Learning to Write Music

I’ve been interested in the idea of composing music for quite a while, and being able to write music was the last thing I wasn’t sure I’d be able to do in order to make a video game on my own. Over the summer, I finally decided to give it a try and see how it worked out. I wasn’t sure if I could do it, but I figured it couldn’t hurt to try.

After my first attempt at writing music, I was happy to find out I was able to do it! It’s not as hard as I thought it might be, but it’s still pretty tough sometimes. In my first attempt at writing a song, I wasn’t really trying to write any particular type of song, and I wasn’t writing the song for any particular purpose other than just to see if I could write a song. It turned out to have an ambient/sci-fi feel to it.

I didn’t learn much about music growing up, so my first step was to learn more about how music works. Several years ago, I read an introductory book on music theory. I believe it was Music Theory for Computer Musicians, if I remember correctly. It helped me a lot in understanding how music works and the building blocks that it’s made of. I think this is around the time when I started thinking of trying to write music, but I didn’t actually get to trying it until recently. In the meantime, I just tried to think about music more as I listened to it, and I tried to figure out what makes good music good.

Eventually, I came across a free music making tutorial by Ableton. I went through it and found it to be a really good interactive browser-based tutorial. It made composing music seem much more approachable to me, and it helped me to finally be motivated enough to try it. So far, I’ve been using a free DAW (digital audio workstation) called LMMS to compose music.

After I successfully wrote my first song, I decided to try writing a main menu theme for Bludgeon, the game I’m making. I was aiming for a medieval-sounding song, and I also wanted it to feel rough and warlike (going for the kind of feel the Skyrim theme song has). I’m really happy with how it turned out.

For this song, I actually came up with part of the melody in my head while doing the dishes one day. For most of the songs I’ve written so far, I didn’t come up with a melody ahead of time, but kind of just came across one by putting random-ish notes in the DAW, and then adjusting them until I had something that sounded good.

After this, I wanted to write a different song that plays during fights in Bludgeon. Being inspired by how all the songs in the Undertale soundtrack are tied together so well with a few musical themes, I wanted to figure out how to do the same thing in Bludgeon. So I tried copying part of the Bludgeon theme song over and switching some notes around, and I used that as a starting point for this song. I also wanted this song to have more energy since it will be playing during battles, so I started out with a more energetic-sounding drum beat. As I keep writing songs for Bludgeon, I’m interested in seeing if I’m able to keep them sounding different enough to be interesting but also similar enough to sound like they belong together.

This holiday season, I had the idea of trying to compose a seasonal/Christmas-type song. This was partly because I thought it would be a fun time of reflection/relaxation over the holidays, and partly because I was annoyed by all the inane Christmas songs I kept hearing over the radio and at stores (I wanted to see if I could write a Christmas song that sounded the way I wish more Christmas songs sounded). The way the sound of my song turned out and the timing worked out, it ended up being a song about the winter solstice. I used Schala’s theme from Chrono Trigger as inspiration for this song, and I was probably also inspired by Carol of the Bells and Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy, as those are some of my favorite holiday songs. I’m really happy with the way this turned out, and I think it’s cool that I have a new way of expressing myself now that I can write music.

To wrap up, here are some of the things I’ve learned so far while learning to write music:

  • Music sounds good when it repeats itself enough for the mind to latch onto, but not when it’s so repetitive that it’s boring or annoying.
  • Music sounds good when it has a lot of things going on at the same time that all go together. It seems to me that a good way of doing this is starting a song out simple and then gradually adding more and more elements to it - I have a hunch that hearing a song that works this way gives the mind a sense of discovery. It also seems good to accentuate different components of a song at different times to help the mind take everything in, since it can be hard to focus on listening to several parts at once.
  • When writing a song, just like creating anything else, you won’t have the end product all thought out at the start of the project. You start with a simple idea and keep adding to it and iterating on it until you’re happy with it. In fact, you don’t even necessarily have to have an idea to start with - you can just start throwing out random notes until something starts to sound good, and then keep going in that direction.
  • You never know if you’ll be able to do something until you try. I always kind of assumed I wouldn’t be able to write music, but I only found out I could after I tried it. I’m still starting out and don’t always know what I’m doing, but I know I have a decent start and can keep building on it.