Entering a melody in GarageBand

Getting organised

Now that you have met GarageBand, and learnt how to read a score, let’s put it together by taking the score for Happy Birthday and entering it into GarageBand. If you haven’t already please download (and ideally print) references for score, key signature, scale and preferences. We will be using them for this lesson.

Before we start, you might also like to download and print the Score for Happy Birthday. Otherwise you can refer to the image below, on the screen.

The downloadable score has letters written above the staves. Ignore them for now – we will be using them in the next lesson.

Create a new project in GarageBand:

Create a software instrument:

Select piano – Steinway Grand Piano for the first track:

Close the musical typing window and hide the instrument drawer:

Hide the instrument control knobs (click the button in the top left red circle of the image below), and then control-click or right-click in the tracks area (centre red circle), and then select ‘add region’:

Double click in the light green header area of the region you just created, to show the editor. Drag the bottom right corner of the region to create a region that is 9 bars long:

Your screen should now look like this:

Working out the key of the song

Next you need to work out what key the song is in. If you look at the Score Reference, you will see where the key signature is written on the score:

In the score above, you can see a single ♭ is written in the key signature area. What key does a single ♭ represent? Look at the Key Reference to find out:

The final note of the melody is an F, so assume the song is in F major, not D minor, though both keys consist of the same set of pitches. In GarageBand, set the key to F major by clicking on the key info box and selecting from the drop down list:

Set the time signature

Now to set up the time signature. The time signature tells you how many beats are in each bar. If you can’t remember where on the score the time signature is written, check your Score Reference to see how to find out the time signature for Happy Birthday:

As you can see from the score, Happy Birthday is in 3/4 time signature. That means there are 3 beats in every bar. In GarageBand the default is to have four beats in every bar.

To check this easily, first move the zoom slider to the left so that you only see whole numbers for the bars (the numbers in the red square boxes):

Notice the bar numbers at the top of the edit pane? (The numbers in the red boxes.) These correspond with bars on the score. You can see a single faint vertical line to that shows each beat within the bar. You can use the zoom slider (circled in the above image) to zoom right in – then more faint lines will appear showing you the position of each half-beat. If you get confused about where in the bar you are entering the note, zoom out again so that you just see one vertical line per beat, and that will orient you. As you are working move the zoom slider in and out to assist you.

Keep sliding the zoom slider to the left until you can easily see that there are 4 beats in a bar:

We need to tell GarageBand that there should be only 3 beats in the bar. Set the time signature to 3/4:

Now you can see that there are only three beats to the bar.

Enter the notes into GarageBand

To enter the notes into GarageBand you will need to have the score in front of you, and if you can’t easily read music, the score reference too. We’ll begin by entering the first note on the score. Which note is it? If you look at the score reference you should be able to work out that it’s middle C, also known as C3 in GarageBand.

Control click or right click next to C3 in GarageBand and click create note:

The first note of Happy Birthday occurs on the third beat of the first bar, so drag the note to that position, ensuring it is in line with the C3:

If you check the score reference, you will see the first note is a quaver, half a beat long:

Drag the right hand side of the note so that it is half a beat long:

You have entered the first note of the melody. See how when you select that note, the C3 on the GarageBand sideways piano is highlighted in blue. That shows you which note you have selected.

We can see that the next note is the same – another quaver, also a C. So let’s copy the one we have. Ensure the note is selected (light green) and click control-C to copy. Drag the playhead (the white vertical line with a triangle at the top) by dragging the triangle to the position where we want the new note:

Now press control-V to paste the note. You’ll see the playhead automatically moves along to the end of the note:

Now check the score to see what the third note should be:

If you check the score reference, you should be able to work out that it’s a D, and a crotchet, which plays for a full beat:

Press control-V again in GarageBand to enter another note, drag the right side of the note so that it is a full beat long, and drag the note up so that it aligns with D (the white piano key above C3 on the sideways piano):

See how this time the note D is selected, and the note D on the sideways piano is highlighted in blue, showing which note it is.

Keep going in this way until you have added 6 notes:

If you look at the score, you will see that after 6 notes, the pattern repeats itself, though two notes are different (the notes in the blue box):

You can make it easier for yourself to enter this new section by dragging your mouse over all the notes you have already entered to select them. Click control-C to copy all the notes. Place the playhead at the end of the notes and click control-V to paste:

Once you have pasted the notes, click in the background of the edit pane to unselect them, and then drag just the notes that are different (the ones marked with the blue boxes in the score above) in order to position them in the correct place:

Continue in this way, entering individual notes, and copying and pasting sections and adjusting them, until you have entered the whole score for Happy Birthday:

Ensure the notes are within the song’s key

Now we need to adjust notes to ensure they fit the key of F major. The Key Signature Reference shows which notes of the scale are sharps and flats:

You can see that F major contains one flat: B♭. Open the notepad in GarageBand by clicking the notepad icon, and type the notes of the scale into the notepad, for easy reference. A hash symbol (#) works fine for typing sharps, but most people won’t have a special music font already on their computer, so just use a small b to type any flats (e.g. Bb).

You can display and hide the notepad by clicking on the notepad icon (circled in the image above) at any time.

Because the F major scale includes a B♭, you will now need to look for notes in the score that are a B and move them to B♭. To easily find them, you might like to look at the score in GarageBand. To do this, click the ‘Score’ button:

Zoom to see the whole score and you will see a natural symbol before those two notes:

Since we don’t really want naturals for those notes, you’ll need to select them and move them down one semitone to B♭. You can do this right here on the score view, or you can change to the piano roll view and do it there. Check the score again and it should look the same as the score at the top of this page:

You should now have correctly entered Happy Birthday into GarageBand.

A process for entering a score into GarageBand

For future reference, these are the steps you can follow when you are entering any score into GarageBand:

  1. Work out what key the song is in. Look at the key signature on the score. Use the Key Reference provided to work out what key the song is in and what sharps and flats are included in the scale.
  2. Write the notes of the scale, including any sharps and flats, down in the notepad section of GarageBand.
  3. In GarageBand, set the key at the top of the screen to the key of the song.
  4. Enter all the notes into GarageBand as they appear on the score. Only enter a sharp or flat note if it is actually written as a sharp or flat on the score.
  5. With the notepad open in GarageBand, look at which notes are sharps and which are flats. Move all the notes that are supposed to be sharps one semitone higher, and move all the notes that are supposed to be flats one semitone lower.
  6. Check for mistakes by looking at the score in GarageBand. The score should only show a note as a sharp, flat or natural if it was written as that on the original score you are copying. If there is a sharp or flat that is different than the original score, then you have made a mistake, and you know to correct that note.

The above steps are included in the reference materials, so you can quickly look up this list later when you are entering a score into GarageBand.

Tips to make it easier

With practice it will become easier to enter a song from a score into GarageBand, as you will be able to glance at a score and immediately know which note to enter into GarageBand.

In the meantime, I have a tip for you. When I am trying to work out which note on the score I am looking at, sometimes I count up or down from a note I am familiar with, such as Middle C. When I count up, that’s easy because I follow the letters of the alphabet. But when I count down, I have to know the alphabet backwards, and that ties me up in knots! I have found it useful to memorise the piano keyboard in two groups.

The set of white keys C D E are framed by white keys that do not have a black key above/below them. The set of white keys F G A B are framed the same way. By memorising C D E as associated with the group of three white keys and F G A B as associated with the group of four white keys, I find it much easier to navigate my way around the notes.

Another tip: if you are struggling to read the notes on the score, you might like to write its name (C, D, E, F etc) underneath each note, like this:

That will make it easier to find the correct note on the piano and hence in GarageBand.

Tailoring the melody to your specific hearing loss

Once you have entered the melody into GarageBand, play it. How does it sound? If you are having difficulty hearing the melody for Happy Birthday properly, there are several things we can do to adapt it for your hearing.

You might like to change the key

Are the notes in a comfortable range for your specific hearing? For me, Middle C is right in the middle of my comfortable range of hearing so the lower notes sound great, but the higher notes I prefer to only use sparingly, or they can be a bit overwhelming. For Happy Birthday, you can see some of the notes are in the ‘use sparingly’ range.

If you hear high notes better and struggle to hear low notes, you might like to move the melody up the scale.

To experiment, select all notes in the melody, then drag them upwards, as shown in the diagram below.

Play the song. Drag them even higher. Play it again. Now try low, and then lower, listening to how it sounds at all different levels. When you do this, you will get an idea of what range of notes you find the most pleasant.

If you haven’t already, you might like to print out the preferences file, and make a note on it of which notes on the piano you find the pleasantest, and which notes you cannot hear or find uncomfortable or unpleasant. I suggest you write in pencil beneath the image of the piano, as you may find things change over time. For example, I discovered that when I play notes in the ‘use sparingly’ range on the piano, they sound fine to me, but when a singer sings exactly the same notes, they become really intense and I don’t enjoy listening to them. I didn’t work that out until after I had asked a singer to record vocals for my melody. Here’s the notes I made on my preferences chart:

Look at your notes beneath the piano. What is your comfortable range of hearing? Can you identify where the centre of your preferred range is? Mark it on your preferences sheet.

Generally it’s good to place the melody in the upper half of your preferred range, so that the bass line and harmony can go in the lower half (I’ll explain what they are in a later lesson). For Happy Birthday, the lowest note is Middle C, and the highest note is C one octave higher, so it spans a whole octave.

You can see from the images above that the note range is C3-C4 on the GarageBand sideways piano. Aim to put the lowest note, (originally Middle C) around the middle of your comfortable range. If the highest note (one octave above) is too high for you to hear comfortably, you may need to move the entire melody lower.

The middle of my preferred range of hearing are the notes A and B below middle C. But I find it sounds better when I move the melody even lower, so that it starts with a G.

Now there is only one note in the ‘use sparingly’ range and it sounds much better to me.

Say I drag the entire song down to start with the G, what key is it in now? You need to know in order to write the bass line and harmony (more on that later). You also need to know in order to write it on the score, if you have composed your own melody. Have a look at the Score tab in GarageBand. You will see that the natural symbol occurs in the front of some notes. The song now contains notes that are not within the scale of F major. This is why you cannot simply drag the notes to where you want them. You need to work out the new key and then adjust the non-scale notes to fit.

With Happy Birthday, we know the original song was in F major, and we know that the last note in the song is an F (often a melody will ‘come home’ to the key, and finish with that note). Therefore, when I drag the entire song down to start with a G, I can look at the last note and see that it now falls on a C. That tells me that the new key for this song should be C major. (C major, not C minor, because the original song was in a major key.)

Drag your melody back to the original position (first note starts with Middle C), then change the key setting in GarageBand to C major. GarageBand will move everything down to C major automatically, and it will adjust any non-scale notes to ensure they fit the new key. Check the Score tab and you will see that there are no sharp, flat or natural signs – this tells us we have done the change to a new key correctly.

If your melody doesn’t end with the note of the key, you could always add a note at the start or end that is the note of the key, then drag the melody to your preferred key, and look at what that note is. That will tell you the new key. After that you can delete the extra note.

What we just did, moving the song to another key, is called ‘transposing’. We transposed our song to a new key. If you move your song exactly one octave higher or lower, it is called changing the register – in this case, your song will still be in the same key (and it will still ‘come home’ to F).

To sum up, these are the steps you need to take to work out your preferred key and transpose the melody to that key:

  • Identify a note in the melody that represents the current key, or add one temporarily if need. (For Happy Birthday in F major, the note is F.)
  • Drag the melody up and down and listen to it at a range of pitches until you find one that sounds good. Aim to put the lowest note of the melody around the middle of your comfortable range.
  • What note is the identified note now? This note tells you the new key. For example, if the note that was before an F is now a C, then the key is C major.)
  • Click edit menu – undo a few times to return your notes to their original key and remove the temporary note if you added one.
  • At the top of the screen in GarageBand, click on the key setting and change it to the new key. All the notes will be moved accordingly.

The above list is in the Process Reference I have provided for this course, so that later you can quickly remind yourself what to do when you are entering another melody. If you haven’t already, please now transpose the melody to your preferred key.

Sorting out quiet notes in the melody

Not everyone has hearing that works neatly within a range. If you scroll back to look at my audiogram, you will see that my hearing actually improves for some of the higher pitches. This means that when I listen to higher notes in a song, sometimes it seems as though they stop and start, or alternate between being loud versus soft – very unpleasant! If your hearing is like this, and there are notes in the middle of your comfortable range which you cannot hear properly, now is the time to sort that out.

The first thing to try with quiet notes is increasing the velocity. With a piano, if you press a note gently, it makes a softer sound. When you press it hard, it makes a louder sound. Increasing the velocity is like pressing the note harder – it makes it louder. In GarageBand, in the edit pane, select the Notes button if it is not already blue, and look below it for the velocity slider. Select a note that is too quiet, and then move the velocity slider to the right to make it louder. Do this for each note that you are struggling to hear.

If increasing the velocity doesn’t help, another option is to select any quiet notes and experiment with moving them up or down until you can hear them. Remember to ensure the final note you choose fits with your scale. Refer to the notes you wrote in the notepad to check.

At this point, you should now have a version of the Happy Birthday melody that suits your specific hearing. If you ended up moving notes because they were quiet, then to a hearing person who knows Happy Birthday, those notes will sound ‘wrong’. But for you to listen to by yourself, it is much better than no music at all, or music that seems to stop and start, and it will be close enough. If you changed the melody so much that it became an original song, rather than a cover of Happy Birthday, then the hearing person would probably just assume you picked those notes because they were pleasing to you, and would not think it sounds ‘wrong’.

How did you go with entering a melody? Was this lesson clear for you? Anything you are confused about? Let me know what works and what doesn’t, so I can improve this course. Thanks! – Asphyxia.

Continue to next lesson – understanding genre and how it relates to music.

Back to course page.

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