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Be creative at the Piano (Part 1)
Here’s the method I use every time I want to capture an idea. I draw out 8-bars (or measures) first. Why eight bars? Because it is an ideal framework to work in. Eight bars of music are enough to generate a complete musical
sentence and can usually be repeated once or twice. Next, I improvise and see what comes up. THEN, I will write down the chords I am playing and the first 2-bars of melody.
Writing down the first 2-bars of melody helps me remember the entire theme for the 8-bar phrase. I usually stay within one key to make it easy. This means I’ll have 6 chords to work with. In C Major, the chords would be, C Maj. -D min. -E min. -F Maj. -G Maj. and A min. This is more than enough material to work with. In fact, I rarely use more than 3 or 4 chords for the first 8-bars.
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Once you get your first 8-bars down, you’re more than halfway home. Why? Because you already have the beginning. The rest of the piece, if there is a rest of the piece, can be finished by drawing more bar lines AND LISTENING FOR THE NEXT SECTION OF MUSIC. This is always accomplished through improvisation. Your best material will ALWAYS come from improvisation because you are not thinking about creating something.
Instead, you are allowing the music that is inside you to come to the surface, without forcing it or willing it into being. You use the 8-bar framework to hold your ideas. There is no rule that says you must work within 8-bars. You can use four or even sixteen bar phrases, however, its
good to be able to feel the form and structure of an 8-bar phrase first. It is the structure used by most composers, and it is wise to understand it.
Compose Music the Easy Way!
There are basically two ways to compose music. One way is by starting from the bottom or the harmonic approach. A composer/arranger takes a few chords, a phrase to hang them on and arranges the harmony in some kind of pattern. An example of this is the “loop” you oft en hear in contemporary music. A loop is simply a harmonic background over which a melody (or not) is played.
The second way to compose music is by starting with the melody. Composers may or may not have some idea of the finished idea (I prefer not to) but the melodic idea is fitted into some kind of phrase. The e most common phrase used is the 8-bar phrase. I find that starting with the melody to be the easier approach. Why? Because melody is easier to move forward then harmony. Sure, you can block out a few chords and arrange them to create a loop, but this becomes static over time. Melody is much easier to go forward with.
By using the principles of repetition and contrast, we can create a simple ABA form in no time at all. Then we can go back and harmonize each section. I used to favor the harmonic approach at first. It was very easy to simply jot down chord changes on an 8-bar phrase, create some kind of arrangement, and improvise a melody on top. The ere is nothing wrong with this approach at all. But I soon found myself learning towards the melody first. Not because I think it’s better, but simply because it’s the method I like right now.
Either way, it’s a good idea to compose music using one approach or the other. If you try to harmonize a melody while you’re creating it, it will slow you down and may stop the creative flow.
A student writes: “You always say, ‘let the music tell you where it wants to go’ but when I try to do this nothing comes. What to do?”
This is an excellent question because it really cuts to the core of my whole teaching philosophy, which is -never force or try and “will” music into being. Instead, let it come of its own accord. To illustrate this, I’ll share with you my own process with “coming up” with material.
Usually, I never have problems with the first 8-bars of music – sometimes called the (A) section. But once this section is down, so to speak, the rest of the music (if there is more to come) is usually more difficult for me.
I know from experience that if I try and force the music to move forward, I may get somewhere, but this music will usually sound stilted or lifeless. At this point, I can do one of two things… I can walk away and hope for fresh inspiration at a later time, or I can begin improvising without worrying or wondering about “more” music to come. I know there is a school of thought that suggests you plunge forward and “make it happen.” This can work and does work to get a product out there. The problem with this approach is what I mentioned previously. When your ego is
involved in the creation process, your creation will be exactly that – ego centered.
When it comes from the source or spirit, you get a music that has that X factor. That indefinable quality that you can hear but quite can’t put your finger on. It really all comes down to process or product. Do you want a nice, neat product that can be admired by friends and family? Then it doesn’t matter how you create music. But if you want a music that comes from a deeper place, don’t force … allow.
Composing Music – How To Compose A Theme and Variations for Piano
Recently, I posted a lesson where I show students how to compose a theme and variations for piano. Now, most composers today do not compose using this musical form. That’s not to say it isn’t still used, but … it can sound antiquated if certain harmonies and sounds are used.
For example, in the lesson, “August Reflections,” I use the A harmonic minor scale and three chords from that scale to create a theme with three variations. This particular sound has been used for quite a while. I chose it because it does sound familiar, and some students wanted to learn something using a minor sounding scale. Notice that the theme itself is quite simple. It consists of two 8-bar phrases that can be called A and B sections. The two sections are played through and then the first variation begins. It consists of broken chords in the left hand.
The second variation is a simple crossover pattern using the same chords -only this time, it’s spread out. This gives the necessary contrast without breaking the “mood” of the piece. The last variation is a play on the melody itself. I think I’m using eighth or sixteenth notes here, as I just play around with breaking up the melody.
Finally, we return to the theme and there you have it… a complete piece of music using the theme and variations technique. A complete step by step breakdown of this lesson is available to course members.
Composing Using Chord Charts
A chord chart is a navigation tool. It’s a way for the composer to chart out musical phrases and notate where chord changes occur. It can be anywhere from 2-bars to 200 bars or more, depending on how long the composition is or how many bars it takes to notate a musical idea.
For example, in the piece “Egrets,” we have an 8-bar phrase with chord changes on top. This is a chord chart. It tells the performer where the chord changes occur, what the melody is, and when to change chords. This is all that is necessary to create a full arrangement of the music. We don’t need to write out every single note. We use the chord changes to create fresh arrangements of how we want the music to sound. Notice that the first 2-bars of melody are written out.
This was the initial idea. I then drew out 8-bars and finished by putting the chord changes on top. Now, whenever I want to play this little piece, I can play the initial melody and the whole thing comes together. Of course, I could have written the whole thing out note for note, but this would have taken 30 times as long as just notating where the chords change. Another benefit of this method is that the music is left elastic and fluid -that is, the aliveness of the music comes to you each and every time you play it. Why? Because each and every note is not written out. You can play it a little differently each time, and each time the music will speak a little differently to you.
Composing Your Own Music – Easier Than You Think
Most teachers make composition so mysterious. First you have to learn harmony… then theory… then form and on and on it goes. But do you really have to learn all of this before launching your own creations? Absolutely not, and I’m living proof of that.
So, how did I do this? Well, first, I had the desire. If you don’t have this ingredient, most anything you try and undertake will fail. Why? Because you need to have persistence. And persistence is something that works better when you want something badly. And I very badly wanted to create my own solo piano music. Now, everyone has their own way and method of going about this. Mine was to first listen to pianists I love and admired – namely George Winston and John Herberman. You see, besides persistence, you also need inspiration.
And what better inspiration is there than to actually hear music you love and admire. In fact, I would listen to these CDs over and over. The music eventually seeped into me, but this in and of itself is not enough. Don’t get me wrong … there’s nothing wrong with listening and saying to yourself, “how did he do that?” In fact, I suggest students do exactly this. But you can jump over all this analyzing by learning just a little theory. And when I say little, I mean it.
What I have my students learn is something called the 8-bar phrase. And this is exactly what it sounds like. Once they get this -and it isn’t hard to get -inroads into composition are quickly discovered.
For example, in the free workbook I offer with my course, you get tons of experience working with 8-bar phrases. You learn how to first improvise through them using chords. When you can do this – and it’s pretty easy as well – you begin to “feel” how a composition is made up. This approach has worked very well for me over the years as well as for my students.
Composing for Piano – Learn How to Improvise First!
When most people hear the word composer, they automatically think of classical composers like Mozart or Beethoven. This is the point where many “would be” composers freeze up because they tell themselves
that their music could never be as good. And, this is also the point where would be music makers and their desire to create.
When you compare yourself to another person, you are really defeating the whole idea of creating to begin with. Why? Because your music is as unique as you are! There will never be another person like you and there
will never be anyone else who can create music like you. So give up your notions of becoming a great composer. Instead, focus on the joy that comes from being in the moment and creating your own music. To do this, learn how to improvise first.
You must have the ability to move forward without censoring what is coming out of you. Just like writers do with freewriting, so you too must do with improvisation. Once you are able to just sit down at the piano and play without worrying if it’s good enough, you’ll be ready to put pen to paper and compose. Of course, you could compose without learning how to improvise, but chances are the music will sound stodgy and foursquare. It may not have the “life” that most composers shoot for.
Composing for Piano Using Small ABA Form
One of the most daunting tasks for beginners is composing music. Just the thought of it creates scary scenarios that demand perfection. But what if you actually knew what you were doing? Instead of fear, joy and a spirit of adventure would guide you to a finished piece of music. Let’s look at how we might compose a small ABA form for piano.
The first thing I do is draw out 8-bars on a piece of paper. Any paper will do. You don’t have to have ruled sheet music paper to compose…at least not the way I teach it. The reason I tell students to begin with 8-bars is that it’s a very good space to work in. In fact, 8-bars is quite enough to give you your first (A) section. As an example, look at the lesson piece “A
Peaceful Path.”Here, we have 3-4 minutes of music. We use the art of repetition and contrast, and a small ABA form is generated.
If you listen to the piece, you’ll hear where the (A) section ends and the (B) section begins. In fact, listening is very important. Most people listen to music as a complete aural experience, and that’s fine. But if you’re interested in musical composition, you should also listen for the form of the piece.
Most piano music is composed using sectional form. For instance, here is the arrangement of the piece, “A Peaceful Path,” – 2A2BA. This is a shorthand way of notating the amount of repeating that goes on in the piece. The first (A) section, 8-bars, is repeated twice, then the (B) section
gets repeated twice and finally, we end up back where we started. The e reason ABA form works so well is that it gives the listener a complete musical experience. And it gives them a sense of finality.
Sadly, the music must end somewhere, and composers have been working on different ways to do this via the form of the piece. Many innovative composers have tried to abolish form, but the question you must ask yourself is “Is this music giving the listener an emotional experience?” There’s a good reason ABA form has been around for hundreds of years. Because it works!