Music Composition For Dummies
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For quick reference, most of what you need to know about music composition is covered in this cheat sheet. Whether you’re sitting with a band and need to know what someone means when they say, “Take it up a fifth!” or you can’t remember the proper form for the 8-bar blues, this handy info is right at your fingertips on one convenient page.

The Circle of Fifths

The Circle of Fifths shows the relation between major keys and their relative minors. The major keys are indicated with capital letters, and their relative minors are in lowercase. Also shown here are the number of sharps or flats that you put in the key signature for each key.

Circle of Fifths
Circle of Fifths.

Musical forms

Here’s a handy guide to the different parts in different kinds of compositions. From one-part form to pop song structure, everything you need to build a song based on form is in this section.

  • One part form: A, AA, AAA, and so on
  • Binary form: AB, AABB
  • Ternary/tertiary form: ABA, AABA
  • Arch form: ABCBA
  • Sonata: ABA
  • 8-bar blues: I, IV, I, VI, ii, V, I, V/I (turnaround)
  • 2-bar blues: I, I, I, I, IV, IV, I, I, V, IV, I, V/I (turnaround)
  • 16-bar blues: I, I, I, I, IV, IV, I, I, V, IV, V, IV, V, IV, I, V/I (turnaround)
  • 24-bar blues: 8xI, 4xIV, Ix4, V, V, IV, IV, I, I, I, V/I (turnaround)
  • Verse-chorus form (pop music) Intro ABACBCB

Building the seven Greek modes

There are seven main types of musical scales, or modes. Each one consists of eight notes, combining whole and half steps in slightly different combinations to produce different feelings in the listener.

  • Ionian (the major scale): W(hole step), W, H(alf step), W, W, W, H
  • Dorian: W, H, W, W, W, H, W
  • Phrygian: H, W, W, W, H, W, W
  • Lydian: W, W, W, H, W, W, H
  • Mixolydian: W, W, H, W, W, H, W
  • Aeolian (the minor scale): W, H, W, W, H, W, W
  • Locrian: H, W, W, H, W, W, W

Major chord progressions

Some chords just sound right together, and some don’t. The following is a list of the tried-and-true sequences that always sound good when played together.

  • I chords can appear anywhere in a progression
  • ii chords lead to I, V, or vii° chords
  • iii chords lead to I, ii, IV, or vi chords
  • IV chords lead to I, ii, iii, V, or vii° chords


  • V chords lead to I or vi chords
  • vi chords lead to I, ii, iii, IV, or V chords
  • vii° chords lead to I or iii chords

Minor chord progressions

If you want to create spooky or sad music, building a song on minor chord progressions is a great way to start. Minor chord progressions sound just a little bit off, or melancholy, to the ear.

  • i chords can appear anywhere in a progression
  • ii° or ii chords lead to i, iii, V, v, vii°, or VII chords
  • III or III+ chords lead to i, iv, IV, VI, #vi°, vii°, or VI chords
  • iv or IV chords lead to i, V, v, vii°, or VII chords
  • V or v chords lead to i, VI, or #vi° chords
  • VI or #vi°chords lead to i, III, III+, iv, IV, V, v, vii°, or VII chords
  • vii° or VII chords lead to i chord

Rules of transposition

While most music composition programs will transpose instrument voices for you, if you just doing it on paper with a pencil,  it can get confusing. Here are some easy ways to approach each kind.

  • E-flat instruments: Find the relative minor, make it major, and then write in that key. Notes are, therefore, moved up a sixth, or down a minor third.
  • F instruments: Just add one sharp or subtract a flat from the key signature and write the music in the resulting key. Therefore, notation is moved up one perfect fifth from where originally written.
  • B-flat instruments: Move everything up one whole tone. E-flat becomes F, F becomes G, and so on.

About This Article

This article is from the book:

About the book authors:

Scott Jarrett has been a theatrical music director and has taught recording labs, voice, guitar, music theory, and composition. He has worked with artists from Willie Nelson to Dave Grusin.

Holly Day has created work for over 3,000 international publications including Guitar One Magazine, Music Alive!, and Brutarian Magazine. She is also the co-author of Music Theory For Dummies.

Michael Pilhofer, MM, holds a Master's in Music Education with a Jazz Emphasis from the Eastman School of Music, and a Bachelor of Music degree in Jazz Performance from the University of Miami.

Holly Day's work has appeared in Guitar One Magazine, Music Alive!, culturefront Magazine, and Brutarian Magazine.

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