Introductory Guide to Writing Professional Quality Sheet Music

Creating sheet music is not an activity for a novice. You must have a basic understanding of music theory and the ability to pay attention to detail. Regardless of the type of sheet music you want to learn, picking up a music theory text will help you learn the basics of music and make it easier to notate your ideas.

Find a music theory text that teaches you about note names and values, key signatures, scales, chords, and chord progressions. These are the basics of music and will help you when it comes to writing down your own sheet music.

It isn’t always worth it to take lessons to learn these basics. However, a decent instructor can help guide you through the process and provide a more nuanced approach to instruction. Pick up a decent music theory text and work through it until you find that you need an instructor. Consider purchasing, Stefan Kostka’s “Tonal Harmony” textbook.

Here are some suggestions for subjects to study when learning to create your own sheet music:
  1. Learn counterpoint after developing a solid working knowledge of music theory. Counterpoint will help you learn good voice leading. Voice leading ensures balanced musical lines and an even texture throughout the piece. Dissonance can be made to sound acceptable with appropriate voice leading. Voice leading also reduces errors when writing chord progressions. Order Fux's "The Study of Counterpoint" for a good counterpoint text.
  2. Write the melody first. The melody greatly influences the chords you should use. Most melodies contain four to eight bars. Beneath the melody, write in a chord progression. Start with a tonic chord and connect additional chords by using common tones between the notes. In the key of C major, start with a C major chord. Avoid dissonances in your chord progression until you gain more experience writing music. For example, writing a D minor chord with a melody line that has an E would create a dissonance with the D and E.
  3. A stepwise motion should be used when possible, and you should also attempt to avoid parallel motion to achieve decent voice leading. The problem with parallel motion is that it weakens the independence of the musical line. When notes move in the same direction, they begin to sound like a single line. Using contrary and oblique motion maintains the independence of the lines.
  4. Create the bass line for the composition. The bass doesn’t have to move by step. Skips and leaps are fine and help to create an interesting structure. The bass is often called the second melody due to its easy identification and movement.
  5. Include passing tones in your composition that move between the chords and fill in areas that otherwise might include a skip or leap in the melody or supporting lines. Use suspensions to smooth out dissonances. Passing tones are tones not part of the chord and work as non-chord tones note between two chords. Suspensions hold one note over into the next chord and then resolves by step.
  6. Include dynamics, articulations, phrase markings, and tempo indicators in the composition. Without these markings, the music is not yet finished. Dynamics inform the performer of the appropriate volume level; phrase markings indicate where to breathe or put a brief pause in the phrase; tempo provides the speed of the piece. Finally, articulations explain how to play a note -- staccato, legato, marcato, tenuto, or accented.
  7. Prepare your final draft for publication. Use a notation program to print your music, and space each note in relation to the note value. For instance, a quarter note and the next note should have enough space to fit two eighth notes. This is important for performers, since they subconsciously gauge the value of notes not only by what they look like, but also by the space between the notes. Of course, a professional will play a piece correctly as long as the note values are accurate, but a piece in which all of the notes have the same space between them looks unprofessional.
  8. Study instrumentation, orchestration, and form and analysis. These subjects teach you to write for instruments and make compositions with a logical structure.


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