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I am aware that Stack Exchange questions should be on-point, and not too broad, but I really would appreciate a response from people who know what they are talking about:

I recently saw Boublil and Schonberg's Les Miserables and Miss Saigon and was absolutely blown by the music, which really did make my heart sing. Such orchestration.

How do I learn to compose? I'm determined to gain whatever knowledge I need to do this, I just don't know what I need to learn. Below are listed some ideas I have. Can anybody think of something else?

  1. Music theory? So I know the notes?
  2. Time signatures?
  3. What aspects of music theory should I learn first?
  4. Or do I learn an instrument?
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    music.stackexchange.com/questions/12180/… may be of interest, though it's a slightly more specific question. – topo Reinstate Monica Dec 29 '16 at 11:14
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    The best way to learn how to compose music is to compose music. Jump in with both feet and start writing! Even if your first pieces don't sound very good, you'll learn more from the experience than any amount of studying theory could possible teach you. – Kevin - Reinstate Monica Dec 29 '16 at 16:56
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    Get stuck in, for sure. You will figure out where to start with theory when you find out what gives you trouble. Pace @Kevin, you'll only learn from experience if you have something to give that experience context. – user16935 Dec 29 '16 at 17:44
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    my subjective opinion is music is more about understanding human psychology than some set of rules. Not very different from telling a good story. Sure people have come up with theory as to what works and what doesn't but human brain is too unpredictable and has too many cultural variations to restrict you to a bunch of rules. No amount of studying theory would enable you to invent something like dubstep. you can learn instrument/theory if you think those are the tools you need to express you own ideas. But learning them won't make you come with good music. – meowlicious Dec 29 '16 at 17:48
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    Also keep in mind that composing and arranging and orchestrating (and then mixing etc) are very different crafts. For example, I believe I can compose melodies well, I can even maybe arrange somewhat decently, but I can't orchestrate to save my life (and don't get me started on the more technical stuff). My point with this comment is to say that if (even after a couple of years of composing) your pieces still don't sound to you like what you heard in those adaptations, it doesn't mean your pieces aren't good or that you're not talented. There are simply more steps you'll need to work on. – T. C. Dec 29 '16 at 18:12

11 Answers 11

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Don't get hung up on 'learning theory' or 'not learning theory'. What you want to do is gain knowledge about music, so you can use that knowledge to produce music. In the field of music, some of that knowledge tends to get packaged under the heading of 'theory', and some doesn't... but so what?

what aspects of music theory should I learn first?

Learning just a little bit of theory can be 'dangerous' - we get lots of people on this site who have read a bit of theory and get very confused. Partly this is because lots of aspects of 'standard' music theory arguably don't make much sense! The way music theory is commonly taught tends to mix up genuine music fundamentals, culture-specific terminology and notation, and style-specific musical advice into one big pot. Also, (as with most natural language), there are many terms that have rather uncertain meanings, or multiple meanings in different contexts, or different meanings to different people.

I'd advise you to learn as much as you possibly can, as quickly as possible, and not to get too hung up on any aspect. You'll probably need to go round it all quite a few times before it really starts to come together in your mind.

...so I know the notes?

There are lots of ways to 'know the notes'. You can know them as positions on a guitar fretboard, frequencies in Hz, dots on a score, midi note numbers, piano keys, frequency ratios relative to a root... ultimately you'll come to learn all of these ways.

time signatures

...certainly something you'll learn. Don't get hung up on them though... they're just one way of expressing a deeper 'truth' about music, which you will also learn.

or do I learn an instrument?

As the music you've said inspires you is traditional instrumental music, I would say yes, have a go! Try a few and see if any of them suit you. And if they don't, and you still want to compose, no problem!

Composition is something you can never fully learn - there's too much to know. At the same time, even a newcomer to music can pick out a pleasing melody on an instrument, and perhaps with a bit of trial and error, add an accompanying line, and come up with a pleasing composition. So it's going to be one of those things that is "a journey, not a destination".

Having said that, a composer IMO is someone who actually gets their pieces out there into the world! So while you may not feel that every piece is something you want to share, you may want to consider if you'd like to write for someone other than yourself - and if so, who, and how are you going to get your music into their ears? Writing music that no-one else ever listens to can be a hard habit to break.

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    Perhaps (on second looking) I'm asking also: is writing music on the stave, from a complete beginner, a challenge? Will a bit of theory help me to do that, or just a YouTube video on 'how to write music'. – cmp Dec 29 '16 at 11:45
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    @cmp yes, certainly you'll want to produce good, readable scores if you want your works to be played by orchestras. That can be an art in itself, on top of the basic knowledge you'll need about how notation works. If you'd like to compose for orchestra, I'd suggest learning an orchestral instrument and joining an orchestra; you'll learn a lot and ultimately make friends and contacts who could help you get your work played! – topo Reinstate Monica Dec 29 '16 at 11:55
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    @SaggingRufus I guess it depends on what you call 'music theory' - I'd include all knowledge of standard notation as coming under the 'theory' umbrella. Things like how to write cadences would mostly come under the 'style-specific musical advice' part of theory - it's always good, when reading any source, to remember that not all advice may apply equally to every style. – topo Reinstate Monica Dec 29 '16 at 12:15
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    @topomorto very true, personally, I tend to lump the mechanics of music into theory and "how to read to display it" as more rudiments, but you are correct it is all music theory. I guess what I am really getting at, is arranging is very different from composing and almost requires different skills – SaggingRufus Dec 29 '16 at 12:21
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    @SaggingRufus ...whereas I, at some point around the time where I put down the violin and sat down at a sequencer, seem to have jettisoned most of my knowledge about notation, so don't really see it as the basis of any of my other musical knowledge. I'm probably just repeating what I said in my post... that there are different ways to think about all of this (in most cases, none of which are 'right' or 'wrong'), and different areas of knowledge that relate to different musical activities... filling in some of the gaps is probably why I am on the site! – topo Reinstate Monica Dec 29 '16 at 12:31
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I started writing this in paragraphs, and it's grown incoherent and collated (like most of my writing...) so I've condensed it into a few bullet points, but I suggest picking through my full explanation.

I would suggest the following:

  • Piano is a great instrument to learn, because you don't need to be past the beginner level for it to help with your composing.
  • Learn musical notation so that you have a way to write down melodies in your head and share them with other musicians.
    • Know about the staff, time signatures, and basic rhythm and note duration and you can write most basic ideas down.
  • Start with monophony, or single, un-accompanied melody.
    • Most harmony requires a basic understanding of music theory, and that could bog you down before you even put notes on paper.
    • Besides, you can always go back and add harmony to any monophonic piece.
  • Musescore is a free piece of software that aids in musical composition, and is worth a look, although a basic understanding of theory is required to not get frustrated by it.

And the full text:

"Music theory" is a super broad category. You can write simple, and even somewhat complex melodies without knowing much of it. "Music notation," however, is more specific, and that's where I'd start.

All of the great composers I know

  • Play, or at the very least, know about, at least one instrument
  • Know how to notate the songs in their head in at least one form or another

That being said...

Composing is the art of writing down tunes in your head. You can have tunes in your head, and even be able to play them or sing them, and you already have the first step down. The beauty of musical notation is being able to preserve those melodies so that they're never forgotten.

That being said, I would suggest that you have a basic knowledge of the staff (where the pitches are notated in standard musical notation, which I suggest learning because you seem to be interested in orchestral music), time signature (the beat and even, you might say, "chronological domain" of the music) note duration (how much of the "chronological domain" each note takes up).

With these basic tools, you can write down the songs in your head. Now, how you get those songs in your head?

It's a mistake I've made to assume that composing is all about formulas. Of course there are plenty that you can use, but the way that I like to go about it is to pick a melody that pops into your head. Just any random ol' tune that pops into your head. Now, for your purposes, and since it would be easier for you to learn music theory on a need-by-need basis, I would stick to monophony at first (single melody, with no accompaniment). The beauty of this is that you can always return later and pop in chords or counter-melodies in when you feel the need to, but it is satisfying to put the notes down and hear something coherent.

One last argument for learning music notation, is that once a tune is written down, any musician (most musicians) will be able to play it by reading, which means you don't need to do an awkward, "Well, it goes like this..."

Now, as for learning an instrument, I suggest you get a basic knowledge of the piano keyboard, because it is so simple, but it helps tremendously in your understanding of the world of notes. I hardly play piano at all (hardly beyond the 3rd children's book in my studies ;-P), but I can use proper posture/technique to punch out tunes in my head, and visualizing the keyboard helps with a lot of concepts that I would be unable to grasp otherwise.

A great piece of FREE software to aid in your composition is Musescore, although it uses a lot of terminology and requires a basic understanding of music theory. But it is FREE! and therefore worth a look, or a download, as the case may be...

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    so you saying the long version is a "nuisance" to read... jokes aside I agree with the monophony approach whole heartedly. Start small and work your way up. Composing for orchestra can be a daunting task for even experienced arrangers/composers. I actually started with SATB choral scores and I found that a great learning experience. – SaggingRufus Dec 29 '16 at 15:38
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    Do composers layer the music. So main melody first. Then strings, then brass, then percussion and so on....? P.s. thanks for your answer. Helped a lot!! – cmp Dec 29 '16 at 16:00
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    @SaggingRufus Yes, anticipating my mad writin' skills, I chose a chill username... Totally intentional. ;-) I usually stick to solo violin or piano scores... Keep things simple enough for me. – General Nuisance Dec 29 '16 at 16:11
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    You can also do the opposite and start with a chord progression and choose a melody that compliments it. I typically do the accompaniment first, then the melody, but both are valid – SaggingRufus Dec 29 '16 at 16:53
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    I've cleaned up some comments here. Please do not post personal information here. – Dom Mar 7 '17 at 2:14
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Welcome to Music: Practice & Theory!

I agree with most of what TopoMorto said in his answer and I wish to only give you some more information, and ideas, and some of my own experience as a tip.

  • The melody

In most cases the melody is the main thing in music. I guess you always have some tunes playing in your head! I know I do! Certainly that's where I start once I have a melody. I take the piano or guitar if I have them and start playing the melody, finding those notes in my head and the intervals. Or I just start writing those notes in Guitar Pro if I have no instrument. If my melody is interesting for me I leave it as is else I start thinking about chaning some of it in some places to make it more interesting.

  • The harmony

After I've finished the melody (it could be the lyrics by the way) i start finding good and interesting chords. I play them in different ways in different variations. On a live instrument making up a melody and harmony usually goes together. Sometimes I start with the rhythm when I'm unsure at what I wish to have in result.

  • The rhythm

Usually once I have a harmony and a melody I think of a rhythm. I think of how should the song go, how fast or slow, what should be stressed and what kind of percussion might there be.

  • The arrangement

This is the most interesting part for me. When I have a basic harmony, rhythm and a melody ready I start arranging my piece. I take other instruments and play notes, chords, riffs and etc. to add elements to the song. I add second harmony sometimes and second rhythm and search for sounds and ideas that make the song interesting. After I've added some other instruments I usually relook at my previously played or scored parts and sometimes change them.

  • The effects

This is optional, however, sometimes I like to use effects in my music. Often I start the whole idea of a song with an effect.

Basically it is all about a good melody and a nice arrangement. I often listen to different music that I like and analyse it. At first when I was learning to compose I mostly copyied my favourite bands and composers.

Scoring a piece isn't composing... you should already have the piece you wish to score. And it's usually simple once you know what each instrument should play. Bassically in scoring the most difficult part is knowing how to write the notes and the elements on the claves and the staff. Knowing how to show the player what you wish him to play. I mean you need not only to write the correct notes that you play but also the stresses you make and the effects such as tremolo and vibrato and fade in/fade out effects as well as many many others.

I'll give you an example of how I write music:

I start with a guitar or piano (those are my main isntruments). I start singing or humming a melody and just playing (improvising) and searching for an interesting chord progression if I have no idea in my head. If I have one (maybe a lyrics) I start singing the melody or the lyrics and start looking for a harmony all at the same time! Once I've found the basic harmony and the melody is okay. I start playing in different styles and adding extra chords and notes. yeh, I start by playing mostly simple chords and no arpeggios or whatever. When I have some good interesting chords or arpeggios I usually record that. After I've recorded I play it and listen... and continue improvising in my head. If I feel I've spotted an interesting moment.. I stop and play that part with the new idea. After I've made the piece look good for melody and one instrument harmony. I start playing a second instrument to the music and create an arrangement. I tap out a rhythm and think of a bass line and etc. During the whole process I might several times change my main instrument if somewhere some note is disturbing or doesn't sound right with other instruments. I often do all that for a very long time. Once I have most of the music written I start thinking about a solo and effect If i want. Usually a solo takes up a lot of time if I wish to make it really interesting and not just a simple improvisation. I might even change the harmony is some places according to a solo I'm building. In the end, finally, i get a nice good arrangement ready for my whole band to play. Most of my arrangements are in my storage in gpx Guitar Pro 6 format.

  • @topo This is perfect. Thank you sir. Is the accompaniment the same as the harmony? For example in: Bring Him Home (from les mis) you have the main tune, but is all the stuff underneath, the little frills if you like, what are they called? – cmp Dec 29 '16 at 12:53
  • I've tagged Topo, for his opinion too sir; whilst I would still love your comment as well – cmp Dec 29 '16 at 12:54
  • @cmp What you said is an accompaniment for sure.. Harmony is this (dictionary.com/browse/harmony) – SovereignSun Dec 29 '16 at 13:05
  • @cmp the word 'harmony' can mean different things; it often refers to the slightly abstract concept of 'the sound of the musical parts together', which results in the 'good and interesting chords' that SovereignSun mentioned. Also, people sometimes talk about a 'harmony part', which (confusingly) is often a melodic line that is not the main melody. Don't get too hung up on definitions though! – topo Reinstate Monica Dec 29 '16 at 13:14
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Listen to music. A lot. Any kind of music will work- classical, jazz, rock- anything! This can help you get ideas, find your taste, inspire you, etc. The more different composers you know, the easier it will be for you to start. You can also begin by taking a piece of music and writing variations for it- adding/deleting/changing notes, changing tempo, adding instruments,and other things you can think of. Eventually, you might get so far away from the original piece that it becomes unrecognizable!

Playing an instrument will help, too, since you will be able to play your compositions and change them if you don't like how it sounds. This will help you avoid writing music that is impossible to play- i.e, 12-note chords for piano. Another benefit of playing an instrument is that you'll have to learn the basics of note reading and music theory, so composing your first piece will be easier.

The most important thing is probably getting ideas. If you have an idea, but don't know how to write it down, that's better than knowing music theory and having a blank mind. You can buy music theory books, take a class, or watch some video lessons- though I'd recommend actually talking to an actual teacher so they can answer your questions.

Good luck, and have fun!

  • Ooh, dang, I was gonna say that. Listening is super important. – General Nuisance Dec 29 '16 at 19:32
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OK, I started teaching myself composition some 45 years ago. I did play woodwinds, so I wasn't completely at sea, but my first attempts at harmony used a lot of seconds not very successfully. I looked up common practice harmony to start getting a handle on this, and, being a young man in the early '70s, looked somewhat past CP harmony as well.

I did start working on counterpoint. The reasoning here was very similar to why I wanted to attend life drawing courses in university despite being primarily an abstract artist: by working under definite, well-understood constraints, I could (and did) learn to make my materials do whatever I wanted from them. That's the real point of academic training - not a set of rules that must be obeyed, but compositional calisthenics. (Also, the "rules" do present you with workable solutions to problems that recur quite frequently. Sometimes it isn't worth reinventing the wheel.)

Certain constraints, however, you cannot escape. If you write for orchestra, you must know what the limitations of the instruments are, and how they balance with each other. Learning an instrument is good for this: you learn deep in the bones that instruments do have very distinct strengths and limitations, and you learn to write for the instruments you don't play with a certain amount of circumspection and respect after due research. For example, if you do something as extreme as write a staccatissimo six-note chord for one hand at the piano, you had better damned well make sure that it is feasible for at least one finger to play two (white) keys together, or no one will blame the pianist for coming after you with a bloody great stick. :D

The ideal is that you learn to get out what is in your head, and that what you write reaches both performers and an audience. That's the ideal - you may never reach it fully, but the idea is to have fun along the way. If you don't enjoy the journey, it isn't worth doing.

I won't tell you to start with monophony (I didn't, myself), but I won't tell you not to, either - try to write what is in your head, then try to fix the lacunae that prevent you from achieving this. If what you hear in your head is simple, then write simply; if not, be ambitious and give it a shot. You may find yourself having to put sketches aside until you are musically mature enough to deal with them. You wouldn't be the first person to do so, so no worries if that happens.

Read books and scores like Billy-be-damned, bearing in mind that none of them will present you with a magic wand to solve all of your musical problems. Try to avoid a sequencer-oriented output - there are the odd occasions when, for practical reasons, you must dispense with performers, but sequences can't grow; a score that is interpreted by performers can and does. I use sequences very strictly as a rough guide for performers as to how a piece will sound. I say "rough" advisedly: sequences not only do not grow, they don't breathe very well either.

Practise, practise, practise.

  • Some types of music are more sequencer friendly, but your overall point about sequenced music sort of missing the whole point is well made. +1 – Todd Wilcox Jan 16 '17 at 9:21
  • Yeah, @ToddWilcox, there's definitely a place for everything for sure, but the best I've ever seen for loops and sequences has been Robert Fripp, and he creates them on his guitar in real time... That breathes. – user16935 Jan 16 '17 at 10:17
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Learning an instrument will make composing a whole lot easier, partially because you will learn how music notation works. It also exposes you to lots of instrumental music. As an amateur composer (and high school band member), I would suggest learning an instrument before composing. I only play two instruments, so with the limited knowledge I posses, I can give you this little tip: If you are interested in playing a saxophone, learn clarinet first. Learning to play piano would help you out a lot, but learning an instrument that is part of a concert band/orchestra will give you more knowledge in how large ensembles work.

As most composers can agree on, music theory is very important. I would suggest a book on music theory. You can do plenty with only a limited knowledge of music theory, but the more you learn, the more advanced your works will become. The reason I recommend a book is because the author will start out very basic and reveal more advanced concepts later on. This makes it very easy regarding what to learn first.

If you do start composing, don't be afraid to use repetition in your music. There's nothing wrong with repeating something you like. Just listen to this piece from Disney Pixar's Up. You should start by composing simple piano pieces. My first piece was a simple piano solo. It had no chords, a simple melody which took advantage of counterpoint (for lack of musical ideas), and plenty of repetition.

My last piece of advice is this: don't get discouraged! If you come across a part in a song that you can't play, slow down and take it note by note, playing it faster every day until you get it as good as you can. If your come to a point where your mind is completely void of musical ideas, that's fine! That's happened to me plenty of times. And it usually comes to me later. I'm no professional composer, but I've written some decent pieces. The best way to get inspiration is listening to composers that who's work you admire. some of the greatest modern day film composers are John Williams, Hans Zimmer, and Michael Giacchino.

  • A piano is regularly part of orchestras and concert performances. – TylerH Dec 30 '16 at 14:28
  • It is sometimes, but I've heard the orchestra without it more than with it. – Green Plasma Dec 31 '16 at 0:13
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I highly recommend reading the fairly brief book: "Musical Composition" by Reginald Smith Brindle. It is an excellent introduction into all of the elements of what the composer needs to know and consider. It is one of the few composition books I feel stands the test of time and remains relevant even in the digital age.

  • $8 used on Amazon. Well worth your money. – RDS_JAF Dec 31 '16 at 15:31
4

Composing music is basically the process of externalizing & documenting the music that's playing in your head/imagination... Developing a certain level of proficiency on the keyboard/piano (or the guitar if you have an aversion to the keyboard) will prove to be an extremely helpful & useful tool. I recommend the keyboard for several reasons.

  1. It is easier to play (it was designed to be easy & comfortable to play- the guitar requires many awkward & uncomfortable maneuvers & activities with your fingers- including the development of calluses!)

  2. The keyboard also provides a visual interface/palate that can be very helpful in facilitating your learning & understanding the underlying mechanics or 'grammar' of music (a.k.a. music theory).

  3. When a keyboard is connected to a computer with some basic (cheap/free) software/virtual instruments (or other sound-producing hardware) it can produce basically ANY sound there is! I could go on listing many more reasons, but I hope that should suffice.

My advice for learning to play the keyboard is: to focus on a method/technique which emphasizes 'playing by ear'. Because, as I just said: composing is writing down the music in your head- which is just another way of saying "playing by ear"- playing what you hear in your head. Personally, I had a unique set of circumstances that got me started when I was younger. In a nutshell: we lived in a very isolated & remote area- no potential teacher or even books to guide me. BUT we did have a piano, and I had lots of time. I first figured out how to play a couple simple melodies, gradually I started figuring out which of the other notes sounded right or good playing with the melody. I didn't realize it at the time, but essentially I was figuring out the fundamentals of music theory. Before long I learned how to play on the keyboard virtually anything I could imagine in my head, or that I would hear from the radio, etc.

Later on, when I was able to take music theory classes & piano lessons, I was able to progress quite rapidly because I was really just learning the official words, terms & techniques for the concepts I had already formulated.

Basically, the idea is for you to begin playing & 'making' music as quickly and as much as possible!!!

I would also urge you to join some kind of local community or church choir/band/orchestra (you will certainly be able to learn to play percussion well enough). A choir is really ideal- you will learn a lot about music by learning & performing it- especially in an ensemble! I think that is the most logical & 'easy' way to discover & truly understand how music comes together- bit by bit & layer by layer. That will also be an intuitive & efficient way to familiarize yourself with the basics of 'written music' & how to read it- but without the dull, complicated, abstract setting of a music theory class or some 'textbook'...

In addition to joining a choir or instrumental ensemble, I would implore you to also find a drum circle that you can go to and participate in. Most cities & even medium sized towns will have something like that which meets at least once a month if not weekly. A drum circle will be like a treasure chest of a completely different kind of information, experiences & concepts that you won't be able to find anywhere else! If nothing else, it will just help to get your creativity stimulated & flowing... Do not under-estimate the quality or quantity of valuable insight and experience available to you through public, improvisational, participatory events!

I hope this has helped to broaden your concepts & ideas about how you might go about learning to create original music. I hope I have managed to instill in you the importance of immediately "getting your feet wet" by getting involved in "making music".

2

On the face of it, the best way to learn to compose is to start composing! Get a free/cheap music notation program like MuseScore or MusicMasterworks, and start experimenting. See what you can come up with. I guarantee that you'll learn a lot about tonal relationships, phrasing, melody, and rhythm just messing around -- and you might come up with some cool tunes, too!

But if/when you decide to get serious, consider the following:

Composers aren't necessarily musicians, nor are musicians necessarily composers. The difference between a composer and a musician is the same as the difference between a writer and an orator. One is tied to the other, indeed relies on the other for their art to come to fruition; but the skills they employ and talents they must have are actually quite different. Seems pretty obvious but it's good to remember because the line between the two sometimes becomes blurred when thinking about music.

You need to know music theory to compose music for the same reasons that you need to know rules of grammar to write. You don't need to learn music theory to play music, but composition is not the same as performance.

What is a musical composition? At the most basic level, it's a set of instructions to musicians. What is music theory? In large part it's a definition of terms, so that musicians can communicate musical ideas using spoken or written language. As you can see, they aren't the same thing; but they are related.

When you play music, you are communicating your musical ideas directly, with sound. But when it comes to composition, you're communicating your musical ideas in writing. A musical score, after all, is nothing more than musical ideas written down. That's why it is preferable to know music theory if you wish to communicate your musical ideas to other musicians.

It is not actually mandatory to learn an instrument if you wish to compose music, but it's pretty hard to imagine composing without it. When you're composing, a musical instrument becomes a tool of calculation aside from anything else. ('Does this interval work? Assuming I come from this harmonic relation, can I go to this harmony?) Theoretically you could just use your voice, but this begs the question of how you'd test multiple tones, harmonic relations, etc.

Time signatures are used in almost all western music, whether in common time signatures like 2/4, 3/4, or 4/4, or more complicated time signatures like 7/8, 11/8, 13/8 15/8 17/8 etc. The good news is that most western music is in 2, 3, or 4. The even better news is that virtually all time signatures are broken down into subgroups of 2 and 3, so even if it sounds complicated, it's pretty easy (conceptually, at least.) To be a good musician you need a solid understanding of rhythm and tempo. As a composer a good sense of rhythm isn't necessary, but understanding tempo (particularly tempo restraints on various instruments) is crucial.

As a musician, it is imperative to study rudiments of percussion. Being able to play on time and in tempo is as important as being able to play in tune. Composition wise, it is imperative to learn what is possible percussively, as well as melodically. You'll also want to learn harmony, including chord structure. While you're at it, learn the 'Church' scales (Ionian, Dorian, Phrygian, Lydian, Mixolydian, Aeolian, Locrian) and the Pentatonic scale.

Learning all this will allow you to communicate your musical imaginings more succinctly and clearly, and also enable you to compose music much more swiftly. One last point about musicianship and composing: you don't have to be a good musician to be a good composer. You need to understand how instruments work, how tempo and rhythm and all the rest works, but you don't have to be good at playing. You just need to know how it works.

If you wish to learn orchestral composition, there's really quite a lot to it. You must think of the level of musicianship your piece requires. If you write a piece that requires a lot of virtuosity, it (at best) will be a shining goal for the musically inclined, and (at worst) almost never played because there's not a lot of people who can play it. At a more granular level, you must be aware of the range of each instrument you're writing for, bearing in mind that range varies both by musician competence and band or orchestra competence. (The expected range of junior orchestra is much different than that of the London Symphony Orchestra, for example.) Possible instrument voicing will vary considerably according to venue, and nuanced volume/instrument changes within the composition might be lost if the piece is to be performed outdoors or in an acoustically disadvantageous environment such as an indoor arena. It is not unusual to receive requests to score specific voices for different instruments, re-score the entire piece for a different type of musical group (i.e. band/orchestra/octet/quintet/trio/choir), or to rearrange the piece in a different key.

tl;dr: Get a free music program, mess around and see what you can do. Consider it the first step in the journey of a thousand miles.

1

Grab an instrument and try to learn to play it (preferably a chord instrument). Play any kind of nonsense to warm up. If the "nonsense" starts getting more interesting than what you're trying to learn, then you're a composer. Of course if you want move beyond playing your compositions yourself, you'll have to either learn to write music notation or learn to compose on something like a midi app that will convert your composition to score.

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I literally just started messing around in Apple’s free GarageBand app on my iPad one day during my lunch break at school; I familiarized myself with its features by reading through the Help menu, and I started experimenting with the different instruments and things that are available to see what sounded right. I also found a lot of (free!) helpful resources by running a simple Google search whenever I got stumped on a particular issue. However, for all GarageBand’s uses, I absolutely do not recommend it as a primary tool for composing; use a program such as MuseScore instead—their website even has a series of helpful instructional videos that cover the basics of using the program.

The issue with composing in GarageBand is that the app is not intended to be a tool for writing music, it’s a tool for making music that I’ve been misusing. That means that any time I’ve wanted to look at a copy of sheet music for a song I’ve composed in the app, that has meant transcribing all of it by hand because Apple’s software doesn’t always work with other computers. Transcription can be extensively laborious and time-consuming, so don’t repeat my mistakes!

My ability to compose is still a work in progress, but the important thing is that the progress is happening. Look, for all the technical aspects music has, at its heart, music is really all about feeling, so feel free to trust your instincts and don’t be afraid to experiment.

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