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Everywhere I go on the internet, I see people telling me to learn music theory if I want to write songs. Problem is, I'm playing the piano for over 10 years now and I had music theory for 1 and a half years in school, and yet every time I try to play something new, I keep remaking other songs that already exist.

TL;Dr: I know music theory but I still can't manage to write any music. Help.

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  • 6
    Keep rejecting ideas until you come up with one you like. Also, keep coming up with ideas. If only one out of a thousand of your ideas is a keeper, then you only need to come up with a thousand ideas. Which isn’t that much when you get rolling. Jun 2 at 19:55
  • What are some strategies to compose a rather simple melody?, and the questions linked there, may be helpful.
    – Richard
    Jun 3 at 12:55
  • Not everyone has the creative ability to be a composer. You can study grammar and memorize the dictionary, but that doesn't mean you will be a good writer.
    – Barmar
    Jun 3 at 13:57
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    > I keep remaking other songs that already exist. In some genres of musical activity, this is practically a requirement. If you don't make a tune which does not already "exist", it's not in the genre. I think your question would benefit from clarification about in what context are you trying to be original.
    – Kaz
    Jun 3 at 19:51
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    Yes, it would be good to get some more detail around "I keep remaking other songs that already exist". If you mean songs that seem stylistically similar to other songs, many composers would see that as success - or are you saying that you want to create music that does not seem similar to existing music? (Or when you say "I keep remaking other songs that already exist", do you mean that you actually find yourself recreating exactly the same melodies and chord progressions as existing songs?)
    – topo morto
    Jun 4 at 9:32
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I think it can be really helpful to continually study functional harmony not because creativity comes from the rules, but because it comes from learning how to break them.

You may also want to try alternative ways to get started. If you find that you usually write the harmony first and the melody second, try flipping it around. Another fun technique is to start with a short melody, and using that for the structure of the entire piece like a fractal. For example, if you're melody started with D-G-A, make an entire section of music in D-minor, G major, and A-minor.

Lastly, Jim Rohn once said, “You are the average of the five people you spend the most time with, ” and I think the same applies to your musical voice. Listening to as much music as possible from different genres can help build up tools for more creative writing.

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One way to start is to analyze music that is similar to what you want to write (or at least has some type of sound you may wish to modify and use.) The analysis need not be in the detail necessary for a class; just analyze as to what you want to know or use. Check out how melodies you like work. Check out the chord sequences you like. This will get you started. Later, check out the (sometimes subtle) difference in how a composer starts a piece and how the piece ends. A simple AABA song may actually be A-A1-B-A2 where A1 and A2 are slight modifications of the music in A changed to signal either a coming new part (B) or just ending.

Try to put some chords against melodies you like. Check out chords sequences and see what melodies fit. As mentioned above, try lots of stuff with lots of editing.

One thing to watch at first (regardless of the type of music) is that your bass line and melody make good two-part counterpoint. These two lines will be what the listener hears.

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  • Bizarrely, in most music, the bassline is not apparent to me. Even in subsequent listens, when I make an effort to listen to the accompaniment, I often still cannot make out enough of the bassline to transcribe it or even sufficiently fake it.
    – Dekkadeci
    Jun 3 at 12:28
  • Much depends on genre. I do a lot of ballroom dancing (which uses stuff from a very wide class of stuff, big band, Latin, rock, classic, etc.) and the bassline of very important. Perhaps less so in other music.
    – ttw
    Jun 3 at 20:43
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That's like saying, "I've studied grammar books, how can I be the next Shakespeare?"

The answer is that you have to practice making music. A lot. Eventually, you'll bump into some ideas that attract you, and you'll develop them into something great.

Eventually, you'll find that you can often feel where a piece "wants to go.": "Oh. . . it really feels like this base wants to walk down to the G!" and you'll know chord progressions you've used in the past to do that.

You can also benefit by a lot of sight-reading. "Hmmmm. . . I feel this wants a kick to a major feel. I like how Chopin does that in the Ocean Etude, let me see what chords he used. . . " that kind of thing.

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You have some of the tools required to be a composer. That doesn't make you a composer though. Many (most, even) musicians aren't composers. They PLAY music rather than write it.

That said, the more you play existing music - and you have a great advantage in being able to read music - the more you'll come across bits you like and the more you'll understand how they work. Steal them! Do a cut-and-paste of the best bits. An outsider will think you're being terribly creative!

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  • These bits had better be microscopic, or people are going to recognize them. The BACH and DSCH motives are famous enough to get shout-outs. I've even seen "sounds like Ridley's theme" comments on music that uses only Ridley's theme's note-minor 2nd above-minor 3rd below motif but changes the key, rhythm, and accenting pattern (e.g. Galacta Knight's theme).
    – Dekkadeci
    Jun 3 at 12:35
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A couple of exercises I find helpful:

Re-rhythmatize

Take a familiar song and, keeping the melody notes the same, change the rhythm so that the original song becomes (nearly) unrecognizable, and you've composed a "new" song.

See example below.

Re-harmonize

Same deal, but instead of changing the melody rhythm, change the accompaniment.

Combine the two

Change the rhythm and then the harmony, or vice versa, and you'll pretty well have a new song.


Keep in mind, these are just exercises. The goal isn't necessarily to create a song that will ever see the light of day; just a way to practice exploring combining melody, rhythm, and harmony.


A Puzzle

Here's an example of "re-rhythmatization". I've taken a well-known song and "recomposed" it, keeping the pitches exactly the same, but changing the rhythm. IMO, the original song is nearly unrecognizable, but your mileage may differ.

X: 1
T: "Mystery" Song
C: @Aaron
K: C
M: C
L: 1/16
E8 z4 DCDE- | E z E2- E4 z4 EDz2 | D8 z8 | DEG2 G2ED- D8 |
C2DE z2 E2- E8 | EE2D- D z D2- D4 ED z2 | C16- | C16 |]
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  • First and last letters of the title cleverly retained?
    – Tim
    Jun 3 at 7:31
  • @Tim Hats off to you, sir.
    – Aaron
    Jun 3 at 8:10
  • To other guessers: @Tim's answer is correct, but the song was originally composed under another title, and the last letter of that title is not present here.
    – Aaron
    Jun 3 at 8:11
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    I only got it due to my sight-reading being as bad as it is...
    – Tim
    Jun 3 at 8:17
  • Honestly I think this one's pretty recognizable. The main example I think of as successful rhythmic variation (What A Wonderful World from Twinkle Twinkle) is less recognizable (to me at least) despite varying the rhythm relatively little, because it consistently syncopates first notes of bars, which (I think) has the effect of de-emphasizing them, mitigating the fact that first-notes-of-bars often function as "melodic signposts". He also plays loose with repeated notes, and breaks from the original after a few lines.
    – Esther
    Jun 3 at 8:32
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Learn to improvise. Composing is just improvisation done really slowly

Add improvisation exercises to your practice routine. One way I like to do this is to break my scales and intervals up into two parts. In the first part, there's no improvisation. I'm just doing scales and intervals, getting the muscle memory down so that my body knows where each note is in the key or keys I am practicing. The first part is rigorous--my goal is to be able to play the exercises with accuracy and ease at whatever speed I am practicing.

In the second part, it's time to improvise. This is where I play with things. Have I been doing broken thirds in C major? Let's try making up C major melodies with broken thirds in them. Have I been practicing minor pentatonic scales? Let's try making up some melodies using those scales. This part is not rigorous. It is playing as a child plays, without worrying about things that sound bad. Here you are learning how to let loose and try things.

Sometimes when practicing improvisation I'll hit on something that sounds really neat to my ears. That may be a melody trying to be born, or a lick that I'll want to commit to muscle memory so that it can come out spontaneously when I'm improvising. At that point I become more focused on what sounded good and play around with it. I might try variations of it, or just play it a good dozen times in order to reinforce it.

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