How to Learn Music Production
Music production may seem intimidating to learn, but it doesn’t have to be challenging. In reality, learning how to make songs on your own can be a very straightforward process.
The secret to learning music production is to have a plan: a roadmap that guides you through the right topics, in the right order, with the right material, and using the right techniques.
Breaking Down Music Production
There are many element to music production, and understanding what topics there are can be a challenge in itself. Before you decide what to focus on, you have to consider everything that goes into making music. Different genres and workflows call for different skills, but there are ten fundamental topics that cover the majority of the process:
- Music Theory: the building blocks of music, including notes, chords, scales, and patterns
- Vocal and Instrumental Performance: the technical ability to sing, rap, or play instruments like guitar, piano, and drums
- Songwriting and Composition: combining music theory, instruments, and vocals to create melodies, rhythms, and lyrics
- Recording: capturing live performances and saving them onto digital files or tape
- Sound Design: using electronic software or hardware to craft and shape new sounds
- Sampling: selecting and manipulating pre-recorded sounds
- Arranging: assembling recordings and musical elements into a song
- Mixing: integrating the components of a song into a unified, polished product
- Mastering: achieving optimal loudness and preparing music for release
- Business: the distribution, sales, marketing, and legal aspects of music
Topics You Can Skip (For Now)
Do you have to master the entire list? Not at all. For many people, some of these aren’t necessary at all. To make the process easier, you can eliminate some of them.
Consider the following questions:
- Where don’t you get your musical sounds from? Vocal performance, instrumental performance, recording, sound design, and sampling are often optional depending on the genre and workflow. Which ones don’t you use?
- Are you ready to release music? If the answer is no, you can ignore mastering and business for now.
- Are you willing to pay other people to take on some of these responsibilities? There are large markets dedicated to providing almost all of these services, especially recording, mixing, mastering, and business. If you pay for it, there’s much less need to study it.
After answering these questions, go back to the original list and determine what you can ignore. You may be interested in exploring some of these topics in the future (which is great!), but focus on what’s most important right now.
From the remaining topics, what do you have a decent hold on? You don’t have to be a master at any of them, but certain parts of the process may feel easier than others. If any of these topics stand out like this, focus your learning away from them. They can always become a higher priority later, and you will still improve them through the regular practice of making music.
What’s left on the list? These are the topics that you will benefit the most from spending dedicated time learning and improving upon.
Not sure which one to tackle first? There is no “correct” order to learning music production, but learning in a way that maximizes your investment should be the goal.
In some ways, making music is like building a pyramid. Each level needs to be strong and stable to support the levels above it.
Similarly, improving in earlier parts of the process will result in better (and easier!) results later on. Better understanding of music theory will result in better songwriting and composition, better recordings, sound design, and sample selection will result in better mixes, and better music will result in more listens, more fans, and more sales.
From the remaining topics, I recommend attacking them in order relative to the music production process. You don’t have to be a master at one topic before moving on to the next, but improving on the earlier stages of the process will result in better outcomes during later stages.
Here is a basic progression to help determine this order:
- Music Theory
- Instrumental/Vocal Performance (if applicable)
- Songwriting and Composition
- Recording, Sound Design, and Sampling (depending on your music)
Your skills are all relative to one another. Focus on achieving balance. The weaker something is, the more it will hold everything back.
Case Study: Chris
Before we move on, let’s walk through this process with an example.
Chris grew up learning and playing piano and guitar, and now he’s making EDM in Abelton Live. He’s dabbled in a little bit of everything, and he’s looking to plan his learning more effectively and take his music to the next level.
First, he needs to determine what he can skip. Since Chris gets most of his sounds from samples and VSTs, he doesn’t need to worry about instrumental performance, vocal performance, or recording. He is regularly creating full-length songs, but he only posts some of these to SoundCloud. He only does this to share his music with friends and family, so mastering is not very critical, and business is not at all important to him.
Next, he evaluates his strengths. Chris is familiar with music theory from his days playing piano and guitar, so that’s not holding him back. He is also experienced with songwriting, sampling and arranging, so those are not issues either.
This leaves two areas to focus on: sound design and mixing. While he is making full songs and touching on both topics, focusing on sound design first will allow him to make better music, more of which will be worthy of going through mixing process, which he can learn more about later.
Chris has his learning list and his learning order. If you haven’t already, walk through this process yourself.
Finding the Right Learning Material
What you learn is important, but how you learn is also key. There are countless resources available for learning music production, but picking the right resources will make a major difference in how quickly and effectively your skills improve. Types of resources to consider include YouTube videos, articles/websites, books, online courses, personal tutors/instructors, and formal degree/certificate programs.
When looking for and selecting resources, consider these factors:
- Format: How do you learn most effectively? Video? Text? In-person instruction?
- Quality: Look for resources that go in depth, know what they’re talking about, and are easy to learn from.
- Cost: Free is always great, but there are also paid courses out there that deliver massive value with high quality. Don’t be afraid to invest in yourself.
- Commitment: How much or how little do you want to learn? From ten-minute videos to multi-year degree programs, consider how big of a commitment you are willing to make.
When looking for resources, focus on finding and selecting a few key options that you can go back to again and again for more information and content. Try out a wide variety and find who really helps you and makes the biggest difference. Get familiar with their format, their style, and their philosophies. Learning from a small handful of high-quality teachers will be much more productive than watching random videos.
Once you have your learning material, it’s time to put it to use. Here are some tips on how to make the most of your learning time:
- Save/bookmark all of the useful content you find. Quickly referring back to great information is extremely helpful.
- Practice everything you learn. It’s great if you can implement what you learn into a project you are currently working on, but if not, start a small project designed for the sole purpose of testing and implementing what you have learned. Don’t just learn about it, do it. This will help you connect the material to your creative process, retain your knowledge better, and give you an example that you can reference and use in the future.
- Dedicate a certain day/time/number of hours a week to learn and improve. It doesn’t have to replace your music-making efforts, but add it into your routine and consistently learn new skills that will help you. Even an hour each week will yield results over time.
- As you improve, don’t be afraid to look for feedback. It’s an important method for evaluating what you need to improve on and what needs the most attention.
- When you focus on a certain topic, don’t feel like you need to stick to it until you master it. As you learn, your strengths and weaknesses will change, so reevaluating yourself and reseting your priorities will help keep your learning productive.
- Set short-term benchmarks that challenge you. It’s important to validate if you are making progress or not.
- Make sure that learning is fun. Focus on learning to serve your music and avoid learning because you “have to.” If there’s something you want to spend more time exploring, do it!
Plan and Execute
Becoming a better music producer takes time, patience, and effort. Don’t be afraid to work hard for it, but also focus on enjoying the process.
Learning can be a lot of fun, especially if you’re making progress! Having a plan makes it possible.
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