How to make music: The Complete Beginners Guide
We break down everything a beginner needs to know when starting to make music, from gear to workflows and equipment.
If you were to ask a random sample of musicians, ‘Why do you make music?’, you’d get a whole range of answers. Some are driven by fame and glory, the desire to write a hit record and the vision of their future set on the Pyramid Stage. Others, a geeky fascination with technology; wishing to explore the idiosyncrasies of as many synthesisers, drum machines and plug-ins they can get their hands on. There are those who simply can’t get enough of the rush they get from performing live, whereas certain-minded musicians would rather be composing in solitude, setting a score to a film project.
Whatever your motivation, recording and editing your own songs is an incredibly rewarding creative discipline. However, if you want to create your own songs from scratch, you'll need to learn a lot of new skills.
Knowing where to start can be hard, but thanks to new technology, it's easier than ever to create your own music. And thanks to new technology (again), if it does truly stand out, it’s likely to get picked up.
Musicians starting out today can self-release singles, put together EPs and start building an audience in a way that was previously impossible without a major label deal. Getting signed may still be the end-goal, but you need to learn how to record your own music in order to get noticed.
There is no best way to make music, but in the guide below, we outline some of the things you need to know before getting started, from gear to workflows and equipment.
If you don't have space or equipment at home, you can learn to edit, mix and master your music at Pirate's worldwide recording studios, bookable by the hour.
- Getting started making music FAQ
- How to find inspiration for your songs
- What equipment do you need for making music?
- What software do you need to start making music?
- How to make music for free
- Best apps for making music
- How to make money doing music
- The stages of making music
- How to make EDM, electronic music
- How to make music for video games
- How to make ambient music
- How to make techno music
- How to make instrumental music
- How to make rap or trap music
- How to make music with vocals
- Tips on making music for bands
- How to make a song sound professional
Questions you may have before getting started
Is it hard to make music?
Yes and no. In some ways, it's easier to learn to make music now than it ever has been. On the other hand, it's never been easy to make music that stands out.
Your favourite artists have likely spent years in rehearsal studios honing their skills, exploring different ways to make music. Though it will take a while to find your sound, many of the most revered artists in the world are self-taught.
For beginners learning how to make music, I don’t believe there are many barriers other than your own mindset. Above all, making music is about honesty, taking your influences and life experience, digesting that and finding a way to express it.
Still finding the prospect of making your own tune daunting?
Try not to compare yourself to artists further along in their careers than you. Take a step back and embrace the excitement, think about what gave you the desire to make music in the first place. Success doesn’t come without having the determination to get through the tough parts. Unless you are constantly challenging yourself, how do you expect to grow?
Is making music expensive?
Making music can be expensive. The final Guns N’ Roses album for example, Chinese Democracy, which took 10 years to complete cost a whopping $13 mil. Apparently this was down to Axl Rose’s perfectionism, which led to 50-60 songs being constantly scrapped, re-written, re-recorded and so on.
Nirvana’s Bleach on the other hand allegedly cost less than $1k to make, and is also a platinum-selling record. So it's not really the money that determines an album’s success.
How long does it take to produce a song?
Making a music track, EP or album could take an evening, several months or a year. I guess it takes as long as is necessary. But who determines that? Well, normally the artist, or a budget constraint.
Whether you're producing music at home for yourself, or in a professional studio for a client, it can be really helpful to set deadlines.
Without limitations to work under, the process can be endless. Setting deadlines should help improve your workflow, and teach you how to finish things off – otherwise you can spend forever tinkering and you'll never release anything. Plus when you’re starting out you won’t have the same kind of budget Guns N’ Roses did…
Do I need a professional studio to make music?
You do not need a professional studio to make music. Almost every musician first learns how to make music at home.
A professional studio is a luxury, you'll get there one day after much graft and dedication.
Is there much of a difference between what you can achieve in a home studio vs professional studio?
Well yes there is, but if you don’t have the skills to take there, there’s no point being in one.
Learning music production as a beginner, you’ll be working under budget constraints. So it’s often advised to get your ideas down in a home studio and develop your production skills before taking them to a professional studio to put the finishing touches on a track, record in higher quality and do the final mixdown in a properly sound-treated room.
Can you make a living from making music?
Of course it’s possible to make a living from music, there are people out there doing it. However, the chances are slim. If you start to achieve a bit of commercial success, this might be a sign that you could make a living from music, then you can start thinking about what you might need to sacrifice to make it happen.
Can you make music without instruments?
Yes. Depending on what sort of music you’re making, you may not need instruments at all! Arguably the most powerful tool for a musician today is a computer. Though if you make music entirely ‘in the box’, you won't get that live recorded feeling.
Whether you make your own music online or by recording instruments is up to you. Obviously the latter requires a more complicated setup (and probably collaborators) which becomes more complicated and expensive. You'll need to judge whether or not you need instruments on a project-by-project basis.
Do you need to know music theory to make a song?
If you feel like you’re trying to create something in an established musical convention, it couldn’t hurt to brush up on your music theory. This should give you confidence in your ability to justify songwriting decisions. And as important as it is to avoid being formulaic in your approach, it’s good to understand the rulebook before choosing to tear it up.
Music is a form of self-expression which requires cultivating your own approach to songwriting. Developing your theoretical and technical knowledge follows naturally and comes second to being passionate and having the desire to create.
How to find inspiration for your songs
Inspiration for music may come from nature, reading poetry, going to nightclubs, travelling, or where you least expect it.
For most of us it starts with being a fan of other people’s music. A lot of people definitely begin by imitating a favourite band or artist’s sound, before developing their own variation on it.
Don’t put pressure on yourself, creativity comes and goes. But it's important to capitalise on that magic when it’s there.
What equipment do you need for making music?
You don't need much gear to make music beyond the 5 pieces of recording studio equipment listed below:
- A Laptop/Computer: While you might already have a computer, you'll need pro tools if you want to record your own tracks. That means finding a higher-quality laptop than the one you use to stream Netflix originals and browse Amazon. You'll need a laptop that's capable of storing all of your music files and running the software you need to record and edit your tracks.
- An Audio Interface: An audio interface turns the signals from your mic, musical instruments and other recording equipment into information that your computer and music editing programme can understand. It also works the other way around and can send audio from your computer to your headphones and speakers. Therefore, a quality audio interface is essential for any musician who wants to record quality audio at home.
- A Microphone: A quality mic is vital for anyone who wants to record vocals. Many professional vocalists and musicians choose a condenser mic, as they have two metal plates held close together. These solutions are highly sensitive and can pick up every sound, meaning that you can record amazing quality audio for your track.
- A Mic Stand: If you use a condenser microphone or another sensitive microphone, then you will need a mic stand to keep it steady while you record your audio. Choose an adjustable microphone stand to allow you to change its height and make it comfortable when you're recording vocals. You can also change the angle so that you can be comfortable in any position. Whether you're seated or standing, an adjustable mic stand will give you easy access to your microphone.
- Studio Monitors: Studio monitors look like traditional speakers but are unique as they offer you a completely flat frequency response. That means that you can hear your mix and edit it accordingly. You'll hear every sound, no matter how minute, so you can check that your audio is perfect. You can produce without studio monitors if you have a pair of quality studio headphones.
Whilst this is a very basic list for a home studio setup, it's enough to make sure you’re capturing ideas for tracks which can then be developed and fleshed out over time.
What software do you need to start making music?
Choosing the right DAW
So what is it that enables people to make music on a computer? It's a bit of software known as a Digital Audio Workstation, which is specifically designed for recording, editing and producing audio files. It will have a timeline, instruments and audio fx which will enable you to build, save and export tracks pretty instantaneously. A few you may have heard of include:
- Ableton Live
- Logic Pro
- Pro Tools
- FL Studio (aka FruityLoops until Kellogs served them a lawsuit)
At the end of the day, there’s no secret to picking one, it all comes down to personal preference. Each DAW has its own specific interfaces and quirks as they’ve been developed differently.
In my experience, the most popular music-making DAWs are Ableton and Logic, which is probably for a reason. Ableton integrates well with hardware and is normally a popular choice with people who like to perform regularly. Logic on the other hand is often seen as a more intuitive interface.
How to make music for free
None of the DAWs listed above are free. If you’re looking for something to get started on which won't cost a dime, I’d recommend Garageband if you’re on a Mac, which is a very intuitive starter. If you’re on a Windows PC, try Audacity. Both softwares allow basic recording and manipulation of audio, but you may find it rather limiting if you’re trying to achieve anything more complex.
Best apps to help you make music
Apps can be a really useful way to note down ideas on the go, or even generate a cool loop while you’re on the train. They essentially act as mini-DAWs, containing a little workstation to play, perform and record based on multiple sample libraries and instruments. A couple we’d recommend are BeatMaker 3 & Cubase (which has perhaps best adapted for a phone/pad OS).
How to make money doing music
It shouldn't be all about making money (if it is, you're in the wrong industry), but if you want to make music your job, here are 5 ways to make it financially feasible:
- Sales/streaming royalties. This is what is owed to the artist every time their music is played on a streaming platform, or purchased (either physically or digitally). Streaming royalties are collected by your digital distributor.
- Gigs! Money gained from playing live shows or DJing, generally paid by promoters or venues who book the artists to play.
- Merch. A great way to generate income through items such as clothes, posters, keyrings and whatever else!
- Publishing & Sync. These two aspects relate to your music as intellectual property. Publishing can be divided into: Mechanical royalties (money owed to you when a song is streamed, downloaded or reproduced as a CD/Vinyl) and Performance royalties (money owed to you when a song is played on the radio, on television, in a venue, live on stage or at any other public place). Sync refers to when music is used in an advert or in a film and is often a flat fee.
- Producing for other artists. Not everyone has the desire to learn to produce music, as some would rather leave these technical aspects to someone else. But if you think you’d enjoy mixing and recording with other artists, this could be an option for you. This tends to be on a freelance basis and depending on your technical ability and accolades, you could charge anything from 20 to 200 pounds an hour.
What are the stages of making music?
This is normally considered the ‘fun’ part – where you take your ideas and try to bring them to life. Your starting point could be a melody, or a mood you want to convey, trying a new technique or instrument you want to try and so on.
Creative songwriting requires a bit of experimentation – as many musicians will tell you, some of their biggest tunes are often born by happy accidents. So don’t be scared to deviate from the original idea, without losing sight of what it is and coming back to it if necessary.
How to make a beat
Unless you’re making ambient music, one of the core backbones to your track is probably going to be a beat of some kind. If you’re recording live drums, hopefully you or your drummer should have a knack for creating groovy beats. But if you’re making anything from RnB to Hip Hop To DnB or Techno, you’ll need to produce beats on your computer yourself.
Beats are essentially made out of samples. Every DAW comes with a number of royalty-free samples, but there are tons more sample packs out there if you’re looking for other interesting sounds.
Samples are then arranged in a sequence to create a beat and there are a number of ways to do this – some prefer to play them in via a MIDI controller, others arrange them in a sequencer or directly into the grid of a project file. Whatever route you choose to go down, it is definitely best learnt by doing. Have a think about the tempo and vibe you want to go for. Techno rhythms for example are generally straighter and more gridded, whereas a hip-hop beat tends to be slower and ‘looser’.
Remember, good beat-making is about striking a balance between variation and repetition. The element of surprise only works if there is some regularity it offsets. Also, have a think about adding some subtle variation through swinging the groove of the beat or accenting.
For more on the best beatmaking software to get you started, check out this article.
How to create a chord progression
Creating a chord progression to accompany your melodies is crucial to ensuring some harmonic depth to your track.
Chords are used to establish (or contradict) the ‘key’ of a song and hence are generally used to give sections structural grounding, as well conveying the emotional vibe of the track. These are created when two or more notes are played simultaneously – their relationship determining what is the melodic note and which constitute the harmonic support, (which can often be ambiguous).
In popular music chord progressions generally aren’t very complex, so I’d check out a few tutorials and make sure you’ve got the basics down. There are many you’ll recognise pretty instantly from some of your favourite tracks. Also, not all genres do really make use of traditional chord progressions – if you’re writing ambient music or hard techno for example, you’ll be focusing on texture, rhythms and frequencies.
How to develop a full track
You may have a starting point you're happy with, a catchy melody or a 16-bar beat, but you’re not sure how you’re going to get from there to a fully polished tune. Or, maybe you may have a full 3 minute tune, but still feel like something’s missing.
Developing a full track from an idea is a unique process you’ll have to discover yourself. Some artists say that by the time you hear the finished product, they have often scrapped the majority of their initial idea, apart from one core element, reworking multiple times as they’ve slowly figured it out.
One method a lot of producers swear by is simply listening to the track through, writing down everything that sounds like it needs changing, ticking that list off one by one and repeating this process. When something clicks and a song feels complete, you’ll know.
5 tips for track development:
- Adding more stuff doesn’t always make the track better. Try subtracting instead, re-recording parts on different instruments, attempting another vocal delivery, adding fx and processing.
- Hit save at every stage. Save a copy of each version so you know what you’ve added or removed and can cross-reference them to see if you’ve made an improvement or not.
- Don’t be scared to try things. If you are saving as you go, you can always decide to revert to a previous version if you’ve gone too wild.
- Search for inspiration. Listen to some of your favourite artists and note down what you like about their tracks which are missing from yours. It’s not always easy figuring out what they’re doing but you may have a lightbulb moment.
- Add layers. If you think a part needs more body to it, try layering it with a differently mixed version of itself (heavily saturated to accentuate the high-frequencies for example) or record another element with the same rhythm to give it some more oomph.
Typically, a music producer is someone who is not the artist themselves, but who assists with the creation of the music right through the whole process. There are no hard and fast rules about their role on a project other than generally trying to bring a vision to life by providing creative input on the sound of a record. They often even co-write tracks.
Today, people are opting to self-produce more and more. In this case, we can also define music production as the refinement process of a track, where you are to re-recording, rearranging and applying different fx to different parts as it starts to take shape. The types of questions or thoughts could be along the lines of:
- This section can actually do without this element
- These hi-hats need to be tighter and sharper
- Lets try a different pedal on the guitar for the chorus here
- I want a cleaner recording of this vocal, perhaps I should book a studio
So, in a sense, it goes hand in hand with the track development, taking the ideas that are they and finding ways to generate them as best as possible.
HOW TO MAKE EDM, ELECTRONIC MUSIC
- Keep it simple and effective. EDM is all about drama and massive drops. Create a catchy hook – build, keep them waiting and then release that tension.
- Know your BPM range. Stick to the pumping 120-130 region.
- Get to know your sawtooths. That favoured sound for those big speaker-shuddering synths.
- Heavy use of filters. The most essential trick for building and releasing tension in the producer's tool kit.
How to make music for video games
- Think about the genre of the video game. Much like writing for a film, think about what will best suit the game – is it lo-fi and glitchy, full of level-ups blings, or a fantasy-based MMORPG which needs a lot of spooky, otherworldly ambience?
- Leave room for space. Something intense can’t be playing all the time – there will be points when things are a lot thinner and not much action is going on.
- Have fun with FX. Get creative with your sound design and push your plugins to the max.
How to make ambient music
- Texture. Build in layers of texture from field recordings to create that rich, organic feeling.
- Wash things out with more reverb and delay. Not only used to create depth and space but tweaking the settings on each can generate a lot of character.
How to make techno music
- Syncopate. There is something we find seriously pleasing about a nicely syncopated rhythm – at its most basic, you see those hands go up when the off-beat high-hat comes in.
- Try some acid. Get a 303 emulator, get a really short catchy loop going and mess around with the parameters.
- Not every track has to bang! Why not try writing something a bit deeper and less ‘peak time’ for a change!
How to make instrumental music
- Try new ones. Find one you haven’t played before and give it a go! If you’re a good instrumentalist you’ll probably pick it up quite quickly.
- Experiment with recording techniques and processing. Part of the fun writing instrumental music is getting creative with the recording of it. Try running instruments through strange fx boards they aren't meant for for example. A cello through a guitar pedal perhaps?
How to make rap or trap music
- Use an 808 kick. Get that big kick boom – don’t overuse it so it has an impact when it hits.
- De-esser! Chances are you’ll have a lot of sibilance (harsh high-frequency sounds) in your vocal recordings which will need taming.
- Triple-time hi-hats. Get that rapid ratatat sound by rolling those hi-hats in triple time.
How to make music with vocals
- Write lyrics and melodies concurrently. Instead of jotting lyrics down in a notebook and setting it to music, why not start with the music and see what words come from there.
- Develop your style. We’re all jealous of somebody else’s singing voice. But when you think about it, your favourite singer is unlikely to be the best trained vocalist out there – they’ve simple found what works best for their vocal delivery.
Tips on making music for bands
- Make it a regular commitment. Prioritise band practice over what else you have in the week. The more you play together, the more you gel.
- Practice in your own time. Turn up to band practice prepared, otherwise you’re wasting everybody’s time! You’ll also come with some new riffs and fills this way.
- Swap roles. Stuck for ideas? Try a different configuration – or have someone else take the lead guitar, get a bassist on some percussion, push the backing vocalist to the front!
Lastly, How to make a song sound professional
Getting your music to a professional-sounding standard takes time. There are 3 key aspects you need to get right: great songwriting, high quality recording and solid technical treatment (mixing and mastering). Over time, you’ll develop skills in all of these areas that bring their standard up, as well as friends and colleagues who will further your knowledge and continue to push you forward creatively.
Remember, no great music you hear is ever really down to a single person, but a team of professionals all contributing with their different specialties. To get to that point, you need to show dedication to learn the fundamentals, willingness to learn more and above all the courage to put stuff out there.