10 Music Composition Tips

Do you want to get into music? Do you have a formal education in it? No? Cool, me, neither, but then neither does Nobuo Uematsu, so that’s not the barrier it could be. So what do I have to offer? Lots, actually.

Tip #1: Theory isn’t everything

Have you ever gone on YouTube to listen to someone pick apart a cool song? Did you get immediately lost with whatever Stygian Fifth or Bothan Seventh they rattled off? Yeah, me, too. Which is why whenever I write anything I don’t bother trying to look up technical BS and just write the chord notes. It’s good because as long as you know Middle C is C4 just like the explosive, then you have the exact notes for it. Don’t get caught up in thinking you need to understand the absolute dump truck of jargon music comes with; it’s all down to the notes. As long as you understand the notes, you have everything you need. Practice is much more important than theory.

All of the theory ultimately boils down to how you want a thing to sound and that’s up to you to decide. So how do you know how it sounds? Well…

Tip #2: Get Anvil Studio

For something that’s been around since Windows 98, Anvil Studio is a miracle, and the base package is free. You can plop down notes, plop down a chord, and hear how it sounds without having to buy an expensive MIDI keyboard. Best of all, if you play an instrument, you have the choice between a virtual piano with sheet music and guitar tab interfaces, plus a piano roll if that’s your thing. It’s the most flexible way of composing I know, even if it only does MIDI. Need to do more than MIDI? Just copy your work into your software of choice. And any plugins you want are all actual purchases rather than subscriptions. Want to print your sheet music? Pony up for the sheet music printing feature and it’s yours until the heat death of the universe.

Anvil Studio lets you compose your song and play it as you go, and even to just mouse over a chord and see how it sounds. If you do end up buying a fancy MIDI keyboard, or even a budget rubber roll-out one (which is nice because you can throw those in a bag or backpack), you can probably even use it to help compose through some USB interface or another. Technically you can also just use your computer keyboard, but I never was able to wrap my head around that.

If you know sheet music, it’s an excellent way to compose. If you don’t, it’s an excellent way to learn. And there are many, many popular songs that enthusiasts have already converted to MIDI to let you watch and listen as the music plays. The only thing it doesn’t do is let you see all the tracks at once in the composer’s sheet music interface, but it lets you easily mute tracks and even make one go solo, so it’s hard to fault it for that, especially for free software.

As far as freemium software goes, it may be a little antiquated in terms of interface, but it’s totally worth checking out and even dropping money on. Best of all, there are frequent updates, so you know they’re keeping it secure. I would honestly recommend it regardless of your level of experience because many of its features will never not be useful.

Tip #3: Instruments matter

Don’t put melody on a string section, or a brass section, or any kind of section unless it needs to be there. Those things are fills and can quickly become overwhelming. They can build to a crescendo very effectively to ramp up the climax of a piece, but you don’t want that for the whole piece, unless you’re composing a string concerto. Don’t get me wrong; it’s okay to have these things for a melody! Everything is a tool; you just have to use it right. But using it right also means understanding when a more appropriate tool is in order. A screw might look quite a lot like a nail, but if you’re using a hammer for everything, you’re damaging the piece you’re trying to hold together. Fanfares are okay. Putting strings on melody for a bit or even for a whole piece is okay. But those things should support the piece. String section is a good glue to hold a piece together and even tack on a nice detail, but if you don’t have any screws or nails or even clamps before it’s dry, the whole thing is going to fall apart. Put the bulk of your melody on something that’s going to provide a clean execution for the emotion you’re going for. Strings especially can slot into many places to fill in the gaps. They’re just massively overused for parts where other things would give that cleaner execution. If you’re composing digitally (like, you know, in Anvil Studio), change everything to the default Grand Piano and see if it holds together. If it doesn’t, and the part needs a long sustain like you’d use strings for, try a flute. Try a clarinet. Try a saxophone. Try a choir. Understand what you’re working with and maybe understand that if nothing else, you may have the basis for some variations on the theme. If strings might have a better use elsewhere, maybe you might find switching it out is to your benefit. Or, maybe the strings were exactly what you needed all along.

Look, I know this section became a LOT about strings, but the same can’t really be said for every instrument. Shakuhachi isn’t the most appropriate instrument for everything, either, but it’s not like we have a flood of inappropriate shakuhachi in music. Like, it went ahead the one time someone decided to misuse it and ruined "Battle at the Big Bridge," but that’s an outlier. String sections being overused is a much more common occurrence.

But really, the same applies to any instrument. MIDI has more types of piano and guitar alone than you can shake a stick at. Try switching out your guitar for a different one and see if you like the effect better. And experiment. If you really want to up the realism of your piece, there are guitar fret and breath noises you can add in for your guitar and woodwind parts. There are telephone and bird sound effects. There’s a freaking helicopter! One of the most technically interesting pieces in the entire Final Fantasy VII OST is "Electric de Chocobo," where the guitar fret noise is used at a high pitch for all the chirping sounds that more or less stand in for bird vocals. Go ahead and try to break sounds by putting them way higher or lower than a real instrument could go. The results might surprise you.

Tip #4: Don’t neglect your rhythm and bass

If you ever had your heart pounding from music, chances are it’s because it used bass effectively for added drama, especially if that introduced some dissonance. Bass is where predator roars are in our range of hearing. You want a heart to pound, bust out that timpani and tuba. This is true of many types of music, from game themes to hymns. Seriously! If you’ve ever seen a full pipe organ, you’ve seen the huge pipes towering above you. Those go to the foot pedals of the organ because, yes, they really are that important that the music requires a whole extra set of limbs to make sure it happens. One of the many ways religion knows how to play the game of getting people pumped about it. It certainly isn’t the pews that always seem to deflate your butt like a flat tire by the time you leave.

Rhythm can absolutely do the same thing. A meldody and countermelody interweaving can be a beautiful dance as both hold worthy interest to the listener. A good backing is there to support the melodies and doesn’t need to do the same amount of work; think of it as the spotlight on the dancers that occasionally slams the disco ball. It’s a performance and while not every job is equally glamorous, every job is equally important. I’m not even talking like tonal things like harmony and chords here; this is purely about the movement and flow of the notes. You know just from listening what notes sound good together; this is about what they’re doing while they’re apart. Engineer what they’re doing in the times between when they all land on the same foot.

Tip #5: Don’t neglect your dissonance

Consonance is pretty, but you want your listener to earn that. A wholly consonant piece is boring. Introduce some dissonance so there’s some catharsis when you resolve that to consonance. Lead them through the song waiting for that resolution. Fake them out. Lead it into something and then immediately pull the rug. Dissonance leads the listener along. Best of all, throw it on your low bass to really push that heart-pounding crescendo. The bass provides your attacking tiger; dissonance sets the roar in conflict with the rest. Your song can sound finished when it’s finished; dissonance is a way to keep it from sounding finished the whole way through and getting your audience checking their watches. You don’t write "The End" at the end of every paragraph in a story, either.

Also bear in mind that something can sound good without ever resolving. If you ever heard of a "four chord song," that’s a particularly common cycle in Western music that never actually does resolve. And you don’t even necessarily have to worry about even being in a particular key. There’s music in Chrono Trigger that uses that particular technique and never resolves for that reason because there’s no way TO resolve without one. Game music especially works well with no real resolution because so much of it is in loops that never actually end. You don’t necessarily want them to. Like, they can, but it’s optional.

Tip #6: Listen to music critically

Is there a song you like? What do you like about it? Pick it apart and see what makes it tick. You don’t need to understand it at a sheet music level to do this; it could be a rhythmic thing, a certain chord, or the way a melody interweaves with a countermelody. Then make it your own. All the technical jargon in the world is useless if you’re not actually learning something. Learn from what you like. Try to isolate it in your head. Never stop learning. Once you stop learning, you will always and I mean always stagnate. That’s not creating anymore; that’s just turning a crank. There’s always a new toy to play with. You can be self-satisfied babbling about your Soongian Thirteenths or you can get down to brass tacks and do something practical with something cool you found and I guarantee if you’re doing the latter without the former it’s going to drive exactly the right people up a wall. Which brings me to…

Tip #7: Don’t be intimidated

People act like you need all sorts of formal education to do anything artistic and the reality is that the only reason anyone thinks it is because enough hoity-toity people with superiority complexes make it look that way. News flash, having known many artists over the years, the number of them who went to art school and came out feeling like it was a good idea is vanishingly small. There were some who were doing art professionally for years who decided to bite the bullet and flipped their wigs because they were better artists than their teachers, some of whom didn’t even understand how light works. Unless you hate money and love being insulted by self-absorbed dusty old windbags who have never been anything but academics and haven’t had any semblence of a finger on the pulse of the industry since before you were born, there’s nothing valuable to art school except what connections you might make and being able to slap a piece of paper with a fancy name on a table, if your mental health is good enough to want to even look at a blank sheet of paper anymore. Anything art school can teach you can be learned for free online and by just sitting down and creating or enjoying what someone else created critically. But if everyone knew that, the whole self-absorbed art school system would come crashing down, so they have a vested interest in everyone assuming classical training is the only way to go. The same goes for any creative effort, whether it’s visual, voice, instrumental, or some combination of the three. If anyone tells you formal education is required to create art, it’s because they want to justify all the money they wasted on probably the worst years of their life, or because they expect you to be paying them that money. Or maybe they’re just rich enough that it wasn’t any trial at all for them and they don’t want "lesser" people doing what they do. All three of those types are pure poison. Be the "prodigy" they nervously try to convince everyone was gifted the "talent" by a ray of light from the sky. There more of those there are, the less of them there will be trying to make everyone miserable. They’re wrong. Prove it in front of everybody. The best thing you can do is embarrass them. It really is the best way to make a toxic person go away.

Tip #8: Take inspiration from everything

Did you dream a cool song? Grab your phone and sing your groggy heart out into a recording app. Sing all the parts into different files or even the same file. Your brain just gave you free material. That song you made up as a kid? It’s yours. Read some lyrics online and then listen and the song is nothing like you expected? Hey, you just earned yourself a free song; figure out new lyrics later. Do you like the sound your baggy pants make as you walk? Maybe you just found yourself a sick beat.

Tip #9: Start small

You know a great starting point for game music? Game music. Specifically 8-bit chiptunes. NES music is an excellent library to start with. Those may not always have much in line of percussion because the noise channel was useful for all the various explosions and damage noises, but they managed to fill the air with only that, 2 squares, a triangle wave, and if they were really feeling fancy some sort of digital sound on the DPCM channel (which got very little use due to being, hilariously, off-key at basically every tone it could generate, but some games used it for drums or voice or just packed in enough samples to compensate for its imperfections). You want to figure out how to fill the gaps with a bassline rather than a string section? NES music is your best friend. You want to upgrade to something bigger? Go DOS. Especially older DOS games were composed with the Roland MT-32 in mind and that thing had 5 channels and percussion. Maybe it switched instruments a lot to hide that, but you’ll never have more than 5 instruments that aren’t played by whacking them filling the air at once and you’d never know it. Okay, maybe that’s unfair, but the ones in the 5 limit are tonal instruments played by whacking them. You get the idea. You want to see what 5 tracks can do, do yourself a favor, break out your floppies, and listen to songs you haven’t heard since 1995. Turns out you don’t need a full orchestra to make music. I mean a rock band does it with 3 guitars and a drum set, maybe a keyboard if they’re fancy. You can do a lot with very little.

Tip #10: Make utter crap

99% of everything ever created is utter crap; why should you expect any different from yourself? When you’re making utter crap, you’re learning. When you’ve finished, take a look at your piece of crap and see what works and what doesn’t. Iterate on it. Polish that turd. Get feedback from people who understand what you’re going for. Making loads of utter crap is the only way you’ll ever accidentally make solid gold instead. If you can figure out how you did it, you can make more. And never throw anything away. Chances are you’ll stumble across something you thought was utter crap months or years later and wonder why the heck you ever thought it was crap at all. Maybe you’ll still think it’s mostly crap, but find something really good in it that you’ve been struggling with more recently. Learning from yourself is just as important as learning from any other source. Ultimately, you need to figure out your own style, and who better to learn that from than you?

It’s easy to feel like everyone is cranking out solid gold, but for every solid gold gem they share with the world, there are 99 steaming piles they don’t. And they’re probably sitting banging their head on a desk wondering how everyone else can crank out so much gold when they have to crank out so much crap to keep up. Any artist who thinks they’ve gone past producing crap and only ever produce solid gold can’t tell the difference between gold and crap. Either that or they’ve stopped learning, which means they’ve stopped improving, which means they’re never going to produce anything they haven’t produced already. They’re going to end up being "that band" that has 1 song with 50 titles.

The goal of art isn’t to spin straw into gold; it’s separating the linen from the chaff. There will always be some value in whatever you do. Find it and make something nice with it. As you get better, you’ll be able to do that more easily and with nicer results because you’ll have more experience. It never gets easier; you just get better.