Rundown: Music Composition

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.)
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.)Skærmbillede fra 2015-11-23 01:56:12
  8.  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. Skærmbillede fra 2015-11-23 01:53:42
  9. 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.
  10. 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.
  11. 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.
  12. 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!
  13. 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.


4 responses to “Rundown: Music Composition

  • kp

    Great write-up. I’d like to mention a few things here that some may find helpful. Some of these are pretty “bang for your buck things”, as in the payoff is good relative to the time/difficulty to learn/implement.


    When a human performs a piece of music on an instrument there are subtle variations in tempo, volume and note duration that can, and often do, add a lot of character and interest to the music being played. With MIDI and VST’s, the notes are uniform in all these aspects which can cause it to sound cold, sterile or robotic.

    The process of going in and manually adjusting each note is known as humanization. Many programs have templates for certain common rhythms and patterns such as “swing”, for example. But really, if you just go in and adjust note volume and implement a “flowing” tempo that oscillates by just a few BPM it can really breathe life into a piece. Humanization techniques go beyond just this, of course. But even just a little generic humanization goes a long way.

    If you have a MIDI keyboard, you can record the performance and it’s characteristics. In this case, you’ll be doing some light touch-ups and not full on humanization.

    Tablature and PowerTab

    For guitarists with little to no music notation understanding, you can still write a score in MIDI with relative ease. Chances are, if you know your way around on a guitar, you know how to read and write tablature.

    With PowerTab Editor you can write your score in tablature and export each instrument as a MIDI to be imported into your DAW. This program is easy to use and is great for quick writing, playback and editing.

    Introduction to Audio Production Fundamentals

    David Gibson’s book “The Art of Mixing” does a great job of visually conveying the core concepts of audio production. Understanding these things is absolutely critical in the field of music production. I highly recommend this book for anyone who doesn’t already have a firm grasp of the fundamentals. Even if you do, it just may be worth a look.

    Music Writing Tips

    This maybe totally obvious to most people, but for me it was a difficult realization that took me many years to wrap my head around: When writing a piece of music, not every note must be pulled from the tumultuous depths of passion and emotion with each resonating note provoking goosebumps and tears of joy as you ascend into bliss. This way of thinking is flawed in many ways and will get you nowhere fast.

    It’s good to exercise a certain amount of objectivity and free yourself from an impossible standard that is not much more than some illusion you have made. Focusing on making music simply “good” will get you much further than trying to craft some profound musical journey. That being said, be as passionate as you care too, just be careful to be trapped by it.

    Learning things such as the Circle of Fifths can really help expedite the writing process. However, this somewhat advanced, but will be good to learn at some point.

    I had more to say, but I’m falling asleep. (Whoever is reading this maybe too :P)

    • kneedeepinthedoomed

      A circle of fifths video! Now we’re legit.

      The circle of fifths is actually not beginner music theory material IMHO (it is high school stuff though IIRC.)

      Anyone might want to look up what a cadenza is – that might be easier to apply in the beginning. Look up which chord progressions are commonly used in pop music, too – they can be adapted.

      I – IV -V is the most basic, but there are others.

      Major vs minor and parallel scales are another useful thing to know.

      Yet another tip – use the panorama (pan) control in your DAW’s mixer channels to set the instruments to their realistic place in the stereo spectrum, between all the way left and all the way right. This is not a law, but an easy thing to do. Set it like the conductor would hear it, violins to the left, basses to the right, etc. Although I personally prefer a more pop influenced distribution, I put 1st violins all the way left and 2nd violins all the way right. Up to you.

      It’s nice to get an opportunity to talk about this stuff. Thanks for chiming in kp.

    • kneedeepinthedoomed

      Oh and here’s another one: Don’t be afraid to repeat a melody. It would be a waste of a perfectly good motif to have it play only once. Hammer it home if you have to.

      And tabulature is indeed very similar to MIDI notes.

      • kp

        This is somewhat in the vein of something I intended to mention in my previous comment.

        Something that is easier to learn than, say, the circle of fifths is harmonies. Aside from simply a having harmonized melody lines, understanding harmonies can help you write melodies in general.

        For instance, you have a basic melody and want to repeat it but you feel it sounds a little too repetitive, you could just use the harmony for the initial melody on the repetition instead. One could even couple this with a new chord, perhaps found via circle of fifths, to put the melody in a different context.

        These are some simple and usually effective ways to repeat or extend a melody and offer some additional variety that is both interesting and natural feeling.

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