Intermediate Music Theory Lesson 8 – Composition Techniques

And, we surge into the final lesson in the series. We’ll use this final lesson to discuss some ways to attack composition. You can think of composition as the practical application of music theory. Yet, there is, of course, a mystical element to composition. The ultimate goal is to find a balance between the flow of the melody and the harmony so that they work together in a way which expresses what you truly mean to say in your song. Use your knowledge of theory as your tool, but don’t rely on it itself to create music. Just because you know a fair amount of theory doesn’t automatically mean you’ll be able to compose. Composition takes practice and cultivation, your first time out may not be successful, but don’t be discouraged. What theory will help you with is putting what you hear in your head down on the page.

So, onto some methods for attacking composition. First, melody first composition.

I’m sure it happens all the time: you’re in the shower, walking to work, doing homework, in a meeting, and a tune will get stuck in your head. Chances are, what you’re hearing is a pretty cool, and natural melody. How do you take that melody line and work it into a song? Well, for starters, lets start with a melody:

Melody 1


Melody 1.aiff Melody

Here’s a simple melody, four measures long in 4/4. Now that it’s sketched on paper, you can go to the piano, DAW, or whatever instrument you prefer, and get it in your ear. The correlation between what you’ve naturally heard while humming the song before writing it down and its inevitable harmony is strong. Once its in your ear, you will start hearing some harmonic places it will want to go naturally. At first, it might take you a little while to translate these innate sounds into written form, but keep playing with the harmony and you’ll get there. For example, when I sat at the piano for a second, I came up with this:

Melody 1 With first set of Chords



Chords 1 Mel 1.aiff Melody With First Set of Chords

This is the first harmony I heard after firmly imbedding the melody in my ear. Most likely, these are the chords I was hearing when I first started humming the tune, but couldn’t solidify until I sat at my instrument and played a bit.

Now that the two base ideas are down, it’s prudent to change things up a bit. This could mean a few things- new melodic material, new harmonic material, motivic development (building off of the main idea). I’m going to make a conscious choice to add some harmonic material, so I’ll play the same melody as a repeat, but completely change the chords underneath. After playing with the harmony, I came up with this

Melody 1 with Second Set of Chords



Chords 1 Mel 2.aiff Melody with Second Set of Chords

The melody is the same, but the chords have moved to do something very different from the original. Let’s come back now to the concept of motivic development. A motive is, in short, a musical idea, usually a short one. Using motives to develop melodies is one of the oldest and most effective tricks in the book. Now, let’s take those motives and use the two different harmonies I came up with to start developing this tune. Putting it all together:



lesson 8 composition 1.aiff Composition 1


Now it’s starting to sound more like a composition instead of just a sketch. This is, of course, a very small example.

Another approach to tackling composition is harmony first composition. This method tends to be more favored by people who play harmony instruments like guitar and piano. Personally, I tend to work more harmony first, though I try to push myself to do both. When I come up with a progression that I like, there is usually a melody already starting to form. Most chord progressions have a skeleton melody, whether it’s in the top notes of the voicing or in the way the harmony moves. When you’re trying to come up with a melody to put over a chord progression, start the same way as in melody first composition- really get the chord progression in your ear. Once the progression is in your ear, melodies will start to form.   

Here is the chord progression I’ll start with for this example:

Chord Progression


Comp 2 Chord Progression.aiff Chord Progression

Once you have a chord progression you like, it’s time to return to your instrument of choice to play around with it until your ear latches onto a melody. I do this one of two ways, either I’ll use my pinky and ring finger of my right hand on the piano to play the chords, bass, and start forming a melody; or I’ll play the chords and try to hum something. If you make a conscious effort to hear where the chords are taking you, especially if it’s a progression you’re really in love with, a melody will naturally begin to emerge. Here’s the melody I heard for this progression:

Melody 2


So, sketched together they look like this:

Chords and Melody

Comp 2 Melody and Chordsaiff.aiff Composition 2 Chords and Melody


Now, once I’ve put down the first few motives and ideas for the composition, I can begin to grow it, either by adding sections, defining a form, adding different chords. For this example I’ve chosen to play around with different textures and changes the harmony from the first statement:



Lesson 8 Composition 2.aiff Composition 2


Composition can be a tricky business, but it can also be one of the most rewarding. One guideline I try to follow myself is to write first, analyze and revise later. When you’re in the “composition zone” the last thing you want to think about is what you’re dong technically. Let it flow. Once it’s all down on paper, that’s when you can go back, play through it, listen, analyze, and start revising (unless your brain is Mozartian; in that case, you’ll accomplish all steps inside your head before you write it down).

So, now that it’s come down to the last paragraph of the last lesson in this series, I’ll leave you with a little simile. Often in these lessons I’ve compared music theory to mathematics. Mostly, I’ve used this to relate how numbers in music relate to numbers in math. However, there is another, perhaps, more apt comparison: Music theory is to math as composition is to physics. What I mean by this is,  while math is the theory of numbers, you use math in practical application to solve physics problems. With music, music theory is likewise the means toward a compositional end. Knowing theory is an important skill, but it does not trump the beauty of music. You don’t need to know how gravity works to know that it works, and you don’t need to know the theory of music to know what sounds good. So, go forth and create, please.

Write a composition and upload it to the Indaba Music Composer’s Critique Session!

<—-Prevoius Lesson

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2 Responses to Intermediate Music Theory Lesson 8 – Composition Techniques

  1. When you start with chord progressions, the number of melodies you can come up with is amazing. For example, you may already be familiar with the Pachelbel Rant.

  2. I really liked the compositions on this page – especially the second one – and appreciated the more interesting chord progressions, which is an area I’ve often worked in but have found it hard to create music that I am content with – especially in a band scenario where a lot of people are more interested in their I,IV,V’s and I,vi,IV,V’s…

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