06 September 2022
By Erica Worth
Keen to compose your own piano music but not sure where to start? Below we offer up some handy tips for getting the creative juices flowing. And hey, why not enter our 2023 Pianist Composing Competition while you're at it?
So, you’ve decided to take up the challenge of writing an original piece. You may be doing it for fun, for a job, or maybe for a competition. Whatever the reason is, we want to help you out. Here are some easy-to-follow tips to make the journey easier.
1. Making choices
First, think about the level of difficulty. Would you feel more comfortable choosing a simple piece, or do you wish to challenge yourself with something more advanced? We suggest going with the former, or at least something that intermediate-level pianists can play (remember, us mere judges have to be able to play your piece with some ease!).
Then think about the style: you might want to go for a jazzy feel, such as ragtime, jazz or tango. If you’re in a more classical mood, then try a waltz, prelude or Sarabande. If you prefer a descriptive or atmospheric approach, then inspiration can come from a scene or picture, a story or event, or simply from a favourite composer whose music you like to perform.
Try all sorts of styles first before committing. You could try a folk tune (modal, perhaps), a contrapuntal (two-part) piece, a ballad or a more romantic style, even something more contemporary based on rhythms rather than melody. It’s often when you are doing a completely different activity that you become most creative! Think about the sonority and colour possibilities – the piano offers us so much scope to become a painter in sound.
The judges will be looking for pieces that have a strong sense of musical character and identity. The composer’s ‘voice’ should be apparent and the musical ideas need to be clearly communicated. So above all, make it personal, meaningful and authentic. Express yourself. And remember, don’t make it too hard!
2. Deciding on form
Your piece should have structure; a distinct form or shape. If a piece has clear form, no matter what style it is written in, it will work. Four-bar phrases tend to work well, and the A-B-A pattern always works positively for a short piece. You could start with tune A (your original melody), follow it with tune B (an answering phrase in a relative key) and then go back to tune A. Don’t be afraid to repeat a phrase, and avoid too many different rhythmic patterns. Spend some time looking at tunes that are ‘catchy’ and see how the tune develops. It also helps to think ‘question and answer’ to develop a first phrase.
Purely abstract, atonal or modal tonalities and minimalist compositions can challenge both composer and performer alike. However, if that’s where you want to go, we’re not stopping you! The more modern the piece is, the more vital it is that the rhythms are steadfast.
And ask yourself lots of questions, such as ‘What could act as a useful contrast?’, ‘How could this idea be extended?’ or ‘Should there be some kind of introduction or coda?’. Speed, keys and time signatures are also important.
3. Melody and accompaniment
Melody usually comes first, and that's what you will most probably hear in your head before anything else. Creating a left-hand part for your melody is very much an experimental exercise. Once you have established the chords you are going to use, it will depend on the style that you intend to write in as to what the left hand will be doing. You could then add in chordal material or an accompaniment figuration to fill out the texture.
Test the harmony by playing the outer parts on their own. Ideally these are strongest if in contrary motion, but there is no such thing as ‘correct harmony’ except in harmony exercises. The rules are there to help us but if it sounds good to you, then stick to it! So don’t worry too much about ‘rules’ or conventions of harmony but instead trust your ear.
With regards to the harmonic accompaniment, look at the fairly simple pieces by the great composers and work out how they used structure and keys. Even if you don’t fully understand the harmony, it will encourage you to copy the way they have used the notes. Don’t be frightened to copy their ideas; just remember not to copy note-for-note!
4. Writing and revising
Pencil first, computer last. That’s what we advise. Some people do all their edits and improvements with pencil on manuscript. Only when it’s finished do they transfer the piece to software (Sibelius, Finale, MagicScore, Maestro etc). Interestingly, though, most winners of our previous composing competitions have submitted their entries on manuscript! Incredibly neatly of course.
A hand-written manuscript is perfectly acceptable, provided it is clear to read. (Tip: use a bank card, or any plastic card of that type such as a library card, and keep that in your left hand – assuming you’re right-handed – to draw the bar lines and beams neatly.)
5. Phone a friend
It’s always a good idea to play the piece to someone else, or better still, ask a pianist friend to play it to you without having heard you play it first. That can be really revealing as you may find that their interpretation is quite different from what you expected! It’s quite likely that you will want to adjust certain elements to ensure that your musical intentions are as clear as possible.
Edit and improve – but know when to stop.
Enter an original solo piano composition into the Pianist 2023 Composing Competition for the chance to win a Kawai piano worth £1,440! Should you win, your score will be featured both inside a future issue of Pianist, AND it will be recorded for the album that comes with each issue. Find out more here.