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

In my 25 years of writing piano music, I've arranged over 180 compositions, about 160 of which I've released to the public on CD. 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 composition 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 song 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 Song About?

As you develop your overall melody, think about the emotion or image you want your composition to convey. What is the song's message? Is it love? Faith? Winter? Water? Whatever your song 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 song 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 song. It is also the device that holds the various elements of your composition together. Finally and most importantly, the melody is the part of your song 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) The Anti-Melody Song?

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. Most of mine are about 2:45.

5) Follow the Muse

t'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 composition? A great number of my songs 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 songs 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.

Whatever you do, do something with your song. Remember, you're telling a story with your music, so arrange your song 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 song. 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 at the end of your song to add spice to your tune. When I first start composing a song, 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 song-like pattern to it. For example, listen to 'One Night at Mozart's', one of my more popular songs. 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 structure of the songs? Every song is a bit different. Some songs are as simple as "A" and then "B". The point is, a composition is a song. Give it 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 song is, the more significance it has in the overall scheme of life. No, no no. Simplicity is the key to beauty. Clarity is the key to perfection. Don't try to write a song that will impress and don't try to write a song of 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 song over five minutes, examine it closely. You might be doing too much.

I know a very talented pianist who writes incredible melodies, but his songs are way too long. It drives me crazy, because if he'd just simplify his arrangements, his CD would be a thing of beauty. I won't name him, of course, but just look at this song 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 song runs at six and a half minutes. While the song 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 the song, you're really wishing it was over.

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 song in two hours flat, but that hardly ever happens (like maybe 4 times in 20 years). Most of my songs take 6-9 months to complete, and some songs have taken years to finish. If it takes you awhile to finish your composition, don't get frustrated. If you need to, set the composition aside for awhile and come back to it later. Sometimes if you take a couple months off of a song, then come back to it, you'll find it easier to actually finish it.

12) Get a Digital Recorder

Finally, have a digital recorder of some sort right beside 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 recorder handy you can take the two minutes you need to record a rough-draft of your melody and come back to it later if need be.

There you have it.

David Nevue