Composing in the classroom

The hippest music teachers help their students create original music. But what exactly does that mean? What even is composition? In this post, I take a look at two innovators in music education and try to arrive at an answer.

Matt McLean is the founder of the amazing Young Composers and Improvisers Workshop. He teaches his students composition using a combination of Noteflight, an online notation editor, and the MusEDLab‘s own aQWERTYon, a web app that turns your regular computer keyboard into an intuitive musical interface.

Matt explains:

Participating students in YCIW as well as my own students at LREI have been using Noteflight for over 6 years to compose music for chamber orchestras, symphony orchestras, jazz ensembles, movie soundtracks, video game music, school band and more – hundreds of compositions.

Before the advent of the aQWERTYon, students needed to enter music into Noteflight either by clicking with the mouse or by playing notes in with a MIDI keyboard. The former method is accessible but slow; the latter method is fast but requires some keyboard technique. The aQWERTYon combines the accessibility of the mouse with the immediacy of the piano keyboard.

For the first time there is a viable way for every student to generate and notate her ideas in a tactile manner with an instrument that can be played by all. We founded Young Composers & Improvisors Workshop so that every student can have the experience of composing original music. Much of my time has been spent exploring ways to emphasize the “experiencing” part of this endeavor. Students had previously learned parts of their composition on instruments after their piece was completed. Also, students with piano or guitar skills could work out their ideas prior to notating them. But efforts to incorporate MIDI keyboards or other interfaces with Noteflight in order to give students a way to perform their ideas into notation always fell short.

The aQWERTYon lets novices try out ideas the way that more experienced musicians do: by improvising with an instrument and reacting to the sounds intuitively. It’s possible to compose without using an instrument at all, using a kind of sudoku-solving method, but it’s not likely to yield good results. Your analytical consciousness, the part of your mind that can write notation, is also its slowest and dumbest part. You really need your emotions, your ear, and your motor cortex involved. Before computers, you needed considerable technical expertise to be able to improvise musical ideas, and remember them long enough to write them down. The advent of recording and MIDI removed a lot of the friction from the notation step, because you could preserve your ideas just by playing them. With the aQWERTYon and interfaces like it, you can do your improvisation before learning any instrumental technique at all.

Student feedback suggests that kids like being able to play along to previously notated parts as a way to find new parts to add to their composition. As a teacher I am curious to measure the effect of students being able to practice their ideas at home using aQWERTYon and then sharing their performances before using their idea in their composition. It is likely that this will create a stronger connection between the composer and her musical idea than if she had only notated it first.

Those of us who have been making original music in DAWs are familiar with the pleasures of creating ideas through playful jamming. It feels like a major advance to put that experience in the hands of elementary school students.

Matt uses progressive methods to teach a traditional kind of musical expression: writing notated scores that will then be performed live by instrumentalists. Matt’s kids are using futuristic tools, but the model for their compositional technique is the one established in the era of Beethoven.


(I just now noticed that the manuscript Beethoven is holding in this painting is in the key of D-sharp. That’s a tough key to read!)

Other models of composition exist. There’s the Lennon and McCartney method, which doesn’t involve any music notation. Like most untrained rock musicians, the Beatles worked from lyric sheets with chords written on them as a mnemonic. The “lyrics plus chords” method continues to be the standard for rock, folk and country musicians. It’s a notation system that’s only really useful if you already have a good idea of how the song is supposed to sound.

Lennon and McCartney writing

Lennon and McCartney originally wrote their songs to be performed live for an audience. They played in clubs for several years before ever entering a recording studio. As their career progressed, however, the Beatles stopped performing live, and began writing with the specific goal of creating studio recordings. Some of those later Beatles tunes would be difficult or impossible to perform live. Contemporary artists like Missy Elliott and Pharrell Williams have pushed the Beatles’ idea to its logical extreme: songs existing entirely within the computer as sequences of samples and software synths, with improvised vocals arranged into shape after being recorded. For Missy and Pharrell, creating the score and the finished recording are one and the same act.

Pharrell and Missy Elliott in the studio

Is it possible to teach the Missy and Pharrell method in the classroom? Alex Ruthmann, MusEDLab founder and my soon-to-be PhD advisor, documented his method for doing so in 2007.

As a middle school general music teacher, I’ve often wrestled with how to engage my students in meaningful composing experiences. Many of the approaches I’d read about seemed disconnected from the real-world musicality I saw daily in the music my students created at home and what they did in my classes. This disconnect prompted me to look for ways of bridging the gap’ between the students’ musical world outside music class and their in-class composing experiences.

It’s an axiom of constructivist music education that students will be most motivated to learn music that’s personally meaningful to them. There are kids out there for whom notated music performed on instruments is personally meaningful. But the musical world outside music class usually follows the Missy and Pharrell method.

[T]he majority of approaches to teaching music with technology center around notating musical ideas and are often rooted in European classical notions of composing (for example, creating ABA pieces, or restricting composing tasks to predetermined rhythmic values). These approaches require students to have a fairly sophisticated knowledge of standard music notation and a fluency working with rhythms and pitches before being able to explore and express their musical ideas through broader musical dimensions like form, texture, mood, and style.

Noteflight imposes some limitations on these musical dimensions. Some forms, textures, moods and styles are difficult to capture in standard notation. Some are impossible. If you want to specify a particular drum machine sound combined with a sampled breakbeat, or an ambient synth pad, or a particular stereo image, standard notation is not the right tool for the job.

Common approaches to organizing composing experiences with synthesizers and software often focus on simplified classical forms without regard to whether these forms are authentic to the genre or to technologies chosen as a medium for creation.

There is nothing wrong with teaching classical forms. But when making music with computers, the best results come from making the music that’s idiomatic to computers. Matt McLean goes to extraordinary lengths to have student compositions performed by professional musicians, but most kids will be confined to the sounds made by the computer itself. Classical forms and idioms sound awkward at best when played by the computer, but electronic music sounds terrific.

The middle school students enrolled in these classes came without much interest in performing, working with notation, or studying the classical music canon. Many saw themselves as “failed” musicians, placed in a general music class because they had not succeeded in or desired to continue with traditional performance-based music classes. Though they no longer had the desire to perform in traditional school ensembles, they were excited about having the opportunity to create music that might be personally meaningful to them.

Here it is, the story of my life as a music student. Too bad I didn’t go to Alex’s school.

How could I teach so that composing for personal expression could be a transformative experience for students? How could I let the voices and needs of the students guide lessons for the composition process? How could I draw on the deep, complex musical understandings that these students brought to class to help them develop as musicians and composers? What tools could I use to quickly engage them in organizing sound in musical and meaningful ways?

Alex draws parallels between writing music and writing English. Both are usually done alone at a computer, and both pose a combination of technical and creative challenges.

Musical thinking (thinking in sound) and linguistic thinking (thinking using language phrases and ideas) are personal creative processes, yet both occur within social and cultural contexts. Noting these parallels, I began to think about connections between the whole-language approach to writing used by language arts teachers in my school and approaches I might take in my music classroom.

In the whole-language approach to writing, students work individually as they learn to write, yet are supported through collaborative scaffolding-support from their peers and the teacher. At the earliest stages, students tell their stories and attempt to write them down using pictures, drawings, and invented notation. Students write about topics that are personally meaningful to them, learning from their own writing and from the writing of their peers, their teacher, and their families. They also study literature of published authors. Classes that take this approach to teaching writing are often referred to as “writers’ workshops”… The teacher facilitates [students’] growth as writers through minilessons, share sessions, and conferring sessions tailored to meet the needs that emerge as the writers progress in their work. Students’ original ideas and writings often become an important component of the curriculum. However, students in these settings do not spend their entire class time “freewriting.” There are also opportunities for students to share writing in progress and get feedback and support from teacher and peers. Revision and extension of students’ writing occur throughout the process. Lessons are not organized by uniform, prescriptive assignments, but rather are tailored to the students’ interests and needs. In this way, the direction of the curriculum and successive projects are informed by the students’ needs as developing writers.

Alex set about creating an equivalent “composers’ workshop,” combining composition, improvisation, and performing with analytical listening and genre studies.

The broad curricular goal of the composers’ workshop is to engage students collaboratively in:

  • Organizing and expressing musical ideas and feelings through sound with real-world, authentic reasons for and means of composing
  • Listening to and analyzing musical works appropriate to students’ interests and experiences, drawn from a broad spectrum of sources
  • Studying processes of experienced music creators through listening to, performing, and analyzing their music, as well as being informed by accounts of the composition process written by these creators.

Alex recommends production software with strong loop libraries so students can make high-level musical decisions with “real” sounds immediately.

While students do not initially work directly with rhythms and pitch, working with loops enables students to begin composing through working with several broad musical dimensions, including texture, form, mood, and affect. As our semester progresses, students begin to add their own original melodies and musical ideas to their loop-based compositions through work with synthesizers and voices.

As they listen to musical exemplars, I try to have students listen for the musical decisions and understand the processes that artists, sound engineers, and producers make when crafting their pieces. These listening experiences often open the door to further dialogue on and study of the multiplicity of musical roles’ that are a part of creating today’s popular music. Having students read accounts of the steps that audio engineers, producers, songwriters, film-score composers, and studio musicians go through when creating music has proven to be informative and has helped students learn the skills for more accurately expressing the musical ideas they have in their heads.

Alex shares my belief in project-based music technology teaching. Rather than walking through the software feature-by-feature, he plunges students directly into a creative challenge, trusting them to pick up the necessary software functionality as they go. Rather than tightly prescribe creative approaches, Alex observes the students’ explorations and uses them as opportunities to ask questions.

I often ask students about their composing and their musical intentions to better understand how they create and what meanings they’re constructing and expressing through their compositions. Insights drawn from these initial dialogues help me identify strategies I can use to guide their future composing and also help me identify listening experiences that might support their work or techniques they might use to achieve their musical ideas.

Some musical challenges are more structured–Alex does “genre studies” where students have to pick out the qualities that define techno or rock or film scores, and then create using those idioms. This is especially useful for younger students who may not have a lot of experience listening closely to a wide range of music.

Rather than devoting entire classes to demonstrations or lectures, Alex prefers to devote the bulk of classroom time to working on the projects, offering “minilessons” to smaller groups or individuals as the need arises.

Teaching through minilessons targeted to individuals or small groups of students has helped to maintain the musical flow of students’ compositional work. As a result, I can provide more individual feedback and support to students as they compose. The students themselves also offer their own minilessons to peers when they have designed to teach more about advanced features of the software, such as how to record a vocal track, add a fade-in or fade-out, or copy their musical material. These technology skills are taught directly to a few students, who then become the experts in that skill, responsible for teaching other students in the class who need the skill.

Not only does the peer-to-peer learning help with cultural authenticity, but it also gives students invaluable experience with the role of teacher.

One of my first questions is usually, “Is there anything that you would like me to listen for or know about before I listen?” This provides an opportunity for students to seek my help with particular aspects of their composing process. After listening to their compositions, I share my impressions of what I hear and offer my perspective on how to solve their musical problems. If students choose not to accept my ideas, that’s fine; after all, it’s their composition and personal expression… Use of conferring by both teacher and students fosters a culture of collaboration and helps students develop skills in peer scaffolding.

Alex recommends creating an online gallery of class compositions. This has become easier to implement since 2007 with the explosion of blog platforms like Tumblr, audio hosting tools like SoundCloud, and video hosts like YouTube. There are always going to be privacy considerations with such platforms, but there is no shortage of options to choose from.

Once a work is online, students can listen to and comment on these compositions at home outside of class time. Sometimes students post pieces in progress, but for the most part, works are posted when deemed “finished” by the composer. The online gallery can also be set up so students can hear works written by participants in other classes. Students are encouraged to listen to pieces published online for ideas to further their own work, to make comments, and to share these works with their friends and family. The realworld publishing of students’ music on the Internet seems to contribute to their motivation.

Assessing creative work is always going to be a challenge, since there’s no objective basis to assess it on. Alex looks at how well a student composer has met the goal of the assignment, and how well they have achieved their own compositional intent.

The word “composition” is problematic in the context of contemporary computer-based production. It carries the cultural baggage of Western Europe, the idea of music as having a sole identifiable author (or authors.) The sampling and remixing ethos of hip-hop and electronica are closer to the traditions of non-European cultures where music may be owned by everyone and no one. I’ve had good results bringing remixing into the classroom, having students rework each others’ tracks, or beginning with a shared pool of audio samples, or doing more complex collaborative activities like musical shares. Remixes are a way of talking about music via the medium of music, and remixes of remixes can make for some rich and deep conversation. The word “composition” makes less sense in this context. I prefer the broader term “production”, which includes both the creation of new musical ideas and the realization of those ideas in sound.

So far in this post, I’ve presented notation-based composition and loop-based production as if they’re diametrical opposites. In reality, the two overlap, and can be easily combined. A student can create a part as a MIDI sequence and then convert it to notation, or vice versa. The school band or choir can perform alongside recorded or sequenced tracks. Instrumental or vocal performances can be recorded, sampled, and turned into new works. Electronic productions can be arranged for live instruments, and acoustic pieces can be reconceived as electronica. If a hip-hop track can incorporate a sample of Duke Ellington, there’s no reason that sample couldn’t be performed by a high school jazz band. The possibilities are endless.

Rohan lays beats

The Ed Sullivan Fellows program is an initiative by the NYU MusEDLab connecting up-and-coming hip-hop musicians to mentors, studio time, and creative and technical guidance. Our session this past Saturday got off to an intense start, talking about the role of young musicians of color in a world of the police brutality and Black Lives Matter. The Fellows are looking to Kendrick Lamar and Chance The Rapper to speak social and emotional truths through music. It’s a brave and difficult job they’ve taken on.

Eventually, we moved from heavy conversation into working on the Fellows’ projects, which this week involved branding and image. I was at kind of a loose end in this context, so I set up the MusEDLab’s Push controller and started playing around with it. Rohan, one of the Fellows, immediately gravitated to it, and understandably so.

Indigo lays beats

Rohan tried out a few drum sounds, then some synths. He quickly discovered a four-bar synth loop that he wanted to build a track around. He didn’t have any Ableton experience, however, so I volunteered to be his co-producer and operate the software for him.

We worked out some drum parts, first with a hi-hat and snare from the Amen break, and then a kick, clap and more hi-hats from Ableton’s C78 factory instrument. For bass, Rohan wanted that classic booming hip-hop sound you hear coming from car stereos in Brooklyn. He spotted the Hip-Hop Sub among the presets. We fiddled with it and he continued to be unsatisfied until I finally just put a brutal compressor on it, and then we got the sound he was hearing in his head.

While we were working, I had my computer connected to a Bluetooth speaker that was causing some weird and annoying system behavior. At one point, iTunes launched itself and started playing a random song under Rohan’s track, “I Can’t Realize You Love Me” by Duke Ellington and His Orchestra, featuring The Harlem Footwarmers and Sid Garry.

Rohan liked the combination of his beat and the Ellington song, so I sampled the opening four bars and added them to the mix. It took me several tries to match the keys, and I still don’t think I really nailed it, but the hip-hop kids have broad tolerance for chord clash, and Rohan was undisturbed.

Once we had the loops assembled, we started figuring out an arrangement. It took me a minute to figure out that when Rohan refers to a “bar,” he means a four-measure phrase. He’s essentially conflating hypermeasures with measures. I posted about it on Twitter later and got some interesting responses.

In a Direct Message, Latinfiddler also pointed out that Latin music calls two measures a “bar” because that’s the length of one cycle of the clave.

Thinking about it further, there’s yet another reason to conflate measures with hypermeasures, which is the broader cut-time shift taking place in hip-hop. All of the young hip-hop beatmakers I’ve observed lately work at half the base tempo of their DAW session. Rohan, being no exception, had the session tempo set to 125 bpm, but programmed a beat with an implied tempo of 62.5 bpm. He and his cohort put their backbeats on beat three, not beats two and four, so they have a base grid of thirty-second notes rather than sixteenth notes. A similar shift took place in the early 1960s when the swung eighth notes of jazz rhythm gave way to the swung sixteenth notes of funk.

Here’s Rohan’s track as of the end of our session:

By the time we were done working, the rest of the Fellows had gathered around and started freestyling. The next step is to record them rapping and singing on top. We also need to find someone to mix it properly. I understand aspects of hip-hop very well, but I mix amateurishly at best.

All the way around, I feel like a learn a ton about music whenever I work with young hip-hop musicians. They approach the placement of sounds in the meter in ways that would never occur to me. I’m delighted to be able to support them technically in realizing their ideas, it’s a privilege for me.

Ilan meets the Fugees

My youngest private music production student is a kid named Ilan. He makes moody trip-hop and deep house using Ableton Live. For our session today, Ilan came in with a downtempo, jazzy hip-hop instrumental. I helped him refine and polish it, and then we talked about his ideas for what kind of vocal might work on top. He wanted an emcee to flow over it, so I gave him my folder of hip-hop acapellas I’ve collected. The first one he tried was “Fu-Gee-La [Refugee Camp Remix]” by the Fugees.

I had it all warped out already, so all he had to do was drag and drop it into his session and press play. It sounded great, so he ran with it. Here’s what he ended up with:

At this point, let me clarify something. To his knowledge, Ilan had never heard “Fu-Gee-La” before using it in his track. His first exposure was the acapella over his own instrumental. His track is quite a bit faster than the original (well, technically, it’s slower, but the kids these days like their rapping doubletime.) Also, we needed to pitch the acapella down a minor third to match the key of Ilan’s instrumental. As of this writing, he has heard his remix about a thousand more times than the original.

And now, let’s consider the Fugees’ “original” song. Ilan used the acapella from a remix, not from the original original, which makes a difference since the remix has some different lyrics. The Fugees’ original original is not itself totally original. It contains several samples, including liberal interpolations of Teena Marie, and a quote from “Shakiyla (JRH)” by Poor Righteous Teachers, which itself contains several samples.

Hip-hop’s sampling culture was still radical back in the 90s when “Fu-Gee-La” was released, but has since become absorbed into mainstream sensibilities. Ilan is ambitious and talented, but his sensibilities are well in keeping with most of his millennial peers. So it’s worth looking into his norms and values around authorship and ownership. During our session, he was interested in the Fugees song simply as raw material for his own creativity, not as a self-contained work that needed to be “appreciated” first (or ever.) Ilan’s concerns about where he sources his sounds comes down one hundred percent to expediency. He buys sounds from the Ableton web site because that’s easy. The same goes for buying tracks from iTunes, if they surface with a quick search. Otherwise Ilan just does YouTube to mp3 conversion. I’ve never heard him voice any concern about the idea of intellectual property, or any desire to seek anyone’s permission.

So here we have a young musician who created an original track, and then after the fact layered in a commercially released hip-hop vocal track on a whim. If that one hadn’t worked, he would have just dropped in another one chosen more or less at random. This kind of effortless drag-and-drop remixing requires some facility with Ableton Live, which is expensive and has a learning curve. But this practice is easier than it was five years ago, and is only going to get easer. Music educators: are we ready for a world where this kind of creativity is so accessible? Rights holders: do you know just how little the kids know or care about the concept of musical intellectual property? And musicians: have you experienced the pleasure and inspiration of freely mixing your ideas with everyone else’s? This is a crazy time we live in.

Project-based music technology teaching

I use a project-based approach to teaching music technology. Technical concepts stick with you better if you learn them in the course of making actual music. Here’s the list of projects I assign to my college classes and private students. I’ve arranged them from easiest to hardest. The first five projects are suitable for a beginner-level class using any DAW–my beginners use GarageBand. The last two projects are more advanced and require a DAW with sophisticated editing tools and effects, like Ableton Live. If you’re a teacher, feel free to use these (and let me know if you do). Same goes for all you bedroom producers and self-teachers.

The projects are agnostic as to musical content, style or genre. However, the computer is best suited to making electronic music, and most of these projects work best in the pop/hip-hop/techno sphere. Experimental, ambient or film music approaches also work well. Many of them draw on the Disquiet Junto. Enjoy.

Tristan gets his FFT on


Assignment: Create a song using only existing loops. You can use these or these, or restrict yourself to the loops included with your DAW. Do not use any additional sounds or instruments.

For beginners, I like to separate this into two separate assignments. First, create a short (two or four bar) phrase using four to six instrument loops and beats. Then use that set of loops as the basis of a full length track, by repeating, and by having sounds enter and exit.


  • Basic DAW functions
  • Listening like a producer
  • Musical form and song structures
  • Intellectual property, copyright and authorship


  • MIDI loops are easier to edit and customize than audio loops.
  • Try slicing audio loops into smaller segments. Use only the front or back half of the loop. Or rearrange segments into a different order.

final song


Assignment: Create a piece of music using MIDI and software instruments. Do not record or import any audio. You can use MIDI from any source, including: playing keyboards, drum pads or other interfaces; drawing in the piano roll; importing scores from notation programs; downloading MIDI files from the internet (for example, from here); or using the Audio To MIDI function in your DAW. 

I don’t treat this as a composition exercise (unless students want to make it one.) Feel free to use an existing piece of music. The only requirement is that the end result has to sound good. Simply dragging a classical or pop MIDI into the DAW is likely to sound terrible unless you put some thought into your instrument choices. If you do want to create something original, try these compositional prompts.


  • MIDI recording and editing
  • Quantization, swing, and grooves
  • “Real” vs “fake” instruments
  • Synthesized vs sampled sounds
  • Drum programming
  • Interfaces and controllers


  • For beginners, see this post on beatmaking fundamentals.
  • Realism is unattainable. Embrace the fakeness.
  • Find a small segment of a classical piece and loop it.
  • Rather than playing back a Bach keyboard piece on piano or harpsichord, set your instrument to drums or percussion, and get ready for joy.

Montclair State Music Tech 101

Found sound

Assignment: Record a short environmental sound and incorporate it into a piece of music. You can edit and process your found sound as you see fit. Variation: use existing sounds from Freesound.


  • Audio recording, editing, and effects
  • The musical potential of “non-musical” sounds


  • Students usually record their sounds with their phones, and the resulting recording quality is usually bad. Try using EQ, compression, delay, reverb, distortion, and other effects to mitigate or enhance poor sound quality and background noise.

pyt stems

Peer remix

Assignment: Remix a track by one of your classmates (or friends, or a stranger on the internet.) Feel free to incorporate other pieces of music as well. Follow your personal definition of the word “remix.” That might mean small edits and adjustments to the mix and effects, or a radical reworking leading to complete transformation of the source material.

There are endless variations on the peer remix. Try the “metaremix,” where students remix each others’ remixes, to the nth degree as time permits. Also, do group remix activities like Musical Shares or FX Roulette.


  • Collaboration and authorship
  • Sampling
  • Mashups
  • Evolution of musical ideas
  • Musical critique using musical language


  • A change in tempo can have dramatic effects on the mood and feel of a track.
  • Adding sounds is the obvious move, but don’t be afraid to remove things too.

Self remix

Assignment: Remix one of your own projects, using the same guidelines as the peer remix. This is a good project for the end of the semester/term.

Song transformation

Assignment: Take an existing song and turn it into a new song. Don’t use any additional sounds or MIDI.


  • Advanced audio editing and effects
  • Musical form and structure
  • The nature of originality


  • You can transform short segments simply by repeating them out of context. For example, try taking single chords or lyrical phrases and looping them.


Shared sample

Assignment: Take a short audio sample (five seconds or less) and build a complete piece of music out of it. Do not use any other sounds. This is the most difficult assignment here, and the most rewarding one if you can pull it off successfully.


  • Advanced audio editing and effects
  • Musical form and structure
  • The nature of originality


  • Pitch shifting and timestretching are your friends.
  • Short bursts of noise can be tuned up and down to make drums.
  • Extreme timestretching produces great ambient textures.

Mobile music at IMPACT

Writing assignments

I like to have students document their process in blog posts. I ask: What sounds and techniques did you use? Why did you use them? Are you happy with the end result? Given unlimited time and expertise, what changes would you make? Do you consider this to be a valid form of musical creativity?

This semester I also asked students to write reviews of each others’ work in the style of their preferred music publication. In the future, I plan to have students write a review of an imaginary track, and then assign other students to try to create the track being described.

The best way to learn how to produce good recordings is to do critical listening exercises. I assign students to create musical structure and space graphs in the spirit of William Moylan.

Further challenges

The projects above were intended to be used for a one-semester college class. If I were teaching over a longer time span or I needed more assignments, I would draw from the Disquiet JuntoMaking Music by Dennis DeSantis, or the Oblique Strategies cards. Let me know in the comments if you have additional recommendations.

Beatmaking fundamentals

I’m currently working with the Ed Sullivan Fellows program, an initiative of the NYU MusEDLab where we mentor up and coming rappers and producers. Many of them are working with beats they got from YouTube or SoundCloud. That’s fine for working out ideas, but to get to the next level, the Fellows need to be making their own beats. Partially this is for intellectual property reasons, and partially it’s because the quality of mp3s you get from YouTube is not so good. Here’s a collection of resources and ideas I collected for them, and that you might find useful too.

Sullivan Fellows - beatmaking with FL Studio

What should you use?

There are a lot of digital audio workstations (DAWs) out there. All of them have the same basic set of functions: a way to record and edit audio, a MIDI sequencer, and a set of samples and software instruments. My DAW of choice is Ableton Live. Most of the Sullivan Fellows favor FL Studio. Mac users naturally lean toward GarageBand and Logic. Other common tools for hip-hop producers include Reason, Pro Tools, Maschine, and in Europe, Cubase.

Traditional DAWs are not the only option. Soundtrap is a browser-based DAW that’s similar to GarageBand, but with the enormous advantage that it runs entirely in the web browser. It also offers some nifty features like built-in Auto-Tune at a fraction of the usual price. The MusEDLab’s own Groove Pizza is an accessible browser-based drum sequencer. Looplabs is another intriguing browser tool.

Mobile apps are not as robust or full-featured as desktop DAWs yet, but some of them are getting there. The iOS version of GarageBand is especially tasty. Figure makes great techno loops, though you’ll need to assemble them into songs using another tool. The Launchpad app is a remarkably easy and intuitive one. See my full list of recommendations.

Sullivan Fellows - beatmaking with iOS GarageBand

Where do you get sounds?

DAW factory sounds

Every DAW comes with a sample library and a set of software instruments. Pros: they’re royalty-free. Cons: they tend to be generic-sounding and overused. Be sure to tweak the presets.

Sample libraries and instrument packs

The internet is full of third-party sound libraries. They range widely in price and quality. Pros: like DAW factory sounds, library sounds are also royalty-free, with greatly wider variety available. Cons: the best libraries are expensive.

Humans playing instruments

You could record music the way it was played from the Stone Age through about 1980. Pros: you get human feel, creativity, improvisation, and distinctive instrumental timbres and techniques. Cons: humans are expensive and impractical to record well.

Your record collection

Using more DJ-oriented tools like Ableton, it’s perfectly effortless to pull sounds out of any existing recording. Pros: bottomless inspiration, and the ability to connect emotionally to your listener through sounds that are familiar and meaningful to them. Cons: if you want to charge money, you will probably need permission from the copyright holders, and that can be difficult and expensive. Even giving tracks away on the internet can be problematic. I’ve been using unauthorized samples for years and have never been in any trouble, but I’ve had a few SoundCloud takedowns.

Sullivan Fellows - beatmaking with Pro Tools

What sounds do you need?


Most hip-hop beats revolve around the components of the standard drum kit: kicks, snares, hi-hats (open and closed), crash cymbals, ride cymbals, and toms. Handclaps and finger snaps have become part of the standard drum palette as well. There are two kinds of drum sounds, synthetic (“fake”) and acoustic (“real”).

Synthetic drums are the heart and soul of hip-hop (and most other pop and dance music at this point.) There are tons of software and hardware drum machines out there, but there are three in particular you should be aware of.

  • Roland TR-808: If you could only have one drum machine for hip-hop creation, this would be the one. Every DAW contains sampled or simulated 808 sounds, sometimes labeled “old-skool” or something similar. It’s an iconic sound for good reason.
  • Roland TR-808: A cousin of the 808 that’s traditionally used more for techno. Still, you can get great hip-hop sounds out of it too. Your DAW is certain to contain some 909 sounds, often labeled with some kind of dance music terminology.
  • LinnDrum: The sound of the 80s. Think Prince, or Hall And Oates. Not as ubiquitous in DAWs as the 808 and 909, but pretty common.

Acoustic drums are less common in hip-hop, though not unheard of; just ask Questlove.

Some hip-hop producers use live drummers, but it’s much easier to use sampled acoustic drums. Samples are also a good source of Afro-Cuban percussion sounds like bongos, congas, timbales, cowbells, and so on. Also consider using “non-musical” percussion sounds: trash can lids, pots and pans, basketballs bouncing, stomping on the floor, and so on.

And how do you learn where to place these drum sounds? Try the specials on the Groove Pizza. Here’s an additional hip-hop classics to experiment with, the beat from “Nas Is Like” by Nas.

Groove Pizza - Nas Is Like


Hip-hop uses synth bass the vast majority of the time. Your DAW comes with a variety of synth bass sounds, including the simple sine wave sub, the P-Funk Moog bass, dubstep wobbles, and many others. For more unusual bass sounds, try very low-pitched piano or organ. Bass guitar isn’t extremely common in current hip-hop, but it’s worth a try. If you want a 90s Tribe Called Quest vibe, try upright bass.

In the past decade, some hip-hop producers have followed Kanye West’s example and used tuned 808 kick drums to play their basslines. Kanye has used it on all of his albums since 808s and Heartbreak. It’s an amazing solution; those 808 kicks are huge, and if they’re carrying the bassline too, then your low end can be nice and open. Another interesting alternative is to have no bassline at all. It worked for Prince!

And what notes should your bass be playing? If you have chords, the obvious thing is to have the bass playing the roots. You can also have the bass play complicated countermelodies. We made a free online course called Theory for Producers to help you figure these things out.


Usually your chords are played on some combination of piano, electric piano, organ, synth, strings, guitar, or horns. Vocal choirs are nice too. Once again, consult Theory for Producers for inspiration. Be sure to try out chords with the aQWERTYon, which was specifically designed for this very purpose.


The same instruments that you use for chords also work fine for melodies. In fact, you can think of melodies as chords stretched out horizontally, and conversely, you can think of chords as melodies stacked up vertically.


For atmosphere in your track, ambient synth pads are always effective. Also try non-musical sounds like speech, police sirens, cash registers, gun shots, birds chirping, movie dialog, or whatever else your imagination can conjure. Make sure to visit – you have to sign up, but it’s worth it. Above all, listen to other people’s tracks, experiment, and trust your ears.

Milo meets Beethoven

For his birthday, Milo got a book called Welcome to the Symphony by Carolyn Sloan. We finally got around to showing it to him recently, and now he’s totally obsessed.

Welcome To The Symphony by Carolyn Sloan

The book has buttons along the side which you can press to hear little audio samples. They include each orchestra instrument playing a short Beethoven riff. All of the string instruments play the same “bum-bum-bum-BUMMM” so you can compare the sounds easily. All the winds play a different little phrase, and the brass another. The book itself is fine and all, but the thing that really hooked Milo is triggering the riffs one after another, Ableton-style, and singing merrily along.

Milo got primed to enjoy this book by two coincidental things. One is that in his preschool, they’ve been listening to Peter and the Wolf a lot, dancing to it, acting it out, etc. They use a YouTube video that shows both the story and the instruments side by side, so Milo has very clear ideas of what the oboe, clarinet, etc all look like and sound like. When he saw them in the orchestra book, he recognized them all immediately.

The other thing is this weird computer animated cartoon called Taratabong, which is about anthropomorphic musical instruments. Milo has been watching it on YouTube a bunch, to the point of wanting me to pretend to be different characters and “talk” to him (which is an entertaining challenge for me–how do you have a conversation as a snare drum?) So Milo also recognizes different instruments in the orchestra book as Taratabong characters.

Milo has now voluntarily watched a YouTube video of the entire first movement of Beethoven’s Fifth conducted by Leonard Bernstein, several times. That’s like nine minutes of classical music, which for a three-year-old is equivalent to nine hours. He sings along to all the riffs he recognized, announces each instrument as he sees it, and tells me about how Leonard Bernstein is Grandfather from Peter and the Wolf. I want to emphasize that we haven’t pushed him into any of this. If you read this blog, you know that I’m an outspoken anti-fan of Beethoven. We just put this stuff under Milo’s nose, and if he hadn’t been interested, we wouldn’t have pushed it.

The classical music tribe expresses continual anguish about how hard it is to draw people into the music. Having inadvertently created a budding Beethoven lover, I have a few insights to offer. Milo got connected to the music through multiple media simultaneously, in multiple settings. He was exposed initially in the context of stories about animals and cartoon characters. That exposure happened in the context of acting and dancing, not passive sitting or being lectured to. And when he did start listening, it was via playback devices that he controls completely: YouTube Kids on the iPad, and the buttons on the book.

Of all these different music experiences, the Ableton-like sample triggering is the one that has most seized Milo’s enthusiasm. Sometimes he wants to read the book and play the sounds when the text indicates. Sometimes he wants to systematically listen through each sound, singing along and acting out the instruments. Sometimes he just jams out, playing the excerpts in different orders and in different rhythms. I suspect he’d be even happier if he could get the sounds to loop. He wants to sing along, but the little phrases are half over before he can even get oriented. If the phrases looped in a musical-sounding way, I bet he would dig in much deeper.

This is not Milo’s first experience triggering sample playback. Before he even turned two, we spent a lot of time playing around with an APC 40.


Milo adores the lights and colors, and instantly grasped how the volume faders work. In general, though, the APC experience was too complicated for him. It was too easy to make it stop working, to lose the connection between button pushes and the music changing, and to generally get lost in the interface. (I have some of those same problems!) The orchestra book has the advantage of being vastly simpler and more predictable.

There’s a page in the book that shows Beethoven with quill pen, writing the music. (Milo is continually disappointed not to see Beethoven himself in any of the performance videos.) Interestingly, Milo has started using the phrase “writing music” as a synonym for “playing music”, either from an instrument or from iTunes. He seems not to know or care about the distinction between playing back pre-recorded music and creating new music. This conflation of writing and playing music was likely helped by the time Milo has spent with the aQWERTYon, an interface developed by the NYU MusEDLab for performing music on the computer keyboard.

aQWERTYon screencap

Milo isn’t extremely interested in the musical aspect of the aQWERTYon. He calls it “ABCs” and is mostly interested in using it to type his favorite letters. He also enjoys singing the alphabet song while playing semi-randomly along.

The MusEDLab’s work is motivated by the fact that computers make it enormously easier for total novices to participate actively in music. If Beethoven symphonies can be played with as toys, participated in as games, and connected to meaningful stories and activities, then it’s inevitable that kids are going to want to get involved. If I had experienced Beethoven as raw material for my own expression, I’d probably feel quite differently about him.

Space Oddity: from song to track

If you’ve ever wondered what it is that a music producer does exactly, David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” is a crystal clear example. To put it in a nutshell, a producer turns this:

Into this:

It’s also interesting to listen to the first version of the commercial recording, which is better than the demo, but still nowhere near as majestic as the final version. The Austin Powers flute solo is especially silly.

Should we even consider these three recordings to be the same piece of music? On the one hand, they’re all the same melody and chords and lyrics. On the other hand, if the song only existed in its demo form, or in the awkward Austin Powers version, it would never have made the impact that it did. Some of the impact of the final version lies in better recording techniques and equipment, but it’s more than that. The music takes on a different meaning in the final version. It’s bigger, trippier, punchier, tighter, more cinematic, more transporting, and in general about a thousand times more effective.

The producer’s job is to marshall the efforts of songwriters, arrangers, performers and engineers to create a good-sounding recording. (The producer might also be a songwriter, arranger, performer, and/or engineer.) Producers are to songs what directors are to movies, or showrunners are to television.

When you’re thinking about a piece of recorded music, you’re really talking about three different things:

  1. The underlying composition, the part that can be represented on paper. Albin Zak calls this “the song.”
  2. The performance of the song.
  3. The finished recording, after overdubbing, mixing, editing, effects, and all the rest. Albin Zak calls this “the track.”

I had always assumed that Tony Visconti produced “Space Oddity,” since he produced a ton of other Bowie classics. As it turns out, though, Visconti was underwhelmed by the song, so he delegated it to his assistant, Gus Dudgeon. So what is it that Gus Dudgeon did precisely? First let’s separate out what he didn’t do.

You can hear from the demo that the chords, melody and lyrics were all in place before Bowie walked into the studio. They’re the parts reproduced by the subway busker I heard singing “Space Oddity” this morning. The demo includes a vocal arrangement that’s similar to the final one, aside from some minor phrasing changes. The acoustic guitar and Stylophone are in place as well. (I had always thought it was an oboe, but no, that droning sound is a low-tech synth.)

Gus Dudgeon took a song and a partial arrangement, and turned it into a track. He oversaw the addition of electric guitar, bass, drums, strings, woodwinds, and keyboards. He coached Bowie and the various studio musicians through their performances, selected the takes, and decided on effects like echoes and reverb. He supervised the mixing, which not only sets the relative loudness of the various sounds, but also affects their perceived location and significance. In short, he designed the actual sounds that you hear.

If you want to dive deep into the track, you’re in luck, because Bowie officially released the multitrack stems. Some particular points of interest:

  • The bassist, Herbie Flowers, was a rookie. The “Space Oddity” session was his first. He later went on to create the staggeringly great dual bass part in Lou Reed’s “Walk On The Wild Side.”
  • The strings were arranged and conducted by the multifaceted Paul Buckmaster, who a few years later would work with Miles Davis on the conception of On The Corner. Buckmaster’s cello harmonics contribute significantly to the psychedelic atmosphere–listen to the end of the stem labeled “Extras 1.”
  • The live strings are supplemented by Mellotron, played by future Yes keyboardist Rick Wakeman, he of the flamboyant gold cape.
  • Tony Visconti plays some flute and unspecified woodwinds, including the distinctive saxophone run that leads into the instrumental sections.

You can read a detailed analysis of the recording on the excellent Bowiesongs blog.

The big difference between the sixties and the present is that the track has assumed ever-greater importance relative to the song and the performance. In the age of MIDI and digital audio editing, live performance has become a totally optional component of music. The song is increasingly inseparable from the sounds used to realize it, especially in synth-heavy music like hip-hop and EDM. This shift gives the producer ever-greater importance in the creative process. There is really no such thing as a “demo” anymore, since anyone with a computer can produce finished-sounding tracks in their bedroom. If David Bowie were a kid now, he’d put together “Space Oddity” in GarageBand or FL Studio, with a lavish soundscape part of the conception from the beginning.

I want my students to understand that the words “producer” and “musician” are becoming synonymous. I want them to know that they can no longer focus solely on composition or performance and wait for someone else to craft a track around them. The techniques used to make “Space Oddity” were esoteric and expensive to realize at the time. Now, they’re easily within reach. But while the technology is more accessible, you still have to have the ideas. This is why it’s so valuable to study great producers like Tony Visconti and Gus Dudgeon: they’re a goldmine of sonic inspiration.

See also: a broader appreciation of Bowie.