Playing the piano isn’t easy in the beginning. Even the basics can seem tricky when you first learn to play. Most people use sheet music of pieces written by other musicians and composers and practice them during their piano tutorials.
In music classes we read sheet music for a song and break down the music, looking at each chord, the key signatures and the time signatures. Then we to replicate it as faithfully as possible on the keyboard in front of us while our metronome ticks away.
However, you need to get to a certain level before you can start to compose music. That’s because it requires both the creativity to create the song and the technical ability to play it.
However, there are a few tricks you can use to create your own pieces to help you get better at playing the piano.
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What Skills Do You Need to Start Writing Your Own Pieces?
You obviously can’t write a piece of music for the piano by snapping your fingers. There are certain steps you have to take:
You need to keep in mind that there are literally tons of composers and pieces for piano already.
Try your best not to copy! With that in mind, let’s get started.
Having Musical References and the Ability to Use Them
When we play piano, it’s because there's something we want to play. We’re lucky enough to live in an age where we have plenty of music and plenty of styles of music. There’s something for everyone. This means there are plenty of different musical structures we can pick apart in order to find out how and why they work.
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Once we’ve worked out how most songs are put together, it’s much easier to create our own written music and we can use this to create a musical feeling in line with the music style we’re composing in.
Having the Necessary Piano Skills
This might seem obvious. A pianist who’s just started learning won’t have the necessary skills required to be able to create a complete and well-rounded musical masterpiece.
In order to write music well, it’s important that you are familiar with music itself, different chords and scales, etc. You need to know how to play and be adept at understanding how to read music.
In my opinion, you have to spend several years studying how to play the piano, learning about music theory, and be pretty adept at reading music notation and writing onto staves using the two clefs before you start creating your own music on the page.
If you don't know what a time signature is, you can't tell a treble clef from a bass clef, or you've never even heard of rests, you'll probably need to keep studying. It's more complicated than just putting a few quarter notes from a major scale into music notation software.
Piano lessons are essential on your journey towards writing your own music.
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What Are the Steps to Follow When it Comes to Writing Piano Music?
If you’ve already completed the previous steps, you’ve got everything you need to start creating your music score. However, there are a few more steps to follow as you actually write the music.
There are also a few techniques you need to master. Otherwise, you’ll never truly complete the piece. Which would be a shame...
Lyrics before music or the other way round?
Most composers would tell you that it’s better to write the music after you write the lyrics. The reason is simple: It’s much easier to create a musical universe once you’ve written the words and you’ve set the structure (verse, chorus, etc.) and you can also set the tempo and sound to fit.
Of course, you can also write the music before the lyrics. This is good if you’ve got a mind for creating melodies since everything will fall nicely into place. If you already have the tempo and sound, it’ll be easier to come up with a rhyming structure.
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How do you choose the main chords?
The first thing you have to do when writing music is decide the key and the main chords.
Let me explain... 90% of pieces are built around four chords and you'll have to choose them carefully as they define your piece’s melodic identity. First you'll need to choose some major and minor chords.
You also need to know the most commonly used chords in modern pieces are C, A, and B flat. Whether you decide to go with these “trendy” chords or whether you decide to turn the idea on its head, you’ve already got the musical identity of your piece.
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How can you structure the melody around these main chords?
These main chords will help you decide on the bass notes for the left hand. From these base notes you can work on the melody to be played by the right hand. Here you have two options:
Work with Chords: Structure the whole song around these chords (for both hands). This can give our piece a dynamic and rhythmic feel. When a composer goes for this style, they need to think of rhythmic variations and how their fingering can give the piece some originality and depth. This can be a hard thing to do if you’re just starting out.
Work with Arpeggios: Arpeggios can be used to sprinkle melody into a song. You can give the song a harmonious side by deconstructing its main chords.
For example, instead of playing C major (C-E-G), you can play C, then E, then G, and choosing to play a sixteenth, eighth, or quarter note for each of these in a given octave.
Whatever method you choose, there are always advantages and disadvantages. However, this is also the best composers’ creed.
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What role can improvisation play?
You can’t ignore the important role that improvisation can play in writing pieces for the piano. This is where the pianist’s imagination and virtuosity are expressed, where their skill and dexterity on the ivories come into play.
One piece of advice: You should always record these moments (even during your piano tutorials).
The last thing you’d want is to be unable to recreate a great moment because you’ve forgotten it. Consider using a microphone or a Dictaphone to ensure that you never lose another great moment of inspiration again.
When is the best time for practicing playing the piano?
What About Writing then Recording?
Musical writing: the last step of creation. After having tried and tested different melodies, rhythms, and chords, it’s time to put the results onto paper. Mastering musical notation and theory is paramount as this stage.
You can use musical notation to polish off your piece and balance it out. Why not add a few flourishes and other elements that’ll make your piece more complete. This is the moment where you’ll put the music and lyrics together. Give your piece an rhythmic and melodic identity.
Writing down your piece is therefore a very important step. This is the moment where the musician leaves their mark. There are plenty of programs you can use to help you write musical notation but you should definitely learn how to do it yourself first. The pen is mightier than the sword, after all.
Why should you record your piece?
This is the last thing you need to do. Of course, you’ll need recording equipment in order to properly record your creation. At least two quality microphones and a recording program.
Recording requires a lot of patience. You need to be aware that one take probably won’t be enough and you’ll need to pay particular attention to everything you record.
Haste makes waste when it comes to recording music. Once you’ve recorded and shared a piece, it’s no longer yours. The greatest composers firmly believe that their work belongs to the public.
Becoming a Piano Composer
Composing piano pieces is one of the most exciting and rewarding things you can do. You’ll need both technical skills as well as incredible organizational skills in your everyday life.
You get to work with your imagination and maybe you’ll discover a talent you never realized you had. How you play the piano is a reflection of your personality. Projecting your artistic personality is a great way to gain self-confidence. Not just when it comes to your piano lessons. Every day of your life.
Don’t Create Pieces that Are Too Complicated
This is one of the most common errors when it comes to creating music, making things too complicated. Simplicity is key. Clarity is key.
All you have to do is find a simple melody, develop it, give it a twist, and polish it off. There are many talented pianists who write incredible melodies but their pieces are too long.
A few piano lessons and they’d realize they can write a song as simply as this:
A) Melody (intro)
A) Melody (repeated)
B) Chorus (simplified version)
B) Chorus (simplified version)
D) Build Up
B) Chorus (complex version)
C) Bridge (embellished)
D) Change Up (embellished, vamp)
B) Chorus (embellished)
B) Chorus (simplified version)
A) Melody (finish)
Now discover how to play the piano while singing!