The 5 Steps Guide to Basic Music Creation and Theory

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  • Step 1 � About Creating Music and the Very Basic Theory

    This was originally intended for the TIGS-forums, but I thought I would post it here first just because I'm that nice (and because I want some feedback which people seems great at around here). Therefore all feedback is welcome. Even if you don't read it all, please let me know because then my english is probably not good enough yet for these kind of longer texts. Enjoy!

    What this guide is not:

    This guide will not teach you how to play any instrument. It will neither try to tech you some program to make or record music in and nor will it teach you any music history. What I will try is to teach you the very basics of music theory. By no means everything, but just about enough for you to learn how to take compositions apart and analyze them and slowly start to learn how to create a song of your own.

    About me:

    My musical experience goes back to when I was nine and I started to play the piano after school once every week. It was also during this time I first came in contact with musical theory. After I quite taking lectures I had a pretty long rest from music until about three years ago, when I first picked up the guitar and practically practiced every day for over two years. Today I play in a rock band on my spare time, a band which practice once every week at most, without a singer and no gig in sight (yet). But still, I think my musical experience is a lot bigger than most people here, and I do create the parts I play on my guitar on my own.

    Since I play in a rock band, and since I generally listen to and make that kind of music, there will be a small focus on that, however, we will also look into some examples from games and the stuff I will be covering will be useful no matter what you are planning on making.

    Games have I been playing since I, on my 7th birthday, received a Sega Mega Drive with Sonic 2. After that I have owned (and still owns) a Game boy, Game boy color, Playstation, PS2, Gamecube and Game boy Advance. I first came in contact with indiegames when I was looking for sites with freeware games and stumbled upon Gamehippo. Back then I remember it really opened my eyes to the fact that I, as many others apparently out there, could make my own games and let thousands, maybe millions download and play them. After a time Free Lunch Design released it�s amazing Icy Tower (which I played the entire Christmas that year) and through their website I first came in contact with TIGsource.

    Finally, before we start:

    I really want to point out that music is, by no means and no matter what you believe, some kind of �mystical art� or something like that. You don�t need any talent. Talent is the excuse of music corporations for failing to market an artist, or of your lousy music teacher who didn�t have enough patient or the right teaching abilities. Any one can write a song. In fact, any one can write a descent song, with a little patience. I would even say most people, with enough work and determination will be able to make a song that can become quite popular, at least with a little luck. All you need to do is read this five steps guide, and soon your songs will write themselves, and they will be good or even great and you will become famous!

    But seriously, writing songs can be though at times, and writing classics is hard, very hard. Like shitting out a baseball hard. But what fun would there be if everything came easy, right? (except sex!).

    Besides the music theory, everything I write here should just be considered as recommendations and hints which have worked well for me. That doesn�t mean that it will suit you the best, you might even find out that you must tackle the problems completely different. Always remember, there is never THE way to create music. Just as with games everyone goes different about some of these things.

    I would finally like to recommend you, and I really mean this, to learn how to play an instrument. Sure, if you want to you can create all you�re music in a program on the computer, but I personally think that it will be much more difficult. As we will talk about later, if you want to create old 60�s inspired rock, the best way to learn how to do this is simply by playing lots of those classic songs and then, eventually, you will start to make such music. However, and this is important, to create good songs you will generally either have to learn music theory, or, like Jimi Hendrix, play and wait until the rules comes naturally to you anyway. Do I have to say which way that is the fastest and simplest?

    Music takes time, so let it do so:

    I think that rule number one with music, no matter what you are after, is that there is no shortcuts. There are better ways of learning things, but certainly no shortcuts. If you are trying to learn how to play the guitar you can always force yourself to play faster than you are actually capable of, but the result in the end will be that you will have to go back and learn the precision that you previously missed and if you are not careful you can even get injured. Maybe that will not happen if you try to make a song, but the point stands. If you want to make a descent song, you can�t force yourself to create, it will eventually come natural. When you are ready, my child.

    With that said, don�t be afraid to start experimenting with what you learn here. Perhaps you shouldn�t have the ambition to turn it into an entire song at the beginning, but just try to find some nice riffs or melodies to play around with which later might form the foundation for something.

    What is music?

    As you might (or might not) know sound is created by vibrations of different frequencies which travel through the air and hit our ears. These vibrations can be differently strong (loud), but they can also vibrate at different speeds. This is what determines if a note has a high pitch (like a fork on a plate) or a low pitch (the bas in your pimpmobile) and it is the way we recognizes different tones. But using all possible frequencies in music wouldn�t work since it would be too complex. Some of the notes would even be out of the frequencies we can hear (as humans)!

    That�s why we all need to thank the monks of the 11th century (or something like that) who constructed the foundations of our western musical system as of today. The most fascinating thing about this is that it consists of only 7 whole tones (and some half, but we will cover that soon). These tones are each named by the roman letters from A to G. The best way to understand how the notes are systemized is probably by looking at the fret-board of a piano:

    As you can see, all the white tangents are the A to G notes, while the black ones are the in-between (or half) ones. Also, maybe I should point out that F# is pronounced F-sharp and is given its name by the tone of the white key to the left of it. So the black key to the right of C is hence? C# (C-sharp), very good! You should also know that these �black� tones have two names. Since they are always surrounded by two white keys you can take the name from either the right or the left. If you take the name from the left you ad # and calls it sharp, if you prefer the name on the right you ad b and it is then called a flat. Hence Db (D-flat) and C# (C-sharp) is the same note. Easy, right?

    If you are trying to learn how to play the guitar you will not have the help of black and white in the same way, but it is still the same notes. Now, if you look at your average piano/keyboard you will find that this pattern, as seen above, with two and three blacks, is repeated all over the fret-board. What does this tell us? That�s right, that those are the same notes, just a bit lower to the left, and higher to the right. I can�t explain exactly how this works, but if you press down the central C key and then the next C key further to the right, you will find that they sound really similar, just that one of them is a bit higher. As I said, I don�t know exactly the way this works, and by god you don�t need to know it either, but it has something to do with the frequencies. That�s all I can tell you.

    The Rhythm:

    Above we have talked about music, and that it consists of different tones. However, the pitch of the tone is not the only thing that matters when we are creating a melody, we do also care about the rhythm and the fact that we can make the tones last differently long. The length of the tone is usually referred to with respect to the measure. And what is a measure, you may wonder? It�s basically a way to structure music to keep track of and making the different lengths of the tones come together, forming a steady flow with the rhythm. Or as wikipedia puts it; �In musical notation, a bar (or measure) is a segment of time defined as a given number of beats of a given duration�. But unless you are planning on becoming a drummer or want to make music notation you really don�t need to know much more than that.

    In the quotation from Wikipedia above they mention number of beats when discussing the measure. The beat, in this case, is the tempo of the song. All songs goes in a steady beat, which may or may not change during the song, and that beat tells us how fast or slow we should play. Most of the time you want to play on the beat, that is at the same time as the beat occurs, and not slightly before or after. Generally we talks about how many beats per minute, or bpm, there is in a song. For example, Paradise City (

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    ) by Guns & Roses begins in 110 bpm, and then around 2/3 through (5:20 in the video) the tempo is doubled to 220 bpm! As you can see in the video, when the drummer starts to increase the tempo, everyone else must follow. This means that they all have to play in the same beat and that, for example, the bass player can�t suddenly start to play in 190 bpm.

    As stated above, the beats per minute tells us how long a measure should last. However, even though we must stick to the at the moment given tempo in a song, this doesn�t mean that all the tones must have the same length. If that were the case, all music would be very boring to listen to. The most basic note length, by which all other ones are measured, is the whole note. Basically it is when you hold out a note for an entire measure, that is the tone begins when the measure begins and ends when the measure ends. Simple. As mentioned all other notes are related to this basic note. If we play a note half as long as the whole note, that is a half measure, we get a half note. If we play a note half as long as the half note, � of a measure, we get the most common on; a quarter note. And so on and so forth. We can continue to half the length of the notes for all eternity, but there will be little purpose of doing so since they will be to fast for our ears after a while. The most used note lengths are the ones between the whole note and the 1/16th note.

    Does this seem confusing to you? It is probably a bit overwhelming to take in all of this which we have covered at once, but it is essential for our progression. Now you should have the basic tools to talk about music which in turn means that we can move on and actually talk about the creation of songs. Also, if you find the part about the rhythm a bit confusing, don�t worry. As long as you are anything like me, this will come naturally to you as soon as you start to make some basic tunes of your own and then, suddenly one day you realize that you have learnt it all.

    If anything is the least unclear to you, please just ask me. I have a tendency to sometimes explain stuff as if everyone already knows what I�m talking about. Oh, and all feedback is very welcome. The next lesson we will be covering scales and how to make a simple tune. Until then, make sure to practice your instrument/program of choice and try to learn the names of the tones that you play.

    Step 2 � Scales

    Step 3 � Chords

    Step 4 � Song parts and picking a song apart

    Step 5 � Creating a song of our own

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  • i don't know - any one can write a song, but only few will write a good song. but it is alweys good to understand music. it does change point of view on life.

  • it's nice that you make the effort of explaining music theory! just make sure you're not rewriting "The Raven's Spiral Guide To Music Theory" - it would be a shame to waste your time & energy doing the same thing again.

  • megatronx: Well, I actually think that most people with a lot of practice and some luck can write a good song. However, of course this depends on how you define a good song. If you mean popular, like a radio hit or something, then I�m absolutely sure that anyone can write such a song, since the foundations for these are basically the same chords and concepts. But, on the other hand, it is very unlikely that they would be able to produce it on their own. And writing an original song, that is something like no one has done before, which at the same time is good is more difficult.

    dkdoom: Thank you very much for your kind words. Tough, I haven�t heard of "The Raven's Spiral Guide To Music Theory". I will probably look it up so I�m not making the exact same thing as someone else.

  • i guess it's just another little guide by someone ;) - but i found it easy to read & understand. it's a quick find on google, too (4th link from above)

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