Advice for Pianists: How to Compose Piano Music...

In my 35+ years of writing music for piano, I've composed and arranged over 200 works for solo piano, most of them original. A fan who read my advice for pianists article asked if I'd write a similar article for beginning composers. So, I've put together these 12 tips for anyone who would like to compose music for the piano.

1) Start With the Melody

You don't have to come to the piano with an entire musical idea already in your head before you start composing. Just start with one simple melodic phrase. That melody will be the centerpiece for everything else in your composition. It's the foundation and the focal point of your piece. As you begin to compose, improvise on that melody and see where it naturally wants to take you. The musical place it leads you to is usually your 'hook', or what I'll refer to in this article as your chorus. Think of your chorus as your melodic destination.

2) What is Your Piece About?

As you develop your overall melody, think about the emotion or image you want your composition to convey. What is the message? Is it love? Faith? Winter? Water? Whatever your message is, keep it in the forefront of your mind as you compose. Doing so will influence the direction the composition takes. I find it helps to give the composition a name early in its development. Then the composition title becomes the 'goal' you're working toward, in a manner of speaking.

3) To Intro or Not to Intro?

It is sometimes tempting to write a long introduction (something I'm guilty of) to 'set the mood' for your composition. Be careful with this. Remember, the melody is (typically) what makes or breaks your piece. It is also the device that holds the various elements of your composition together. Finally and most importantly, the melodic hook is what your listener will remember. So, get to the melodic point quickly, and don't linger too long on your introduction. People don't generally hum introductions to themselves - they hum melodies.

4) An Anti-Melody Appoach?

Some compositions are just 'mood' pieces. I have a few of these, which don't really have a melody so much as cool, ambient sense about them. There's nothing wrong with writing mood pieces, but be warned, you can only carry a 'mood' for so long before the listeners ear tires. Keep your mood pieces relatively short. Under 3 minutes is a good, general rule.

5) Follow the Muse

It's not uncommon to find that while you're developing a composition, you find yourself taken into an entirely new musical direction. The question to ask yourself is, does this 'new direction' belong with your original melody? Or, have you accidentally stumbled upon a new, second melody better suited for an entirely new work? A great number of my pieces originated as spin-offs of other compositions. So if you have a great melody and it takes you to a second great melody, consider whether you're might really be working on two different pieces and whether you need to split them apart so they can 'play' in their own separate worlds.

6) Repeat with Style

Once you have firmly established your melodic phrase and chorus, don't pound them into the ground. You might play your melody twice the same exact way, but by the third time you ought to be embellishing it so that even though it's the same melody, it sounds different. That might mean playing it in a different octave, adding more bass, more flair, or a slightly different rhythm. However you do it, enhance the melody throughout the piece. Don't let it grow stale or your beautiful melody will begin to grate on your listeners' ear.

7) Build Slowly, but Build Something!

Remember, you're telling a story with your music, so arrange your piece in such a way that it keeps moving in a particular direction. When you read a storybook to your kids before bedtime, you don't read page one, read page two, then go back to page one again, and then read page two, read page two, and read page two once more. Your kids would get really bored! With each new page, the story needs to advance toward the happy ending, in proper order. Do the same thing with your music. Every 'page' of your composition should develop your storyline a bit more, building to a gratifying conclusion.

8) Mistakes Count

Don't fret too much about making mistakes as you develop your work. Mistakes can lead to some very cool sounding chords. More than once I've played the wrong notes and then thought, "Hey, what a switch, that sounds cool!" Your "mistake" might end up being the very twist you need to add spice to your tune to catch the listener's ear. When I first start composing a piece, I make a LOT of mistakes. It's just part of the process. Music composition is like pottery. You start out with a dirty blob (an idea) and you mold it into something. The process isn't always pretty, but In the end, with persistence and skill, you may end up with something beautiful.

9) Change is Good

After you've developed your melody, you'll need to change things up a bit to keep the listener interested. The 'change up' might be a secondary melody, though it's usually not as strong as the primary melody or chorus.

One of the reasons I think people enjoy my compositions is that they are basically songs. I write them to be, for lack of a better description, songs without words (sorry for the cliché). Every one of my "songs" has a verse/chorus/bridge pattern to it. For example, listen to 'One Night at Mozart's', one of my popular pieces from my early years. Here's the pattern:

  • A) Melody established (Intro)
  • B) Chorus
  • C) Bridge
  • A) Melody (Octave lower with embellishment)
  • B) Chorus
  • C) Bridge
  • D) Change Up
  • B) Chorus to End

and there you have a 3 minute "song." Notice how simple the structure is?

Let's look at another composition. This time, 'No More Tears.

  • * Intro to set the mood, then...
  • A) Melody
  • B) Chorus
  • A) Melody (with embellishment)
  • B) Chorus
  • C) Change Up
  • B) Chorus
  • A) Melody (octave higher) to end.

Do you see the song structure? Every composition is a bit different. The point is, compositions that are memorable tend to be song-like in structure. Even with the great classical works, when you hum them, do you hum the entire piece? No... generally what you remember and hum is one very small melodic hook. In comtemporary instrumental music, at least within my world, the melody is what it's all about. So give your pice a song-like structure and...

10) Keep it Simple

The biggest mistake I hear in others' composition is over-complexity. For some reason, beginning composers try to make things complicated - as if bigger is better. Part of this, I think, is the need to impress others, and part of it is the mistaken assumption that the more complex a work is, the more significance it has. No, no no. Simplicity is the key to beauty. Clarity is the key to perfection. Don't write to impress and don't write because you are seeking significance. Just find a simple melody, develop it, give it a twist, and finish it. You should be able to do it in less than 4 minutes. If you have a composition (for solo piano) over five minutes, examine it closely. You might be doing more than you need to.

I know a very talented pianist who writes incredible melodies, but his pieces are way too long. It drives me crazy, because if he'd just simplify his arrangements, his entire album would be a thing of beauty. I won't name him, of course, but just look at this arrangement:

  • A) Melody (Intro)
  • A) Melody (Repeated)
  • B) Chorus (simple version)
  • C) Bridge
  • A) Melody
  • B) Chorus (simple version)
  • C) Bridge
  • A) Melody
  • D) Change Up
  • B) Chorus (complex version)
  • C) Bridge (with embellishment)
  • D) Change Up (with much embellishment, turns into a vamp)
  • B) Chorus (with much embellishment)
  • A) Melody
  • B) Chorus (simple version)
  • C) Bridge
  • A) Melody (to end)

The piece runs at six and a half minutes. While the piece has one of the most beautiful melodies I've ever heard, the artist plays it into the ground. By the time you're five minutes into it, you're wishing it was over and ready to skip on to the next piece.

Keep it simple.

11) Let Time Have its Way

Realize that it might take years to complete a piece. Now and then, I'll write a composition in two hours flat, but that hardly ever happens. Most of my works take 6-9 months to compose, and some have taken years before I feel they are truly finished. If it takes you a while to finish your composition, don't get frustrated. If you need to, set the composition aside and come back to it later. Sometimes if you take a couple months off of a piece, then come back to it, you'll find you have new and fresh ideas to help you complete it.

12) Record What You're Doing

Finally, keep your phone (or however you prefer to record) near you so you can record your ideas while you're still sitting at the piano. There's nothing more frustrating that having a great idea, getting interrupted, and then forgetting it. With a phone handy you can take the two minutes you need to record a rough-draft or melodic idea and come back to it later if need be.

There you have it.

David Nevue