Here's a quick tip on music composition — especially good for beginners. Read this to get a faster workflow if you make music on a DAW.
I'll tell you why I always write my songs in the key of C major, then transpose the MIDI in my music production software of choice, Ableton Live.
The relationship between the notes
When you're making melodies, harmonies, and being creative with musical notes, you're usually working within a certain scale, within a certain key.
Unless it's some kind of atonal or experimental music.
But in most cases, especially in pop music production, there's a clear key to any song, right?
Maybe you're making a song in the key of G major, or E minor, or C minor.
And in my experience as a musician for more than 15 years — playing a bunch of different instruments —, the most important thing to know when composing and producing melodies and harmonies is the relationship between the notes in the key you chose.
And by that I mean the intervals and the scale degrees. What's the tonic, what's the supertonic, what's the dominant?
It's a lot more important to learn and understand scale degrees, and refer to the musical notes in numbers, than letters of the alphabet.
But in a simple way, understanding these relationships between notes in a scale is how you're able to pick the right notes to express the right feelings, without too much trial and error.
And I'm always talking about expressing feelings here because that's what I believe music is all about.
Always knowing what notes to use
If you're making a melody and playing chords in the key of C major, I think it's pretty easy for everyone to know which notes to use, since most people are making music with some kind of MIDI keyboard these days.
The scale of C major has only the white keys.
Of course we can use notes outside of the scale too, but I think we can agree that most musicians and even non-musicians seem to be very familiar with the scale of C major.
We have all the notes memorized: C, D, E, F, G, A, B. We're fluent in C major.
Now, what if you're working in a key that's not as familiar to you? Let's say for example the key of A# major.
Do you have the notes for that major scale memorized, or do you have to think for a second — making calculations of notes that go into each chord —, and think about intervals, for example?
I know I don't have that memorized.
I'm sure some musicians memorize all the scales in different keys and that's wonderful, but it's not mandatory.
No calculations equals faster workflow
Because we have tools now that allow us to focus on different things in music that will helps achieve our goals faster.
That's why, when I'm composing, I simply write everything in the key of C major and use the MIDI effect called Pitch in Ableton Live to transpose it later.
That way, I don't spend extra time thinking about which note is the dominant in the key of A# major, for example.
That time could be better spent developing my song ideas.
No interruptions to my workflow, no calculations. Why would I risk losing inspiration?
Transposing before recording
Then once I'm done composing, and before any instrument is recorded, I transpose it to whatever key works best for the person who is going to sing it.
The key that actually fits the vocal range of the singer.
And there's no loss in starting in a key then changing to another.
Although I've seen people claim that it changes the way you perceive the song because of the different resonant frequencies.
So if you don't have all the scales memorized — and there are so many —, then I believe this approach may help you produce your music more effectively.
You only have to learn the scale degrees in one key, and the software does the job of transposing for you.
What key are you most familiar with?
C major is the most familiar key for me to compose on a MIDI keyboard.
Maybe you're most familiar with another key because of an instrument you play. That's totally fine — whatever you're most comfortable with.
I hope this has been helpful to you. Let me know in the comments below if you have any questions.
And if you're looking for pop music production resources, make sure to visit my website. You'll find what you need.