10 Tips On How To Start Making Music

Mar 19, 2019

Veven recently asked me about tips for creating music and I thought I'd share it in the form of an article, because why not. :D

Tip #1: Choose Your DAW

I think one of the most important things in the beginning is to choose one music program, learn it and stick with it for at least a dozen songs. The longer you stay with one program, the better you know how it works and you can fully concentrate on making music, instead of fighting the interface. Don't jump to other programs if you can't figure something out. Every program is daunting and confusing at first, and a different program doesn't just make your music better. You'll have to re-learn every step again in the other program, and you'll end up being frustrated as hell and probably stop making music altogether. When I started making music digitally, I only had Music Maker, and I couldn't tell you if it was a good program or not, and it didn't matter. After many hours, I knew that program like the back of my hand, and making music with it was fun.

(My recommended program would be Samplitude, but I also heard good things about Reaper, FL Studio, Cubase and Ableton.)

Tip #2: Remix and Cover

Some of you may know the collection of tracks on my page called "Remix and Cover". These are not my actual first steps in making music. I have about a dozen tapes which contain compositions that I played on my Yamaha home organ, and lots of weird experiments from where I started playing around with samples in Windows 3.1 Sound Recorder and MAGIX Music Maker. When I was a child, I was given music lessons (one year in a general music school for all kinds of instruments, two years in a school for keyboard/organ). Pretty early on I liked playing notes that weren't on the sheets, I don't remember what brought it on, but I do know that I learned a lot by simply playing existing songs. I saw how songs worked, what kind of harmonies worked. I liked to play around with covers and change them just a little bit.

One of my music teacher was awesome enough to hand me notes of currently popular songs, and I learned to play songs like "Heal the World" by Michael Jackson, and not just classic songs or dusty old Christmas songs (although some harmonies in Christmas songs are insanely inspiring). I would start to try and cover other songs that I heard on the radio, and turn sections that I especially liked from these covers into my own songs.

So this would be my first tip: Cover a song you absolutely love. You will learn so much about how a song works and it will (hopefully) inspire you to make your own.

Tip #3: Because Why Not

The phrase that I used in the beginning of this post - "because why not" - is actually a good tip by itself. :D Don't be afraid to experiment, if you feel like adding a specific sound, just throw it into your DAW and play around with it, slow it down, speed it up, distort it, break it up - nobody will judge you. I used to make remixes using Windows sounds mixed with the laughter of my step-brother. When I got games, I used to inspect all the audio files and throw them together ("NHL 98", and Command & Conquer come to mind). I even made a mix out of Busta Rhymes and the Sailor Moon theme song. Will I ever share this? Who knows :D The point is, just have fun.

Additionally, don't be afraid to use every plugin, effect and MIDI instrument that your program ships with. Maybe even make a song with each of them. Go on an interface adventure and discover what every slider and knob does to your sound. That way you will expand your "sound library" and you'll be able to use it on purpose in the future.

Tip #4: Order Of Layers

In general, to start a song I would suggest a) to choose a BPM setting that you want your song to be and b) start with basic drums. Add bass and melody afterwards. The reason for that is, you can listen to your drums while recording everything else and stay in sync much better, than trying to play along with a melody or bass alone.

Tip #5: Don't Worry About Being "Professional"

A problem with making a song is that your own mix never sounds quite as good as the "professional songs" out there. Don't worry about it. Is your track unique and fun to listen to? If yes, that's all that matters. Modern music programs usually have mastering settings that do a lot of stuff for you. Just make sure to listen to your song on every device you have and try to EQ each line individually as best as you can: Lower the higher frequencies from bass, reduce the lower frequencies from melody and voice. And reign in that drum kick sound a little, it doesn't need to kill every subwoofer on the planet. (I say that from experience, I have subwoofer blood on my hands. :D)

Also, basic equipment is fine (PC/laptop, music program, and maybe a dedicated soundcard). The more complex your sound equipment or sound pipeline is, the harder it is to actually make music. Do you really need four analog sequencers, five different keyboards, three audio interfaces, 100 VST plugins, two mixing consoles and a separate microphone for every occasion? Having so much choice can negatively impact your decisions and weigh heavily on your music making. My first microphone was cheap as hell, and I sang all songs from Fallen Sheep to Remains with it. I even recorded guitar and random sounds with it. Would high-end gear have made it sound better? Probably! Would it change the meaning and expression of the songs? I doubt it.

Tip #6: Finish Your Songs

Every song on my cassette tapes is a finished song, even if it's not good or whatever. When I composed songs on my keyboard, I practiced them for days until I got bored of them, and then recorded them on tape, so I could forget it and start with the next one. When I made a song in Music Maker, I tried to go at least to the 2 or 3 minute mark and try to make it sound as good as possible. Then I also recorded it on tape and threw the project away (I didn't have enough space on my harddrive to keep backups of projects or their files).

The point is, by forcing yourself to finish something, you realize that a song needs structure and variations, otherwise it becomes boring. And to me, this is probably the most important thing in making songs. There should be something new for the listener to hear about every 20-30 seconds, even if it's just a new hi-hat, or a different note in your bass melody, or a change of key. When the song is done, slap a name on it, and move on to the next song. You can then look back and have a bunch of finished songs, which will definitely boost your motivation, because there is clear evidence that you can do this.

It also helps if you have someone you can send your songs to. Back in 1999 or whenever, I always had two or three friends that I played these songs to and they usually had very helpful reactions, which helped in the creation of the next ones. It's important to never go back to work on a finished song. You'll only make it worse, trust me. It never ends. Just move on and make a new track from scratch.

(Unless you're working on an album, but even then it's probably a good idea to let it rest for a while. Speaking of which...)

Tip #7: Don't Make An Album Right Away

If you set your goals too high, you will be demotivated from the beginning. Just focus on finishing one track at a time. If you decide to package it later on, that's perfectly fine. I personally didn't start thinking in "albums" until Taskless Sheep's Meadow Mayhem. Fallen Sheep started as a bunch of tracks that I began to collect into an "album" mainly for organizational reasons. The soundtrack for Halfquake Amen wasn't really an album either, I simply loved making music for the game, that's what mattered. And Remains started out as soundtrack for Sunrise. Only when I already had a dozen songs I realized I had to just release it all under one name. I probably wouldn't have done as much if I had always set out to make an "album" with a playtime of 45 minutes or more.

Tip #8: Immediately Act On Your Ideas

If you have an idea for a melody or a track in general, it's important to note it down or hum/sing/beatbox it into your phone quickly, or else you will definitely forget it. Afterwards, as soon as you can, sit down and actually make the track for that idea. I noticed that ideas start to fade away the longer you're not helping them come to life. A good rule of thumb seems to be to realize your ideas within one week.

Every once in a while I like to work with very old ideas that I have lying around, but it will never be the same song that it would have become if I had acted upon it immediately. Getting ideas is your brain saying: "Let's go!" So, don't leave it hanging and you might be surprised where it leads you.

Tip #9: Listen To Lots And Lots Of Music

Your brain needs input if it wants to come up with ideas on its own. I personally like to listen to anything, I never dismiss music just because of labels or genres. In example, here are songs that inspired me recently. If you listen to music and really like a specific part, dissect it and figure out what makes it work, and maybe try something similar in your own tracks.

I also really enjoy listening to remixes, they are incredibly inspiring. For example, listen to Marilyn Manson's Disposable Teens, and then this remix. Or Madonna's Nothing Really Matters, and this fabulous jazzy remix by Kruder & Dorfmeister. I think remixes are absolutely fascinating. :D

Tip #10: Music Theory

Personally, I would recommend that you at least try to learn an instrument (piano/keyboard or maybe guitar, since those are the easiest) because that obviously got me started. It probably helps if you know about basic terms like bridge, chorus, verse, beats per minute, fills, riffs, hi-hats, toms, snares, bars, and common time signatures (3/4, 4/4). It probably doesn't help if you know 100 technical terms for chord progressions or sound techniques. In fact, I think knowing too much may actually block you from trying outside-of-the-box ideas. You can get very technical with music, and technical music tends to sound calculated, distant and cold. If you concentrate on expressing your emotions, it will definitely be fine.


I recently saw a quote that read, "Music is the closest thing to magic that we have." I hope these tips are at least a little bit useful and help you on your way to become the next music magician. 🌟

If you already are a sound sorcerer and you have any additional tips to share, please post them in the comments below!

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Philipp Lehner

Games & Music

Philipp Lehner

Games & Music

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