Say you’re a human being, and you happen to enjoy that hip-hopping and bleep-blooping our species calls “music.” Maybe you’re tired of sitting idly by and listening to the dumb stuff other people put out. “Pop music is garbage!” you say. “I could do better!”
The question is, how do you get from just wanting to write desktop music (DTM) to actually putting a song together? Do you have to study a bunch of stuff or buy expensive equipment? Let’s answer some of these basic questions.
1. Do you need to know music theory or how to read music?
Not really and no! If your goal is making actual audio (rather than scores for musicians to play), you’re in luck. It turns out band geeks and choir kids mostly wasted their time in high school. DTM has eschewed traditional music notation in favor of the digital piano roll, which shows the note pitch and duration much more intuitively because it’s not limited by the vertical or horizontal constraints of a piece of paper.
As for a foundation in music theory: think of music as a form of language. While you can improve your grasp of the language by studying the intricate grammar rules in a textbook, your fundamental understanding comes from immersing yourself and listening conscientiously. This helps you develop an intuition for chord progressions and phrases in much the same way that you are able to form new sentences by borrowing things you have already heard and using the same basic building blocks. Rhythm is also something you develop more with practice than textbook study and, unlike with real instruments, you can instantly preview what the rhythm you’ve written sounds like and adjust until you get it right.
If you find you sit down to write music and lack any so-called “intuition” for what music should sound like, you may want to brush up on the basics: a sense of major and minor scales, intervals, triads (major, minor, diminished, and augmented), and complex chords (7, M7, m7, and sus4 are good places to start). Furthermore, prospective songwriters in pop and rock may benefit from learning common chord progressions (like I-vi-IV-V).
For ambient tracks, atonal music, or modal jazz, just start slinging notes down, or use the twelve-tone technique to write methodical garbage.
Beyond the most basic concepts, however, studying music theory soon reaches a point of diminishing returns for most composers. You can write many songs without knowing how to read sheet music, write Bach chorale-style four-part harmonies, resolve to a picardy third, or add the right amount of sharps for F♯ major in treble clef.
2. What software do you need to write music?
Once you feel emotionally ready to write music, you’ll want to find your perfect music-writing software.
The type of software you need for digital music writing is called a digital audio workstation (DAW). FL Studio and GarageBand are probably two of the most well-known examples.
Unlike an audio editor like Audacity, a DAW combines some basic audio recording and playback features with a MIDI sequencer and a virtual audio plug-in host (i.e., it lets you sling down virtual notes and assign instruments and audio effects to them).
While there are some free DAWs on the market, such as Cakewalk, Waveform Free, and LMMS, most of the popular ones cost anywhere from $60 to $100 for the most basic license. Personally, I use Mixcraft (you can read my thoughts about it here), so that’s what you’ll see screenshots of on this blog.
Pretty much every DAW offers a free trial of some sort. Download a few from a list of DAWs and see which interface and features suit you best. You can narrow down your options using the following criteria:
- OS: Some options are platform-exclusive. Logic Pro is a no-go if you’re on Linux or Windows; conversely, Cakewalk is Windows only.
- DRM: While most commercial DAWs use a simple license key, some use more advanced DRM solutions, such as Cubase with its Steinberg eLicenser.
- Basic features: Most DAWs offer several “editions” at varying price points. In many cases, the difference between the regular and more expensive edition is the inclusion of OEM third-party plug-ins. However, the difference between the most basic entry-level edition and the next one up is usually some basic usability feature, such as a limitation on the number of tracks in a project! Make sure when comparing prices that you are looking at a DAW edition that offers unlimited tracks, audio file/recording features, and support for 64-bit plugins.
- Popularity: If you think you’ll need training wheels in the music-writing process, choose a popular DAW. Popular DAWs like Live, Pro Tools, Logic Pro, and FL Studio have larger communities you can rely on for tips, tutorials, and troubleshooting. Furthermore, third-party plug-ins are more likely to be tested for compatibility with host software developers know is widely used. If you’re looking at free options, choose a DAW with a long track record (or one that’s open-source) that’s less likely to become abandonware.
- Bundled software: If you’re willing to spend money on music software from the get-go, opting for a DAW that comes with premium plugins may be a better investment in the long run. Take a look at what different DAW editions offer. For example, it may save you money to invest in one that includes the pitch-correcting software Melodyne if you intend on recording vocals.
3. What do you actually do to create music in the software?
It’s finally time to learn about the things that go into your DAW to make music come out!
A project file in your DAW consists of tracks, which contain either audio files or MIDI data. Audio tracks could be sound effects, live instrument recordings, or loops. MIDI tracks are usually virtual instruments and synths.
Here are the basic steps. The way each is done varies by software, though the general procedure is the same.
- Create a virtual instrument/MIDI track in your project.
- Assign a virtual instrument or synth plug-in to this track. Your DAW likely comes with a few of its own plug-ins. Pick one from the list!
- Create a new clip for that track on the timeline.
- Select this clip to bring up the piano roll.
- Drag and drop notes onto the piano roll. (Alternatively, if you have a MIDI keyboard connected to your computer, you can use that to input notes instead of a mouse.)
…and the rest is just finesse!
Once you’ve got the basic system down, it’s time to learn more about plug-ins, synths, effects, and MIDI.