Okay I hope this doesn't get downvoted. I am trying to get back to learning to write music (on the computer). I started in 2011 and having learned software, basic music theory I kept failing despite numerous attempts (I had some success but not much). I stopped about 3.5 years ago. I was hoping maybe someone could get me on the right track.

The music I am going for:

^(first track in the background here; probably 99% representative of my taste; I'd be really happy if I could compose something like that)

^(and all TF2 music)

Basically, I like jazz harmonies (~70's spy jazz), psychedelic, dissonant sound. Quite a fan of the whole tone scale.

I learned basic (perhaps, sub-basic?) theory from this book: https://www.amazon.com/Theory-Computer-Musicians-Michael-Hewitt/dp/1598635034

I suppose what I learned was insufficient, for my purposes at least, since I struggled a lot. I think the theory I learned might be enough for primitive tuz-tuz house music, but not for what I am going for. At least that was my experience. What should I further learn/read?

Main problem I would usually face:

1) I could never develop an interesting musical snippet (write something complimentary to it). Would usually have to loop it. I'm very lost as to how to progress a piece (including how to transition between one idea to another) and don't understand its logic (unless it is house which where it's generally repetition of clearly delineated bars). When I listen to:

it's a mess, I can't follow what's going (same with any piece harder than a house track, although to a lesser extent).

2) Once I "learned basic music theory" all chord progression/melodies I would come up would usually be much more boring for some reason than those that I had come up before I learned any theory (those weren't anything special obviously).

I also learned to play through scales, in addition to some chords. But I was slow with chords and scales didn't help much. I usually see people playing through chord progression on the fly when writing music. Is that an important skill? It seems like they're just trying out old stuff they learned, but I'm not sure. In general, I'm not interested in playing the keyboard more than necessary for writing/producing music.

Thank you.

EDIT: Here's a helpful related question: Want to learn composing and producing music with a DAW. Where do I start?

  • 1
    theory is descriptive, not prescriptive. You can still compose your own music - you don't need to follow it BUT the theory helps explain why certain intervals sound well. It is entirely possible to make a minor 2nd sound well, independent of music theory.
    – Lenny
    May 9, 2017 at 19:55
  • How should I learn an instrument? I'm not interested in playing tbh, not my cup of tea, I've tried many times (guitar then keyboard) and failed. I'm bad at playing evenly and I hate a musical piece by the time I learn it properly, because I've listened to it so many times .Maybe that's why I'm bad at music writing, because I can't learn to play an instrument... I want to learn keyboard skill necessary to write music, but I don't know how. Learning individuals pieces doesn't help, and I tried learning scales—I'm not sure what to do with them. Do I need to learn to improvise?
    – Max
    May 9, 2017 at 20:18
  • @Lenny, yeah I know about intervals. My problem is developing a piece in time instead of looping a musical idea... Sometimes I can write a piece where melodies and progressions flow nicely without too much repetition and transition well, but I have no idea how to arrive at that deliberately. It's like black magic when it happens. I suppose it's some kind of more advanced theory.
    – Max
    May 9, 2017 at 20:24

3 Answers 3


Learning music theory is/was an excellent choice for you to make, it helps so much with writing music as you can generally work out why something doesn't sound too great.

The most important tip that I can give you (and this is something I was told by a professional composer): just keep writing music. No matter how bad it is, keep writing. As with any skill, practice makes perfect (or more accurately: practice makes progression, no ones perfect.

You say that you end up falling back on really basic chord progressions. Force yourself to write with more obscure progressions: 75% of the time it will sound bad/weird; but sometimes something will sound great. Use theory to come up with some good progressions: eg. use major thirds for a spacey sound, and just practice writing with those chord progressions.

Your main question is what you should study further. Continue to study theory, as well as general music and how different instruments work together. Study other people's music and their scores: this helped me loads. For example, I asked my teacher (over the summer holidays) for all the John William's scores the school owned. I spent 6 weeks studying how he writes and trying to replicate a similar style in my own music. Play other people's music as well, it will help you get a feel for particular styles. Eg. find the TF2 soundtrack transcribed for piano or something and practice that. Practice and listen to as many DIFFERENT styles/composers/artists music as you can. This is how you develop your own style and how new genres are actually born: eg. Bhangra is a fusion between Classical Indian and Western Pop.

I come back to my first point. KEEP WRITING MUSIC. This is the most important tip anybody can give you. If you don't keep writing music, no matter how bad it is, you won't improve. In all your spare time, practice writing. Sometimes write for a specific purpose/genre, other times just see what spills out of your head. Mix it up.

Keep writing, keep composing.

  • Thank you very much. As regards boring chord progressions, I think it's to do with my not enjoying simple classical harmonies— there's just not enough dissonance (major, minor scales are too "simple" sounding to my ear, I like a shift towards more chromatic/atonal action). I think you're right about learning other people's music, although I'll probably go for learning individual bars, melodies, chord progressions—I've always had a hard time playing a piece from end to finish (on guitar or piano) evenly and without mistakes.
    – Max
    May 11, 2017 at 20:13
  • 1
    Playing without mistakes or evenly doesn't matter in the slightest if all you're doing is trying to get to grips with the ideas involved. Yeah, I used to have a pot of chords and I'd pick like 2 random chords out of the pot then try to compose just alternating between the 2. Many passages of film music alternate between just 2 chords and a fair amount of classical uses only 2 or 3. This helped me tonnes just to learn how chords and melodies have relationships when you're playing outside of a 'normal' 4 chord pop progression.
    – Ben Hughes
    May 12, 2017 at 16:49
  • 1
    And as for your mention of not being able to play all the way through, that's fine as well, I have the same problem especially with longer pieces. Perhaps (after listening to this piece), just learn the introduction and the sections that you really enjoy listening to/ the main motifs of the piece. This way you can quickly extract the important sections of a piece without spending hours and hours learning every ornament and semi-quaver.
    – Ben Hughes
    May 12, 2017 at 16:52

This is a pretty big question, but I think there's a way forward.

As you've discovered, music theory in and of itself doesn't necessarily lead to music. It gives us a language to describe music, and can give us musical ideas, but it's not a recipe for making a song. Especially if there's a pedant around to inform you that music without words cannot be called a song.

I learned a lot through imitation. You have some example songs. Can you play them? Even if you don't learn an actual instrument, can you recreate the melody and chords on your computer? This is not a magic bullet, but it's how I learnt (or am learning, let's be honest) to arrange for concert band. Sure, it's a different skill, but I think you might be able to learn in the same way. Once you can recreate, it's easier to create.

This might also help you escape the looping trap. Loads of new musicians just loop the same phrases over and over, and add new bits throughout the song. There's absolutely nothing wrong with that, but there's a whole world of other compositional techniques out there waiting to be discovered. Imitation might help you discover them.

Finally, do consider learning an instrument, even at a basic level. Keyboard or guitar would be a good place to start. Theory makes much more sense when combined with actual practice. And you might accidentally get inspired! It's an occupational hazard. That, and buying more music gear. Gear Acquisition Syndrome is a real killer.

  • Thank you for the nice comment. I will try to recreate melodies and harmony of songs I like. Unfortunately, I've always struggled with learning an instrument. I'm restless since childhood and I've never been able to play evenly (and music teachers (guitar) didn't want to deal with me). Then I failed and failed and failed on my own; also learning a piece would desensitize me to it by the time I was getting good at playing it, so I would eventually start to hate it. I guess it's not my cup of tea, composition is what draws me (but I'll have to use quantize ;) ).
    – Max
    May 9, 2017 at 23:22

I am taking an online course in Jazz Composition from a well-known college. I've played guitar for many years and learned a fair amount of theory, but this course has really taken me to another level. Theory helps to a certain extent, but there are many approaches to create melody and harmony which are partly theory and partly craft. Studying standards has really helped me (as opposed to just reading the music). Some of these programs also offer specific courses in composition for film, and if they are like mine, they will push you, but also give you some support.

Hope this helps.

  • @Max - standards are well known, well loved tunes that have become part of the genearl jazz repertoire over time. Autumn Leaves is one such.
    – Tim
    May 10, 2017 at 21:26

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