Help me start making music!
June 6, 2014 10:47 PM   Subscribe

I don't know where to start engaging with the process of actually making music. I know a little bit of music theory and can read music. I think I'd really enjoy exploring the structure of music by actually playing around and making music. I'm totally lost about where to start though and I'd be grateful for ideas or resource suggestions—books, websites, etc. Maybe a book that teaches music theory through composition?

I've been singing for many years—basically, folk music from around the world. I play basic guitar but don't enjoy it very much. I started learning the piano and violin just a few months ago—I'm loving both, but obviously I don't have enough skill to use them as tools.

Fire away if you have suggestions.
posted by miaow to Media & Arts (13 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
My suggestions would vary based on getting more details from you, but I'd say that the best way to start is to make things as easy as possible, focusing on one goal at a time. So, if by "making music" you mean writing singer/songwriter type songs, I'd start by separating out the lyric writing from the music part.

If you wanted to work on your lyric writing, you could begin by writing new lyrics to a preexisting song. Take a song and learn the chords on piano or guitar or whatever, and then write new lyrics to that. Think of it as a parody, but you don't need to make it funny. I've found this to be a pretty good exercise because it gives you some limits.

If you want to start working on writing new music, than don't worry about lyrics at all initially. To work on melody writing, take and existing song, use those chords but create a new melody on top of them. Again, it gives you some limits, but that allows you to focus.

If you prefer a more open approach, try this: Start with one chord, and write a melody to go over that chord. Try to keep in mind a song format, so that you've got a verse melody which transitions into a chorus melody, and then back again. Once you've got that, you can then change the chord for the bridge section (going up to the V chord is good here because it will pretty much always work, unless your melody is really odd), and then come back to the original chord for your final chorus.

Another approach which can help to experiment is to start by writing a simple melody over a major chord. Then, play that same melody, but bring the chord down by 3 half steps and make it a minor chord. This should have a totally different feel, but will usually still work fairly well. Repeat this by keeping the melody, but playing different chords underneath and see how many can fit with the melody. Put those chords together, and you have a structure for a verse or chorus. Repeat the exercise a few more times and you can probably stick the different parts together to make a song.

One trick to help keep you from getting stuck is to have a 6 sided die, and assign one note of the scale to each number, ignoring the first note (so in the key of C, the die numbers would correspond to DEFGAB). Anytime you are feeling stuck, roll the die and see if that note or chord works, and if nothing seems to fit, you can always just go back to the first note/chord.

From my experience as a composer and teacher, I've found that learning theory is not necessarily the best way to start as a song writer. It can help for some people, but unless you are going into classical or jazz (which typically have a lot more going on in terms of chord changes and other theory stuff), you may be better off trying to focus on writing smaller bits by ear within a controlled structure.

If you are trying to learn to write jazz, the Jazz Piano book by Mark Levine is a great one to get, it covers a ton of stuff and is applicable to a lot of instruments.

Regardless of how you do it, I'd strongly suggest writing down or recording everything you create, and holding on to it for a while. While you are learning you may come up with a bunch of melodies or chords or lyrics you don't know what to do with, but at some point when you start feeling like it all is clicking, you can come back to all of that and expand on it further, rather than constantly starting from scratch. I know that I've got songs from years ago which I plan to cannibalize because I love the chorus but hate the rest, and you'll likely come up with that too.

Just like with any art, the hard part at the start is to realize that most of what you create is not going to be great at first. The goal should be quantity, not quality. Don't spend an hour trying to fix 3 notes of a melody to make it perfect, instead spend that hour writing 10 new melodies, one of which may be much better than the first. Churn out as much as you can until you figure out what process works best for you. It may be plunking notes out on a keyboard, or singing into a recorder while jogging, or contemplating lyrics while laying out under the stars. Everyone comes to it differently.

I have found that for me, I come up with some of my best melodies while in the shower or driving, so I know that I need some way of recording ideas during those times. Having a phone with a voice recorder has saved me hundreds of song ideas that would have otherwise been lost. If you have a place where your thoughts seem to come more clearly, that might be where you come up with your best melodies, even if you aren't planning to be writing music at that time.
posted by markblasco at 11:35 PM on June 6, 2014 [6 favorites]

I suppose my question was rather vague—sorry! I think when I say "make music" I don't quite mean write singer/songwriter type songs with lyrics, but—how do I put this?—to play with the elements of music and feel them out.

I am fascinated by harmonies, progressions of notes and what they make you feel, timing and subtle rhythm, and the overall structure of a piece of music—how it falls and rises, the movement within it. (See, I don't know enough theory to have proper terms for all these things).

Partly I'm stuck because I don't know where to start, and partly because I'm not sure what tools to use. Since my only real instrument is my voice, should I use software to simulate instruments? Should I just begin by studying the structure of pieces of music I find fascinating? Are there ways I can make this study more active and creative? These are the sorts of questions I have.
posted by miaow at 12:35 AM on June 7, 2014

For me, it's all about improvisation.

As someone with no formal musical training, any tune I dream up (melody, harmonies, percussion, all of it) comes from simply playing around. Either in my head, or with whichever instruments are at hand. Voice, guitar, bass, piano, uke, hands, shakey rattly things, computer and synths, harmonica, anything.

It seems to me that a lot of people with formal musical training struggle to improvise. Obviously this isn't true of all people with formal training, but I have seen it time and time again. Amateur piano players who can't play anything without sheet music. Not to denigrate pianists, that's just the cohort in which I've noticed this most :)

I'd suggest you start to improvise. Every day, whether you think you can or not. Use your voice while listening to music, sing the bass line, the violin part, whistle along to the guitar solo, anything. Then harmonise: sing a third above the melody, a third below. Pause the tune if you can, or put your fingers in your ears, and.... extrapolate? How would Ella Fitzgerald have sung that last line? How would Beethoven have resolved that last passage?

Improvising is a great route into composing. Often I'll find inspiration from humming along to a half-remembered tune in my head. On a more formal, structured level I found modal scales useful for screwing around. I don't compose music in any of the more exotic modes, but I have used then in the past to take an early sketch of a tune into a different direction.

I hope that's some help -- if I've understood your question.

I guess the basic summary is: just do it! Sounds dumb I know, but it works.
posted by ajp at 1:42 AM on June 7, 2014

Oh and I guess you could start recording on some sort of multi-track. I've not used it, but Garage Band is popular as a basic recording and arranging package. Again, I'd say just get started. Find something, anything, to start recording. Don't try to predict your requirements, they'll change. Just start.
posted by ajp at 1:45 AM on June 7, 2014

I'm confused, sorry.

Are you saying that you want to write music? Jam with other people?

If you want to create music, just fucking noodle around on the piano. I don't want to be an asshole, but I think the ability and interest to just kind of let it flow is something that you're born with. Do you have a song in your heart? Do you like that chord that sounds weird? That interval? Whatever. Don't try to make something new. Just get out of your head and let it flow.
posted by ablazingsaddle at 1:58 AM on June 7, 2014 [3 favorites]

> Since my only real instrument is my voice

All in all this is a pretty great starting place. Much of what is interesting to me about music comes from having two voices together, so I second the recommendation to get some type of multi tracking stuff together. Garageband is pretty great, and the ipad version has lots of easy to play backing instruments. Even if you don't have a ton of skill, those emulate something like a autoharp, making the basics of putting down tracks really easy.

If you are on windows, I am not sure if there is an equivalent, but I remember Reaper worked alright. There is going to be a learning curve here, so settle down with some tutorials. It has synthesizers and instruments built into it. Also the evaluation version is free. There are innumerable other options though.

Generally, most music that you hear, or sounds that you expect are the combination of more than one voice at once. The easiest way for an individual to pull this off is either to get an instrument that can sustain multiple notes (you are on the right track with piano), or dig into multitrack recording. Probably both.

In terms of the more open question of how to you explore music? I have tons of fun trying to deconstruct and cover songs that I find interesting. Take a piece of music that you don't understand, and attempt to make a one to one version of it. Can be arduous, but totally worth it. Write a piece of music beginning to end, and release it on the web, get feedback, attempt to improve. You might want to invert those two things. There is music theory books that you can crack open, but I tend to visit that stuff as an explanation for things that I have already discovered on my own.

I also found that putting time limits around my work helped, so write and finish a song in two hours. Record it, but don't come back to it, move on to the next thing. Do you have friends that work in other time based mediums? Maybe make a sound track for your friends short film. Form a band (if you are in a situation that allows it).
posted by jonbro at 2:06 AM on June 7, 2014 [1 favorite]

Maybe record yourself onto multiple tracks using a looper?
- KT Tunstall, Cherry Tree
- Imogen Heap, Just For Now
- Dub FX, Love Soneone
- Rozzy Boo, Happy
- KT Tunstall, Want You Back

There're software loopers as well.
posted by at at 5:58 AM on June 7, 2014

I'm going to nth others in suggesting that, since the instrument closest to hand is your voice, you could start out by doing simple multitrack arrangements. I imagine that picking up a used tape/digital multitrack unit wouldn't cost too much (probably not more than a decent physical instrument, anyway). And the (basic functionality) learning curve isn't very steep.

If playing around with arrangements in that way is pleasing, you could upgrade to a DAW (computer based music program) to make more complex pieces. Some of these are quite expensive, but many are offered in "starter" versions with only the most necessary functions enabled. My personal favorite is FL Studio, which is pretty easy to learn, offers an inexpensive "light" version and reasonably-priced full versions, and features free lifetime upgrades to new iterations.

BUT. I have to admit to being a bit baffled by this question. As a musical person, from a musical family, my feeling is that music is just something you do. You are compelled to pick up an instrument and mess around with it. If it doesn't suit you, you pick up another. You don't need to "learn" how to write songs, you just write songs (obviously, not very good songs, at first, but the Theory stuff comes later). You muck around, and something sounds right, and then you go from there.

I don't say this to discourage you -- you might have a real gift to offer -- but it strikes me like polling people on how to take a breath.
posted by credible hulk at 7:20 AM on June 7, 2014

To address the bafflement. What comes easily to me is to pick up songs I love, find the words, and sing them. Or play chords on the guitar to accompany a song I'm singing. I do record on GarageBand, see which bits don't sound right, resing them, etc. This I've been doing for years. I like picking out melodies on the piano/violin too (but as I said, they are very new to me). But these are songs that are already out there that I'm simply reproducing.

This to me seems different from playing around with the STUFF of music—notes, rhythms, etc—and actually making it. I feel very much like I want to do this, but I've been dithering and felt like a bit of a push, which is why I asked the question.

Some useful suggestions coming in though—thank you.
posted by miaow at 7:33 AM on June 7, 2014

I get the feeling you're craving something a bit more grounded in a formalized music theory* than just plinking out tunes on a piano. I've always really enjoyed finding clever ways of writing music within the constraints of theory. While I'd caution against thinking of theory as "this is how it must be done" and more "this is how it has been done," having that knowledge in your bag of tricks sure helps.

Music composition lessons (or song writing depending on the genre you're looking at learning) are an actual thing you can do, just like taking piano or violin lessons. If you're near college with a music department, you could contact them see if they have any grad students or faculty that teach composition lessons privately. MIT also has some free composition coursework up.

If I'm reading you right, the pieces you're interested in learning about are the arrangement (how the various themes\harmonies\melodies\etc get fit together into a cohesive whole), orchestration (what instrument plays the pieces), and forms (a pre-existing structure the music can follow, this can overlap with the arrangement, but can also include things like rhythm for dances, there's a lot of history in forms) of different pieces of music as well as the theory. For classical music, a lot of orchestras have talks hosted by the conductor, those are awesome for learning about that kind of thing.

*There's a fair bit overlap and cross pollination, but the theory behind different pop and folk styles, Jazz, and Classical music can get pretty different once you dig in. I can give you specific recommendations on Jazz or Classical theory and arranging books if you'd like.
posted by Gygesringtone at 8:39 AM on June 7, 2014 [3 favorites]

Yes please, to Classical theory and arranging books! I'm in India in the boondocks so classes aren't an option, but the MIT coursework looks interesting.

Also if you have suggestions for a talk or two that I could begin watching, that would be super.
posted by miaow at 8:46 AM on June 7, 2014

OK, based on your comments, here's what I'd do. If you are mostly interested in songwriter type stuff, start with the Beatles. They have a huge variety of songs that range from really simple to really complex. Take a song that has a feel you like, and transcribe out the chords and melodies (or find a site online that has already done this). Look at what chords they used to get that feel. Next, try to recreate that feel yourself, using the chords you've transcribed as a starting point.

If you are mostly interested in classical music, I'd suggest diving into film scores. Film scores are typically a lot more accessible than traditional classical music, and the feel/mood/emotion is often a lot more extreme. Due to this, it would be easier to find a section of a song that does something interesting, and then transcribe it out to figure out how it works.

There are books on film scoring, I don't know which ones are best, but you can start to look at those.
posted by markblasco at 12:59 PM on June 7, 2014

Sometimes a nudge is as good as a shove. If you have a basic grasp of chords and keys, and a general appreciation of how music is scored, then it may be useful for you to simply google up a few terms, and see what happens: for one example, you can look up such terms as "passing chords" or "transition chords," or "cadence" to get a feel for the very wide range of possibilities that come with intervals of various flavors. You will get examples that range from Mozart to Coltrane, set up with a short, scored image, and a midi passage.Discussions of cadence feature a sort of musical grammar that can expand your notions of structure immensely.

I am not a schooled musician. Aside from some training in grammar school, I have mostly done my own teaching: via mentors, reading, songbooks, listening, and such. In some ways I wish I'd delved into the technical aspect of music sooner--sight reading for one example--because it would have saved me a lot of work now.

I play several instruments. Right now I'm mostly into guitar, bass, and banjo. I play folk, folk rock, rock, blues, and various types of old-time music. I've been playing strings for over 50 years. Right now I'm refining my licks as a rhythm guitar player for a bunch of insane fiddlers here in Southern Oregon. I've spent the past year cleaning up my fills and bass lines. Now I'm working with a couple of musical partners to form an ensemble of 3-5 players, featuring blues, rags, and certain selected country and Appalachian pieces. My task with this crew is to develop fills, short leads, and openings.

I don't consider myself to be a talented player, but I am dogged, and willing to endure fret buzz and tender fingertips while I search for that sweet sound. Also, I recently discovered that I have a two-octave singing voice. I am exploring the possibilities of singing, a thing I more or less just never really thought about all these years (go figure).

It may be that searching out a few new terms on the internet can get you moving in (any particular) directions that ring your bell. On the other hand, you might benefit from seeking out a musical organization (I use the Old Time Fiddlers, a national org with branches at the state and county level). In the past year or so that I've played with them I've learned about 200 tunes. Yes. 200. Okay, we all know that many songs can be picked up on the fly, but still.

In my case, I've come to grips with such terms as modals and pentatonic structures, as well as various cadences. Refining my chops as a rhythm player has led me out of my musical doldrums (mostly over-used folk songs), and into such scary places as the Coltrane turnaround.

I consider myself to be nearly illiterate musically, but I have a good ear. I hope my ramblings here offer you some ideas. Anyhow, however that works, music is the sweetest gift an individual can hope to possess. My guitar brought me through some trying times. Now that I'm mature and in a stable situation, my dotage is enhanced to the nth degree by being able to pick up my instrument and bend a few strings.
posted by mule98J at 8:29 PM on June 7, 2014

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