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Fundamentals, composition, editing, and more.
The best songs on the planet have one thing in common: They make everyone feel as if they could write an equally great song. On top of that, those songs make it seem easy to do it.
Of course, it takes a lot of work to craft a tune that gets people dancing. Or crying during a movie. Or pumped to play a video game. I could go on and on, but you probably get where I’m going with this.
In this guide, we’ll explore some of the basics of writing music and give you practical tips to help you get started today.
I’ve tried everything under the sun to start writing music. Sometimes I’ll pick up a guitar or sit down at a piano and improvise for a while. Other times, I’ll write a rough draft of lyrics in a notebook I keep. But over the years, I’ve learned that there are a few critical questions I should answer before taking the proverbial pen to paper:
- What the heck is this song about? Are you lamenting a terrible breakup? Celebrating a huge milestone? The good news is that there’s no wrong answer. But this is a really critical question to answer whenever you write a song.
- What type of song do you want to write? Folk? Hip hop? Soulful? The choice is yours, but take some time to think about what you want the end-product to sound like.
- What’s the song structure? Typically, a pop song will consist of a series of verses, choruses, and perhaps a bridge. But those elements don’t need to come in any particular order—and it’s up to you to decide how the song is built.
After answering the questions above, I like to start by improvising. Which can mean…just about anything.
Believe it or not, songwriters are often asked to write a tune based on nothing but a notepad full of lyrics. I’ve been there, and while many of my drafts have never seen the light of day, I can tell you that there’s usually no rhyme or reason to the process of writing music for lyrics. Musicians typically begin by sitting down with an instrument and noodling around (a term that’s surprisingly widespread) until they come up with something.
Writing Music for Beginners
OK, so in addition to improvising, there are a few skills that you should work on as you begin writing music. Here are just a few to consider as you get started:
- Song analysis. There’s a really great history of “A Thousand Miles” by Vanessa Carlton, in which the producer does what’s called a “song analysis.” In this section, the producer breaks down elements such as instrumentation, song arrangement, and dynamics.
- Finding inspiration. Some of my favorite examples of songs I’ve written were inspired by musicians or songs that I loved. When I was still practicing songwriting on a regular basis, I’d spend an hour or two per day listening to different genres of music to see where I could draw inspiration or get new ideas.
- Playing with other musicians. Orchestrating a song for a full band is really difficult if you don’t know the nuances of playing with one. Find musicians in your area (or online) that are willing to collaborate. You’ll quickly discover and hone skills around listening to a performance, playing appropriate parts for a section of a song, and how to evoke emotions from a piece.
When folks use the term “songwriter,” they tend to be referring to artists who create songs that you might hear on the radio. The term “composer,” on the other hand,” refers to people who are interested in writing music for orchestras.
If you’re interested in becoming a composer, it’s worth diving into this step-by-step guide on how to compose music, but here are a few key points to note:
- Learn the basics of music theory, including melody, scales, and chord progressions—just to name a few.
- Get comfortable improvising during unstructured practice sessions
- Buy a music pad and learn how to write in music notation. Popular brands include Moleskine, Henle Notes, and Bärenreiter.
- Share your music with an audience and start getting feedback on your work.
How to Make Money Writing Music
This extensive guide on how to become a songwriter will walk you through how to start building a career writing music. But note that while experienced songwriters can earn a yearly salary of over $50,000 per year, that usually doesn’t happen overnight.
As you get started in your songwriting journey, here are a few things you can do to make money writing music:
- Perform your songs live. Platforms like Facebook and Twitch make it easy to create livestream events, during which attendees can tip you—just like they might during a live concert.
- Sell your songs to royalty-free platforms. Ever wonder where YouTubers and other content creators get background music? Free platforms like SoundCloud and Bandcamp enable you to upload songs and make money writing music.
- Sell digital downloads of your songs. If you don’t want to give up full rights to your work, you can sell digital downloads of your work on sites like Bandcamp, much like you might sell a CD in a record shop.
Music Writing Software
The technology at our fingertips makes it almost too easy to write music.
Whether you’re looking to write pop songs or create the next orchestral masterpiece, there are several pieces of software you should consider. If you have a little extra cash to spend, consider tools such as Sibelius, Finale, and MuseScore, which enable you to compose and arrange pieces of music on desktop or mobile devices. Additionally, these programs allow composers to hear their compositions played back to them, print their sheet music, and share their work with friends.
Apps for Writing Music
When I was in high school, I learned how to write music with a pen and paper. Obviously, things have changed drastically since I graduated, and a good mobile app for writing music offers really compelling tools for aspiring songwriters. If you’re looking for an app for writing music, some of the most popular examples include Maestro, Musical Notepad, and Notation Pad.
Free Software for Writing Music
Mac users can take advantage of Garageband, which is pre-installed on every laptop and desktop computer. If you’re more comfortable with Windows computers, some of the best free software for writing music includes Audacity, Avid Pro Tools, and Akai MPC Beats.
It’s important to note that while these tools are ideal for folks who are comfortable with recording music, they don’t offer many of the notation features that our previous choices include.
Writing Music Online
Many things online are collaborative—and that includes songwriting.
Several cloud-based apps and websites have emerged for songwriters looking to create music without the most powerful computers at their disposal. The most popular options include Flat, MuseScore, and ScoreCloud. What stands out about these platforms is their online communities. Each site hosts a robust forum for composers to share their knowledge, ask questions, and get feedback on their work. Flat.io has many of these features built into the platform.
Inspired, but not sure where to begin? Writing music for lyrics is a popular choice, but there are plenty of other genres to consider as you start your music writing journey.
Writing Music for Kids
There’s an incredible demand for kid-friendly music that’s educational without pandering to them with nursery rhymes. Many kids’ songs encourage children to complete an exercise, teach an important life lesson, or tell an entertaining story.
Writing Music for Video Games
As a self-proclaimed video game expert (kind of), I can say that most of the games I play would be boring without compelling soundtracks. While it’s a difficult industry to break into, the need for good video game music isn’t going away as long as people like me are playing those games.
Writing Music for Guitar
Some artists like to compose songs that are strictly for the guitar. These pieces require the guitarist to play the bass line, a riff, and a melody all at once in many cases. I’m not skilled enough to play them, but these can be insanely compelling pieces of music.
Writing Music for Movies
Much like music for video games, even the most compelling movies would fall a bit flat without a strong soundtrack. While many examples of music for movies include large orchestras, movie soundtracks tend to run the gamut from classical to EDM.
Like most forms of art, songwriting can be a completely subjective field. An endless number of factors can determine whether or not a song is “good,” and you’ll rarely find consensus over a piece of music. But that doesn’t mean you can’t become a strong songwriter with a little practice, the right tools, and the knowledge you need to craft the tunes that you want to create.
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