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Be creative at the Piano (Part 3)
How To Use Piano Chords To Create Complete Sections Of Music
Everyone wants to learn the “secret shortcuts” that will make
improvising/composing music easier. And why not? Do you think professional composers don’t use them? They do.
What I’m about to show you will have you blocking out sections of music in no time. If you’ve been reading my articles about composition, you no doubt have heard me say that a composition is the art of repetition and contrast. And it’s true! But before we get to the contrast part, we have to start somewhere. And that’s where “sections” come in.
For example, in Lesson 4: “Morning Mist,” we use a crossover pattern in the left hand while the right hand improvises a melody. In fact, this is a perfect combination of improvisation and composition because what we have here is a 12 bar phrase repeated twice.
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Now, in the lesson itself, I don’t tell you it’s a 12 bar phrase because I just wanted you to learn how to improvise. But, the fact is that’s what this lesson is compositionally. Here’s what it looks like when charted out – chart for Morning Mist (PDF file) Notice that only three chords are used here. But three chords are all we need to create this section of music. Essentially,
this is a harmonic loop. We use the chords to create a background upon which we improvise our melodies. Now, aft er improvising our melody, we may like what we hear and want to memorialize it, thus turning this into a fullfledged composition.
The easiest way to create these harmonic loops is to simply pick a key, then a few chords from the key and start improvising with them. Then, when you feel like you’re on to something you like, simply chart out when the chords change and that’s that. You’ve created a harmonic loop.
How to Arrange Music for Piano
So, how does one go about arranging piano music? That’s a good question. And one that can get confusing for most students. They sometimes confuse composing with arranging, and with good reason – they’re closely connected.
Let’s look at how to arrange a piece of music for piano. Specifically, we’ll look at the lesson piece “Fall Sunrise.” Fall Sunrise is a contemporary/new age piano piece I wrote to illustrate how ABA form works. The first section comprises 4-bars, which is repeated twice. The next section
(B) is an 8-bar phrase repeated twice, and then we come back to our (A) section, which again is repeated twice. So, if we were to “arrange” this, so we can see what it would look like, we’d end up with something like this:
This is a shorthand way of seeing the arrangement. It simply tells us how many times to repeat a section. Now, this arrangement by itself is sufficient for about 3-4 minutes of music, however, if we wanted to, we could add another section and lengthen it even more. The e reason why we need another section (if we wanted more music) is that if we keep repeating this, it gets monotonous and boring.
We introduce a new section for contrast purposes. The ear hears this new music and is refreshed. But before we introduce a new section, we need something to lead us into it. We need what is called a transitional phrase. Two bars is usually enough to accomplish this. The transition prepares
the listener to receive something new. It’s a connective device that bridges the sections. After the transition is introduced, we can bring in a new section of music and call it C.
Now, if we were to write out what this might look like, we can come up with something like this:
Where T= transition and C= a new section of music. By adding in a new section, we can now repeat the other sections more because we’ve introduced contrast into the mix.
How to Capture a Mood Using a Few Chords
When a landscape artist wants to get the essence of a beautiful scene, they make a quick pencil sketch of it.
The artist doesn’t want to represent the entire landscape as it is, but as they feel it to be. A few lines scribbled here and there indicate the feelings the artist wishes to convey. We musicians can do the same thing! We can quickly sketch out our ideas on paper by using chords and a chord chart.
A chord chart is just a way to notate when chords change through time. You can write out 8-bars to begin with (as I do). Now, let us suppose you have the urge to capture something musically. What do you do? Well, for starters, you can pick a key to compose with.
For example, let’s choose the Key of C. Now after deciding that, we know that the piece will have a Major sound to it. We also know that we have 6 chords to create with from the C Major scale. With these primary decisions out of the way, we now can focus on notating our musical ideas and capturing a mood. Here’s how I do it:
I start by just improvising and letting the music come out naturally. For example, I play a C Maj. 7 chord and I like what I hear. I’ll write down the first 2-bars of the melody, then place a chord symbol on top of the chart, so I now have the musical idea in place. My goal is to finish charting the 8-bar phrase with chords all the way through. Once this is accomplished, I have the first section of music. If more is to come, I simply write out another 8-bar phrase and keep adding more music.
How to Compose Using ABA Form
ABA form is like a musical sandwich. You have the 2 slices of bread with the contrasting meat and cheese on the inside. Instead of bread and meat, you use musical materials. Perhaps an 8-bar phrase for the A section
followed by a 4 or 8-bar phrase for the B section. A nice little musical sandwich.
A piece of music made from ABA form can last anywhere from 45 seconds to 5-6 minutes or longer DEPENDING ON HOW THE COMPOSER UTILIZES THE TOOLS OF REPETITION AND CONTRAST! For example, I can take an 8-bar phrase, repeat that twice,
play another 8 bars for the B section, then back to the A section again for another repeat (with variations, of course).
Now, how long will that last? It depends on tempo or how fast the piece moves through time. Most small ABA sections don’t last longer than 2-3 minutes. Why? Because if they were repeated for longer periods of time, the music would become dull and repetitious.
BUT, if we create another section of music -the C section, it provides the relief the ear is searching for, and we can then repeat the entire thing again, so the form would look like this:
This form extends ABA and provides the necessary
contrast to create longer pieces.
How to Compose Your Own Music Using 8-bar Phrases
Some people think composing is this miraculous thing that only geniuses do. What a myth! It’s a skill that can be learned. What can’t be learned is the intuition that guides the creative force. What can be learned is the technique. And the most important part of composing technique has to do with THINKING IN PHRASES.
A musical phrase can be 2-bars long. It can be from 4 to 8-bars long as well. It is a unit of music that composers use, along with repetition and contrast, to create ENTIRE SECTIONS OF MUSIC. There is no secret here, people. It’s like building up a structure. That’s why music is oft en referred to as frozen architecture. It is built up. The building up creates
FORM. A structure such as ABA form can be composed of the A section (8-measures) B section (4 or more measures) then back to the A section.
Now you may be thinking, it looks logical, but how does it transfer into actual music? Ah, this is where you get your feet wet and actually try composing a piece. We start from simple means and learn the principles of repetition and contrast first. We start with an 8-bar phrase for the A section. Now a problem arises.
How do I fill up this section? You can either start with the melody or with the chords. If you’ve had a chance to look at my free lesson, you’ll see that by improvising, MATERIAL IS INSTANTLY CREATED! This solves your problem, doesn’t it? Now, you may be thinking, how do I get this material into the 8-bar framework you’ve been talking about? First, you need to be able to count in 3/4 or 4/4 time. Not very difficult, but if you can’t do this now, there are many sites on the web that can teach you this.
Now it’s just a matter of transferring this raw improvisational material into the 8-bars. Most likely, you will be jotting down your chord changes. I explain this in a lot more detail in my online class. It’s a quick sketch method. You have the raw uncensored germ coming from your improvisations -you then write down what chords you are playing and perhaps the first 2-bars of melody, so you remember what the initial impulse was.
The reason I use the 8-bar phrase is that it is a nice unit of time to work with. I don’t try and reinvent the wheel here. It’s been used for centuries and can be used in New Age music as well. Once you have this 8-bar phrase, you can repeat it and add in another section (B) to add contrast.
This may be hard to understand by just reading about it. You have to do it in order to really understand.
How to Create Interesting Textures
A lot of new age piano music consists of repeating patterns, or textures in the left hand while the right hand improvises a melody. This approach is really a good one! It frees you up to create at the moment. First, you decide what chord or chords you’ll be using in the left hand. You
then create an ostinato or arpeggio that lays the foundation for the entire piece.
It’s like the background a painter uses before the foreground is drawn in. In the case of music, the background would be the textural patterns in the left hand. Then the right hand comes in “to paint” in the rest of the picture – in this case, the improvised melody.
George Winston used this approach in the piece “Rain.” First, you get this beautiful textural background created exclusively by the left hand. He covers more than an octave with the left hand, using the thumb to reach past and make the music sound fuller. Now, in this piece he uses only a few
chords, but interest is maintained through the improvised melody. In my piece, Flashfl ood, from Anza-Borrego Desert Suite, I use the same technique.
I start by playing an ostinato in the left, then add in the melody in the right. I keep playing the ostinato for as long as my intuition says, “this sounds good,” then add in some contrast, either by changing chords, or by adding in new material. It’s important to realize that complete textural backgrounds can be created using the left hand alone. In fact, entire pieces of music can and have been created using this very versatile approach. It’s especially suited for new age music. So, here’s a step-by-step procedure for creating textures:
Choose your chords – These can be triads, or Open Position Chords, or any chord structure
Create a pattern for your left hand
Improvise a melody with your right hand
How to Create Your Own Beautiful Piano Compositions
You want to create your own music. Something you can put your name on and show off to friends and family. Why not? It’s an amazing thing when you think about it. Where there was once nothing, now exists a piece of music authored by you. Let’s examine how we might go about creating
a complete piece of music.
Your initial idea is an important step. Why? Because the initial idea is the foundation for the entire piece! For example, let’s say you get a certain melody in mind. You go to the piano and play it. But then you’re stopped cold and don’t know how or where to proceed next. What to do? You need to first draw out 8-bars on a piece of paper.
Working with an 8-bar phrase is the best way I know of capturing musical ideas and turning them into full-fl edged compositions. You can write out as much of the melody as you can, or you can do what I do – write in the first 2-bars (the initial idea) and then use chords to quickly fill in the entire 8-bars. This example is if you work with melody first. You can also “compose” working exclusively with chords.
That is, you can take a few chords (like you have in the lesson, “Reflections in Water”) and play around with them creating a few minutes of music. These chordal improvisations are a great way to get your ideas out. If you wanted to develop “Reflections in Water” or “compose” it, you’d have to put it on a chart and write out the chord symbols on top.
Then, you’d have something you could go back to and play again if you
wanted. You’d have a complete piece of music. A long time ago, I read a book on musical composition where the author suggests you must work with either the melody or the chords and not both at once. This is an excellent suggestion because you simply cannot do both at once! It is far easier to either write out the melody for 8-bars or block out a chord arrangement than it is to do both at once.
How to Create Your Own Piano Compositions Quickly and Easily!
Here’s one of my favorite methods for quickly blocking out entire sections of music and creating a complete piano composition.
First, you need to draw out 8-bars on a piece of paper. I use 8-bars first because it’s a relatively small space to “fill up” quickly. You don’t have to use notation paper. Any paper will do. In fact, I use a spiral bound notebook with blank pages. I just write out 8-bars and voilà, I’ve jotted down what will become a section of music.
Now, here’s the interesting part. Most composers start with the melody line first. Nothing wrong with this, but if you really want to zap out a section quickly, start with the chord changes. Why? Because you can block out bars of music faster. Here’s what I mean. Say you want to create something in the Key of F Major. Great. Now we know that we have at least six chords to work with. By using just three chords, we can block out our 8-bars.
How? Look… Say we have the F Major 7 chord for the first 4 bars, then comes B fl at Major for 2-bars and C 7 for the last 2-bars. We have now created a chord progression and charted it out. You can do this in under a minute. I swear it! It’s that easy. Now all you have to do is decide upon the kind of arrangement you’ll create for these chords. It might be arpeggios, block chords, open position chords… whatever. The point here is that by using chords, you can map out a harmonic territory. Now you can either
create a melody using these chords, or keep it entirely textural. It’s up to you! Try it.
How to Create a Theme and Variations for Piano!
There are many ways to compose a piece of music. ABA forms, sonata allegro form, and so on. But the humble theme and variations has been around for centuries. While not used nearly as much as it was during the classical period, it still can be used to create artistic and attractive
contemporary piano pieces. Let’s get started!
First, we need a theme! Eight bars are the perfect size to contain your theme. I work within this framework all the time, and it has proven to be a workhorse when it comes to capturing musical ideas. Now, we can either begin with chords or melody. For theme and variations, I like to start
with the melody (as do most composers.) This is because it’s a lot easier to create variations for a simple melody than it is to create different textures for chord changes.
The melody does not (and should not) be sophisticated for theme and variations. Why? Because we want to change the melody. It’s a lot easier to vary a simple theme than it is a complex one, although I’m sure it’s been done successfully. Look at “Pachelbel’s Canon in D” as an example. Th e theme is simple yet beautiful – exactly what we want. Once the first 8-bars is complete, we harmonize it, and we have the complete theme. Now we create variation one.
Most theme and variations composed by the “masters” start their initial variations with just a little change and gradually vary the theme to where it may be unrecognizable towards the end. We don’t have to do this here. In fact, I suggest beginners only create 3 variations at the most. Look at it as an arc. You start out with something, let’s say something andante, or slow. Now we want to add some contrast to the whole thing, so around variations 2 or 3 we speed it up a little. Eventually, we close the theme and variations by returning to the original theme. Take a look at the author’s lesson #54 for a good example of how to do this.
How to Create an Original Melody
Here’s a method I use that works. First, sit down at your piano or keyboard and just improvise. I suggest improvising first because music that is created in this way is at its freshest. It’s not adulterated or thought up. It is pure inspiration. Now, there will come times during improvisation where you may say to yourself, “this is nice, and I’d like to develop it.” You see, now you have an original melody to develop.
The trick is, you don’t need a lot of material to begin with. JUST TWO BARS IS ENOUGH to start you on your way. I usually work within 8-bar phrases, so I know that the melody will usually end or repeat itself after 8-bars. I usually say because sometimes, the melody does not want to fit nice and neat into a predefined 8-bar phrase. But more times than not,
the 8-bar phrase will serve you well Now, to be able to grow the initial 2-bars of inspired melody into 8, you can either harmonize the melody with a few chords or just write out the rest of the melody as it comes.
Once I have the first 2-bars, I usually have already identified what Key the piece will be in. It then becomes a matter of choosing a few chords from the Key, and the rest of the material is easily flushed out into 8-bars. In the piece “Rainforest,” I use 2 chords for an entire 8-bar phrase ( 4-bars for G Maj. and 4 for E-minor) and improvise the melody on top.
How to Find Musical Ideas
The Russian Composer Igor Stravinsky once said: “A good composer does not imitate; he steals.” I think what he meant by this is that it’s OK to use
a technique developed by another and make it your own.
To imitate is to steal a technique or style and, somehow, not incorporate your own voice and energy into it. We all get our ideas from somewhere, whether by accidentally listening to a piece of music and subconsciously storing it away, or by a conscious act where we say to ourselves: “This
sounds great, and I want to use it in my own music.”
Some people have the idea that everything created must be original with no outside influences -but this is unrealistic. Haydn taught Beethoven. Italian composers influenced Bach and so on. All past and present composers on this planet have their influences, whether they admit them or not. Now, most of you know that I have two major influences:
George Winston and John Herberman. You may or may not know of these people. The point is, I admit that they shaped my own style. How? Because I liked listening to them. It’s that simple. When I sit down to play, I inevitably gravitate towards one style or the other. I’m fine with that. It doesn’t mean that I’m unoriginal. It just means that I acknowledge reality and don’t try to come up with “something original.” What sounds new
is 99.9 times out of 100, a modification of what came before.
The whole point I’m trying to make is this: Don’t try to be original. Instead, focus on what you like and love, and your own voice will come through in the end. The music may be modified to an extreme (innovation) or just a little (homage). Just don’t imitate.
How to Get Past Creative Blocks
When I first began playing the piano and improvising, there were times when the music just wouldn’t fl ow. No matter what I did, I couldn’t make it go any further. Blocked and frustrated, I wondered why this happened. One minute, I would be in fl ow and enjoying the process of playing the piano. The next, I would find myself trying to come up with material.
I soon realized that the more I tried to “come up” with something, the more blocked I became. The solution to this particular problem is simple, yet many find it to be frustrating in itself.
The answer is simply to walk away. That’s right! If you’re playing the piano, and it just won’t come anymore, I suggest getting up and finding something else to do. Why? Because you can not force play! It’s that simple. And that difficult because we want to get back into the “groove.” But getting back to this place requires you to ease up a bit. You see, the creative process is somewhat similar to meditation. Meditation can’t be forced or willed into working. It must be allowed to work. So, too, the creative process. There are times when I won’t touch the piano for weeks on end.
This used to bother me until I saw that I needed time away – a regenerative period so to speak. Natalie Goldberg of “Writing Down the Bones” fame describes this lackluster period as composting. Don’t worry about losing your creative ability. You never lost it. Just give it time to compost and when you return to the music, you will hear something new and wonderful!
How to Quickly and Easily Block out Entire Sections of Music
Most of you don’t want to go to college and learn theory, harmony, and composition techniques. Not only is it tedious and for the most part boring, but it’s also unnecessary.
That is, if you want to compose atonal music or whatever the latest fad in academia is, go to college. If you want to capture your ideas and quickly put them down on paper, you only need to learn how to think in phrases!
This is what most improvisers/composers do anyway. For example, many of you have heard me speak of using 8-bar phrases as a cornerstone to both improv and composition. Why? Because it’s a very easy space to work in! You can very quickly complete 8-bars and have both your theme and the first section of music.
By working this way, you don’t have to worry about what the final form of the piece will be. Many composition books suggest you block out the entire structure of the piece first, including harmony, climax, etc. This is one way of working with music. It’s not the only way. Especially for beginners, it can be daunting to say the least to have no idea where you’re going and what to do next. But, and here’s the fantastic part, by working with 8-bar phrases, you learn how smaller sections are built into larger
sections and so on. In other words, you learn how composers think.
Here’s how I do it. I start by improvising and see what comes up. If I feel like I’m on to something, I just write out 8-bars on a sheet of paper (any paper will do) notate what key I’m playing in and the time and write out the first 2-bars of the melodic idea. Next, I’ll play through and write out the chord changes. For example, if the piece is in the key of F Major, the first 2-bars may be an F Major chord, the next 2-bars, B fl at Major and so on. By working this way, you can quickly complete an 8-bar section of music, and you’re ready to add more sections working the same way!
How to Use Chord Changes to Learn the Art of Musical Composition
When I first started getting interested in composing, it dumbfounded me. So many questions. The number one question I had was how did they do
it? How do you create something and build a complete piece of music?
Intrigued, I searched every book on the subject of music composition I could find. Living in San Diego as I do, the libraries aren’t the best. I found books on harmony, theory, and composition. But they all were over my head, AND they all gave examples that seemed antiquated and dull.
Eventually though, if you persist, you’ll always fi nd at least one or two books that will be helpful and I did. I found this one book that had chord changes mapped out in 8-bar sections. Now here was something I could understand! No note reading was required here. All I needed to do was play a few chords on the piano and be able to keep time -both of which I could do. Aft er playing the chord changes for a while, I started to feel what musical form was. It no longer was an academic exercise. Not at all.
You see, when I played through the chord changes in 4/4 time, I actually
felt the form! Th at is, aft er the 8-bars was played, I knew that I could either repeat them again, or play new material (another new 8-bar phrase.) And that’s all there is really to musical composition. Composition is the art of repetition and contrast.
Now, just saying this won’t teach you anything. Th at’s why when I read this in a book, I understood it, but didn’t really know how to do it. By following simple chord changes, the body actually takes in the rhythm and you start to feel what an 8-bar phrase is. By doing this, you intuitively begin
to understand what form is all about.
For instance, in the lesson piece “Fall Sunrise,” we have something called an ABA form. We have 4-bars repeated twice for the fi rst section (A), then an 8-bar phrase repeated twice for the (B) section. When we use the art of repetition and contrast, we get the common ABA form used so much in musical composition.
Musical Composition – How To Listen To Music Like A Composer
Did you know that there is more than one way to listen to music? I first read about this from a small book by composer Aaron Copeland.
You see most people listen to music as if something were washing over them. Th ey listen to the oncoming barrage of notes and chords and never wonder or understand how it achieves the eff ect it does. Not composers. Th ey listen diff erently. While most people enjoy music for music’s sake -a composer listens for sections or how the music is constructed. I’m not saying that composers never listen to music for pure enjoyment. Th at would be terrible. No. What I’m saying is that a composer or anyone who takes the time to learn, can begin to hear how music is put together.
Most music created today is composed of sections. More specifically, we have A and B sections, introductions, transitions and endings and so on.
All these “pieces” go into creating a piece of music. Even spontaneously improvised pieces of music have been given a name by composers. They call it “through composed” which means that there are no distinctly repeating sections. For example, take the lesson “Cirrus.” (You can listen to this lesson at quiescencemusic.com) It starts out with a few notes that, by themselves, seem to go nowhere. But, if you listen to the entire piece of music, you’ll begin to hear sections.
Musical composition is the art of repetition and contrast. This is what composers listen for. They listen to see how the songwriter uses these two qualities. The piece “Cirrus” was actually an improvised piece, but it turns out that even with this, you can hear that repetition and contrast was used.
This can be done consciously, as many composers do as they create a piece, or simply generated spontaneously, as in the case of “Cirrus.”
New Age Pianist Shows You How To Compose Your Own Music
This New Age pianist has been playing piano for over 15 years now, and while I’m constantly learning new things, the one thing that’s helped me out -as far as composing goes – is looking at music as sections. I’m always telling my students to work within an 8-bar framework. Why 8-bars? Because it’s a nice, neat time space to work in. And, more importantly, it doesn’t overwhelm beginning students who feel they must come up with 100 bars at their first attempt.
The beauty of working within this framework is that it teaches you about phrases. Music has been compared to writing in the sense that it’s made up of small phrases (like sentences) in bigger sections.. periods of music (like paragraphs) and, finally, complete movements (chapters).
Composers always think in sections because they know this is how music is constructed, in at least 99% of the music in the western world. When you master the 8-bar phrase, you learn how to complete a section of music. You learn that the art of composition has everything to do with repetition and contrast.
There’s only so many times you can repeat an 8-bar phrase before it gets stagnant. Here is where we introduce new material – a contrasting section. Perhaps another 8-bars or so.
Another thing I have my students do is learn how to create a complete ABA form. This musical form is the most common one used, and it’s also quite easy to create. Once the first 8-bar phrase is complete (the A section) it’s time for some contrast. Maybe 4-bars… perhaps eight or more will do the trick here. Finally, the first A section is repeated (with some variation) and that’s that – a small ABA form is finished. It’s a good idea to master these small sections of music before delving into 400 bar compositions.
New Age Piano Tricks
One of the things that makes New Age piano so enjoyable is that it’s easy to get started. One of the “tricks” of the trade is to play an ostinato pattern in the left -hand while the right improvises a melody. Just listen to George Winston’s lovely piece, “Colors/ Dance,” to hear an excellent example of this technique.
He uses just two chords in the beginning. But just look what he does with them! He maintains interest for a good couple of minutes before any contrast is introduced. Remarkable! And not as easy to do as many people think!
The artistry in this is how he maintains interest. The improvised right-hand melody carries the music through and propels listener attention forward. The left -hand, however, is just playing the same ostinato pattern. Complicated? Hardly. A beautiful piece of music? Absolutely. And all that’s required is the ability to trust your intuition. Trusting intuition is THE MOST IMPORTANT THING A TEACHER CAN HELP YOU LEARN! Why? Because when you trust yourself, you allow the music to
come as it should – naturally and easily.
Technique can be taught by almost anyone and can be learned readily. However, the ability to trust yourself is something that takes a bit of introspection. Most of us have an internal critic that tries to condemn any creative effort. We must learn to listen to what we say to ourselves and allow for the creative impulse.
More in the next chapters….And, remember, this site is the best place for sheet music download.
Chick Corea, Noon song, album Piano improvisations vol. 1, 1971
- Libertango (Piano Solo) – Astor Piazzola
- Out of Africa – music by John Barry (piano solo)
- Oblivion (Astor Piazzolla) by Nadja Kossinskaja, guitar (with sheet music)
- Milonga del Angel by Astor Piazzolla (arr. piano solo)
- Oblivion (A. Piazzolla) Two pianos – pianists Argerich and Hubert
- Bill Evans, american jazz pianist and composer (1929-1980)