How to compose music

Composing music is simple

This article is written for moms (dads, nannies and anyone who mentors a young child) and explains how composition works.

I have been a musician all my life and reverse engineered many popular songs. First, let’s understand the need for reverse engineering. If you bought the sheet music for a popular song then you get the song lyrics and the lead melody. You can not buy what the piano player, guitar player(s), bass player and drummer are playing. That would be called the score and is never available for sale.

Learning the song based on the bought sheet music will most likely not give you the results you would like. So how does one actually play a popular tune in a way that others want to listen? The short answer is based on reverse engineering. By that, I mean to listen to the actual recording and separate all of the different instruments in your mind. After that, once would write down each individual part for the band to learn.

Everyone who can reverse engineer something sooner or later begins to understand how it was made. Writing music parts based on how they were recorded on a CD is no different. Before long, one begins to understand what the song writer did and with that, I’d like to pass on the knowledge to you right now.

I will show you the basic simple principal that every country or pop songs is built on. Think of it this way. If I taught you how to count to 60, then you have all the skills to finish counting to 99 on your own. With just a bit more instructions, you could figure out how to count to 999. By understanding a topic, once can reverse engineer the missing parts.

Chord progressions

Music is written on staff which is nothing more than five lines that hold the notes. Those lines are further sub-divided into bars. Another word for bar is measure. Ether way, bars and measures are the same thing. Have you ever heard the term “12 Bar Blues”? It means nothing more than 12 measures of music that repeat a few times.

The key to understanding the concept of composing is to understand the way measures progress. Let’s look at a quick example. Everything that is between two | lines represents one measure or bar. Let’s look at eight bars of music.

Song Title
| N1 N2 N3 N4 | N1 N2 N3 N4 | N1 N2 N3 N4 | N1 N2 N3 N4 |
| N1 N2 N3 N4 | N1 N2 N3 N4 | N1 N2 N3 N4 | N1 N2 N3 N4 ||

How to reverse engineer the above example

If you use a smartphone, then turn it to display the two lines in one row without breaking it. This makes the explanation easier to understand.

The two lines have four groups of N1 N2 N3 N4 entries.
N = a note, the number just specifies that there are four notes per measure.

If we know what N is, then we can compose

So far, we have established that notes are grouped into measures and a basic song has four quarter notes per measure. Just like money, four quarters mad one Dollar. Music works exactly the same. Four quarter notes make a hole note but this article is not focusing on note values for they are easy to grasp.

Take a look at NOAH, which is our starter app here at the Little Composers School of Music and Composition.

minimal piano app for kids

NOAH has just seven notes but the key to understand composition lies in understanding those seven notes. Let’s list their names so that we are all on the same page.

  • Bird
  • Camel
  • Dolphin
  • Elephant
  • Fish
  • Giraffe
  • Alligator

Each animal was chosen based on the first letter of the name. Those who enroll as students will learn a lot more amazing facts about mimiMAL.

If you understand the following image, then you will be able to compose in a few minutes from now. Take a good look at the image below and then study once more the NOAH animals and how they are grouped from left to right in the order of B C D E F G and A.

how to compose music

Red group and black group

Amazingly, when someone who doesn’t play an instrument walks up to a piano, she/he presses a few random keys, shurgs her/his shoulders and gives up. That is not unusual because everyone knows that it takes years of piano lessons to play.

If a person would only know that the keys need to be grouped and then the groups need to be divided into measures, she/he could play music. Without years of lessons and without practicing. Understanding the concept of music is a huge shortcut and should be taught to everyone before they take lessons.

Red group: C, E and G
Black group: B, D and G

Could it be really that simple? Yes, it is that simple. The rest is just basic mathematics. Lets look into four measures of music again but this time, we use the colors.

Song Title
| 4 red notes | 4 black notes | 4 black notes | *3 red notes ||

*3 red notes. Why does the last bar have only 3 notes instead of 4? We listeners feel that a song has ended when we hear a long note. Amazingly, our brain is easy to trick and by skipping the last note, we perceive the 3rd note to be long.
That is a natural ending and the next time you listen to music you will begin to see this rule in action. Many songs end on a long note.

Music is math

Children who are exposed to music lessons at an early age have a much better understanding of mathematics because music and math are closely related.
If you memorized the red and black note groups and then used math to arrange the notes from each group according to a pattern then you could compose music.

After NOAH, we move our students up to the Pre Piano Keyboard. If you have read this article then you will instantly understand this app. Take a look at the user interface and reverse engineer what we have been talking about.

pre piano color coded keyboard
Actual app screenshot of color-coded keyboard

Once a child understand NOAH, it is ready to compose more complex compositions with the Pre Piano Keyboard.

I will end this article with a bit of mind-blowing math which will show you the power of our custom-designed apps that look simple but are not. The color-coded user interface is just an overlay to hide the complexity of mathematics until the child (and mentor) understands.

There are a total of 4 measures. Measure 1 has 4 red blocks. Measure 2 has 4 white blocks. Measure 3 has again 4 white blocks. Measure 4 has 3 red blocks of which the last block is twice as long as the previous blocks. This represents a long note. Anyone who memorizes the two groups can populate the measures and blocks with the right notes based on the example I’ve just given.

The red group always starts out and you can chose any value for N as long as it is C, E or G. Even four C notes are OK. The only rule is to stick to the three allowed notes.
The next two measures do not use notes from the red group except the G. The G note is special and is present in both groups. Our online courses explain which this matters but for now, just remember that you can use the G note almost anywhere.

The last measure is special. To understand, we have to define 3 rules which we use when we compose music.

And here is the mind-blowing part I’ve promised:
We can use 5 notes to populate 14 fiels and 1 note to end (see Rule #3 below). Based on that, we can multiply 5 to the power of 14 to get the total number of compositions that can be made with the Pre Piano Keyboard. Let’s do it.
5 ^ 14 = 6103515625

Anyone who understands this article can compose billions of short melodies. Those short melody patterns can then be joined together to make up a full song.

The 3 rules of composition

Rule #1 : 4 red Notes start the song
Rule #2 : 8 black notes fill measures 2 and 3
Rule #3 : Always end a composition with C

Breaking the rules

As you can imagine, it does not take long to understand these three rules. Real music always uses those rules but once one understands them 100%, she/he can break them. Breaking the rules means that we can have “passing notes” that temporarily can be mixed in from another group. This is a more advanced topic and covered in our COMP 301, 302 and 303 online courses.

Thank you for reading. If the explanation seems complicated then re-read it. Learning usually happens when we read the material multiple times. For every pass will teach you something new and the key to succeed lies in repetition.
If you have a question then please post it below. Little Composers is monitoring the post responses and will answer every inquiry.

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