Music Composition: It’s those little dots on a line across the page. But what do those dots mean? How does it work and how does one go about writing music? Well, in this article, we will go over the basics of music theory so you can begin to learn how to compose music.
Music Theory is the study of the structure of music, including notes, chords, and sounds. In order to learn how to compose basic music, there must be at least a basic understanding of some type of music theory. We will go over these basics.
- Notes – the basic unit of music, a single pitch.
A note is any pitch you play on any instrument. These notes are measured by specific frequencies. The following note on the staff and piano below is C4, better known as “middle C.” This frequency is about 256Hz.
Middle C is called C4 because of its place on the piano. Twelve notes below a C4 is also a C, but it’s called C3. Twelve notes above C4 is yet another C. This is called, you guessed it, C5. Each of the letters on the piano are equally spaced apart from each other and sound the same, but lower and higher. Here are all the Cs on the piano.
Just like C, each of the other notes have numbers beside them indicating where on the piano they are. For now, we are only going to focus on the white keys, and we’ll get into the black keys later. So from middle C, we have C4, D4, E4, F4, G4, A4, B4, and C5. Here are those notes:
Above C5, is D5, E5, F5, and so on. Below C4 is B3, A3, G3, and so on. Below is a colored chart to better explain.
Now onto the black keys. The black keys are represented as two notes: flats (b) and sharps (#). If they are to the right of a note, then they are that note’s sharp. For example, the black key to the right of G5 would be a G#5. If they are to the left of a note, they are that note’s flat. For example, the note to the left of G5 would be a Gb5.
All black keys can be a sharp and a flat. For example, G#5 and Ab5 are the same note, as shown below.
There are some black keys that don’t exist on the keyboard (these would be B#/Cb and E#/Fb.) In certain instances, you could call a C a B#,a B a Cb, an F an E#, or an E an Fb, but these instances are few and far between.
- Scales – notes arranged into a repeating order of pitches.
A C major scale begins with a C and ends with a C:
Depending on what scale you use, you will use a variety of black and white keys. In fact, he only scales that use only white notes are C major and A minor. We’ll get into that in a minute. A normal major scale consists of a variety of whole steps (2 notes up the scale) and half steps (1 notes up the scale). The scale can repeat itself over and over since the notes are the same in different octaves.
A major scale (a happy sounding scale) is notated as WWHWWWH (Whole step, whole step, half step, whole step, whole step, whole step, half step.) Below is an A major scale. Count the distances between the notes that are red and the notes that are not red.
A major scale (a sad sounding scale) is notated as WHWWHWW (Whole step, half step, whole step, whole step, half step, whole step, whole step.) Below is an D minor scale. How would you know whether to put sharps or flats? Remember, any normal western music scale has one of every note name. ABCDEFG, in any order. You wouldn’t say that a scale has both a Db and a D, you would call that C# since you do not have a regular C in the scale
Here we have a Bb and not an A3. Remember, there is no regular B in this scale. You wouldn’t use D, E, F, G, A, A#, B. that would be confusing. You would say D, E, F, G, A, Bb, C. Now you are using all the note names!
- Rhythm – the length of notes and rests, usually in a pulse of a piece
Rhythm is the length of notes within a measure. Music is divided up by boxes known as measures, and the time signature at the beginning of a piece will tell you how many beats can go in a measure. If a time signature says 4/4, that means there are 4 beats in a measure and the quarter note takes the beat. One whole note plays for 4 beats, so you can fit 1 whole note in that measure. One half note plays for 2 beats, so you can fit 2 whole notes in that measure. A quarter note plays for one beat so you can fit 4 in a measure, an eighth note plays for a half a beat so you can fit 8 in a measure, a sixteenth note plays for a quarter of a beat so you can fit 16 in a measure, and so on. Having basic knowledge of fractions will go a long way for learning rhythm. Below is a whole note, two half notes, 4 quarter notes, and 8 eighth notes.
You could also use a combination of different notes. So if you wanted to replace a whole note with 2 quarter notes, it’s possible (see below.)
There are also other time signatures. Another common time signature is 3/4 time. 3/4 time means there are 3 beats in the measure and the quarter note takes the beat. The longest note that can fit in a measure like that is what is called a dotted half note. A dotted half note takes a half note and adds half the vale of it onto it. So a dotted half note is a half note plus a quarter note, or 3 beats. You can dot any note and it will add half the value of that note onto it.
Below are some notes in 3/4 time. Notice how only 3 quarter notes and 6 eighth notes fit into the measure. That is because there are only 3 beats in the measure. The quarter note is played for one beat so there can be 3 in a 3 beat measure.
- Tempo – the speed of a piece
The tempo of the piece is measured in BPM, which means beats per minute. So if a piece has 60 BPM, that means there are 60 beats per minute, and each beat lasts 1 second long. If a piece has 120 BPM, that means there are 120 beats per minute, and each beat lasts 0.5 seconds long. The faster the BPM, the faster the piece.
Below is a list of terms that can be notated instead of a number:
Larghissimo: Grave: 25-45 BPM
Largo/Lento: 40-60 BPM
Larghetto: 60-66 BPM
Adagio/Adagietto: 66-76 BPM
Andante: 76-108 BPM
Moderato: 108-120 BPM
Allegro: 120-168 BPM
Presto: 168-200 BPM
Prestissimo: >200 BPM
- Chord – a group of 3 or more notes played together
A major (remember: happy sounding) chord is a note played together with 2 other notes: one is 4 half steps above itself and one is 7 half steps above itself. For example, an F major chord is an F, an A, and a C.
A minor (remember: sad sounding) chord is a note played together with 2 other notes: one is 3 half steps above itself and one is 7 half steps above itself. For example, an F major chord is an F, an Ab, and a C.
Whow would you know whether to put a sharp or a flat? Here is a list of chords. All your chords should look like this but with optional sharps and flats in the chord.