How to Write Sheet Music

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Here you will learn where to get composition paper for writing your work, places to get musical theory information and ideas on improving your work.

Things You'll Need

  • Blank staff paper
  • Writing utensil

Obtaining Staff Paper

  • Get the right type of paper. This can be easily obtained on the Internet via Virtual Sheet Music, a classical sheet music website. Simply download for free from the website.

  • Go to a local sheet music store for a composition notebook if you do not have regular access to the Internet or would prefer a spiral notebook to keep your music.

  • Get books of staff paper or composition notebooks on-line. Examples of such books are, "The Big Book of Staff Paper," published by the Hal Leonard Corporation and "The Musician's Notebook: Manuscript Paper for Inspiration and Composition," written by Martin Mayo and Matthew Teacher. This latter book also has pages for writing out chords and song lyrics.

Some Music Theory

  • Understand how to read music. Check out a local college music department website like the Virgina Tech Music Department website to clarify uncertain items. For instance, if you need to write for baritone and bass cleft, but are uncertain how, the website provides information on these and other clefts. For example, the bass cleft entry shows a bass cleft on staff paper with a line for the note "F" highlighted in red. It stands to reason that the space just above this red line is "G," and the space right below it is "E." Use this logic for each unfamiliar cleft that you encounter and only know one note.

  • Know some of the basic elements of written music starting with time. Much of music is written in what is called 4/4, or common, time. This means that one measure--the smallest unit of music, if you will--contains four beats and a quarter-note gets one beat. There are many variations on this theme. There is also 6/8 time. Here an eighth-note gets one beat and 6 beats are in each measure. Once the cleft symbol has been placed at the beginning of the staff lines in the upper left corner, leave a small space and then write the time signature down.

  • Determine the key of the composition. Sharps and flats are used to indicate which key a piece of music will be played in. The sharp sign is shaped like a small tic-tac-toe board and the flat sign is shaped like a lower-case b with a pointed bottom. The key signature symbols are placed between the cleft symbol and the time signature. When writing the second and later lines of music, only indicate the cleft sign and key signature. Write no sharp or flat symbol if your piece is in "C" major or "A" minor as these keys do not use symbols.

  • Deal with changes in time or key signatures if they arise. Whenever there is a change in the time signature, it is indicated by simply writing the new time signature (ie. 2/4 or 6/8, etc.) at the start of the measure to which it applies. The beats per measure need to add up to whatever the new time signature dictates, until the end of the piece or until a new time signature is introduced. For example, if the piece starts out in 4/4 time and then changes to 2/4, this means that from now on there are 2 beats per measure and a quarter-note gets one beat. The same applies to changes in key signatures in music. That new key will apply to all subsequent measures until otherwise indicated.

  • Consult a reference if you are uncertain. Visit websites that teach musical concepts like how to play an instrument (e.g. the bass or music theory) to get a deeper understanding of music in a more visual way. Consult books such as "Alfred's Essentials of Music Theory: A Complete Self-Study Course for All Musicians," or the "Hal Leonard Pocket Music Theory: A Comprehensive and Convenient Source for All Musicians" to gain even more comprehension on music in general and on writing music in particular.

  • Think about another important element to writing music called the phrase. A phrase in music is comparable to a sentence in writing. Both express a thought, more or less concisely. In order to get a better understanding of this concept, listen to Classical era music including pieces by Haydn, Mozart and early Beethoven. Here composers often wrote musical phrases in short increments lasting about 3 to 5 measures. These measures provided for a musical idea to be presented and then expounded upon.

  • Remember the other elements to music which make it interesting to listen to. Once again, since you probably already have an understanding of music this will only be briefly mentioned here. Tempo and dynamics, meaning how fast and how loudly the music will be played, respectively, should be considered. It may be best to postpone these considerations until after the work has been completed. Either way, take care to mark these things clearly in the music so that whoever plays or publishes it, will know what you mean.

  • Use a technique that was used by the Baroque master J.S. Bach as a student: manually copy the compositions of other composers as you continue to compose. In this way, it may be easier to see how a work is put together, how musical ideas are developed and how to better distinguish between tones so that an instrument may not always be needed when writing music.

Writing your Masterpiece

  • Write down your composition. Your imagination will do most of the work at this point, but here are a few tips in creating and editing your work. Keep in mind the musicality of the final product if you have to write with a featured instrument or one similar to the instrument you are writing for (ie., for a soprano vocal work using a violin to check the tones). For instance, in using a piano to work out a vocal part, remember the vibrato often used in singing. A very long note on the piano may not sound interesting, but one held by the human voice can be.

  • Get critiques from another person, musical or non-musical. Since both types of people may be listening to your music, it is good to get a viewpoint from both sources. Whenever possible play out the composition either by yourself or with someone else, depending on the instrumentation. This way, any unintentional dissonance from mismatched chords can be corrected. Additionally, any other musical ideas that need further expression can be included.

  • Write down your musical thoughts as soon as they come to you, no matter how good your memory is. Even a master like Beethoven did this in order to remember important melodies and ideas.

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