Writing a Piece of Music – simple Theory

I was going to make my next article on stereo-widening in my mixing series but this came up and I think it is a more fundamental issue.

Conversation in Forum:

Me: “For a first piece it seems complex and that is tripping you up. Finish this best you can as it is definitely worth that – not bin material at all. I understand that you want to leap right into making a piece that is big and badass with a chunky drum loop and balls to wall sound but please, before you hit the wall yourself, take a step back and consider the story you are telling and then let the sounds create that story, all will fall into place better then.”

Him: “are there any tutorials or blogs i can read that will teach me how to create a good song? i am total newbie. I know what sounds good but you say i shouldnt try to create such a complex track at first… what do you mean by this? Sh0uld i create just a drum song, then a drum and bass song, then a drum and bass and lead song? or what?”

You’re right, there aren’t anywhere near as many posts on songwriting as there are on (pseudo) production techniques. It took me 25 years to get to this so maybe I can save a few other people some time.

Simple Composition Theory

Drums or even drums and bass do not make music alone. Let’s take New Order’s Blue Monday for an example. This seems like it is drums and then drums and bass but it is the melody (guitar, synths, voice) that make the song work so well. Drums and bass are simply hooks to get us to the melody and roll us through the story of the piece.

Matter of fact note now simple the drums actually are; bom-cha, most of the time. The excitement comes in from interplay of elements. When you start with drums you have to end with them as you will fill all the space before you get started.

Either start with a melody and fill in the chords or have a chord progression and let melody and then drums build to support that. I know many start with drums now but that is a trap for the unwary. Compare now Darude’s Sandstorm and see how lacking it seems in comparison to Blue Monday.

Now I hear you say “but Darude sound bigger and more exciting”, yep bigger but don’t you notice after a while that Sandstorm is one-dimensional compared to Blue Monday. Blue Monday is a classic and Sandstorm a footnote.

Reason is that Blue Monday follows enough of the rules to get to the soul but Sandstorm is nothing more than a pill that wears off (a fun ride for only a few minutes till you are exhausted).

Try this exercise:

STEP 1 – Start with a chord progression; let’s say 2 bars C Maj (C,E,G); 1 bar G Maj (G,B,D); 1 bar E min (E,G,B). That’s 4 bars. Put a simple Pad in the mix, let those chords speak.

Pad Chord 1
Pad Chord 1

STEP 2 – Create a Bass (I know you want to) and let it play mostly the root notes; C,G,E

Bass Line 1
Bass Line 1

STEP 3 – We’ll do a Lead next, keep it simple and stick to Chord Notes (only those played by the current chord). Once you have something that sounds like music then you can go on and not before.

Lead 1
Lead 1

STEP 4 – Drums; keep em simple and ONLY to accent the existing rhythm of the piece you have. Resist the urge use sample loops as they really won’t fit properly and you will not get the lesson.

Drum Loop 1
Drum Loop 1

STEP 5 – Next we will create a second set of 4 bars; copy and paste all but the melody. Now create another version of the melody, similar to the first but with changes. Play the two together till it feels like a progression. You can do a 3rd and 4th if you like.

STEP 6 – Create a new Chord progression (in C Maj – all white keys and simple triad- is safest for now) and repeat what you did above, only different. This is Part 2.

STEP 7 – Copy Part 1 after Part 2 and make some alterations to rhythms and even the lead. This is the “recapitulation”. You can end here as that is a piece right there.

Arrangement is the art of dragging that out to 3.5 minutes. That is another lesson.

Seq Overview
Seq Overview

I have made a demonstration piece along with my tutorial to help you along. You can download as Reason 7 File, MIDI file and Composition Tute – mp3 audio. I admit I didn’t cover Steps 5 & 7 (lazy of me) but you can see how with only 2 parts the piece is usable. Even if you don’t like this style – or lack thereof – this is the most fundamental part of creating any form of music. Try it out. If you make something out of this then post me a link in the comments below. See how many interesting things we can get from 3 chords and a naff melody.

If you want to get more in-depth with composition theory then find a local teacher, one who offers composition, explain what you want and if they decline then find another. Many will be Classically trained but that should not get in the way if you are both open minded. Respect their art as Mozart was a pretty clever fellow and his music way more complex than anything we are doing here on the beaty end.

Once you have a few musical sections you will need to arrange them into something that resembles music.

0 thoughts on “Writing a Piece of Music – simple Theory

  1. This is amazing, short and sweet tutorial!
    A friend told me to check it out, I am glad I did.
    Please do the follow up to this one about arranging…. Please please!
    Or do another one that digs a little deeper into theory, creating, etc

    Short, Easy To Understand, just plain AWESOME!
    I am going to add a few more pleases onto what Matt said, lol.
    please please please please do the follow up or more tutorials like this one!

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