The practice of learning to compose music is never finished. It’s a subject that people study throughout their entire lives. Even if you have a doctorate in music theory, even if you are the conductor of an orchestra…there’s always more to learn.
But that doesn’t mean that you have to be an expert to take part. If you sit at home, picking out melodies on your guitar – that’s composition. If you use empty sheet music paper to craft a simple song – that’s composition. Today, anyone can start practicing composition, thanks to a myriad of tools and apps. You don’t have to be Mozart.
Here is some of my favourite software for composing music. These tools can get you started, whether you’re a novice or an expert.
Online Music Studios
If you’re going the digital route, you don’t even need to be able to read music to start composing songs. There are plenty of digital audio workstations and online music studios that help you lay down beats, loop tracks, and adjust into different keys and tempos.
Soundtrap is one option with an easy-to-use interface. It’s available in Windows, Chromebook, Mac, Linux, iPad and iPhone, and Android. If you’re just starting out, you can experiment with loops, synthesizers, different instrument sounds, and collaborations. You can also try Studio One from Presonus. It’s a bit more complicated than some of its counterparts, but it is also more comprehensive, and is favored by bedroom producers and casual sound artists. Their ‘drag-and-drop’ feature is a nice way to streamline your song tempo or experiment with an arrangement. Logic Pro X is Apple’s answer to those who want to upgrade from its simpler music studio option, GarageBand. Logic Pro serves as a complete music production facility, with many plug-in and sound options.
If you’re composing music, you may have quite an extensive background in theory. However, if you’re going to test your foundational understanding, there are plenty of tools to help you.
iReal Pro lets you choose from 47 different accompaniment styles, like bossa nova, gypsy jazz, bluegrass and swing. It’s a solid tool for understanding how compositions are built, and includes chord charts and diagrams. Even if you’re an expert, it can help you brush up. Tenuto is also a usable app for both beginner and experienced musicians, with 20 customised exercises to help you practice your understanding of theory. It’s available for all iOS devices.
Adam Neely’s videos on YouTube are constantly delving into helpful musical tips and explanations. You can also refer to this cheat sheet on chord construction and naming; it may be old but it is still helpful.
Music Notation Software
If you have a basic understanding of how to read music, you’re welcome into the world of music notation software. You may have a romantic image of a composer sitting by the candlelight, sounding out symphonies with a quill pen. These days, things tend to be much more convenient!
Music teachers tend to recommend Noteflight for early composers. You can try a demo version or buy the real thing. Noteflight allows you to get right into the staff and start laying down a composition on digital paper. You can experiment with playback and compare your composition played by different instruments. It’s simple and easy to understand.
You’ll also likely have heard about two mainstays in the industry: Sibelius and Finale. They both let you notate, arrange, and print your sheet music. While Finale has been around slightly longer and may have a larger user base, Sibelius is seen by some as edging out the competition on innovation. The choice is entirely up to you, as they are priced very similarly.
Whether it’s music playback or sound editing you’re after, there are many tools that will help you hear your composition and adjust the sound to your liking. These plugins and add-ons are useful as accompaniments that will help you with listening and editing.
To listen to your composition with a hassle-free app, try Sheet Music Scanner. The app can playback almost any musical PDF or photo that is uploaded onto your device. It can also convert the PDF or photo into a MusicXML or MIDI file, making it a useful add-on to your composition tools. There’s also Recycle, for sampled grooves. You can open an audio file as a loop, then add tempo and beat information, and add creative effects to some or all of your selected sound. Audiobus is a clean and simple app for connecting compatible music apps together, like GarageBand, dj apps, drum machines, and synthesizers.
Another app you may want to consider is Sheet Music Scanner. Take a photo of printed sheet music, upload, and get to work. You can import from PDF, export to audio, MusicMXL, and MIDI, listen to the music, and switch instruments for different sounds.