Best program(s) for a complete beginner to compose music?
April 5, 2021 5:53 AM   Subscribe

Lately I've been obsessed with the idea of writing music and creating an album, even though I don't play an instrument and don't have any musical background of which to speak. Have been tinkering with Guitar Pro and making a tiny bit of progress but I'm wondering whether it's the best app to invest my time in. Details inside.

Call it a midlife crisis or whatever, but lately I've gotten stuck on the idea that I'd like to create music -- like, at least one entire album -- just to be able to say I've done it and not be completely embarrassed with the outcome. Sort of like NaNoWriMo, or Bob Ross, but for music.

I've been obsessed with music, as a fan, my whole life, but mostly have been content to be a fan and not a creator. Given the tools that are available these days, though, I feel like it should be possible to DIY something that's pleasing to listen to. (Think Synthwave or something like that.)

Lately I've been tinkering with Guitar Pro which seems like it could work, but I'm wondering if there are better programs for complete beginners that would allow someone to compose and record music that passes for at least demo quality music. I don't mind paying for software as long as it's not super-expensive, but I would really like to find the right app off the bat so I don't invest a lot of time in something and then have to re-learn everything with a new program.

I don't have any illusions that I'm going to be the next Paul McCartney, but I'd like to be able to produce something that I could stick on Bandcamp and say "I did this, and here it is. Give it a listen."

Interested in any recommendations for a good application to get started, and any other resources that might be of help for a total beginner. Is this even a remotely reasonable thing to do?
posted by jzb to Media & Arts (13 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
Guitar Pro is software for creating sheet music for guitar players, which, as far as I can tell for your question, is completely unrelated to your goal.

I'm a musician who records and releases his own music, so I have a lot of experience in this area, but I'm confused by your question. Or maybe I'm confused by your mention of Guitar Pro.

You say you don't play an instrument, but are you planning on playing your music on guitar? If not, how are you planning on playing/entering notes into the software?

Without any musical background or any instruments to play, you'd pretty much be limited to assembling music from loops. You can do that in GarageBand (or similar software), using either content that comes with it or by buying/downloading stuff in specific styles.
posted by jonathanhughes at 6:26 AM on April 5, 2021

Response by poster: Not to threadsit but despite the name, Guitar Pro lets you do more than create sheet music. You can create parts for a bunch of different instrument types note-by-note and play them / record them, from the software with a bunch of different "voices" for the instruments. Also does sheet music, but way more. The name is kinda misleading.

Not opposed to assembling from loops, but I like the option of being able to piece together a guitar solo or bass part in software too.
posted by jzb at 6:38 AM on April 5, 2021 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I used to use ACID, one of the early loop-based music makers. The stuff changed hands a couple times, was Sonic Foundry, Sony bought it for a while, it's now owned by Magix. The basic version, "ACID Music Studio", is quite affordable at $30. Pro version is $100, and you can get a Pro Suite which includes audio separator "Zynaptiq STEM Maker" (claims to be able to separate out vocal, drums, and other sounds onto separate tracks), updated MIDI playable chopper (lets you play loops or samples on your MIDI keyboard), and ACID morph pads, which lets you modify any sound through its list of filters and recombine them.

I believe Apple's Garage Band was the same idea.

I think there's a competitor to ACID called Rytmik or something like that. I've seen often on sale at Fanatical.
posted by kschang at 6:47 AM on April 5, 2021

Best answer: I think you might be in the market for a Digital Audio Workstation (DAW).

They get pricey fast. Reaper is a nice mix of powerful and inexpensive, but it may be harder learn than eg Ableton. Reaper has a $60 license that should cover you, but it also has an unlimited, uncrippled free trial. Ableton costs $99-750.
posted by SaltySalticid at 6:53 AM on April 5, 2021

If you buy an instrument like a keyboard, it may come with the software bundled in.
posted by wenestvedt at 6:55 AM on April 5, 2021 [2 favorites]

Got it.

So, without knowing how to read musical notation, assembling music in Guitar Pro (or any other notation-based software like Finale, Sibelius, Dorico, MuseScore, etc.) seems like it would be VERY tedious, and would require a lot of serendipity to get not just the pitches you want, but the rhythms without spending massive amounts of time. I can read music, and I can't imagine composing music this way.

I would suggest getting a cheap MIDI keyboard to hook up to your computer and using GarageBand (if you're on a Mac) or whatever the Windows equivalent of Garageband is (maybe Trackton?) and using a combination of loops and what you play on the keyboard (which will be triggering built-in instruments like synths, pianos, organs, etc.).

I'd also counter your theory that "Given the tools that are available these days, though, I feel like it should be possible to DIY something that's pleasing to listen to." I mean, I suppose you easily assemble a collage of loops that would be "pleasing to listen to", but the fact that you seem to be leaning towards something that's more "composed" (i.e."a guitar solo or bass part"), then you should really spend some time learning a little bit about how those instruments are played and what some common chords are and what things like quarter notes and eighth notes are. I don't want to discourage you, as making music is awesome; and I don't think you need to take a course in music theory, but doing a little work up front will save you a lot of time later on and most likely help you better translate what you hear in your head into the software.
posted by jonathanhughes at 6:57 AM on April 5, 2021 [7 favorites]

You could try Audiotool, which is like a free, browser-based DAW-type thing.

You plug together various electronic components (drum machines, samplers, tone generators, etc) and programme them - the interface isn't too hard to get used to and I (like you, big music fan; no musical know-how) was able to, ahem, "compose" three tracks in about a week which I wasn't ashamed to play for friends.

If you like that set-up, you could then splash out on something similar but better...
posted by deeker at 7:10 AM on April 5, 2021 [1 favorite]

If you have access to a mac or idevice, GarageBand may be a good an option.
posted by oceano at 7:20 AM on April 5, 2021 [4 favorites]

Best answer: Another idea, although I have to admit that there is a bit of an up-front learning curve, is to look at something like Renoise. It's a "tracker", which is to say the same sort of software that has been historically used in a lot of demo-scene music. The idea is that you can choose samples (say, of a guitar string being plucked) and then play it at different speeds to get different pitches.

There are a lot of free sample libraries online, and you can even have it act like a software synthesizer without too much effort. You don't need an external keyboard either, to get started: you can use your laptop keyboard as a two-octave keyboard to input music.

There is a bit of a learning curve, as I said, but you can have a lot of fun with it. Trackers used to be able to produce quite impressive music despite the relative simplicity of the tool, and they are only more capable now. Memail me if you have any questions.
posted by vernondalhart at 7:44 AM on April 5, 2021

Nthing that Garageband is pretty much the "music making for beginners" program if you're on mac or ios.

I've been toying around with the browser - based Soundtrap - works best in Chrome - which has a free version that's got fewer sounds and loops than the paid version, and has limited mixing capabilities, but it doesn't suck, and might be a good way to introduce yourself to the basic concepts of making music and using a DAW without seeming overwhelmingly technical or complex. You can use your qwerty keyboard and built in microphone to get started.
posted by soundguy99 at 9:05 AM on April 5, 2021

Best answer: What aspect of making music appeals to you? Is it just lyrics and melody and you’re fine with all the music being canned? Or would you want to arrange all the parts? Are you willing to put in some effort to learn the basics of an instrument and maybe some music theory? Because I’d suggest that as a first step—something like guitar, ukulele, keyboard. A MIDI controller and DAW setup will give you lots of options as far as instrumentation. I like Reaper, as mentioned it has a fully featured demo mode you can try. Audacity is free but not as powerful. GarageBand is really great if you have a Mac.

There are timed music writing challenges with great communities out there that you may want to look into. February Album Writing Month, the RPM Challenge, or 50/90 are all more or less like NaNoWriMo for music. The first two are in February so you just missed them; 50/90 takes place over the summer. You could consider getting all set up and learning the software and/or the basics of an instrument before the next challenge starts. FAWM in particular is very supportive and has a lot of beginners as well as pro musicians, in all kinds of genres.

I’ve heard good things about Band in a Box as a way to create backing tracks but can’t vouch for it myself.
posted by music for skeletons at 9:25 AM on April 5, 2021

Best answer: As noted, the correct answer of course is Apple GarageBand. It's the most user-friendly and forgiving basic DAW available.

If you don't have an Apple, you might want to consider purchasing a used iPad. The touchscreen iPad version of GarageBand is even simpler to use and even more fun than the older laptop version. The touchpad version shortens the decision process quite a bit. It's the perfect non-trained-musician compositional tool.

With the iPad there are also some inexpensive apps available. BeatWave is a really simple visual-pattern sound generator for creating layered trance/electronica for non-musicians. The iKaossilator uses a similar pattern layering concept, oriented more to hip-hop styles.

Apparently all of these apps are also available for the iPhone, which I haven't tried but I imagine the screen real estate must be cozy.
posted by ovvl at 9:46 AM on April 5, 2021 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Because I’d suggest that as a first step—something like guitar, ukulele, keyboard.

The thing about guitar is, while it is not that hard to learn, to the level of strumming along to songs in singer/songwriter style, there is an initial purgatorial learning period where your hands are weak, they hurt, you can't play most songs because you can't even make the chord shapes, much less change between them, you can't tell when you are out of tune, and you generally do not really sound so good. So, if you wanted to get started with some kind of real-time music making along with loops, or something like that, I think getting a little keyboard controller would get you started almost at once, once you work out all the I/O routing stuff on your machine so the software gets signal from it and makes a sound. I mean you could just stab at it until you find a melody that seems to work and go from there, if nothing else.
posted by thelonius at 11:23 AM on April 5, 2021 [3 favorites]

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