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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 have the word ‘triad’ in the title because this was one of the things the student would learn about in the piece. And also, because it sounded happy and bouncy I added the word ‘chirpy’!

How I wrote ‘Tarantella Triads’

Every composer is influenced by other composers and styles that have gone before. I am no exception. I particularly like the educational composer Burgmüller, and so was influenced by him and others who have written ‘tarantellas’.

A tarantella has a certain characteristic pulse and rhythm, and you’ll notice I kept it pretty much right through to the end. I started with a catchy riff in the right hand and triads in the bass. These ideas then led on to the initial riff appearing in different ways, and I had fun creating a big grand effect by using arpeggios and notes spanning from high to low on the keyboard. I also had fun creating a wash of sound with the pedal held down to create a feeling of suspense. I found myself changing registers on the piano a lot to create variety.

If you are super keen, here’s more about how I compose.

Melody :- Often when I listen to a piece the next day, I need to change bits of the melody or the rhythm so it’s more memorable, or makes more sense to the listener. I may also need to adjust the melody so it flows more naturally from one section to another.

Thematic material :- Perhaps as a result of having written and sung many pop songs, my pieces usually contain two, or maybe three, main musical themes. A typical pop song will have two or three main ideas as well - a verse, a chorus and maybe a 'middle eight' or bridge section. I often have an introduction in my pieces, but this is very likely to be related to the rest of the piece.

Voicing and Harmony :- Voicing is how far the notes of a chord are spaced apart in terms of pitch. They could be very close together creating a heavy dense sound, or far apart creating a sparse sound. The chords used (i.e. harmony) are usually there as part of the original creative ideas, but how to voice the notes takes some trial and error to see what sounds right. Good voicing is very important as an otherwise great piece can sound ordinary if the voicing is not right.

Register of the keyboard used :- I sometimes move to different places on the keyboard to create variety. It’s common to play the theme in one place (register) first, then repeat it up or down an octave. The lower part of the keyboard will create a heavy, big or grand sound. The middle part can be good for introducing the main theme. The high part can be good for light, delicate, or ethereal sounds. Each register will generally require a different approach to note writing.

Decide on the key :- I often keep the piece in the key of my original idea, but occasionally a different key works better across all the different registers used in the piece. Also the new key might sound a bit better or feel more natural to play.

Rhythm, patterns and style:- I usually don’t set out to write in a certain style. As my main influences are classical and pop, the pieces tend to naturally be one of those, or a mix of them. The style may lend itself to certain rhythms and patterns, but I often experiment with changing patterns or rhythms slightly, as just making a subtle difference in a left hand pattern can create the effect or texture I am looking for.

Speed and interpretation :- The approximate speed is usually fairly easy to decide, but interpretation can take a long time to develop and settle into. My personal interpretation of the same piece may change depending on my mood, or the passing of time. Recording it and listening to it back can be helpful in choosing a good interpretation.

Naming the piece :- I must admit to not being very imaginative when it comes to thinking of a title. But sometimes with the help of my wife, who is a more visual person, I come up with something that works. It can be hard to think of something meaningful and memorable when you need to keep the title short.

Complexity or difficulty :- I rely on my natural creative instinct and my musical ear to determine what notes I put into a piece. If it happens to be complex, so be it, but if it’s simple, that’s fine too. Usually, it’s somewhere in the middle. My philosophy of writing is to write what sounds good to me. It shouldn’t be contrived, ‘showy’ or overly complex, if the music doesn’t call for it. On the other hand, I’m not keen to simplify the piece if it loses a lot of its character in the process.

Structure :- The structure can be a challenging thing to decide as I’m not the type of person who sees the ‘big picture’ of the whole piece straight away. I have to wait for it to evolve. It often takes many play-throughs using different structures to find one that works well. And it’s funny that a simple structure can emerge as the best, but only after trying all sorts of more complex ones!

How to end the piece :- Often a suitable ending is not obvious and doesn’t come naturally in the creative process. And unfortunately a piece is not a finished work, unless it has a good ending! Somehow after a while, I eventually find an ending that works.

I hope you have enjoyed hearing about my experiences writing for the piano!

If you would like to play or teach my pieces ...... please check out the book of 12 of my pieces below !!! Also search for me on 'Sheetmusicplus' for my other piano compositions.

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