Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Writing for Piano

  How do you write idiomatically for piano? Non-pianists often find it a challenge to write well for the piano, and even experienced pianists can struggle with this. Here are some considerations that may help:

You don't need to be a Good Pianist in order to write Good Piano Music

    Virtually all the "great" (and even "pretty great") composers from Bach forward were also known as excellent keyboard performers; when they wrote for keyboard instruments, they really knew what they were doing!  

   However, it is not necessary to be able to perform well on an instrument in order to write well for it.  While most of the great composers were excellent keyboardists, they also wrote well for all the instruments in an orchestra, many of which they likely could not play well (or even at all).  The ability to play an instrument can be a great asset in learning to write idiomatically for that instrument, but it is not essential. Ravel and Ligetti are cited below as composers who were not virtuoso pianists, but who wrote extremely well for piano.

   That said, I recommend that anyone wishing to become a better composer develop at least some piano proficiency. It can give you a better intuitive understanding of how to write idiomatic piano music, and it is one of the two most useful instruments on which to compose any type of music, including orchestral; the other is the computer, but computer notation programmes do not, by themselves, give you a sense of how to write idiomatically for instruments, ensembles, and voices.

Mind the Gap!

   When writing chords (solid or broken), take into account that (i) the gap between thumb and index finger on each hand is wider than the gap between the remaining fingers, and (ii) the left and right hands mirror each other (so the gap in the LH is on the right, and vice-versa in the RH).

Aerial view of typical piano right-hand position: Note the gap between thumb and index finger.
 Note also the Day-Glo red fingernails, facilitating the location of wayward fingers under poor lighting conditions:

Shrewd readers will have noticed this thumb-to-index-finger gap already, perhaps at a very early stage of development (!), and may be asking, "So what?"

Well, okay then! Here you go:

→ A chord with adjacent notes to be played by thumb and index fingers (such as the first chord below) is difficult to play if there is also a wide gap between the index and little fingers.  Not necessarily impossible, just more difficult.  It may be that the sonority you want can only be achieved by writing an awkwardly-spaced chord like this; that may be fine, but be aware that writing lots of awkwardly-spaced chords is likely to be seen by pianists to be unidiomatic, and may cause them to be less inclined to perform it.

The first chord in the examples below is awkward, or even impossible for some pianists; try playing it (but don't try too hard, lest you hurt yourself!) to see why it is problematic.

In the second example, the gap between the thumb (1) and index (2) fingers makes playing this chord relatively easy if the performer's hand can span a 9th, but performers with smaller hands would find the stretch difficult.

The third example below demonstrates a trick that can sometimes be used to circumvent this challenge: The pianist can play two adjacent notes with the thumb, as long as they are both white notes, or both black notes. This works for solid chords, but not for arpeggiations, and can be indicated by a vertical square bracket adjacent to the notes to be played by the thumb, along with the fingering.

Try playing these yourself at a piano — they are all for the right hand — to get a feel for the relative ease or difficulty of each hand position. Also, remember that while these examples are all solid (i.e., non-broken) chords, the same principle applies to arpeggiated chords as well:

Full Spectrum Available! (except where prohibited by law)

   There are 88 keys on the piano, but only 39 of them are between the F at the bottom of the bass clef and the G at the top of the treble clef; if you limit yourself to the notes found on the treble and bass clefs, you use only 44% of the available notes on the piano.

   Try playing sonorities (chords, melodies, arpeggios, etc.) you write in all registers (on an acoustic piano, if possible) before deciding on the register that works best. Use 8va and 15ma indications above or below the grand staff as needed. [8va above a staff = 8ve higher; 8va below a staff = 8ve lower.] Do not automatically default to using only those notes that can be notated in the treble and bass clefs.
   Besides the standard, "LH in bass clef and RH in treble clef," consider each of these options:
  1. Both hands in the treble clef, possibly using 8va and 15ma indications for the right hand (RH; see first example below), or, if you are going to be staying in an extremely high register for more than a few bars, using an "ottava" treble clef (treble clef with an "8" above it, which indicates that pitches should be played an octave higher), or even a "quintima" treble clef (15 above the treble clef, which sounds two octaves higher);
  2. Both hands in the bass clef, possibly with similar 8va/15ma indications/clef adjustments below the left hand (LH) to sound an octave or even fifteenth lower;
  3. Hands spaced very widely apart, at the extremes of the keyboard;
  4. Hands very close together, perhaps one physically on top of one the other;
  5. Crossed hands; LH playing higher notes, RH playing lower notes.
  6. Hand-over-hand; long arpeggio or scalar pattern starting at one end of the keyboard and continuing to the other end, with each hand taking turns playing the notes.
   Here are examples of the above that I made up; play them, and see if they give you any ideas for your own compositions:

   All six examples are in the audio clip below, separated by a second or two of silence; the first has an extra bar not visible above:

Texture and Patterns

   Decide on a music texture, and try to keep it consistent for the duration of a section or even an entire piece if writing a short composition (e.g., 1-2 pages). Longer compositions are likely to have multiple texture changes, but shorter pieces tend to be relatively consistent in terms of texture (e.g., Bartok: Mikrokosmos).

   The choice of texture is of course up to you (every choice you make in composition is up to you!) but one way to make an informed choice would be to look at textures in a variety of piano scores, and borrow/commandeer ones you like.

   Try to avoid getting so caught up in studying scores that you get overwhelmed, however; if you want to buy a pen, and go into a store with a thousand to choose from, your decision would be considerably more difficult than if you went into a store with only three pens. Confucius probably said something like this.  If not him, then perhaps another wise person, such as Yogi Berra, or Groucho Marx.

     Patterns are commonly found in much piano music, particularly in the left hand. Examples include various forms of the Alberti bass (repetitive-pattern broken chord figures), left hand chordal patterns in waltzes (boom - chuck - chuck ...), various arpeggio figures such as the ones used in the C-major or C-minor preludes in book 1 of Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier, or the considerably more demanding arpeggiation figures in the C major Etude from Chopin's collection (here's a link to a performance on YouTube).  See these patterns and others in the music examples below.

This is not to suggest that patterns must be used in your music, but be aware that idiomatic patterns are easy for muscle memory to retain, grasp, and execute. This is true for any instrument, and for the voice as well.

   Frequent pattern changes can be more challenging to perform than occasional ones, simply because there is more for the brain to process in a given time period. However, music in which a given pattern continues for too long can sound predictable and monotonous. It is presumably for this reason that the left hand, Alberti bass pattern in Mozart's famous Sonata "facile" in C major, K. 545 (see opening bars below), is used in the four bars and then it breaks off, not used for another twenty bars, at which point it returns only briefly.

   On the other hand, several of the preludes from Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier continue repeating a single pattern of the opening bar for almost the entire piece (e.g., C major, C minor, D Major from book 1), and then there's pattern-based minimalism, in which repetitive patterns are at the core, although subtle shifts tend to occur that can sustain interest. Clearly, a listener's sense as to how long is too long for pattern repetition depends on context, and what is going on musically.  In the case of the cited Bach preludes, the harmonic progressions sustain our interest throughout the course of these works.

   In my experience, early-stage student composers can struggle with this issue, either changing patterns too frequently and for reasons that seem inconsistent with musical logic (such as changing an accompaniment pattern twice in a relatively short phrase), or repeating the pattern for too long, and then changing it unexpectedly and illogically. 

   To summarize, patterns are used frequently in piano music, especially as accompaniments, and it is useful for composers to be aware of this. We also need to be aware of inherent challenges in performing the music we write; frequent pattern changes, or awkward, unidiomatic patterns can make music difficult to play, and can convey less musical logic to listeners. Depending on the challenge, and whether the performer understands the logic behind it or not, writing challenging music can sometimes have negative consequences, such as flawed performances, a performer's loss of confidence in the competency of a composer, a reluctance to perform the work at all, and outright hostility. And yes, I speak from experience…

   On the other hand, most performers I have known have had no objection to performing challenging music if they understood the musical logic behind the challenges, and the writing was idiomatic. 

Various Patterns and Textures in Bach, Mozart, and Chopin

Bach: WTC I, Prelude 1                                   Bach: WTC I, Prelude 2

Mozart: K. 545, I                             Mozart: K. 310, III

Mozart: K. 570, II

Mozart, K. 332, I

Mozart, K. 467, II

Chopin: Etude, op. 10, no. 1

Chopin: Nocturne, op. 9, no. 2

Establishing a Kinesthetic Connection. With the Universe Piano.

   Although you do not have to play piano well in order to write well for it, establishing a kinesthetic (i.e., tactile) connection with the piano can help you to develop a better feel for writing idiomatic piano music.

   Write a few bars of piano music, then go to the piano and see how it feels to play it. This is a kinesthetic exercise, the point of which is to develop some tactile connection between the music you write and the way it feels to play it on the piano.  If you are a non-pianist and are perhaps reacting to this suggestion with sudden-onset apoplexy, don't concern yourself too much if/when you play wrong notes (unless they are off by an octave or more... then you may wish to worry); the goal is to find out how it feels to perform your music, not to find out how your music sounds.  A good pianist is likely to play the right notes.  Think of yourself as an actor in a movie playing the part of a pianist; the actor just has to pretend to play the piano and move his/her hands accordingly, while the actual sound would be overdubbed later, performed by a competent professional.  Hopefully.

   Or, do the opposite: Compose a few bars at the piano, then enter the music on your computer or write it down, evaluating your musical fragment as you do.  How many motives are there? Are they related?  How can this idea be expanded? Work on these things for a while away from the piano, and then return to the piano to hear how your added bits sound/feel.

   Either way, the point is to try out your music at the piano.  Don't rely solely on your notation programme's playback function as you compose, because it won't give you a feel for the music; it can play passages without hesitation that sound great to your ears, but which are extremely impractical or even impossible for a performer.

   I also recommend doing this kinesthetic exercise with very challenging music by the great composers (e.g., Bach, Beethoven, Chopin, Debussy, Bartok, etc.); simply attempting to perform a bar here, a bar there, will give you a sense of what is possible in terms of idiomatic writing for piano.

On Attempting to "Out-Shred" Liszt and Rachmaninoff

   "Shredding" refers to impressively fast, loud, and flashy playing of an instrument, usually guitar. But you can apply the concept to piano as well; Liszt did!

   Attempting to outdo or emulate the great romantic composers in writing works of spectacular, showy virtuosity may not be wise in the early stages of compositional training. There is much to be said for simplicity: "Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler" (attributed to Einstein, but many people have articulated a similar sentiment, notably the 14th-century philosopher and theologian, Ockham, and possibly Yogi Berra as well).

   I do not mean to suggest that one should never write showy, flashy compositions — highly-skilled performers like to show off (there's a sweeping statement!), and showy, flashy compositions allow them to do this. 

   However, most composers associated with this type of music (e.g., Liszt, Rachmaninoff, Chopin, Albéniz, Brahms, Prokofiev, etc.) were themselves spectacularly-accomplished piano virtuosi, and as such, they understood the capabilities of the instrument better than most non-pianists and pianists alike. If you are reading this blog post because you wish to improve your ability to write idiomatically for the piano, then perhaps trying to beat Liszt and Rachmaninoff at their own game (i.e. write showier, flashier music than they did) may not be a very practical way to do this.

   There are, as every composer knows (and embraces!), exceptions to every rule or sweeping statement, of course. Maurice Ravel was one of the greatest composers of piano music that ever lived, but he evidently did not consider himself sufficiently skilled to perform his more challenging compositions, and he is described as merely a "competent pianist" in Wikipedia (Wikipedia: Maurice Ravel, retrieved 18 Jan. 2014). György Ligeti (28 May 1923–12 June 2006) has said he never became a "good pianist" because he did not begin piano lessons until he was 14, and yet he has written some impressively-virtuosic piano music, such as his three volumes of Etudes, and his Piano Concerto. Here's an example:

L.H. and/or R.H. Octaves; For what purpose?

   Although it is possible to play many bass lines in octaves if the notes don't move too fast, don't make that your default approach to writing for the left hand (or the right hand, for that matter); the ear can tire of constant octaves pretty quickly. One or both hands playing in octaves can be an effective way to bring out a melodic line, and/or create more sound volume than would otherwise be the case, but octaves are likely to be more effective if used sparingly, perhaps saved for a particularly dramatic section, as in the two examples above in which left-hand octaves are used (Mozart, K. 332, bar 157, and Chopin, Etude, op. 10, no. 1).
   If you wish to double a melodic line in octaves, consider having each hand play the melody two (or more) octaves apart (as in #5 below); the effect is quite different than a line doubled one octave higher or lower, and it (i.e., #5) is also easier to play than having all the octaves in one hand.

   Below is a one-bar passage, mostly in 16th-notes, played at a relatively quick tempo, in eight different versions (discussion to follow):

Recordings of the above examples:

   The initial passage in the left hand is, by itself, fairly challenging, because it moves quickly (8 notes per second) and doesn't follow a pattern. If it were a rapid chord arpeggiation, pianists would find it less challenging because they typically practice arpeggiation patterns that span multiple octaves; you see this sort of thing in piano concertos frequently. Check out the start of Beethoven's Emperor Concerto to see what I mean.

   Although #1 is not an easy passage, a good pianist should be able to play it cleanly in each hand with a little practice.

   If you ask the pianist to play the left hand in octaves (as in #3 above), the difficulty level increases significantly. There are undoubtedly pianists who could play #3 cleanly in one hand at this speed, but (a) it would likely require a tremendous amount of practice, (b) it possibly would not be played cleanly every time, (c) the pianist would probably play it with staccato articulations on many 16th-note in order to get through it in tempo, and (d) it seems likely to be intimidating and discouraging to many pianists.

   If you give octaves to each hand (#8), you have just upped the difficulty level another few notches, which is bordering on insanity!

   Regarding examples 3 and 8 above, students have occasionally told me that a particularly challenging or awkward passage they have written is playable by someone they know, so there is no need to change it. This may be true, but if a passage seems likely to be extraordinarily difficult for most pianists, the question becomes, is it worth it? Examples 5, 6, and 7 sound quite similar to example 8, but they are less challenging for the performer (although they too are not easy); is the relatively small difference in sound worth asking the pianist to put so much work into it, and the risk that it will not be performed cleanly?

   I would not write anything like #8, UNLESS the pianist had expressed a desire for an extraordinarily challenging score, AND I showed them the passage was told they could play it, AND I listened to them playing it and liked it.

   There are other options: You could add selective octave doubling within each hand if it does not add significantly to the difficulty level, like this:

  #9 might be pushing the limits of what is reasonable to ask of a pianist, but it's worth trying if you want a somewhat-bigger sound than #7, and if you show it to a pianist to get their take on it.

   Another option involves octave displacements between LH and RH; this works well, but bear in mind that, at least in this example, the pitch changes are twice as slow as in previous examples, although the surface-level 16th-note activity remains the same:

    Always have a good reason for writing a passage in octaves. The main justifications for such a passage are (a) you want the big sound that octaves can give you, or (b) you like the colour (including the colour of octaves played quietly). If you want octaves for their colour, also consider both hands playing the passage one, two, three (or more if feasible) octaves apart; each of these options produces a slightly-different colour.

Having each hand play octaves simultaneously, as in #8, is entirely feasible if the notes are moving less quickly, or if the notes are following a familiar pattern for the pianist, like an ascending chromatic scale, for example. 

Pedal Power

   Consider the pedals. Or, more precisely, consider what they do, and how they differ. Once you are done considering them, consider writing piano pieces that use the two pedals that hardly ever get used: Una corda, and Sostenuto.

   There are three pedals on most grand pianos and many uprights, yet most composers only ever require (or at least politely ask) the pianist to use one. This need not be the case, although it is of course fine if you only use the sustain (also called "damper," which seems counter-intuitive since it lifts the dampers from the strings, as opposed to dampening them) pedal, or no pedal at all.  But no matter what pedals you use, make sure you indicate your intentions in the score.

   Here are the three pedals, and what they do on a grand piano:

  1.    Una corda, or "soft" pedal (on the far left).  Its function is, as you might guess, to soften the sound, but bear in mind that it also changes the tone colour slightly.  A chord played using the soft pedal can sound just as loud as a chord played without it (if you play the una corda chord more forcefully to compensate for the effect of the soft pedal), but the timbre will be slightly different. 

       Una corda, by the way, means "one string" in Italian; on a grand piano, depressing this pedal will shift all hammers slightly so that only one string is struck, producing less sound than when all strings (two or three, depending on the register) are struck, which is what normally occurs when you play a note on piano. 

       If you have not spent much time looking inside a piano to see what happens when a note is played, or when the una corda pedal is depressed, give it a try next time you have the opportunity! It's very interesting. The score indication for this pedal is: una corda, or U.C., followed by tutti le corde, or tre corde, or even * to release the pedal.

  2.    Sostenuto pedal (the middle pedal on most grands), described in Wikipedia as "the least used pedal of the three on the piano." This makes it sound a bit like the poor cousin of the pedal family, but it can produce very attractive resonance effects, and can be a useful device for contemporary composers. 

    What it does, and how it works:  It causes the piano to sustain only selected notes, while continuing to dampen others. If you (a) depress any number of piano notes, (b) depress the sostenuto pedal, then (c) release those notes but keep the sostenuto pedal down, those notes will continue to ring, although other notes will not.  The sostenuto pedal sustains only the notes that are sounding at the point the pedal is depressed, as well as the overtones of those notes.

       Its ability to produce selective resonances can create interesting sound effects.  If you silently depress several notes that are in the harmonic series of another pitch and then depress the sostenuto pedal, when you play the fundamental staccato, and fairly loud, to be effective, we hear the attacked staccato fundamental, which is dampened immediately, followed by ringing harmonics of that note. Or, you could do the opposite, as in the example below in which fundamentals are depressed silently in a low register, while overtones are articulated forcefully in a higher register. 

       As with any sound effect, overuse may reduce its impact, but, if you like this idea, consider finding interesting ways to use it as the basis a piece, perhaps a study.  If you want piano notes to be depressed silently, make sure you give the pianist sufficient time to to this; try this yourself at a piano to get a feel for the time required.

       Most uprights do not have this feature.  Instead, many have a middle pedal that dampens the sound in a much more pronounced way than the regular una corda pedal (which itself can produce an interesting effect).  To create a sostenuto pedal effect on an upright, you can silently depress notes in one hand and keep them depressed while you play other notes in the other hand; the example below can be played this way.

       The score indication for the sostenuto pedal is: "Sost. Ped." followed by * to release it, and composers usually indicate the notes to be sustained with nonstandard note-heads, such as diamond shapes: 

  3.    Damper, or "sustain" pedal.  This is the default/standard pedal; it lifts all dampers from the piano strings, causing them to continue sounding while hands are removed from the keys (which would otherwise result in dampers being lowered onto the strings, killing the sound). This is the pedal to which "ped." indications refer, followed by * to release it. You can also use line/bracket indicators for this pedal:  _______^________^_______|

  4.    Even if you use only the damper pedal in your compositions, I recommend indicating in your scores as clearly as possible where you want it used, and where it is to be lifted.  I used to do this inconsistently, thinking that pianists would probably prefer to make their own judgements as to when to use the pedal. While this may be true of many pianists, it resulted in lots of questions from performers about my intentions regarding pedal use, and writing scores that cause performers to request clarity on what we want is an inadvisable practice for composers. I therefore try to be as specific as possible now, but I also usually let pianists know that they are free to use their own judgement regarding modifying my pedal indications.
    Another use of the damper pedal is to provide sympathetic resonance to notes played on other instruments, somewhat similar to the sostenuto pedal. If the damper pedal is depressed and loud notes are played by other instruments or sung, you should be able to hear the resonance of these notes in the piano.  The instruction, "play into piano" is sometimes used to achieve this effect.

  The texture discussion above on the challenge of finding a balance between too much repetition with too little, which is something that I have written about in other posts, if you still have a pulse and wish to check them out:


Steve said...

this is all very helpful. I've already approached my first piece with some of these things in mind and will continue to do so. another thing I find useful is to think of the piano as I think of guitar (an instrument I'm very comfortable with).. meaning, I understand the roles of bass/mid/melody voices fairly well on a guitar, so approaching the piano in a similar way produces some interesting results. coming up with chords and ideas on a guitar and then trying it out on a piano is also fun.
perhaps it's different since guitar is also a harmonic instrument.. but maybe thinking about the role of an instrument you're used to playing, re-creating that approach on a piano while attempting to keep it idiomatic will produce some ideas.

Adam said...

I agree that it is interesting to approach the piano from a guitar point of view. Both instruments provide some what similar possibilites. Some of the great Keyboard pieces such as Chopin waltz or Scarlatti sonatas, ALbeniz Suite Espanola, although written for the piano are very convincing on the guitar. I always find it interesting when comparing transcriptions to the orignals, to see what notes were ommited and how the piano chords fit into the one left hand of the guitar.

Your primary instrument (the one you spend most time with) will always influence the way you write music when approacing instruments you are less comfortable with. Even thought I am a very poor piano player, I can hear the music in my head, play it on guitar and then write it out and adapt it for the keyboard. This is a very interesting way of producing the music as it goes through several stages before both hand are able to manipulate it at the keyboard.

Mary Beth said...

this blog was very useful. It's hard trying to write for piano seeing as I've never really played piano before with the exception of keyboard harmony. I took your advice on listening and looking at piano scores or tunes. I find it hard to remember about all the harmonic possiblities. Clarinet is a one note at a time instrument. I always find myself looking at it in a one note way, and then remembering there can be more than one note at a time.

Joshua White said...

I found the comment about the texture pretty funny. I also think it's a pretty natural thing to find it hard to make up our minds on being able to choose just one thing when there are soo many other pens available.

I beleive for me, the texture is chosen after I get my main ideas. I don't think first off of the texture I want. well not for my first piece anyways. I like to just think about the texture and the way i can manipulate it as a piece grows, once my main idea has been established. But i guess for each composition, there is a different process, and for each composer too, the way they go about considering all of the musical concepts such as texture differently.

Kate Bevan-Baker said...

I find it really hard to write idiomatically for piano, and I'm glad I'm not the only one!

I'm afraid of writing too many notes in chords, or awkward intervals, so I'm always worried about what I've written. Trying to play it myself is helpful, but I also like showing it to piano players to get their opinion on things.

I'm lucky that I've got two keyboard-playing roommates to help me along the way. I can also compose from my bedroom and then go play it on keyboards upstairs and find out right away if I've written something silly and unplayable.

Happy composing, everyone!

A. Rideout said...

Like most other people, my instrument ( well, the marimba) definitly influences my piano writting. The marimba is obviously able to sound more then one note at a time. Often in marimba music we see a lot of octaves in both hands; this defintily transfers over in my piano music. Every time I have written for piano I always have octaves, it is almost like a default setting. I defintily need to learn to rely on other intervals or other things to enhance piano parts.
Like others sometimes I do forget that pianos lend themselves to thicker chord writting and harder writting. If I compare a piano to a marimba, I can only get 4 sounds at once on a marimba, only using 4 mallets. A piano player has ten fingers to make huge chords and also it seems that a lot of piano players are able to cross the length of the keyboard in seconds, but a marimba could be 5 or 6 feet long.
I am sure that after more writting these problems will go away and that writting idiomatically for the piano will become easier and much more natural.

Aiden Hartery said...

I found it a HUGE challenge to write for solo piano. It was almost intimidating writing for it, there seems to be an unspoken "thing" about piano music, and how "good music" we usually talk about or hear about classical music has to do in some way with the piano. I dunno, maybe I'm crazy.

For me, I composed directly at the piano, so if I could play it....me.... the trombone guy, then a piano performer with proper training shouldn't have a problem. The hard part for me was that I would have all of these playable sections, but sewing them together made them WAY more difficult to play/pull of well. There were many instances where there would be awkward or impossible gaps between sections or measure, and that was my biggest obstacle with writing for the piano.
I tried to use pedals appropriately and sparingly whenever I could. There's something about me that just really loves the soft pedal on the piano...I dunno what's up with that... but I had to watch myself with it.

Something else that I really find difficult is writing music that would be challenging for an actual piano major/professional. For me, I generally write while I play. But me, an amateur on the bench, can't physically play or tap into personal knowledge of challenging piano rep or technique, because I've never done that before. I guess I need to maybe step away from the piano, and do some more imaginative or mental conducting at the computer or manuscript.

dfiechter said...

This is helpful. Composing on the piano can be very challenging for some people, such that they don't even try. I've heard many comments over the years from people who've never composed piano songs. One of the most common one I hear is, "All the good melodies have already been taken". This statement implies that any composer will be unable to compose a unique song that is good without making it copy off of an already existing song.

To a certain extent this may be true, yet the wide array of melodies which can be composed on the piano makes this an invalid excuse. By even changing something as simple as one note, by either making it a different note or by extending or decreasing its rhythm, the whole section will sound different. This is the power of music.

Siobhan said...

This blog has some great ideas which could even help with a lack of inspiration. In my compositions using piano, I have learned to exploit the diverse range and colors the piano can achieve.

One technique I noticed that you failed to mention in this post is prepared piano. I have dabbled in composing for prepared piano so I would have been interested as to your thoughts on the subject. When I composed for prepared piano, I was working with a pianist and we only needed to perform the work, not submit a formal score, so the sounds we achieved were largely due to experimentation and were perhaps not as precise as a score might dictate.

Another technique that I enjoy which was also omitted was the use of an instrument playing into a grand piano's open lid as a means to generate reverberation. The use of the sustain pedal greatly adds to this effect.

Furthermore, a simple change which is rarely dictated by the composer is which stick should be used (if at all) to prop open the lid of the piano. This drastically changes the dynamic and resonance of the piano. It could be useful to notate which stick to use especially if there is dense piano scoring combined with a quiet instrument (or an instrument not in their ideal range).

Unknown said...

I have composed a ballet/opera and was so thrilled to have come across your article of how to write compositions. I thought I was a miracle or an odd sole composing for 5 other instruments I do not play. What makes me excited is how my story line and later developed inserts filled in this special gift God gave me. I don't know how else I could have gotten it. Thank you so much for your wisdom and excited to read what you have written and for your knowledge has answered a lot of questions for me. Would love to be able to talk to you. My composition is titled " La Creation de La Mour"
(The Birth of Love) 1-702-813-0020
-Piano lessons in School 3rd thru 8th 1 yr. in High School

Unknown said...

After looking at my first assignment for today's class, I can definitely say that this article is very helpful. The fact that the gap is wider between the thumb and the index finger than the remaining fingers helped me to understand how to write different chords and what fingering should be used for those chords. Also, after listening to Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 20, I can definitely say that the second point is very helpful as well. It is very good to use as many keys on the piano as you can, because, if you do, then you get all of these different sonorities, and it helps to create different moods.
Also, after reading some of the comments here on the blog, I have to comment on how people view the piano as they view their own instruments. Because piano is already an instrument that I am very comfortable with, I can look at it from the point of view of a pianist. However, looking at it from a Double Bass point of view is something that I'll have to do down the road this semester. This will be an experience that will be very interesting; the double bass and the piano are two very different instruments, and yet, there are similarities to both instruments.
Overall, I found this post very helpful, and I will keep these things in mind when I next compose a piano piece.

Andrew said...

This blog is great for any musician with an interest of composing. Being a pianist myself, I feel that my kinesthetic connection with the piano is relatively strong in comparison to the average non-pianist. However, this blog informs very specific details to consider when composing for the piano. It is of great value to both pianists and non-pianists. The Bach and Mozart music examples used to explain a few of the types of patterns were, in my opinion, very fitting. I personally liked how the blog touches on several different aspects such as; register, texture, patterns, experience with an instrument, and pedaling.

Unknown said...

Now that I've read this post I wish I had earlier in the semester as it would've been of much help with my earlier composition for cello and piano. Although I did study piano for quite a few years, its been so long since I've played seriously that a lot of the idiomatic subtleties have left my mind. One of the points that I found most useful concerned the range of piano and how little of it actually fits within the treble and bass clef. As a violinist, I am used to seeing a lot of ledger lines and 8ve indications, but I always forget how much more extreme the range of the piano is. Throughout this entire post the point that seems the most important is that to write most effectively for the piano, one must spend as much time working with one as possible. I usually do most of my writing at a keyboard which helps somewhat with idiomatic writing, but an electric keyboard is a vastly different instrument than a grand piano. Its hard to get a realistic concept of the real estate you're working with when you have to press "octave up, octave down" keys to play anything outside of the regular staff.

I am hoping to eventually expand on my piece for cello and piano by writing two more movements. As I do this, this post will be of great assistance... and I now know that I need to spend more time with grand pianos!

Robert Humber said...

Solo piano music is some of my favorite classical music of all. I love the endless textures and possibilities you can get out of just one instrument. While I'm not an overly proficient piano player and I never had any training, I've done my fair share of sounding out and improvising pieces so I think I at least have a pretty good grasp on what is possible to play and how certain textures can work (ie. hand over hand, etc.). I always compose at the piano and I definitely agree that the best way to tell if something is playable is simply to try it yourself. All of these points are very helpful and I'll keep them in mind for further compositions.

Luke said...

A pianist myself, most of my compositional output has been for solo piano. I think playing a large variety of repertoire as well as listening to as much music as possible is a great start to getting a handle on writing for the genre.

You may enjoy "Impromptu in B Minor" which is a solo piano piece I wrote, and which uses a mix of idiomatic piano structures/styles/patterns. In this way, it's quite accessible to a pianist, but with some good variation and some interesting harmonic stuff as well. You're more than welcome to share it on your blog!

VIDEO: Impromptu in B Minor (for piano)

Kristin Wills said...

Being able to play piano at least at an average level is very helpful for writing. I am able to test out most parts and see if they are idiomatic, and even if they are too difficult for me to play, since I play the instrument I am mostly aware of whether they are just difficult or actually impossible. It definitely makes everything a lot easier, but I find my problem in writing piano parts is that the instrument almost gives me too much freedom. Since the instrument is capable of so much, it is more difficult to decide what exactly to write. Often, having more limitations can actually help you think of ideas. The examples in this post are helpful, though, and they gave me some ideas. I also like the idea of studying scores, to see what kinds of patterns other composers have used.

Unknown said...

This was very helpful. I definitely agree that it is possible to write for piano even if you don’t play piano, but there are a bunch of logistical things that you can run into when you don’t actually know the ins and outs of the instrument. I am a piano player (not primarily, but I do play), yet many of the “problems” or “tendencies” that you mentioned in this blog post were things that I found myself doing or lacking in. For example, making the chords “playable” may sound like an obvious thing to keep in mind when writing, but when you don’t play piano or you’re not capable of playing what you wrote due to the difficulty, the practicality of the music can easily be forgotten. This is definitely something I’ve been making an effort to keep in mind when writing. Even if I can’t play what I wrote, I will still sit down at the piano and make sure that the spacing is playable.
I also like the tips about using the entire piano/ register. Personally, I almost forget how large of a range the piano has. When writing for voice or wind instruments I am always very cautious that I don’t write in a range that the instrumentalist doesn’t have, but when I’m writing for piano I often forget how much of a range a pianistic DOES have.
Finally, I thought it was great that you mentioned the use of the pedal. This is another element of piano writing that I have found myself leaving out. Adding pedal can so drastically change the feel of the piece, so I agree that it is very important to indicate your intentions.
Many of these points are things that I feel I can almost use as a check list. As someone who doesn’t regularly play piano, I often simply forget how much I have to avail of, so this blog post was a great reminder of different techniques I can use to improve the quality of my piano writing.

Duncan Stenhouse said...

I found this blogpost extremely helpful for my current project. The explanations and examples of proper left handed accompaniment patterns and the difference between acceptable and difficult patterns really helped in my understanding of how to write for piano since I myself am not by any means an accomplished pianist myself. These basic patterns or more accepted patterns are not something I was completely aware of and I found that having visual examples of them was quite helpful in furthering my writing for piano. I have written quite a few piano pieces in the past and decided to either write extremely simple pieces or just sort of go on guess work for most of these projects. These tips will allow me to reassess those past works and see if things need to be changed or updated which is something I am constantly tying to do as I grow as a composer and begin to look at getting my pieces out there. Thank you for this insightful post. It was a truly good read.

Unknown said...

I found this blogpost helpful, as Duncan mentioned for our 014 project. Approaching writing the piano as a singer can be scary! Although we are used to having it as an accompaniment, our ears are often tuned to the one line text melody we are focusing on. A few things that you mentioned in your post I noticed in my own composing, especially your comment on the range of the piano and I had returned to my piece to change a few things when we discussed this in class as well. Using the full range of the piano, makes for an extremely colorful piece. It is easy to forget individual aspects that each instrument brings to the table when composing and piano brings much variety in texture in color as in a few things you had mentioned in the post (range, pedaling etc.)
Personally, I found my ability to play the piano extremely important in my ability to compose. Although I am primarily a singer, I also play the piano. Being able to see how the piece "fits" when you play it yourself really helps in creating a workable piece.

José Sala said...

I was surfin' the web looking for advice on piano compositions, and what I saw was so beautifully written but so unprofitable... till I found this page. It was like finding a treasure, no joke. At last, an author that dives deep into the subject. Thank you very much for sharing your knowledge

Nader said...

I certainly agree with many of the points you made in this post. It is very true that you do not need to be good at playing the piano to write for it. If you can understand the vast amount of possibilities that are available with the piano, including extended techniques, musical texture, or the use of the entire range of the piano, I believe you are set for composing. Of course, then comes making sure the piece is not extremely difficult for the performer, who may be the composer in some cases. I believe there could have been even more added to this blog, especially when it comes to prepared piano. I myself have begun to think about composing a piece featuring this technique although I have not quite started on it yet. The information you provide on pedalling is also of great use for anybody who might not be familiar with it. I also like your point on always practicing what you have written rather than just listening to it through a notation program. Being a pianist myself, I always have these sudden moments in which I want to write a piece for solo piano. I usually always start at the piano and record myself playing the piece rather than notating anything into Finale. The reason for this is because I would obviously rather hear it myself before listening to how a notation program may alter it. Also, in some cases notating something in Finale may make it sound “possible” to play, but then actually playing it may prove to be a difficult task. It is always good to make sure everything is possible for the performer by going through the piece first even if you might not be a pianist.

Josh L said...

I've found this post to be very helpful and believe it has made a big improvement on piano parts in my compositions. Whenever I'm writing for piano, I often revisit this post because of how concise each of the points are on the many things to consider when writing for piano. One of the tips I've begun to use in my pieces over this past semester is exploring the extreme ranges of the piano, and getting away from primarily writing my piano parts in the confines of the grand staff. This is an idea I struggled to make use of at first, but after some practice, I found the colours obtained by using the extreme ranges added an extra dimension to my pieces. By spreading a musical idea across the entire range of the piano I've found I can often generate more material from a single idea, without it feeling overused or boring.
Another tip I've also become more considerate of since reading this post is to mind the positioning of each finger when writing chords, and to try avoiding unnecessary awkward fingerings. This is a frustration I’m able to relate to since many early composers often write incredibly difficult 4 mallet parts for percussion by not considering mallet placement when forming chords on the instrument ( a great tip a guest composer mentioned this semester was to write at the piano with only a pointer and ring finger on each hand to see if it is playable on the marimba, vibes, etc…). Taking time to check chords on these instruments is something that can be done pretty easily and since getting my hands on the piano more I’ve been able to quickly identify when I begin to write chords that are simply impossible to play.

Frank O'B said...

This is such an informative, well-written blog post! When I composed two pieces for the piano this semester, I begun to write my first one, the one where there was no confines as to how much or how little I could write, so I had gigantic chords, with tempo changes every like three bars or so. Turns out, that was an epic fail! It sounded good on the computer, though, so I will give it that. Anyways, I feel like the technique of composing a bit at the piano, or even sitting down at the piano, and just improvising, to see what comes out, can be immensely beneficial when composing for piano. I especially enjoyed the part where Ravel said that even he can't play his pieces that apparently go faster than the speed of light! Anyways, I digress. Another great way to see if your pieces are "playable" is to get some of your piano friends to try it out, and see how they like it, and what they would change.

Peter Perez said...

This post was very helpful! My piano skills are very minimal to say the least, so reading this was great. My biggest take away is keeping mind of keeping the music idiomatic in terms playability and hand position. At the start of this semester I was not thinking at all of how wide I can make the chords. I consistently wrote 11th and 12ths which of course are not playable. Some pianists can't play octaves! And so learning to keep chord playability in mind has been a big learning curve.

- Peter Perez