Muziek-compositie voor starters

Just to be clear, this blog is about traditional music composition, meaning it’s not going to deal with modern EDM-style workflows involving arpeggiators, drum loops, Ableton tools, and so on. So, if you know your way around a piano and want to start writing your own pieces, by all means, dig in!


While this article is focussed on beginners, there’s no way to avoid using a bit of jargon so let’s explain some basic terms first. Arranging means tailoring your musical ideas to specific instruments. Here, a piano arrangement is usually the most basic representation of a musical idea and takes the least amount of time to write. An orchestral arrangement, on the other hand, is the most complex kind of arrangement and commonly involves thirty or so different parts, each of which serves a different purpose. Since the options are a-plenty, creating orchestral arrangements is massively motivating. At the same time, it takes a ton of experience to maintain oversight when working with so many instruments. Theme is another recurring term in this blog and refers to a recognisable whole. If we compare it to written language, a theme would be a bit like a complete sentence in a paragraph. It’s also bigger than a pattern, which would be more like a single word. Sticking to the language metaphor, a theme is basically a collection of patterns, just like a sentence is a collection of words. All that being said, we actually won’t be going into patterns here today. To help you on your way, I’m going to answer seven questions a beginner might ask. Let’s get started.

What if I have no idea where to begin?

Every composition starts with an idea. While that sounds really straightforward, it’s usually where the first struggles arise. A lot of composers have a tendency to sit down at their keyboard and start pressing keys, but it’s actually better to conceive a mental construct first, and it’s okay to take your time here. It can be literally any subject too, from the ocean to a herd of African elephants or a goat in the Tyrol Alps. Once you have something in mind, the trick is to translate not the subject, but properties of your subject into music. Take the ocean for example.

The ocean is:

  • Massive
  • Always in motion
  • Soothing when the weather is calm
  • Dangerous in stormy weather

If you think about it, the properties above can be translated into musical notions that can help get you started.

  • Massive
    • Think big chords, possibly stacked in octaves and sustained for longer.
    • In terms of effects, think reverbs and delays, so spatial effects that help symbolise the vastness of the ocean.
  • Always in motion
    • The ocean immediately brings to mind waves, which were put into notes exceptionally well by Debussy in La Mer (seriously, have a listen). You can go for a similar approach here, using a gradual sequence of notes. More generally, it’s always worth wondering about how something moves so you can properly translate the motion into notes, tempo and dynamics. A stream, for example, doesn’t have big waves, but it does feature flows of water colliding with rocks, twists and turns, and a little bubbling here and there. If you’re wondering what that might sound like, check out The Moldau by Smetana. It starts with a flute that goes up and down, symbolising modest wave-like motion.
    • Consider the arrangement. Quick, small movements are cut out for woodwind instruments, violins, violas and chromatic percussion, while long, slow movements are better suited for cellos, double basses and brass wind instruments.
    • Things like little bubbles and drops of water are perfect for instruments such as harps, glockenspiels, triangles and vibraphones.
  • Soothing when the weather is calm
    • Major scales evoke a more positive feel.
    • Keeping the loudness in check also keeps things nice and calm.
  • Dangerous in stormy weather
    • Minor scales evoke a more negative feel.
    • Loud sounds are perfect for signalling danger.

Since context matters too, you’ll want to go into detail. Our little thought experiment above relates to the ocean in general, so when you zoom in on the Caribbean Sea, for instance, you’ll want to incorporate different instruments than when you have the North Sea in mind. Think of a topic of your own and see what you can come up with.

I’m stuck in the middle of a composition. What should I do?

Ok, so there’s no law that says you need to compose music in chronological order, so, if you’ve already written the intro and you’re stuck somewhere in the middle, you can always start working on the last part. Who knows, you might get struck with inspiration in the process. While wanting immediate results makes sense, it doesn’t always work that way. However, composers who write methodically will rarely hit a brick wall or suffer from a writer’s block, which is all about having a plan. Try working with a story timeline so you can treat your composition like a film script and simply work on a different part of the story whenever you get stuck.

I’ve picked a handful of chords. How do I come up with a melody?

This is something that even music students struggle with. The thing is that picking a chord progression is step two, not step one. As explained above, the first step is always an idea. When you do start off with chords, chances are that the only melody you can come up with will be based on broken chords (arpeggios), resulting in a melody that’s only made up of the notes that make up the chords. The downside to this kind of melody is that it sounds more like a chord embellishment instead of something more fully-fledged. Why? Because an idea isn’t bound to any chords. An idea is simply an idea. If you start off with chords and no idea, you’ll most likely end up forcing yourself to come up with something that matches your chords, which severely limits the ways your composition may develop. What’s more, you’ll run the risk of foregoing an idea completely and going straight to working out your chord progression in the hopes that an idea sprouts in the process. I’ll say it again: every composition should start with an idea – always.

I’m working on a piece I like so far, but others think it’s fuzzy. What can I do?

First off, the reason why it’s clear to you and unclear to others has to do with the fact that, in the process of writing it, you’ve heard your composition a million times already. Even if the notation really is a bit messy, disorderly or downright chaotic, after spending hours and hours working on it, it’s eventually going to make sense to you, which might not apply to someone who’s hearing it for the first time. You’re like a mixing engineer who’s been working on a track for so long they can no longer hear the adjustments they’re making because their ears have literally grown tired of hearing the same song over and over. This is exactly why smart mixing engineers practise A/B’ing: listening to something completely different every once in a while to reset their ears. You can do something similar when you’re composing music. Put on some Metallica followed by Bach and then play Celtic Woman before going back to your own work and see if it makes as much sense as it did before.

Simple or complex compositions, what’s better?

It depends. It makes sense that fresh-faced composers want to start off with something more complex given all of the advanced writing tools that are available these days, but that doesn’t mean it’s always a good idea to do so, especially since there’s so much to learn about and discover. On the other hand, what classifies as complex? Going for a ‘rich’, ‘layered’ or ‘substantial’ piece instead can just as easily result in a beautiful composition. What I’m trying to say is, creating something complex is easy, creating something that sounds good is something else. With that in mind, I would argue that it’s best to start out with simple compositions. Really, there’s nothing wrong with three chords and a nice little melody, and besides, you can always add those bells and whistles to the final arrangement.

My ideas always slip from memory before I’m able to write them out. What should I do?

There are two ways to write out a composition: the horizontal way and the vertical way. The horizontal approach involves laying out the core of your composition first, before colouring in the arrangement layer by layer. Going with the vertical method means writing a couple of bars and arranging them fully before moving on to the next measures. Needless to say, both approaches come with their own pros and cons.

The Horizontal Way

If you struggle to remember your ideas, this should be your go-to approach. That’s because arranging takes a lot of time which makes it easy to lose any natural workflow when you’re composing. Not only that, horizontal composition is perfect for cementing the main idea and saving the specifics for later. Doing things this way, you can simply write a piano part and embed the core idea of your composition in it. Once that’s done, you’ll have your chords, melody and bass ready to be turned into a complete arrangement.

The Vertical Way

While it’s great for creating a basic framework, horizontal composition comes with one big drawback: everything you come up with is based on the piano part you start with, and there’s not much room for tweaking. If you take the vertical approach, you get fully arranged, bite-sized bits that you can assess as you go, which allows you to constantly refine your ideas in the process. For example, if you suddenly come up with a great little riff for one of the instruments that serves to spruce things up, you’ll always have the option to turn that riff into an actual theme later on. If you had started with a horizontal composition, you probably never would’ve come up with that same riff in the first place.

Picking the Best Approach

The optimal method differs from one composer to another. If you love working out your basic ideas in advance because you can already hear them when you close your eyes, the horizontal approach will probably work really well for you. If you prefer to get direct feedback in the process and turn small patterns into big things and overarching themes, you’re probably better off with the vertical approach, which also makes it easier to tell if specific combinations of instruments are going to work or not. And if not, all you’ll need to do is change up a handful of measures instead of the whole thing. Put simply, the vertical approach is a voyage of discovery during which you can change direction any time.

A Hybrid Approach

So, the horizontal approach is better for composers who tend to forget their ideas, but going with a hybrid approach is an option too. Globally work out your preconceived ideas first, then take a vertical approach to figure out the details. When you then start arranging, you’re no doubt going to be struck with ideas and inspiration. And if you do end up getting stuck, you can always go back to your horizontally composed rough sketch.

How do I create a barebones structure and develop my composition?

The answer to this one is closely related to the previous question. As said, horizontal composition is about having a preconceived idea about the general structure of your composition, while vertical composition is more about shaping things up as you go. So, how do you end up with a structure if you’re composing horizontally but have no idea where to begin? The answer is fairly simple: find inspiration anywhere. For example, you could look up an image of a mountainous landscape and draw the contours of the mountain range in the picture onto a piece of paper. You can then take the lines you get and use it as the intensity curve for your composition. Or grab a picture of a city skyline and do the same thing. Every centimetre could represent a certain time interval, while the variations in verticality can be related directly to the dynamics. complexity or the timbre. The options are endless. There’s no reason why you can’t come up with your own curve or timeline. Better yet, it’ll only help to get those creative juices flowing. As you’ll quickly realise when you’re forced to throw your original ideas out of the window for the first time, necessity is the mother of invention — so don’t hesitate to use any means necessary to find inspiration.

An Interview With a Composer

Music composition is a talent you’re born with rather than a skill you can develop. Or is it? Composer Marco C. De Bruin would beg to differ. He’s composed countless compositions – including film score – and has made it his mission to help others discover and grow their composition skills. To do so, Marco has even come up with a special system.

Muziek componeren voor starters

Passion for Music

Growing up, Marco certainly wasn’t exposed to music on a daily basis. His dad played the organ every now and then, but that was about it, so Marco’s love for music didn’t start taking shape until he was in secondary school. “I was really impressed with sound technicians and their gear. Every time I saw those mixers and effects, I was thinking: that’s what I want to do too.” The problem was, it was all alien to me having grown up in a family of seafarers. Thankfully, my dad supported my decision to major in sonology, even though I had no clue about what the study entailed when I signed up for it. All I knew at that point is that I wanted to make music.”

Music Conservatory

And so Marco went on to study music — and not just briefly, but for a full nine years. “I was accepted into a conservatory and studied to become a music teacher. At the same time, I was taking jazz piano lessons on the side which taught me a lot about timing. Studying music definitely isn’t just about getting to grips with music theory, but also very much about actually making music. The same can be said for composing, which is a skill that requires deep ingraining into your brain and is something you only truly learn after you graduate. It’s like getting your driver’s licence. Only once you have it can you start building experience and making things your own. Someone I also learned a lot from is John Clayton, who is an American composer I collaborated with for a project with the Metropole Orchestra. John is not only particularly kind and intelligent, but great at pointing out the importance of certain things and takes people as they are. Working with him was a wonderful experience, and having studied for such a long time is definitely something that helped me make the most of it.”

Quincy Jones

When asked if he favours a certain instrument in his work as a composer, Marco says: “While I studied the piano for years, deep down, I’ve started feeling more and more like a wind player. I have a melodica that I’m able to put to good use simply because I love making music using my body. I can literally feel the phrasing when I play it. You can also feel the phrasing when you sing, even if it’s a bit different than when you press a key. Soprano saxes and bass clarinets are awesome instruments too, and I even deeply love the marimba. I also like the electric guitar, especially when played by someone like Pat Metheny. I just love sound production in general and speaking of which, I’m actually crazy about Quincy Jones. His music is so good, I could listen to Jones for days on end.

It’s easy to fall in love with any instrument really, whether it’s the mid-register of an oboe, low flutes, a high clarinet, or a bassoon played in the higher registers. Thinking about it, I would love to learn to play the trombone one day. Every instrument has its own unique sound, and if you love to orchestrate as much as I do, it’s always fun to find and piece together these different sounds.”


Marco continues: “I’m also a stickler for detail when it comes to composing. Since I teach it too, I’ve developed a special system to help others learn to compose. What the system basically comes down to is: thou shalt dabble, fiddle and faff around. Because that’s the way to get into a flow and get something on paper, so to say. Avoid any kind of tweaking, redacting, overthinking and fine-tuning for as long as possible. Here, I personally like to use a time management system. I’ll set a timer for five minutes and get as much jotted down as I can within that time frame. Anything goes. The next step is to decide on the direction I want to go in, and filter what I already have for bits I can use to take me in that direction. That’s when the actual composing begins. I’ll then either grab a pen and manuscript paper, sit down at my piano or get on my computer depending on whether I’m basing the composition on a sample or a sound. Again, anything goes once you have the spark that gets you started. This spark can be a musical abstraction like a minor scale or something taken from the real world, like a dance you’re watching or a car outside. A few years ago I stumbled upon Parkinson’s Law, which has nothing to do with the disease but states that ‘work expands to fill the time available for its completion’. In other words, if I’m tasked to write a 30-minute symphony and have a week to do so, I’ll make different decisions than when I’m allowed to take a year to finish it. The faster I come to a decision, the more that decision is based on intuition and the more personal it will be.”

Four Elements

So what are the requirements for a good composition? “Every composition is based on four things,” Marco says. “Firstly, there’s always a melody, whether it’s avant-garde music, a twelve-note composition or a serialist piece. Secondly, there’s always a groove, a metre or rhythm. Thirdly, there’s the colour which can be the orchestration or chord progression. Lastly, and most importantly if you ask me, there’s the element of space, which a lot of composers and songwriters tend to overlook, resulting in overcrowded compositions. Take Bohemian Rhapsody. It contains a mass of elements yet practically everyone thinks it’s a masterpiece, which has everything to do with space. Queen factored in the space needed to put in everything they wanted to put in, but a lot of bands that are just starting out will pile everything on the first count, so a new chord, a new rhythm, a new lyric. Creating space can be as simple as allowing the vocals to kick in on the second count. Also, a solid groove doesn’t need much. In fact, a good groove is a simple groove. That’s why people say whoever controls the drummer, controls the band. So, while it sounds a little harsh, I would consider putting your drummer on a leash to create more space for the rest of the band.”


Marco also frequently writes arrangements and knows what it takes: “Arrangements are based on an existing idea. When you write an arrangement, it’s usually for a client so it’s important to find out what they want before you start working on it. It can be a one-to-one arrangement where you’re forced to copy the structure including the key and specific riffs, or you might have a bit of freedom to add personal ideas, or even full creative licence. Whenever I arrange a Pat Metheny piece, I have quite a bit of freedom, which is normal for jazz. If the full arrangement is supposed to be six minutes long and I base it on a 30-second standard, I’m forced to add things, which can actually make arranging look more like composing. With film score, it’s the other way around since the images dictate the music. That’s where it’s important to discuss the specifics of the music for each scene with the director. Soundtracking a film involves a lot of last-minute decision-making, and, naturally, extremely long work days.

Toss out the Theory

Before we wrap up the interview, Marco wants to share two important tips for novice composers: “The first and foremost tip would be: just compose. Get started and don’t scrutinise yourself too much at first. Make sure you get into a flow and don’t worry about the theoretical side of things. Put songwriting first, theory second. The second tip is: find a role model. Figure out what sets them apart and recycle their style. Take it all in, then put your own spin on it. I spent countless hours with my headphones on playing along to Stevie Wonder. At a certain point, I caught onto his timing and used it to write music no one would ever link to Stevie Wonder in a million years. Hopefully, this helps you take what’s in your head and turn it into music.”

See Also

» Music Notation Software
» DAW Software
» Instrument Plugins
» MIDI Keyboards
» Manuscript Paper

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