minor scales are fairly straightforward, but how often do you play major pentatonic scales? Or hemitonic pentatonic 3 scales? Or…you get the idea. Take some time to play through some of the more unusual scales on your piano whenever you’re searching for inspiration.
Step 2: Identify Your Motif
Anyone who’s ever wanted to learn how to compose piano music usually starts by learning about motifs. To lead our discussion on motifs in classical music, let’s use “Rhapsody in Blue” as a thought exercise again.
A lot is going on in this piece. We could spend all day talking about it, but let’s focus on the 0:57 mark of the video you see above. You’ll hear the horn section playing the motif, or the primary melody, of the entire orchestration. As you watch the rest of the video, you’ll hear this melody several times in different sections of the song. These four(ish) bars are arguably some of the easier parts Gershwin has ever written—but they also set the tone for the entire piece.
So once you’ve had some time to improvise and play around with some ideas, focus your attention on your motif. What type of melody do you want to drive your entire piece? Identifying a motif will take some time (and probably some more improvisation). But once you get it, you’ll have a lot of fun building different sections and orchestrations around that melody.
Step 3: Arrange Your Piece
Speaking of building different sections and orchestrations around your melody, the next step is to do just that!
Arranging a classical piece of music is a different beast to tackle. While most songs have several instrumental parts, classical music composers are charged with creating a piece that will be played by hundreds of musicians in some cases.
The challenge of learning how to compose classical music is twofold. First, you need to literally arrange each section of the piece in a way that’s both pleasant to listen to and outside of the box. But once you’ve done that, you’ll get sucked into the rabbit hole of figuring out instrumentation for each part. Where should the clarinets drop out before coming back in with the lead melody? Should the tuba section be responsible for the low-end sounds of the motif, or could you accomplish this with timpanis?
Music composition experts spend years thinking through these questions. You might, as well. But as you’re getting started, remember the adage that perfect is the enemy of good. Consider setting a time limit for yourself—and once you hit it, move onto our next step.
Step 4: Write It Down
Remember when we told you to buy a (digital) pencil and a music pad? Now it’s time to put your motifs and arrangements down on paper.
Here’s where your music theory knowledge really comes into play. Not only should you be able to read music, but you should also be able to write down notation. In many pop music settings that I’ve been in, I’ve been handed a “chart” on which I’m shown nothing but chords over which I need to play. When you’re learning how to compose classical music (or any kind of music, really), you’ll need to write down each part note-by-note.
Fair warning that this step will likely make you want to go back to the arrangement stage and rewrite your piece. You might discover that a trumpet piece is far too difficult for an actual human being to play, or that a marimba part shouldn’t be played during the motif. If this happens while you’re writing down the notation, that’s perfectly normal! Your fellow composers would give you the side-eye if you handed them a composition that wasn’t covered in eraser stains.
Step 5: Share It With an Audience
Even if you feel that your composition isn’t ready to share, I have some good and bad news for you: Composers never feel as if their work is ready to be heard.
I’m not suggesting that you hire a full orchestra to play your work in front of a live audience. But if you are using a notation app such as Notion or Sibellius, export your pieces and share them on platforms like SoundCloud or YouTube. If not, take a leap and share your hand-written arrangements with online communities such as Reddit. Will you get the occasional troll? Sure. But will you also get valuable feedback that will help you edit your piece? Absolutely.
Step 6: Revise and Repeat
Think I’m about to tell you that perfect is the enemy of good? Think again!
This is the part of the guide where I recommend taking the feedback you’ve received from your peers and applying it to your work. Composing a piece of music is an ongoing process. While many composers eventually call a composition “final,” many of them tinker with pieces for years. And even when music receives countless accolades from industry experts, it’s hard for an artist to simply walk away and move on to another project.
You’ll likely repeat most of the steps we’ve reviewed in this guide dozens of times on a single piece of music. That’s OK! While I’d recommend setting some guidelines so that you don’t keep things under wraps forever, I won’t tell you not to continue experimenting with a song, even when everyone around you says that you’ve finished.
Compose Your Masterpiece!
Compose Music – Lightning Fast