Originally posted as a Patreon exclusive.
There’s so much advice on making music out there, scattered about, and it’s hard to sort through. I have compiled various bits of advice I’ve given to people in this article.
Learn a little music theory
I promise it’s not as hard as it looks, and the basic stuff won’t affect your creativity in a negative way. There’s a lot of stuff that may hurt your music, unless you’re trying to write classical. I tried to watch a video on counterpoint species once and zoned out a minute in. Bleh.
Some music theory is widely practical though! My list isn’t exhaustive, but it’s a good start.
- Three or more notes played together (chord) produce interesting effects.
- Playing those sets of notes in certain orders (chord progression) is rad
- But even better if you keep close to sets of notes (scales)
- Number those notes in the scale and you can fit chord progressions to different scales. This is what people mean when they list a chord progression with Roman numerals, like I-V-vi-IV. It’s what it looks like: I is the chord on the first note of the scale, V the chord on the fifth note of the scale, vi the chord on the sixth note. Lowercase means a minor chord, uppercase a major. This progression on the C major scale is C, G, Aminor, F.
- Music theory is not law! And it varies by culture. Listen to some oud music. Get a new perspective on rhythm with some traditional Korean music. And listen to stuff outside the genres you usually like. You might have to really immerse yourself in a new kind of music to learn to appreciate it, and it takes patience. Getting into a new genre is like reading an old novel: you’re deep in a style and way of thinking that’s outside your comfort zone, and it takes some patience. And you may need to ask for advice, or read up on it to understand what people like about it.
- Study the masters. Look, there’s a reason a thousand songs use a chord progression that’s been around for centuries. It sounds good. I’m not saying to stick with it, but there’s no harm in starting off with a common progression when you’re out of ideas and just want to make something.
Finish songs, and lots of them I don’t care if it’s the same 8 bar loop for three minutes with variation. Finish a lot of songs. You’re not going to improve much if you fuss with the same melody for a month.
My suggested process:
Pick a few popular chord progressions and a scale to put it in (see #5 on the previous section about music theory).
Use them to write twenty 8-bar melodies and figure out how to turn each into a 3 minute song without getting boring, and without using more than one track. So no basslines, percussion, or any of that.
There are at least three good ways to do that:
- Flip your melody horizontally. So F, A, C becomes C, A, F.
- Use another chord type. There’s lots, and they each have a unique effect! Changing it usually involves moving a note up or down, or adding another. For the most part, you can learn all 12 major chords, then learn how they become other chords to make learning easier. For example, all minor chords are a major with the second note moved down one. Confusingly, the second note of a chord is called a 3rd in music theory. There’s a reason it’s called 3rd instead of 2nd, and it’s not even a bad one, but it’ll trip you up. Music theory is a jerk.
- Use a polychord. F,A,C is, in fact, F major! Now add a E and G, to turn the final C into a C major to create F, A, C, E G. I call this sweet-sounding chord the facegrabber. You can repeat this process and create all kinds of complex chords. Experiment! Getting bored around the 4th loop? Turn one of the chords into a polychord and run an arpeggio up and down it. Or, you know, other things. Up to you.
If you make electronic music, pick one synthesizer and don’t worry too much about settings. Personally, I used to compose all my melodies with the free mda ePiano even though I eventually turn them into energetic electronic music. This keeps me from tinkering for an hour instead of making music. Try to keep them in the same scale, in the same octave.
People want to find cool new things. They want to listen to your music. Someone out there likes it already and doesn’t have to immerse themselves to learn to appreciate it. Your audience is out there.
Make music for yourself first
Some people will not be into your music. That’s okay. My songs have over 800 listens as of the time I wrote this (over 1000 now), not counting streaming services like Spotify. 25% listen to the whole thing. 50% skip. Sure, I could optimize for the maximum number of people and gain a huge following and maybe make a lot of money, but why?
I make music for that one person (other than myself) who sat through Future City and told me not just how much they loved it, but why, and which parts spoke to them.
You only need $5/month from 1000 people, or about $30 a year each, to live a comfortable life as an individual in most wealthy countries. Few things are so niche that only 1000 people are into it, but you might only find that many willing and able to pay for it. That’s okay.
The music you enjoy will be similar to what you’ve heard in the past, so you can end up samey and dull if you aren’t thoughtful when making music. This is why people often suggest learning music theory. Most songs that end up with the Pachelbel progression do so on purpose, but it’s easy to use by accident because it’s familiar, even those brought up in different music traditions. Common forms of musical tools, like popular chord progressions, have a powerful gravity to them, and careless musicians tend to fall into the event horizon. This is where one-hit wonders get stuck: they get a big hit, don’t know how they did it, and pump out another album where every song sounds like the one they’re known for.