It’s possible for anybody to learn to write music. Some composers may have more talent and be able to write more effectively than others, but the basic skills that make it possible to compose are within grasp of anyone that has the motivation and desire to learn. Whether you want to write music professionally, or create music in your spare time as a hobby, there are some basic skills you need to master that will help you succeed as a composer. Once you’ve mastered these basic elements, you’ll find that the processing of composing music gets easier regardless of your current skill level. Setting aside an hour a day can help you reach your dream of becoming a composer.

Reading and Notating Music

If you don’t yet know how to read music, this is the first place to start. While we’ve all heard the story about those famous composers that never learned to write their music down, the reality is that you need to be able to notate your ideas. Without the ability to notate your ideas, you’re limiting yourself. Playing music by ear may work if you’re a one-man show, or if you have a small band, but it’s not the most productive way to go about getting your music performed. Composers that can write down their own music benefit from the ability to write more complex works, create music for larger ensembles, and edit their music more completely.
Most Important Reasons to Learn to Notate Music
  • Write more complex works and have those works performed accurately.
  • Create music for large ensembles and provide individual parts to performers
  • Greater control and efficiency when editing and improving your compositions
Start by learning to read the notes in the bass and treble clef staff. Once you learn to identify the notes on the staff, take a sight-reading course and learn to identify the sounds of the different intervals. Once you can start identifying intervals, move on to identifying chords, chord progressions and singing melodies on sight. Work on your ear daily for 10 to 30 minutes and you’ll start to develop the ear you need to truly succeed as a composer.

Learn Basic Music Theory

Take a theory course that introduces you to the most important elements of music composition. As a composer, you don’t need to spend an extended amount of time learning about advanced and mostly useless concepts such as voice exchange or the Schillinger method of music composition. Instead, take a course that teaches you chords, scales, progressions, and basic voice leading and then move on to analyzing your own scores. A concentrated theory course doesn’t have to take longer than 10 weeks to complete. Paul Hindemith, a composer that taught at Yale, used to encourage his students to learn it and move on, and he created a 10 week theory course to teach composers what they needed to know. However, the course is somewhat outdated and hard to follow without an instructor.
Think of music theory as a shortcut. You don’t need to know music theory to write down the ideas and thoughts in your head; however, you should study music theory so that you can avoid making the mistakes centuries of composers before you have made. There are various compositional problems that you’re going to encounter as a composer. By learning theory, you can save yourself some time and avoid the most common pitfalls for beginning composers. Theory by itself won’t make you a composer, but it does provide a good first step towards becoming proficient. Take advantage of the wealth of knowledge already out there and learn music theory so that you can create new music, and not unwittingly write music that another composer has already written.

Study Counterpoint

Counterpoint teaches you how to write chords in your music without having to know a thing about chord progressions. In counterpoint, the first species has you creating one melody on top of a bass line. The melody and the bass line form a harmony when played together. In later species of counterpoint, you begin to learn how to add extra parts to that bass line. The completed product gives you one main melody with several supporting parts that sound good together. Before music theory came along, counterpoint was the standard method used for teaching composers how to write music. You can learn what you need to know from a good counterpoint class in about three months.

Limit Your Options

When you do begin to write your own music, limit the options available to you. New composers often get overwhelmed by the blank page or have trouble coming up with ideas. If you choose four or five notes to create a composition with you may find that your creativity increases and writing isn’t so difficult anymore. By limiting your pitch choices, you improve your ability to focus and avoid many of the problems that come with writing using all 12 chromatic pitches. As you develop your ear, learn music theory, study counterpoint and practice composing music, you can increase the number of pitches used.


Study Privately

One of the best ways to improve your ability to compose music is to find a qualified private music composition instructor. An experienced composer can provide you with training, exercises and feedback that can help you improve your technique and resolve weaknesses within your craft. Studying privately gives you the benefit of a second opinion and a guide to help you develop more quickly as a composer.