I sat down last night and decided to poke around in B minor. So I did. It’s not that hard, and there are formulas that can be used to approach something that make it fairly simple. Basic music theory stuff, but still very useful, and more than enough to write some very nice things in. The modern-classical-music types might sneer, but ignore them.
- Pick a key. For simplicity’s sake, say it’s CM.
- Go through and play all the chords in that key bottom to top. For example, if you are writing something in C, just go through hitting all the chords on the white keys — the chords within that key signature, in other words: CM, Dm, Em, FM, GM, Am, Bdim, C. Those chords are your building blocks.
- Find the relative minor. In this case, Am. If you wander from major to minor at any point in the piece, you’ll probably wind up in Am.
- Now, find the two seventh chords that resolve into the major and minor: G7 goes into CM, and E7 goes into Am. Both of these chords will probably be of great use to you. (Note that E7 has a G# in it that’s not in the key signature, so be aware that if you hop up to Am at any point, a G# might show up. The Major 7th chord that leads into the relative minor will always have one more sharp in it than the key signature. You can use a minor 7th to resolve into something, but it’s got a different, maybe a more hesitant, feel to it.)
- What are the chords that are one fourth and one fifth up? FM and GM. Those two will be biggies. Keep an ear out for them showing up more often than the others. Just as you may wander into Am, another common key to wander off into is the one one fifth up — GM in this case. If you do, be aware that this time, an F# is likely to show up.
This is the toolchest you can rummage around in when playing in a given key: the relative major and minor, all the chords in that key signature, and the seventh chords that go into the relative major and minor. Chances are, unless you are writing some seriously bizarre abstract “music,” you will be using these chords.
It goes for minor keys, too. Suppose you decide to write something in Am. Let’s go through these steps for that:
- Okay, you’ve picked Am.
- Go through and play the chords within that key signature: Am, Bdim, CM, Dm, Em, FM, GM. Those are your building block chords.
- Find the relative major this time. That’s CM. If you wander off to a major key at any point, that’ll probably be the one you end up in.
- Find the seventh chords that go into Am and CM: that’s E7 and G7. (And again, note that the E7 will pick up the extra G#.)
- Chords one fourth and one fifth up? Dm, and Em. They will show up more often than not. And an extra wrinkle when writing in a minor is that, very often, if you’re moving downward, you’ll use the Em. If you’re moving upward, that Em will turn into an EM. It’s a fact that the extra sharp mentioned already shows up more often when you’re headed upward than when you’re headed downward. That’s the origin of the harmonic and melodic minor scales, for those of you who are familiar with those.
Okay, now just noodle around with your right hand in Bm. Just poke around and try doing stepwise ups and down, pretty triplets that seem to work nicely to you or remind you of things you’ve heard before. You’ll find that certain sequences of keys feel good to you or sound more pleasing; this is where the convenience of having grown up listening to Western music for your whole life comes in. It’s one of the big reasons why, for your first few efforts, it’s also good to stick with the basic guidelines I’ve given above. More complex music can be intriguing and fun to write and listen to, but major/minor scale music in regular time signatures is the musical mother tongue of just about everyone in the West. If you can hum “Doe a Deer” to yourself, your ear already “thinks” in these terms.
In short: you know this stuff already. You just don’t know you know it. The vast majority of the music you’ve heard, popular especially, is written in a nice easy major key, and uses the seventh-chord-to-tonic resolution an awful lot. As you poke around and just let yourself find a melody, try putting chords to it. Don’t get fancy, just hit block chords one per beat. You’ll find that, after a lifetime of listening to Western music, your ear will “know” which chord goes with which note in the melody. If you are in CM and you end up with a long pause on an F, you’ll find that the FM chord will work nicely. If you want to go into the minor — A in this case, that B immediately beforehand will slide right into an E7 hand-in-glove.
Now, you can write any time signature you want — meaning you can mess around to any beat you like. But for a start, try something that’s 3/4 or 6/8, something dancelike with a nice easygoing rhythm that you can catch easily. That will make it easier for you. Don’t be afraid to just poke aimlessly, or play the same thing a few dozen times to see where your ear wants to go next.
Then … write it down. For me, I’m pondering using Lilypond for one reason: it’s free. It’s fiddly, but I write webpages in native HTML and have never used a WYSIWYG interface in my life, so I’m not only content to manipulate text files but actually happier to do that than otherwise since it lets me “see under the hood” more.