How I compose music for the piano - complete with real examples from two of my pieces

Is it difficult to compose a piece for piano? Does it take hours, days, weeks or months? Do we have to be ‘inspired’ at the start, or can we just fumble around until a good idea comes along?

I’ve been writing songs and piano pieces for many years, and in recent years have been writing with piano students in mind. I spend a lot of time at the piano intent on composing, and it may not matter too much what I start playing at the beginning, the main thing is to let the notes lead somewhere. If they lead to a great idea, the critical thing is to develop and expand it into a complete piece of music.

It’s a buzz when a great idea comes along because there’s something in it that resonates strongly at the time. But I then often need to spend considerable time and energy making something of it, otherwise it will eventually be forgotten!

Sometimes when I try to make something of the idea, something great takes shape. But other times, nothing comes. And that’s ok … so long as I’ve at least tried. If I’m convinced that it’s an exceptional idea, I’ll keep trying a bit longer. Occasionally a good idea will lay dormant and come to fruition years later when I’ve developed different skills to make something of it.

How long does it take to complete a piece? I wish it was a quick process, but it’s rare for me to finish a piece in a few hours. Mostly it takes a week or more of revisiting and re-drafting before being happy with it. Even though I might think I have the finished product, it’s wise for me to sit back and become more objective about it. Many musicians might relate to the experience of thinking they have composed a great song in the middle of the night, only to listen to it the next day and think – ‘what was I thinking… it’s terrible’!

So I’ve mentioned that it usually takes considerable time. What do I do to craft a piece?

  • melodies and themes

  • voicing and harmony

  • keyboard registers used

  • key

  • rhythm, patterns and style

  • speed and interpretation

  • name of the piece

  • complexity/difficulty

  • structure

  • how to end the piece!

At the end, I’ll elaborate more about these. But first, see how I actually wrote two of my pieces ‘Chirpy Triads’ and ‘Tarantella Triads’.

I suggest having a listen to them on YouTube first before continuing.

Click here for the video - Chirpy Triads

Click here for the video - Tarantella Triads

How I wrote ‘Chirpy Triads’

I set out to write a simple piece where the student could just watch the teacher and copy what they did, without looking at the music (a rote piece). So I started with a simple happy-sounding riff in the right hand, with triads in the left hand. This was sounding good as the A section. Then I came up with the B section. It worked well because it was similar to the A section, but not too similar!

Then in order to make the piece sound complete, I needed to bring back the A section. This can often be the hardest part - how to end the piece!

It would have been too boring to just repeat the A section as is, so after leaving the piece for a day or so, I had a ‘light bulb’ moment when I realized I could just do the A section riffs in parallel motion without the chord accompaniment. At first I thought it wouldn’t work without the chords, but it really DID work, as the listener imagines hearing the chords even though they’re not there.

Notice that I also moved into a lower register on the keyboard and did eventually bring back the chords but just played them as fifths so it didn’t sound too heavy.

Then what would I name the piece?? I wanted to h