Over the course of your piano journey, have you ever wanted to try your hand at piano composition?
Have you been unsure how to write piano music because your previous studies did not include any instruction in how to compose music on piano – or are you just not sure where to start because it seems like such big project?
In this post I’ll provide some ways to get started through improvisation, recording, mapping out a sample phrase type to expand on a motive, and employing two-part “schemata” (basically short phrases, or what your jazz friends call “licks”) that composers learned during their training in the 18th and 19th centuries.
You can pick and choose what works best for you among these approaches, and they are not necessarily meant to be used separately.
All these tools will, I hope, make the process seem less daunting for new composers like you and get you expressing yourself musically as soon as you’d like.
Approach #1: Improvise & Record
The first approach I’ll discuss is probably the most versatile and can help you create pieces in a variety of styles.
It involves finding a pattern or small idea on the piano that you find catchy, then recording it using a phone or tablet app. From there, if you are comfortable enough with music notation, you can write it down on staff paper.
- Find a small pattern or succession of notes that feels good in your hands and sounds interesting to you—this can be a single line or something with both hands. It can be short, like a few notes, or multiple measures.
- Record that idea by playing it for Voice Memo (or a similar voice recording app) on your smartphone or tablet—that way you aren’t stuck trying to remember it on your own.
- If you feel comfortable enough with music notation, print some free staff paper on blanksheetmusic.net (or use a pre-made notebook if you have one) and write down the idea. You can do this right away, before you forget it, or you can use that recording you made to help you write it out later.
Here is a sample, which is 2 measures long:
f you enjoy improvising, you can simply mess around with this idea with Voice Memo running and see what you come up with. This can result in some really fun and surprising twists that you may want to preserve.
But maybe that approach doesn’t appeal to you. Maybe you want to develop an idea a little more intentionally. If so, the next part of this discussion will help!
Approach #2: Expand Your Idea Into A Phrase
So what do we do once we have this small idea, or motive, immortalized in a recording or on staff paper?
Well, here’s one potential phrase type you can try. It’s called the sentence, and I find it’s a great way to expand on a short motive. Beethoven particularly liked this phrase format.
The sentence involves taking a short idea (the basic idea), then repeating it with or without slight modifications so the listener can grab it in their ears.
After that, you “spin off” the idea, usually for about double the number of bars the basic idea itself occupied, and come to a natural ending. In tonal music, or music within keys, it usually ends on the chord matching your initial key (so, if you started in D minor, it would be a D minor chord) or a chord on the 5th scale degree of your key (meaning the 5th note in the scale—in D minor, this would be A. More on scale degrees shortly!).
This means that if your basic idea was one measure long, your basic idea’s repetition will also be one measure long, then your continuation/spinoff from that will be 2 measures long, although you could expand that if you like.
Typical sentences in classical music are 2+2+4 measures in length, creating an 8-measure phrase.
Here’s one of Beethoven’s most famous sentences, from his Piano Sonata no. 1 in F minor, op. 2 no. 1 (which was one of my college audition pieces!). Here, he chose the “end on the 5th scale degree” (here, in F minor, that is C) option:
Now, here’s what my sample idea from Approach 1 could look like if I made it a basic idea and grew it into a sentence.
My sample is not as obviously tonal as Beethoven’s, so I didn’t worry about it ending on a particular scale degree, although the whole passage seems to tilt toward A major and E would be the 5th scale degree in that key.
While the sentence is not the only phrase type out there — far from it! — I find it’s one of the most approachable for new composers to try and it is almost always satisfying to a listener’s ear.
Approach #3: Use Classical "Licks" & Fill It In
If you are writing within major/minor tonality (like, your piece is “in F minor” or “in C major”) the next part of this discussion will be particularly interesting to you.
I’m going to outline a couple of schemata that act like prefab two-voice structures you can fill in to create a musically satisfying structure quickly.
Think of it like a HelloFresh meal kit or even a premade meal you heat up—you don’t need to scrounge up the raw ingredients (the notes) but you can add your own special touches (elaborations on the schema) according to your taste.
Firstly, what are schemata?
- Schemata are standardized two-voice "licks" (as jazz players say) or "stock phrases" (as foreign language teachers say) that composers could readily plug into a piece of music and that audiences raised in that musical atmosphere would recognize.
- "Once upon a time" is a great example of a schema in literary English. We know that phrase should go at the beginning of a story. If we encounter it at the end, we know we're being trolled, and we might find humor in that--because we know it's normally an "opening schema." Of course, if not done very subtly and artfully, we'll just think the author doesn't know how to write, but the humor arises out of the difference between its normal placement and where we found it. Such is the fine line composers had to walk when they wrote in the schema-filled tonal language.
- Schemata are defined using scale degrees, or numbered positions within the major or minor scale you’re using in the passage (the key you’re in). I’ll provide more on scale degrees shortly.
- For an outline of some common schemata as published in Robert Gjerdingen's excellent book Music in the Galant Style, click here.
Want more detail? Here's another great definition of musical schemata, also from partimenti.org.
The number of schemata that composers learned in the 18th and 19th centuries is far too large to outline in a single article. Keeping that in mind, I’ll focus on a couple schemata that I think are particularly versatile and satisfying for both classical and more popular-focused musicians.
What are scale degrees and why do we need them?
Scale degrees are the way we define where we are within a major or minor key, since “key” in the musical sense tends to mean “the scale on which we’re building the piece.” So, if we’re writing a piece in C major, each note within the C major scale stands in a numbered position. The scale degrees in C major look like this:
- C = 1, D = 2, E = 3, F = 4, G = 5, A = 6, B = 7
And C would be back to 1. So if A is the 6th note when you go up the scale, it’s scale degree 6. The numbers are assigned based on the ascending scale order only.
Scale degree labels tend to be Arabic numbers wearing a little “hat” called a caret (^), although these are hard to typeset, so you may just see the numbers by themselves.
OK, now that we know how scale degrees work, let’s explore a useful schema!
Sample Schema: The Circle of 5ths (aka "Descending 5ths" or "Down 5 - Up 4")
One could say that this schema is the most universal in tonal music (that is, music within major and minor keys). Therefore, it’s incredibly versatile and will always sound convincing, even if you still feel like a novice composer.
In this schema, the bass line—the first of your two voices—goes down a 5th, or a span of 5 letter names (like C down to F, and CBAGF is 5 letters), then up a 4th. The pattern then repeats, so the note you’re on goes down another 5th and up another 4th.
While we call this one “Descending 5ths,” the reality is that instruments are too limited in range to keep descending by literal 5ths. If one descended a 5th every time, from C-F-B-E-A-D-G-C, we’d quickly run out of space on most instruments. The result of alternating 5ths and 4ths will look a bit like this (given here in C major):
You have a few options for the soprano, or top, line to layer over this. Here is one that composers tend to enjoy using.
The soprano starts off a 3rd above the bass, and when the bass moves, that 3rd becomes a 7th. So then the soprano steps down. Rinse and repeat. (We call this a “7-3” pattern typically, but in most situations, the 3rd will actually come first.)
If you have 3 voices (distinct lines) available, you can even create a chain in which you alternate which upper voice has the 7 and which has the 3 above the bass, and that’s really fun to work with.
In these two examples, the pattern ends with an octave (8) to provide a conclusive ending—the interval of a 7th tends to demand further motion, which you won’t want if you intend to end the phrase.
I’ve marked the scale degrees in blue, and as I’ve noted, these aren’t the only top-voice scale degrees you could use with this bass pattern. The intervals created by each vertical note pair are shown in black.
Below is one by J. S. Bach, from Minuet 2 of his French Suite no. 1 in D minor.
The 7-3 pattern I’ve just described actually happens between the middle voice, shown with downward-facing stems in the treble clef staff, and the bass. The numbers in blue are the scale degrees involved in the outer-voice schema, and they create a 3-5 rather than 7-3 pattern.
Notice how Bach has filled in the other beats with mostly scale-based passages with a couple motions of a 3rd.
You can try different kinds of scale-based fills or arpeggio-based fills (what schema-based teachers call diminutions) if you are practicing those in your piano lessons and comfortable playing them.
This schema is very popular in jazz and pop music too.
Here’s Joseph Kosma’s standard Autumn Leaves, set here in G minor, with another possible soprano line that can create a 7-3 pattern (look at the first beat in each measure only, and the first G-A-Bb is a pickup, not a full measure).
This piece fills in the remaining between-beat spaces with a 3 quarter-note idea that jumps down:
Another famous popular song that uses the descending 5ths progression—though not quite a consistent 7-3 interval pattern—is Gloria Gaynor’s I Will Survive. It is originally in the key of A minor, so you can follow along with any studio release or cover that is in that key and enjoy improvising over the schema if you like.
If you enjoyed working with this schema, many more are outlined for study and practice in Job IJzerman’s new textbook for college music students, Harmony, Counterpoint, Partimento (which includes a workbook).
Physical Principles To Keep In Mind When Writing For The Piano
Below I’ll outline a few technical things to keep in mind while writing for the piano, in particular, if you’re hoping that other people will discover and enjoy playing your compositions.
- Avoid writing chords or rapidly alternating note pairs that are wider than one octave (like C to C or Bb to Bb) unless you indicate how they should be broken up if the pianist’s hand can’t reach past an octave.
- The demographics of pianists have changed, and most women and kids—as well as a large number of men—can only reach an octave comfortably. Pianist-composers like Rachmaninoff and Brahms were writing in a time when most pianists were assumed to be (and many who actually got career opportunities were) relatively large-framed northern European men, which is no longer the case. The piano also has such a vast standard repertoire that even a seemingly small thing like having a few 10ths in a piece can drive an otherwise curious pianist away from trying out your work—they will just move on to the next piece that fits their hands more easily. (It’s not like the tuba, which has relatively little standard rep—in grad school a tubist friend once told me, only half-jokingly, that the easiest way to get my compositions published would be to write some for tuba.)
- If you want to write really thick chords, you may consider keeping them under an octave, since hand span decreases with the number of notes added inside the widest interval (so if the chord is an octave wide but has 5 notes in it, you may want to narrow it a bit).
- Another small-hand consideration to keep in mind is that when building chords, avoid clustering notes toward fingers 1 and 2 (the thumb and index finger) while also requiring 5 (the pinky) to grab a note a 6th or 7th away from the thumb’s note. In RH parts this means don’t cluster wide chords toward the bottom and in LH parts this means don’t cluster them toward the top. The exception is if you can “thumb smash” two white keys with the thumb and grab another with the pinky, like middle C, the D above it, and the C above both of those. Basically, it’s the best idea to take advantage of the natural ability to open the hand between 1 and 2, so more closely spaced notes should be those that fingers 2-5 would be playing.
Here are some examples of non-optimal and more optimal spacing for small hands:
I hope these tips have emboldened you to try your hand(s) at composing soon! Feel free to drop me a line if you have additional questions or to let me know how these tips worked for you.