Resources for music composition & theory

overall, i think there isn’t a one-stop-shop for aspects of learning more deeply about music. for me, its been a lifelong relationship and a whole language development. a very personal journey and one no other people could build for me.

the biggest aspect of learning music/sound is active listening, getting used to using your ears more deeply. another thing is to help focus on what aspects of the language you are trying to learn as more exists than you most of us can deeply explore at one time.

so a vaguely analytical way to start listening more deeply is to analyze some music. instrumentation, tempo, key signature, general structural bones/roadmap, why x works and anything of particular interest. you can go as deep as you are able all the way to transcription or start much more simply. and then it helps to discuss your findings to see what is accurate and what might be a bit off.


Great question. This isn’t meant to discourage your quest at all, rather to encourage a somewhat oblique approach to the topic.

I’m pretty sure that I am not alone here in being inspired by Brian Eno. He, as far as I know, had no formal musical education. Rather, he studied art.

I love his early rock albums. They sound to me as if he was trying to figure out what the function of rock music was from an alien perspective.

I suspect that his lack of “musical education” contributed in some degree to his ability to rethink “traditional” musical roles and approaches.

In short, don’t sell yourself short due to a lack of formal training. You never know what you might discover outside of that context. :slight_smile:


Interesting! I’ve never done any sort of active listening beyond “this sounds cool, I wonder how they do that”. Do you listen to the same song over and over and take notes? Any albums or songs you recommend for getting started?

1 Like

Encouraging! I’ve listened to some of his albums, but had no idea he didn’t have any formal education. Thanks!

1 Like

As you start to learn and practice [western] music-theorie you will automaticaly start to listen to music in a different way. This is how I expearience it.
I really like this podcast:


you will listen more than once. but it depends on your specific goals as well as your proficiency. some people can get a lot of info from even a single listen and others will take a few more specifically if you are trying to “play along” that likely will take more repeats. i always tell people to start with simple pieces but something you LOVE and are able to enjoy with multiple listens. it does qualify as work so you must consider what has kept you from ever actively listening to works before in your life.


V true about multiple listens to things one loves.

Another thing I’d suggest to anyone wanting to start playing an instrument or deepening an existing practice is to jam along with loved recordings. It doesn’t matter what level one is at for this to bear nice fruit!


I don’t know how helpful this will be but i figured I would chime in with my 2 cents.

I come from a background in guitar and have been mostly self taught. My only formal education in music theory is an AP theory class I took in high school which introduced me to the concepts of intervals, voice leading, and cadences all of which gave me a better vocabulary to be able to understand what I was doing. I have a pretty good grasp on theory now and am capable of thinking in a “theoretical” way but it’s not my default mode of thinking. Rather its something I turn to if I have a specific way I want something to sound or if I’m stuck trying to figure what would work well next in a piece

I agree with what a lot of people have been saying with regards to ear training and seeing what flavors you can get with different intervals and critical listening in general. I try to do daily ear training with some different apps (Earpeggio on iPhone is really great or Open Ear on Android). One other thing I have found helpful is playing with other people (or recorded music) and practicing being able to hear the tonic note or the “key”. When I’m fairly confident I have the right one, I can apply a scale and play along.

For when I’m more composing, another aspect that I have found powerful is practicing hearing and using cadences for when I want to have tension and resolution in piece. This isn’t a technical definition but I think of cadences as the strongest relationships in music that generally create the greatest sense of tension and resolution. Having an understanding of them will be able to give you the ability to keep the listener on the edge of their seat and finally release which is very satisfying. Practicing being able to hear the relationship of the five (the dominant) to the one (the tonic) of a key in particular was really helpful to me since it is THE strongest musical relationship and is a common musical troupe that I believe can be found in music of all genres but with either of those apps, they will train you how to identify them


[edit: this was originally in response to a thread started about getting started in learning music in general, but was merged into the “resources for music composition and theory thread”]

I’m completely self taught so I may be missing information that others with formal training may have, but I’ve found that learning how to make music could be broken down into a few different categories:

  • music theory and composition
    - the resources for music composition and theory thread that you posted should have you covered

  • sound design and synthesis
    - of course there’s a thread on this also

  • music production
    - I didn’t find a dedicated thread for this, but this covers things like using a DAW, recording instruments and vocals, mixing, and mastering

  • instrument and performance
    - this really depends on your instrument, but in general I find trying to play something, recording that performance then comparing it to what you’re trying to play can be revealing

As mentioned above, active listening will help in all of the categories whether you’re learning a song structure, how to recreate a specific sound, how a sound fits in a mix, or playing technique in your instrument(s) of choice.


Oh this is a great breakdown, thank you!

1 Like

to piggy-back on this, something I do a lot in my music is mimicking things I like in order to understand them and make them my own. occasionally this looks like straight up working on a cover or rework of a song or just plunking along on a keyboard to figure out a neat melody, sometimes it looks more like trying to write a piece in the stye of something I like.


Thanks so much for writing this post.


What are people using for engraving “standard” notation these days? I know about Finale and Sibelius, but curious about free/cheaper/open source options… I’ve done a bit of work in MuseScore, and I remember a colleague using some text-based language for a piece but I can’t remember the name.
FWIW I will probably use it to notate some things out, then move it into Photoshop/Affinity and do non-traditional stuff with it.

I’ve just tried Steinberg Dorico SE and it’s quite good and free. I chose it because of the tab editor.

You’re probably thinking of LilyPond — I’ve been meaning to learn that and know it makes for some really elegant engraving (especially compared to the hideous “average” finale or dorico result), but I never did!



I learned the basics on this and beyond the obvious aesthetic benefits, it allows succinct expression of musical ideas (e.g. repetitions, codas, nested structures). Closer to thinking than the enforced linearity of GUI’ed alternatives.

Steep learning curve, but there are some GUI’ed OSS packages that use it as a backend. Another benefit of its interface, and may make it easier to approach. ‘Denemo’ was one I remember from a while back.

1 Like