Creating music on your laptop is a lot easier than you might think. In fact, with the right software, you don’t even have to be able to play an instrument. Of course you’ll still need an ear for a tune, and a basic understanding of how different parts of a band work, but with the help of programs such as GarageBand or Mixcraft you can assemble songs in a surprisingly short space of time.

In this feature we’ll take a look at how these impressive music creation tools work, and how you can harness their power with little need for technical or musical prowess. First, we'll focus on GarageBand, which is the most popular application (but it's available only on OS X and iOS) and then look at the Windows alternative: Mixcraft.

So, if you’ve ever wanted to dabble in song writing or create an original composition to accompany a home movie, there’s never been a better time to start than now. Let’s make beautiful music together.

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How to use GarageBand

Alongside iPhoto and iMovie, GarageBand (surely that should be iGarageBand?) comes free with every new Mac as part of the iLife package. Bundled apps often tend to be very bare bones products, but Apple knows that software sells hardware and has made iLife an impressive and highly usable suite of apps, with GarageBand being arguably the pick of the bunch. If you own an iPhone, iPad or iPod Touch then you can also buy the mobile version (currently £2.99 on the App Store or free with new iOS devices) which is much simpler, but still offers plenty of fun for experimenting with musical ideas.

GarageBand on iPad

GarageBand belongs to a class of programs often referred to as DAWs (Digital Audio Workstations), which give you the ability to arrange audio files on separate tracks and build up a musical piece. You can, of course, record live audio directly into the program, all you need is an interface such as the IK Multimedia iRig or a USB Mixer, but if all you want to do if dip your toes in the water then GarageBand has a few nifty tricks up its sleeves.

When you first launch the program you’ll be presented with a pop-up box that offers you the choice of creating a new project, learning an instrument (there are lessons for Guitar and Piano), Jam along with Magic GarageBand, or create your own iPhone ringtone.

Click on New Project then, from the various options available, select Loops.  Once you’ve accepted the default time signature and key (all of which can be changed later) you can begin to put your song together.

Garageband - New project

The simplest way to build up an arrangement is through the loops that Apple provides within GarageBand. In the main working space you’ll see a vast empty, grey panel with the legend ‘Drag Apple Loops here’. It’s really that simple.

In the right-hand panel is a grid of options that you can use to find the loops that fit what you have in mind. The first column has a set of genres - say Rock/Blues, Jazz, Electronic etc. - and clicking on each button will list the available loops in that flavour. Then you can select the instrument type from the next column, be it drums, guitars, pianos or whatever you prefer. The available loops are listed in the bottom-right panel, complete with how many beats they have (how long they are).

Garageband loops

Traditionally it’s always a good idea to start with a drum beat, as this sets the tone for the song and also means you have a solid groove to build upon. Highlight a genre, then select All Drums, and listen to a few loops. When you find a beat that catches your ear simply click on it and drag it into the main panel. GarageBand will automatically create a track for it once you drop the file.

Garageband Loops

To listen to it, click on the play button at the bottom of the screen. Here you’ll also find the other controls and a display which says how long the song currently runs. One icon to take note of is the metronome, a blue triangle with a line sticking out. As you’re not doing any live recording you won’t need this, so click on it until the blue light goes out.

Now just drag different loops onto the main panel and build up a tune. Once you find a loop you like you can stretch it out to make it last longer by hovering the pointer over the top-right corner of the loop until a curved arrow appears, then drag the edge and you’ll be able to extend the loop to as long as you need.

Garageband finished project

Try out some percussion to add a bit of depth to the beat, then find a bassline you like to boost the low end. Most of the melodic instruments are automatically in the same key, so you won’t have to worry about learning your chord progressions, but they will have different patterns of notes. This means you’ll still need to pay attention to what each instrument playing, avoiding any clashing changes by swapping the offending loop for another. Often you’ll just need to drag the loop to a different section of the song.

The best part is that you can constantly experiment, add loops, move them, take them away, and your tune isn’t damaged in any way. The freedom of music is in the dabbling that leads to happy accidents, so just keep trying different things until you find what makes your ears smile. When you’re finished click on Share in the top menu, download your finished creation, and let the world hear your newfound talents.

If you want to get an idea of what's possible with GarageBand, listen to some of the songs that people have uploaded to the dedicated GarageBand group in SoundCloud.

Next page: How to use Mixcraft Pro Studio 6 on a Windows laptop or PC