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How to compose in 5 steps

I was asked to tutor a musician in my area who never faced composing from scratch.
Of course, there are several approaches to composition, but here’s what you will refer to as a composer:

- Harmony
- Melody
- Rhythm(and time)

These are the fundamentals of music. You can order these three milestones as you like, merge some together or even ignore some of them. A lot of composer experimented pieces with no harmony and/or no melody or no time  and to me that is where music is going, to some degree.

I would add also another element to the list, which is swing. 
Swing is particularly important for jazz and improvised music, but you can leave it out, indeed. By the way, for swing I don’t mean only the technical aspect of swinging but of course a certain ethic beyond the technical aspect. For instance, take Ornette Coleman. Does he swing? Probably and technically he doesn’t, but he got the hell of a swing, to me. 

Anyhow, once you have an idea of how to put these elements in your own piece you can start composing.
Here’s a checklist of steps you want to accomplish:

1. Brainstorming
Do you already have some musical ideas? 
If so, bring a piece of paper and start writing those down. Ideas are fleeting.
If not, what inspires you? Go for that and be inspired.
Read a book, listen to music, go jogging. Whatever.

2. Arrange your ideas
Which ensemble do you want/have? 
Which instruments would you like to have in your piece?
Do you want some text to be sang or recited?
Which people/musicians would you like to bring in?
This is very important. I know many composers who don’t think for their fellow musicians when they are composing. They simply write down some stuff which doesn’t fit with the musicians they brought in for their project. You are going to write for your musicians.

3. Arrange the structure
What kind of piece do you want to write?
What’s the time? What’s the pulse?
Is it divided in different parts? Does it have a well-known form (sonata, suite, etc.. )?

4. The idea.
So at this time you probably will have a detailed idea of what your piece will be in terms of time, structure, etc. 
Now, go on your instrument or at the piano and start playing whatever you have in your mind. Now. If you don’t have a piano or an instrument, simply sing it.
It could be a melody, it could be a certain progression of chords or even a rhythm.
Congratulations! Now it’s simply a deal of memorizing and writing down what you just played or sang.
Then, you will add what’s missing to your existing material. 
Just like making a layer cake. If you have a melody, you can go poking with some harmony to support it and then add the rhythm or vice versa. It’s up to you.

Note: Music theory
I just want to add some thoughts about theory. 
Often people ask me: “Mike, how can I compose if I don’t know music theory?” Well, to me, learning the music theory is not essential. If you have it, the better.
Usually when people ask me that I demonstrate to them how they can compose by ear, I have a method where I teach how to trust your ear. Results are astonishing.
Let me say just that: if you don’t know what is it, don’t care. Just care about the sound.

Mike Rubini is a talented performer, teacher and composer based in Italy. Rubini strives to make music that moves people to enjoy and experience a wide array of emotions and hope to make an impact in the music scene as an open-minded and innovative musician.
Make sure to check out his website and blog.


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Reader Comments (12)

This may be the worst article I've ever read on this blog.

Firstly, there are only four steps listed, despite the title. Secondly, the paragraph on swing is somewhat unintelligable and mostly useless. I don't understand the point about Ornette Coleman; under what definition does he NOT swing? His music swings both technically and figuratively.

January 5 | Unregistered CommenterPeter Lawless

This is a great article. It made my day! Very informative and a lot of help for my research.
Hey you, budding composers, listen to this guy!

February 28 | Unregistered Commenterannie page

Great! This article gives detailed info on music composition. Artists and composers will benefit most from this. Kudos to the mr.mike rubini, the author! He definitely has music in his bones.

February 28 | Unregistered Commenterarthur banes

Music is said to be the universal language, and in composing music, one expresses his soul. Thoughts, experiences, emotions form part of the created music. The elements suggested by mike rubini, would help organize and polish the music created. I am a composer and these tips will help me a lot in my job!! thanks.

February 28 | Unregistered Commentercathy auburn

This is a reply to mr.lawless' post dated Jan 5. Perhaps, mr. rubini just forgot to place no. 5 before the music theory, because to me, his theory forms an essential part in composition. It implies raw talent on the part of the composer; if he has 'the ear', then, the first four steps need not apply. Secondly, on mr. Coleman's 'swing', mr. rubini did mention in the last part of his statement that mr. coleman does have " a hell of a swing'. Music is a very subjective matter, musical terms may be interpreted depending on it's applications and the person's perception.

Great tips for musicians and artists! Modern pop western and euro music have so prevailed that the world has been used to listening to crap music. Popular musicians and artists should go back to basics to help contribute to lessening worldwide noise pollution.
Thanks for these valuable info.

Great and informative! My teacher once said, 'music is the language of the soul'. The 'soul' plus these tips would make a perfect musical composiition. thanks.

March 2 | Unregistered Commenterjanus mano

Ideas plus structure plus lots of talent will bring harmony, melody and rhythm together in one great composition. More good music should be promoted by musicians like you. You make our lives more fun and memorable.

March 2 | Unregistered Commenterjjay m.

Thank you for these tips. I have written a lot of poems, and now i will try to put melody into some of them. Then, i will be able to compose a beautiful song!

March 3 | Unregistered Commenterl.m.

Your music theory is so true! I have tried to play it "by ear",and most often than not, it produces better results. But if its a collaboration, then the first four tips should apply more often, i guess. I am so glad,that I have found an article which talks about the basics. thanks!

March 3 | Unregistered Commentersissy l.

Italians like you have really great passion for music. No wonder, the more famous opera singers and artists come from Italy.
A piece without those elements mentioned above, can never touch a listener's soul. Soulful music offers more memory retention on the part of the listener. And only 'good' composers remain and never die in our hearts, they only fade away.

Oh dear. Look, as a young composer who has taught several students how to compose I'm a little offended by this article. Maybe a more appropriate title is 'How to Make Music in 4 Steps'... Composition is far from what is described here. I mean, kudos for attempting to place such a broad subject in such a little space but following these steps from an amateur's perspective will not yeild the intended reults. Composition is a disicplined art, one where creativity and form should blend mixing the rules with expressivity...
Again, kudos for the attempt, but it missed the mark.

March 14 | Unregistered Commenterrviess

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