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  1. Music & Audio
  2. Music Theory
Music

How to Reverse Engineer any Music

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Difficulty:BeginnerLength:ShortLanguages:

A couple of years ago I started to create a framework for music creation. I was doing it unconsciously during the practice in starting creating new tracks. 

I've compiled these tips and strategies. You can use them for inspiration, imitating other tracks and learning new elements from music. 

Here's the complete workflow that I work through.

During this process there are three stages:

  1. Analysing
  2. Breaking down
  3. Putting them together

There are none steps for reverse engineering:

  1. Tempo and rhythm signature
  2. Musical scale
  3. Chord progression
  4. Bass
  5. Drums
  6. Melodies
  7. Sound design
  8. Mixing
  9. Mastering

Tools

Hearing

Listen to music with active thinking. If you don't hear the details then train your ears.

With self-development you'll hear all details, but you need time for this. One or two days is not enough; think long term.

I used to have basic musical hearing that I developed over a number of years. If you do the practice consciously, you can shorten this time by orders of magnitude.

YouTube Videos

Usually I search for a high quality music video on YouTube, then set it to repeat for analysing and MIDI programming. You can also download these videos with some websites.

Beatport Data

On Beatport you can usually find the tempo and musical scale of the music.

Beatport Screenshot
I use sometimes Beatport to find the key and tempo information of a music

Mixed in Key and Rapid Evolution

These are programs which show tempo and scale.

For a long time I used Rapid Evolution. Then in last December I bought the latest Mixed in Key.

I recommend it very much. It's a very fast and precise software application and is easy to use.

Mixed In Key
I can analyse scale and tempo data with Mixed In Key

Piano Type Instrument

For MIDI programming I use a piano sound from any plugin or sampler from my DAW (Ableton Sampler or Simpler).

MIDI Keyboard

You don't need to play the piano. It's enough to record a four-note melody on a MIDI keyboard.

This can take five to 50 minutes depending on the given music, your skills and musical intelligence.

If you don't have a MIDI keyboard, buy at least a two-octave version. This is enough for melodies, basses and short chord progressions.

Complete MIDI files

Search the Internet for free or paid MIDI files. You can quickly make an inspired music, bootleg or remix with these.

1. Tempo and Rhythm Signature

You can find the tempos in this table

66–76 BPM
AdagioSlow
76–108 BPMAndante
Walking speed
108–120 BPM
Moderato
Medium
120–168 BPM
Allegro
Fast
168–176 BPM 
Vivace
Very fast

The most common rhythm signature is 4/4. Most music uses this.

2. Musical Scale

These scales are the most popular in western music:

  • Major  (7 notes), eg. C-major
  • Minor (7 notes), eg. A-minor
  • Major pentatonic (5 notes)
  • Minor pentatonic (5 notes)

C-major and A-minor scales are the most simple. You only need to use the white keys on a keyboard.

3. Chord Sequence

Often chords are written for these bar-lengths:

  • 4 Bars
  • 8 Bars
  • 16 Bars

In a lot of music that are only 4-8 chords, so you don't need to work too much to figure them out.

Chords
In Ableton I can quickly test multiple chord ideas

Types of popular harmonies and chords:

  • Dichord (2 notes)
  • Trichord (3 notes)
  • Tetrachord (4 notes)

Examples of most used chord sequences:

C - G - C - G
I - V - I - V
C - G - F - G
I - V - IV - V
D – C – GV – IV – I
G – C – D – C
I – IV – V – IV
G – Em – C – D
I – vi – IV – V
Em – D – C – B
vi – V – IV – III


4.
Bass

Usually the bass uses the root note of chords. Sometimes it is varied a little.

The first and fifth degree (I and V) are the most important notes when talking about stability in a scale.

  • C-major: C and G
  • A-minor: A and E

5. Drums

  • Mood: agressive, passive, neutral, light, playful, slow, fast
  • Instrument selection
  • Dynamics
  • Recordings

6. Melodies

  • Emotions
  • Mood
  • Keeping interest
  • Question-Answer formula
  • Variations
Midi Keyboard
I use a two octave MIDI keyboard work my musical work

7. Sound Design

  • Mood
  • Sound type
  • Synthesis
  • Sampling
  • Synths
  • Psycho-acoustics

8. Mixing

I recommend listening to these elements during mixing:

  • Volume balance
  • Panorama
  • Equalisation
  • Compression
  • Effects
  • Automating
  • Using reference track
Ableton Mixing Session
I use 4 groups for mixing my tracks

9. Mastering

Answer your own questions regarding mastering:

  • Tone
  • Dynamics
  • Loudness
  • Reference track

How to Do It

Analyse

To analyse, I set the track to repeat. I actively listen to instruments to identify them. The technical part is the sound design and mixing. 

If I don't understand, or don't hear, something then I'll repeat the listening process. And listen to it again.

With each active listening I find more and more detail.

B) Framework

You should always start with these things to set the base of the music and mood.

  1. Tempo and rhythm signature
  2. Musical scale
  3. Chord progression

C) Quick Changes

The goal is to get results quickly, without obstacles. The solution is to loop the music and, during this, you record the chords and bass.

Then you change these step by step. You change one or two semitones at a time. By performing these steps it's possible to reach the base of the track.

At first it may seem difficult but it will come with practice. Just start it and do the work. You're allowed to make mistakes. Often, the best music is based on small errors; happy accidents.

Fine Tuning the Composition

Five to ten minutes is enough for this and it's useful to tune up or down a couple of semitones if needed. You can also change the rhythm as well.

Inspiration, Copying or Theft

"A good composer does not imitate; he steals." - Igor Stravinsky

Because ideas can't be copyrighted and you can't make it into a standard. This is the case with musical ideas.

"Immature artists copy, great artists steal." - William Faulkner

The ideal solution is a middle way: you can take ideas but you should work with them a bit, change and modify them. If you take ideas from a lot of musics, people will think about you as a genious.

Summary

In this tutorial I've shown you the steps to break down and analyse music.

The skill for this doesn't come in one or two days. Plan for the long term.

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