How to write music
From nothing to something
This recipe is designed to:
- Help you create music for your song
- Highlight the most important musical decisions to take when song writing
Below you will find:
- How to make musical choices
- Five ways to think about melody
- Five ways to think about harmony
- Three ways to think about rhythm
This recipe can’t cover everything on how to write music or all of the decisions you may need to take. It assumes that you:
- Know what major scale is and how to play it
- Understand what a key is and the basics of functional harmony
- Know the (Nashville) roman numeral system for identifying chords
- Can play chords and melodies on an instrument or programme them using a digital audio workstation like GarageBand or Reaper.
- Have the means to record your music
Please let us know in the comments if you would like us to add recipes on each of these topics.
Problems this recipe solves
- You want to create the music for your song and don’t know where to start
- You have a riff or section of music and need to build it out into a song
How to make musical choices
Think about what you are trying to achieve. The musical choices you make directly influence what your audience feels. As you create the music for your song this consideration should always be at the front of your mind.
Do you want people to dance? If so between 117 and 126 BPM is likely to be the right sort of pace. A syncopated bassline might help. If you want people to feel sadness, slower tempos tend to evoke this feeling. Darker, more tightly grouped intervals could help.
You can start with melody, harmony or rhythm. Each of these musical elements interplays with the others. A rhythm suggests a feeling and melody. Harmony suggest melody and rhythm. Melody implies harmony and rhythm. If you have already written lyrics you might start from the rhythm implied by the meter. The important thing is to start somewhere and keep your creative intent in mind at all times.
Five ways to think about melody
1. Start with melodic rhythm
A large part of what moves us in a melody is it’s rhythm. Listen to some melodies you like and clap out the melodic rhythm. This will give you an idea of the type of thing that works.
Clap out a rhythm of your own, experiment until you find something you like. Remember to keep it simple, the song need to be easy to sing. Building a melody from the rhythm up rather than from notes and intervals down tends to produce hookier results.
2. Add pitches
Choose a key and scale. Experiment with other scales and modes to create different feelings if you understand how they work. If in doubt choose the major scale.
Make sure you sing the melody you are creating as you add pitches and intervals to your melody. It’s important that your melody stays within most peoples comfortable vocal range (also know as the tessitura).
3. Movement and Intervals
A melody can move in one of four ways. Often sections of a song move in contrasting ways. If the verse is largely static then the chorus is likely to move by step or leap. A single motif can use more than one type of motion however. Over the rainbow leaps up an octave and then slowly comes back down to earth using steps.
Where the melody sticks to one note or almost one note. This puts the focus on the rhythm of the words and can make it easier to deliver more words than the other forms
A melody that moves up or down the scale playing each note. This feels controlled and connected but small and limited
Moving by anything larger than a step, feels more open and free. I think of skips as thirds and fourth but that’s just my system. The barrier between skips and leaps isn’t well defined.
Anything larger than a perfect 4th interval. Moving in leaps tends to feel powerful and energetic.
Think about the melodies shape. We can imagine 6 basic melody shapes. Linear, ascending, descending, arch, inverted arch or zigzag. It’s sometimes useful to think about the overall shape of your melody.
5. Question/Answer and resolutions
Use question and answer phrases are very common. Listen out for them in songs you like. Which musical phrase sounds like a question and which sounds like an answer? There are many ways to make a musical statement feel like a question or answer. In general there’s something about the question that makes it sound unfinished or less finished than the answer. If a phrase finishes off the beat and is followed by a similar one that finishes on beat they will feel like a question and answer. You can do the same thing using the range. If the second phrase finishes higher than the first it will feel like and answer. This should be enough to get you going with questions and answers. If you’d like to learn more on the topic let us know in the comments.
Five ways to think about harmony
1. Story telling helps guide your choices
Imagine that the notes of the melody are the characters in our story. Harmony tells us about their character traits and actions. Harmony is a powerful tool. It can help us tell stories and stir strong emotions. It is also a very deep topic. We have many recipes on different aspects of harmony. Don’t be scared by the apparent complexity. Use what you know and keep learning using our recipes.
2. Use standard progressions
It’s good to remember that you don’t need to know everything about harmony to get started. If in doubt use one of our standard chord progressions. Play with them. Feel free to change them, mix them up and swap chords out of them. Listen to the feeling they create and use them like colours in a paint box. Using these progressions alone could provide enough songs for a whole career. You can find them here.
3. Use this chart to build you own progressions
You are in control, you can play any chord you like. If you haven’t yet studied music theory it can be hard to know where to start. If you want to create progressions that sound consonant and resolved this chart makes it easy.
If you start anywhere on this chart and move to the right as much as you wish. Only move left along the arrows. The progressions that result will sound “smooth”. Notice how the musical phrase feels completed when you travel along one of the arrows. If you would like to learn why this works or are confused about what this chart means, read our introduction to functional harmony.
4. Generate chords with software
5. Use borrowed chords like a spotlight
Unexpected chords draw the listeners attention. This is a great way to underline the most important phrase of your lyric or signal a change between sections of the song. You can borrow chords from the minor mode or advanced techniques like secondary dominants.
Three ways to think about rhythm
1. Pick the right tempo
Rhythm is fundamental, it animates the music. Without the rhythm there’s no melody and harmony has no life. Getting the tempo of your song right is essential. Researchers at various universities have found that most songs sit in the range of 116 – 126 BPM (beats per minute). It is thought that this is the range where humans entrain to to beat and there’s a possibility of dancing. There is however more to this story. Tempo has psychoacoustic effects. Slower songs tend to be perceived as more sombre or sad, faster songs tend to be sound happier. This is why artist like Sia favour unusually slow tempos.
2. Syncopation makes space for dancing
If you would like people to dance to your song you need to make space for them in the rhythm. When we breakup the exact rhythmic patterns used in music we create that bit of space. The music becomes slightly harder to follow but we feel the need to move to fill the space. Beware however, too much syncopation and the music becomes too hard to to follow. Off the Wall by Michael Jackson is a case study in getting this balance right as is almost everything Nile Rodgers has had a hand in.
3. Metric modulations
4. Other time signatures can help
Most pop music is in 4/4 (common time) but even in pop other time signatures can lend a hand. This can be as simple as switching time signature between sections or as subtle as dropping in one bar of 3/4 before the chorus to make the song feel like it jumps into the new section.
5. Consider varying the tempo
You should now have most of a song. It’s time to take a step back and think about how to improve it. It’s really important to create contrast between song sections, lets learn how to do that.