Previously I looked at Ableton's book of ideas for music producers that came out a while back, geared to people with some experience of making music already. That did well in summarising suggestions for creativity into short, easily digestible chapters.

Ableton have now followed on by developing a free tutorial site that actually takes a step back. It's instead aimed at complete beginners who might be interested in creating music which, in the spirit of Ronseal, Ableton have called it Learning Music.

Unlike the previously published book, this resource is accessible for free. Is it worth your time to work through?

How does the site work?

You can always check it out yourself, but, briefly, each page is a mixture of a small amount of explanatory text with usually some interactive tool that mimics some aspect of a digital audio workstation (DAW) (particularly Ableton Live). Sometimes, there are music videos where some feature of that music is then broken down on the page.

Where this DAW-lite interactivity works well is that it's stripped down to the minimum framework of triggering samples or placing notes. Looking at a lot of modern audio software, it's easy to be overwhelmed by options, even as a seasoned user. This paring down was a sensible decision so as not to deter the interested who might have little experience of music theory, or digital music making. (And no doubt made the site simpler to build too.)

This functionality also provides an opportunity to practice and try altering the examples, if someone doesn't yet have a digital audio workstation installed.

These interactive tools often nicely assist the user, making it easy to make something sounding pleasing. This can be by, for example, restricting the permitted notes to ones within a scale, or, as on the first page, by carefully creating patterns that the user can trigger and overlay each other without any danger of the sounds clashing.

Although the look and feel of the interactive sequencer widgets is obviously influenced by Ableton Live, and could segue nicely into trying out the Ableton Live demo, the ideas — much like the book — transcend any particular piece of software. Like the book, even if you've no interest in Ableton itself, and intend to use some other software (or hardware) for making music, that shouldn't put you off.

This tutorial does allow you to export sketches you make in the Learning Music web app to Ableton Live, should you wish — a nice touch — albeit one that's geared towards steering users towards Live (which is fair enough).

The other main feature of this tutorial is that context of the musical ideas is given by reference to contemporary music, often well-known electronic music. Some aspect of each is broken down. This can be quite revealing if you haven't thought of music that way before: isolating one part (percussion, bassline, chords, melodies, structure) and briefly exploring what makes those aspects effective. It's nice that's it's example led; it gives the reader something to quickly grab onto, and provides possible inspirations too. Active listening in this way was pushed throughout the earlier Making Music book.

Perhaps the creators of the site's material could have gone slightly further. Maybe deconstructing one simple track throughout the course of the tutorial would work well in addition to analysing different pieces of music (which admittedly does help avoid boredom). Referring back to a single piece of music and considering a different aspect each time might provide two things: a sense of familiarity as the learner progresses through the material, and a sense of achievement that they understand how most of the main aspects of a particular track are put together, once they've completed the tutorials.

And does the site work?

In terms of material, if you've ever covered some basic music theory or have reasonable proficiency on an instrument, then you'll probably have encountered plenty of what is taught, and you won't get that much out of it.

However, there were still a few things I learned about, for example:

  • the Indonesian Pelog scale;

  • the opening notes of the melody from Kraftwerk's Tour de France are apparently taken from Paul Hindemith's Heiter Bewegt from Sonata for Flute and Piano.

The tutorials, then, only skirt the surface of each topic. Read the wrong way, this might sound like a criticism. It's not. In teaching aimed to give a survey of a topic, it's actually a positive: crucially, it's just enough to get the main point across to the target audience, make them aware of the ideas, and prompt the curious to go and learn more elsewhere, without being so detailed as to feel like hard work. So, for me, the site succeeds in its aims.

If you're a relative newcomer to music theory or composition, have got a spare hour or two and want to learn a little about creating music, or if you just want to see breakdowns of how parts of some pieces of music work — music that you may well have already heard and loved — it's more than worth your time to work through the material Ableton are offering.