How to Compose Music When You Can't Read It – Soundfly

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How to Compose Music When You Can’t Read It

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I don’t know how to read sheet music. So you can probably guess where this post is going.

Don’t get me wrong — I’m not anti-sheet music or anything. But I do want to show you how you can compose music even if you can’t read it. Because nothing should stop you from making the music you want to make in your career.

But first…

Should You Learn to Read Music?

I personally don’t like should-ing all over people, but there are times when it would be useful to know how to read music (and if you want to, Soundfly’s got a great, free beginner’s course on reading music here). There are times when you actually won’t be able to keep up unless you know music notation. Here are some situations where you’ll need to at least be somewhat familiar with reading music, if not proficient:

  • If you want to join a band that uses sheet music, which is common in jazz, orchestral, and big band music.
  • When you’re learning how to play classical guitar, piano, or other instruments.
  • If you want to be a session musician.

You can definitely make a career in music without knowing a single thing about sheet music. Even if it looks totally foreign, you can still find ways to get by.

How to Compose Music Sheet-less

Now let’s look at some ways to compose music even if you can’t read a note of music.

1. Start humming.

Just because you don’t know how to notate music doesn’t mean the music isn’t constantly flowing in your head. So, instead of documenting your masterpiece on the staff, hum what you hear into a mic. Here’s how to do this, by recording each step in your DAW:

  • Find the main melody the same way you come up with a melody when writing a song.
  • For the harmony parts, start with simple thirds and fifths.
  • Figure out the bass line that will play underneath your piece.
  • Create supplemental melodies and sprinkle them throughout your song as flourishes.

Then you’ll have a piece of composed music that you can play on a nice instrument plugin or that live musicians could play if you teach them.

One time, I wanted a simple cello part in my song. So I hummed the melody I was hearing into an iPhone voice recording and emailed it to the engineer who was tracking the cello in a different city; it worked out perfectly. Professional musicians are going to understand what you’re going for if you give them a nudge.

2. Just use your instrument.

Using your instrument of choice, you can compose something to be played on a completely different instrument. Find your chord progression and a corresponding melody (or vice versa). Then, take the notes of the chords and the melody and translate that to your composition.

Whether you want strings or horns or something else, you can track it using your own instrument first, and swap these out later. If you have a loop station, you can record your various parts that way.

3. Use a free or cheap plugin and MIDI controller.

If you can find your way around a piano, you can use a MIDI controller and a plugin that emulates your choice of instrument (strings, horns, etc). Even if you’re not familiar with the piano, you can play by ear and dial in the sound that fits what you’re imagining.

The point here is to write your composition using the sound of the instruments you want in the final piece.

When I was working remotely with that cellist, that’s what I did. I played the parts I was hearing on a cheesy sounding orchestral string plugin, then I sent him each individual track and he played the parts on a real cello, just by using his ears. No sheet music required.

And that brings me to the next section…

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Can You Collaborate Without Sheet Music?

Yes, you can totally collaborate with other musicians without reading sheet music. I do it all the time. Here are three ways to do it.

1. Download music notation software.

Music notation software lets you play MIDI notes and then it will automatically translate them to sheet music. You can then print or email this sheet music to your collaborators. So even if you don’t know how to read it, you can tell the software to create it. (Though, of course, using these softwares gets easier if you do learn a little about reading music!)

Many DAWs have a built-in feature that will do this for you, too. If not, here are some of the best music notation software programs you can check out.

  • Finale Sibelius
  • Notion 6
  • MuseScore
  • Noteflight
  • Finale PrintMusic
  • Forte Home

2. Write out the letter notes.

Another way you can avoid notating music for your collaborators is to write out the letter notes you want. So, once you’ve got your melody, basic harmonies, bass notes, and other elements like a tempo and a repeating rhythm, you can write the progression of notes represented by their letter notes in sequence.

So your melody could look like this: G – E – C

Your harmony could be: B – G – E

And your bass notes could be: G – G – C

That’s what you’d send to your collaborator — the letter notes of each part.

3. Work with musicians who can play by ear.

This is usually how it works out for me. I work with some super talented musicians who can play the parts I’ve recorded without needing a single piece of sheet music. In my opinion, that’s what a real musician is — someone who can play by ear if they need to.

I usually record the parts on a low-quality, free plugin that mimics the instrument I want. Then, after making sure all of my melodies, harmonies, and bass notes work with each other and within the song, I send those individual tracks to the musicians for them to record from their home studios.

So, yes, you can totally compose music even if you can’t read it.

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Caleb J. Murphy
Caleb J. Murphy

Caleb J. Murphy is a songwriter and producer based in Austin, TX., and the founder of Musician With A Day Job, a blog that helps part-time musicians succeed. He's been self-releasing music since 2009 in various bedrooms, basements, garages, and closets.