Help a Baby Musician Learn to Crawl
May 3, 2007 7:14 PM   Subscribe

I've had music in my head all of my life. I don't play any instruments (yet). Where do I begin?

I'm constantly making up new melodies and remixing other people's songs in my head. A few years ago I started writing lyrics and humming the melodies into a tape recorder. That's the extent of my ability to create music. I've long thought of myself more as a lyricist but I'd really love to be able to play around with the songs I hear in my head. But I know next to nothing.

I'm ready to learn how to play an instrument that can help me. All I know is that most songwriters/composers start with either the piano or the guitar. But my songs don't fit either of those instruments! What I really think I want, is a synthesizer. You know, a keyboard that can make many kinds of sounds? But I'm not sure if a synthesizer is what I need exactly, I don't know. I know little about them beyond that they were popular in the 80s, and all of the articles I read have way too much technical jargon. I want to pursue music-making as a hobby.

I just want to find the electronic instrument that I can play around with to my heart's content. In another life I think I would have been a music producer. I want to make beats and lay tracks and all of that too, but that's a little too ambitious I think, for where I am right now. I know I was born to make music, I just don't know where to start. I learn best by doing, not reading books. I'm willing to save whatever money I need. Thank you for your consideration.
posted by Danila to Media & Arts (13 answers total) 22 users marked this as a favorite
You probably do want a synthesizer keyboard, but this can mean a lot of things these days, from "electric pianos", to actual synthesizers where you program / set the sounds yourself. The former is probably too simple for you, if you want to make a variety fo sounds. The later is unnecessary overkill.

You do just want one of those "80's synths" with 100 preset instruments or whatever. Your best bet is so head to your nearest music store and have a play, and you will see what I mean. You will find electronic pianos / organs, with a small range of high quality, "traditional" sounds. You will find entry-level "electronic keyboards" with a pile of preset instruments (you want one of these). And you will find fancy professional synths with digital displays and sliders and knobs (maybe you can get one of these later...).

Hint: The "100 preset instrument" types are relatively cheap, and you can probably get a good one 2nd hand (check eBay).

To make sure it lasts you into the future, make sure it has MIDI output. This will let you connect it to your computer, so you can combine it with software like Fruity Loops etc. to make those beats and lay those tracks you dream of. I'd really reccomend Fruity Loops as a good compositional tool for beginners, by the way, but it is fairly expensive, it probably costs more than your keyboard will.
posted by Jimbob at 7:30 PM on May 3, 2007 [1 favorite]

FL Studio (FruityLoops' new name) is a fantastic tool for this. You just point and click and play around and eventually come up with stuff.

That said, I would absolutely suggest piano lessons in tandem with some serious theory lessons.
posted by dirtynumbangelboy at 8:13 PM on May 3, 2007

Your best bet is to get a MIDI controller:

Edirol's PCR series
M-Audio's Keystation, Oxygen, Axiom series

Prices vary depending on how many keys and features you want. try or

These keyboards don't have their own sounds but they will control sounds in your computer (through USB or MIDI), which opens up a wealth of ZILLIONS of free and cheap software synthesizers (and some expensive ones). Many of these are quite good, and some are amazing. Try or google "VST" or "VSTi" plugins/instruments.

If you just want to play these sounds live, you can "host" them for free in a program called Bidule (

If you want to record and edit what you play, you need sequencing software. I recommend SONAR from Cakewalk, but many people like Cubase and others. Most of these programs have inexpensive entry-level versions and reasonable prices for upgrading to the pro versions when you're ready.

Or you can try a FREE sequencer called Reaper ( ) -- I have not used it so I can't vouch for its ease of use, but it's worth a try.

For creating beats, I would recommend Fruity Loops (FL Studio at and/or Project 5 (from Cakewalk). Fruity Loops is a powerful tool, but it is also a fun "toy" and it's fairly easy to learn the basics and have fun creating music even if you're inexperienced.

Another popular package is Reason. I have heard excellent things about Reason and think it's an excellent all-in-one system, but I don't think you can expand it with plugins (they do have their own proprietary expansions called "refills").

The cheapest solution: USB MIDI controller keyboard, FREE software synths, FREE host (Bidule) or sequencer (Reaper). As you get more serious, you can upgrade any of these elements to meet your needs.

Good luck and have fun. It's much less complicated than it seems. Are you looking for realistic synths (something that sounds like a saxophone, trumpet, strings, etc.) or "synthy" sounds (something that sounds like progressive rock, 80's new wave, modern electronic/dance, et.c)?
posted by Alabaster at 8:23 PM on May 3, 2007 [3 favorites]

I agree that a keyboard is a good place to start, but if you want to get into writing music I think you should try to find some lessons for piano and practice on it. Even if you want a lot of synth, a solid knowledge of chord and scale progression learned from a trained ear is going to make you a much better musician, and all of your future fans will thank you. You say the piano and guitar aren't right for what's in your head now? Try and learn their sounds, and others. Experimentation leads to some great surprises.

You should also try to listen to a large variety of music. Listen to something all the time, maybe create a few stations on

Look for some Jazz, sinatra, especially, and classic rock. Simple tunes that became classics for a reason. Study the play of harmony and melody in each, how the rhythm section works with vocals or independently of it. Go to more concerts.

Being a good musician takes many years of work to perfect, but it's great when you get it right.
posted by sandswipe at 8:29 PM on May 3, 2007 [1 favorite]

Just a caveat regarding Alabaster's suggestion. While it's true that hooking a MIDI keyboard up to a PC is a great way to make music these days, you have to be aware that you need a fast PC and a good quality soundcard in order to make it work well, otherwise there can be a slight delay between when you hit a key on the keyboard, and when you hear the sound. This delay may only be a fraction of a second, but it can be very distracting. And, of course, you need to lug a PC around with you in order to make music. This is why I suggest that as a beginner you might be happier with an actual synth keyboard that can make it's own sounds, but which has a MIDI interface so you can delve into the stuff Alabaster is talking about when you feel confidant.
posted by Jimbob at 8:30 PM on May 3, 2007

By the way. BEFORE you try to study music technique and theory, spend a few months just trying to write some music based on your instincts. Just put down what sounds good to you, and don't take it too seriously. Treat it like you're doodling with crayons or playing in the sand. See what comes out.

I have studied composition through grad school, so I'm all for formal music education. But I also believe there are instinctual musicians who can do great work without technical knowledge. Sometimes theoretical/historical training causes you to overthink or to artificially box yourself in. Who knows, you might be one of those visionary composers who forges a new path and writes music in a way that's never been conceived before. Or maybe your attempts will be unsatisfactory and you'll decide you want some training after all. But hey, it's worth a shot, and it certainly sounds like you have an instinct for music despite a lack of training. So go for it.
posted by Alabaster at 8:37 PM on May 3, 2007 [1 favorite]

When I followed Jimbob's link and read about the synthesizer workstations, my heart stopped. My dreams realized. I don't understand all of the technical terms being used just yet ("sequencing", "software synths") but I appreciate all of this information because now I have a direction to go in. I will definitely go to a music store and play around with them, now that I know what I want.

I do know about keyboards. But I wanted something beyond that, exactly as you realized Jimbob. Yet all of the programming was more complicated than I wanted to start.

So, using MIDI I can use the keyboard to make whatever sounds and music I want, and use software to edit and put it all together, IF I want to. I know that's simplifying it, but I never knew how any of this worked. And if I understand correctly, midi controllers don't actually make music, but hook into the computer and the software makes the music? Like those musicians who I've seen using laptops to create songs? That's a whole other frontier I'll have to think about.

sandswipe, your advice is well taken. You're absolutely right. I come from a family of musicians and music has been a constant part of my life. I'm not a novice when it comes to music and I will continue to educate myself. I just didn't know how to start making my own.

alabaster, I'm going to be coming back to all of the information you gave me, it's a lot to digest at once. The music I hear in my head is probably more along the lines of what you called "synthy sounds". My need to play music went into overdrive recently while I was listening to some Kate Bush, if that gives you an idea. I became desperate to do more than write lyrics and hum melodies into a cheap cassette recorder. My songs are not complete without my sounds.

I know exactly what I want now, to start with, a synthesizer keyboard. My intuition was correct although I was worried that synthesizers are only for hardcore musicians. I already own an instrument, a bass guitar. I can't play it though. I took some lessons on it but what I really want is to do this as a hobby and to make my own songs, not play other people's songs. With the bass I have to learn it primarily by learning other people's songs and for some reason that has been difficult for me. So I don't see why I can't learn my own way, making whatever noise I want, trial-by-error I guess.

I'm choosing a couple of best answers already because they nailed what I was looking for but if anyone else has information I'd really like to hear it. You don't know what this means to me. Perhaps my long-windedness is a clue.
posted by Danila at 10:35 PM on May 3, 2007

Lyrics and melodies are good, but rhythm is important also. If you want a taste of the visceral, get some kind of hand drum. If you life in a big city you can search the local groups for a drum circle. Chances are something like W. African djembe drumming will be there. You can attend for free or a nominal fee in most cases and they usually have spare drums. It's good to get your hands moving and become the rhythm. That will spill over into other aspects of your music making.
posted by Burhanistan at 10:39 PM on May 3, 2007

Yeah MIDI is a way for musical instruments to send information about notes to each other. If you plug your keyboard into your computer with a MIDI cable, and press a key on your keyboard, signals will be sent:

"He's just pressed he's released it. Now he's pressed A and E together...."

Meanwhile the computer takes that information and turns those notes into sounds...what sort of sound is defined by the software it's running. But, as I suggested, the problem with computers is that a basic computer with a cheap soundcard isn't really optimized to make sounds in real time, so there might be a slight delay between when you press the note on the keyboard, and when the computer makes the sound. Using a computer set up properly for audio work, or using dedicated hardware synthesizers, or using just a keyboard on it's own, generally gives better, if less interesting results.
posted by Jimbob at 10:41 PM on May 3, 2007

You've already marked some best answers that seem to be good advice for what you're trying to do, and I think a synthesizer would be a great thing for you to really be able to make what you hear a reality. But I beg you for your own sake to not limit yourself to electronics. It will be many many years yet before electronic instruments can convey the same subtleties of expression that an acoustic one can, and besides that, it'll train your ear better.
posted by invitapriore at 11:38 PM on May 3, 2007

When you head to your music store to play around/try out the toys, be sure to hit up the microkorg. I don't have experience with many true synths, but this one is great. Good presets, and you can get under the hood and program/tweak as much as you want.
posted by tylermoody at 4:25 AM on May 4, 2007

seconding Fruity Loops. Intuitive, easy, and quick results.
posted by merocet at 9:43 AM on May 4, 2007

But my songs don't fit either of those instruments!

Here's the issue: there are some things that are easily done on every instrument that are not easily done on others. If you want a good basis in music theory, an understanding of reading sheet music, and the ability to put together some tunes, learn the piano with a course that does basic music theory. From there, learn the instrument that you really want to use. If you're lazy, go straight for that instrument.

The thing about using a piano to make, for example, brass instrument sounds or string sounds is that you might end up composing music that is nearly impossible to play on an actual instrument of that type. Problems can include everything from chords that are easily played on one instrument but impossible on others due to reach, to misunderstanding what musical key an instrument works with well in its natural range.

What instruments, exactly, do you picture using?
posted by mikeh at 11:55 AM on May 4, 2007

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