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
rhythm, patterns and style
speed and interpretation
name of the piece
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