I’ll outline the steps taken to compose something like the SJ theme and get it into the computer. You will need a basic music education (high school level) and ideally you’ll dabble in playing an instrument.
- Come up with a simple melody. This is the hardest part, and it helps having a musical instrument around the house although this is not required. It doesn’t need to be a very long melody.
- Mull it over for a couple days. If you can still remember it, it’s probably good. Tap your foot along with it to figure out what the tempo is and if it’s a 4/4th rhythm or whatever (do the counting if necessary.) Basic musical knowledge required.
- While you’re mulling it over, perhaps come up with a variation or a continuation. This gives you a little more to work with so you can extend your musical piece over a longer time span.
- Get a MIDI sequencer, also called a digital audio workstation (DAW) program, on your computer. Reaper is nice, but there are many alternatives (Cubase for example.)
- Download sample packs (these are snippets of sound recordings that can be played back on a computer or MIDI keyboard / synthesizer.) The Sonatina Symphonic Orchestra sample pack is free and very good for this type of thing.
- Install a virtual instrument plugin into your DAW that can play these samples (such as the SFZ player), if necessary. The standard for these virtual instruments is called VSTi, this is something your software needs to support.
- In your DAW, try inserting your virtual instrument on a new track. Load a sample file into it if necessary (groups such as “first violins” are just one file in Sonatina.)
- If necessary, select something like eight beats of time and create a new MIDI item or whatever your program calls it (the black bar in the image.) Then open that MIDI track in something that’s called a piano roll editor (or MIDI editor.) This editor is usually available in any DAW.
- MIDI is a way to store music electronically, like electronic notes that can be played back by any MIDI instrument. The VSTi plugin is a MIDI capable instrument.
- You should now be able to play that instrument (here the solo violin via the sfz player plugin) just by clicking the piano keys of that virtual keyboard. If you get sound, awesome, it works.
- Click and drag in the piano roll editor creates notes (DEL key deletes selected notes.) These notes are just long and short bars for long and short sounds. The vertical direction makes them higher or lower on the musical scale (different instruments have different ranges, so be sure to check further up and down the keyboard if you seem to get no sound – you might be out of your instrument’s range.) The horizontal direction is backwards and forwards in time. It’s almost like painting a melody (you can drag notes around the screen horizontally and vertically too.) Switch on the metronome (among the icons in the upper left) and press the Play button, and you will get a click track for timekeeping. If that’s too fast or too slow, find where it says “BPM” (beats per minute) and change that number. Try something between 80 and 100. Watch how a cursor moves down the piano roll as the music plays.
- Click and drag notes in the piano roll to create a melody of, say, four or eight bars (they are numbered at the top.) Feel free to edit them as much as you need to until it sounds good. You don’t need to pay too much attention to music theory here, I recommend just going by ear. If it sounds right, it is right!
- Close the piano roll editor.
Now you have a basic melody that can be played back, edited and saved.
At this point, you might want to do any number of things:
- Add another 4 or 8 bars of melody, perhaps a variation. Create a new MIDI item/track if you need to. You can arrange all your tracks and MIDI items in the big main window just by dragging.
- Change the instrument (load a different sample) you were using – the same set of MIDI notes can be played back by a trumpet instead of a violin, if that’s what you like. You might need to select all your notes and drag them into the new instrument’s range vertically.
- Add another instrument on a second track. Perhaps you want the first violins or the cellos or the horns to add to your music. Perhaps you want drums or timpanis to make a rhythm instead. It’s the same process.
- Save the project and think up a completely different part to your music – perhaps you want to bring in some flutes doing something, or a harp melody. Whatever you like.
Now for some general points.
It is possible to connect a physical keyboard (something called a MIDI keyboard) to your PC and use that to record your notes in a more direct way, instead of using the virtual keyboard / piano roll editor.
Try to come up with musical ideas while away from the PC. Doodle around on a guitar or something like that, ideally.
Learn what a symphonic orchestra is, what instruments or groups of instruments make up the whole, and try to mimic it with your electronic sample sets. Listen to a lot of orchestral music (soundtracks..) and see where the different instruments are often used, and how. Learn which instruments usually do melodies and use them in your work. Understand what instruments seem to work well together, which combinations are often used by the composers. This video explains the instruments:
Start small. Make a melody first with a solo violin for instance. Then add on more instruments if the music needs to sound fuller. Try adding 1st violins, cellos, and maybe horns. Have those play little variations of the main melody, or just pads (simple long notes that add a fundament to your melody.)
Use drums and percussions if you like. Don’t overdo it. Less is more.
Listen to more classical music. Known stuff like Mozart etc. Look all this stuff up on Youtube. Learn to identify the instruments / groups of instruments by ear. A matter of practice.
Watch live orchestras play cool music on Youtube. You might pick up some tricks.
Good luck. And remember: none of this is magic (well, except coming up with a melody in the first place.) It is a craft that follows rules. It can be learned and practice does work.