Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Idiomatic Writing for Piano (re-post)

    I wrote the basis of this post four years ago, and subsequently expanded and improved it several times, adding many music examples (originally there were none).

  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 40 of them are found between the F at the bottom of the bass clef and the G at the top of the treble clef; if you limit your note selection to only notes found on the treble and bass clefs, you use only 45% of the available notes on the piano. 
Suggestion 1: 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.   
Suggestion 2: 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 (such as a 1-3 page character piece). 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:


Sarah-Beth Cormier said...

I can't believe it never occurred to me to check the practicality of my spacing by playing a chord on the piano! I suppose I simply assumed that my lack of piano skill would make that useless, but reading this post has made be realize that isn't the case at all. I also never really considered how the different fingers can stretch different amounts; it's something I notice when playing, but not when composing. I think I need to unify those two aspects of my musical thinking more.
I'm glad for the information about the less commonly used pedals. I've tried them out before, but I wasn't really sure how to use them in my compositions. I only hope I don't get overeager in using them! As this post says, it's important not to overuse a technique or pattern in a given piece. I fully agree with this, and only hope that I have enough musical sense to balance consistency and variety in my works.

Byrann Gowan said...

As I mentioned in the previous blog in which this was posted on, this is a very good post, especially for those who do not know how to play piano, much less write for it. One of the things I find is that, when it comes to just about any instrument, it is almost easier to write a harder piece, due to the fact that you can just write notes anywhere and for certain durations. While this does present a challenge to the performers, all composers should know that you don't have to, as it is put here, "out-shred Liszt or Rachmaninoff." Sometimes, the best piano pieces are the ones that are quite simple and easy to follow.
I also liked the idea of keeping a certain texture for a significant amount of time. One thing that should be noted, though, is that, when you get to a development section, you should try to change the texture of the piece. It can be relatively easy, due to the fact that you are creating a different theme/chordal progression/notes, but it is something to keep in mind.

Idiomatic Ruth said...

For me this was a very helpful post to play my Piano. I like it.

Kelly Perchard said...

So much interesting info here. One thing I found very interesting was the part about range, how if you only use the space in the clefs you are using a mere 44%. In my first project, I had done just this, not even considering notes above or below the third ledger lines in each direction. However, in the motif project, we were encouraged to use the entire range of the piano and upon doing this, a whole new world of opportunities were presented. By using the entire range of the piano you can evoke different timbres that aren't possible while staying in the "middle range" of the piano.

Another very useful piece of information in this post was about the middle pedal: the sostenuto pedal. I have yet to come across the need to use this pedal, and frankly did not know all that much about it. Perhaps I will use it in a future composition, in hopes that the finale playback will play it correctly.

Flutiano said...

I would like to question the second example of chords (D, Ab, Bb, C, E) but it requires the pianist to be able to stretch a 10th-many composers (and pianist-composers) include such chords, and for people with large enough hands, I'm sure they are easy. However, as a pianist who cannot stretch comfortably more than an octave, this is not easy! I recommend chords being within the span of an octave (I don't know about other people, but I have been known to reject learning a piece because the stretches were just too unmanageable).

Flutiano said...

I appreciate the discussion about the pedals. The main one that I was interested in reading about here was the sostenuto pedal. I realize that I have never come across a marking indicating use of the sostenuto pedal in the course of my piano-training to date. I assume that part of the reason for this is that you can never be sure that somebody will have access to one. There was a while when I checked the middle pedal of every piano I encountered in order to see what it did, and not only have I never found the sostenuto pedal on an upright piano, but smaller grand pianos often seem to not have it as well. On uprights, it's usually a piece of felt that gets put onto the strings to make it softer (and muffled)--I've been told this is good for practising in apartments (although if I were your neighbour, I would prefer to hear loud good music than this quiet muffled sound). On grands (for example, Yamaha baby grands; also, some uprights) it sometimes just lifts up the dampers from the lowest third of the piano (which has its own interesting effect, but is not the sostenuto pedal!). I love the sostenuto pedal, and think it can have a good effect, but I'd warn against over-use of it in composition. I would only write a piece requiring it if I was pretty sure that it would be performed on a concert grand piano (or rather, a piano with a sostenuto pedal), and the person who was going to perform it would be able to access a piano with a sostenuto pedal in order to practise the piece.

I really appreciate the comment about soft pedal being used as a colour change instead of just for dynamic purposes! I think this pedal could get more use . . . however, it's not always up to the composer to put it in. This also connects to the point that was made about putting in the music precisely where the pedal should go up and down. I'm a big fan of leaving things up to the performer. When I'm lazy, I like to be told things like precisely when the pedal should go down and when I should lift it. However, generally I prefer for some interpretation things to be left to the performer. When the performer gets to make their own musical decisions (Should I use pedal? When should I change the pedal? Do I want the sound colour created by the soft pedal here? etcetera), they can become more invested in the piece, and really be the interpreter of the music.

I think one of the greatest things about Bach is that so many of his pieces can be played so many different ways convincingly. For example, I have heard the first invention (BWV 772 in C major) performed well in a few different, very different, characters. On one end of the spectrum, it can be quite nice as a fairly slow, lyrical piece. It can also be charming fast and spirited.

While performers tend to expect modern composers to be much more precise about how their music is to be played than they expect of the baroque or classical composers, I still think that being overly persnickety is something that composers should be aware of. Sometimes it might be scary to leave something up to the performer, but it could also be interesting to see what kind of interpretation they come up with (and they might have more ideas about nuances of pedalling than you do, particularly if you are not a pianist and they are).

In terms of confusing pianists, I think I would prefer to consistently not give specific pedalling instructions than to consistently give them. There are also markings such as (Ped. ad lib) which might be able to clear up confusions before they happen but still leave things to do the discretion of the performer.

Clark Ross said...

Thanks for your comments! They are much appreciated.

In response to Flutiano's first comment, I would just clarify that the span in my example is a 9th, not a 10th.

Regarding that example, the preceding text says, "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."

Thanks again!

Samantha Evans said...

This post really helped to put into perspective the different uses of the pedals on a piano. In the course of my piano training I had never encountered the sostenuto pedal in any of the pieces that I have played. In fact, I did not even know what it did until I took Piano Pedagogy last term. I was not able to discover it own my own either, as most pianos that I was practising on uprights.
As for pedal markings within the score, I enjoy knowing where a composer felt the pedal should be changed, but I also like having some room for adding some interpretation to the music. This is important of most musical markings, as composers of the Baroque and Classical period were composing on different keyboards than the ones we use now. Though, performers will sometimes add in pedal where it is not specified for musical effect.
Along the lines of the actual composition process, as a pianist, I find it much more beneficial to be able to sit at the piano and figure out the sonorities that work (and those that don’t) with the hand positions that are necessary.

Jessica Pereversoff said...

As someone with rather weak/non-existent piano skills, I found this post very informative. I thought the section on using "the full-spectrum available" was particularly useful. My knowledge of piano-playing is limited to the three octaves surrounding middle C, and it has definitely been valuable for me to experiment with exploring the "spectrum" beyond this. Obviously, we are all aware of the fact that the piano spans 11 octaves, but in coming up with ideas and notating them I find it challenging to visualize notes outside of the treble/bass clef range. This is why I also appreciated the suggestions in regards to playing one's own ideas (or those of others) out on the piano. In this way, it is possible to get a better feel for the different ranges and sonorities possible on the instrument. It is a suggestion that makes complete sense. Unless one is intimately familiar with the piano (which many people indeed are) it is impossible to simply guess at what might work without seeing, hearing or feeling the keys for oneself.
Another interesting read was the section about the use of different textures. I find it difficult to think in harmonies and visualize full piano textures as the majority of my experience in music has involved playing the principal melodic line. This is not an excuse, but it does at least partially explain this shortcoming. At any rate, I have found the left hand accompaniment patterns mentioned very useful in trying to compose more active piano textures.

Julia Millett said...

Writing for piano is incredibly hard! What I often struggle with is knowing the role/function that the piano has in the piece that I am composing. Finding a balance between accompaniment or melodic interest is very challenging. A technique that I found helped me was looking through piano scores with the purpose of analyzing the role of the piano. Piano pieces reveal so much when we methodically explore all that they offer us.

Josh McCarthy said...

This blog was very helpful in many ways to me. Especially in the sense that it will definitely bring me further in my piano improvisation, and how I keep my music interesting. The first thing that I have always found challenging was figuring out new left hand patterns to use that's aren't typical or boring. Seeing the examples you cited, it gave me a few ideas. It also helped to explain the sostenuto pedal, which I had no idea what it ever did up until this point. So I guess I'll go try and write some piano stuff now, thanks!

Pallas A said...

To begin, I never realized that the thumb and index finger gap affects how comfortable a chord can be. Also, I think that the tendency I have to want to add octaves to everything comes from wanting to use as many notes as possible to thicken the texture, especially when there is a relatively monophonic line. However, this post demonstrates how excessive octaves can sometimes be more difficult than necessary and not very idiomatic. I did like the effects of selective octave doubling and octave displacement, since they were aurally interesting and they still achieved the dense octave texture without much hassle.

Robert Humber said...

After 2 years of composition class, I feel much more confident in my piano writing, in part due to this blog post. Even as a non-pianist, composing at the piano is a must for me! It's the only way to get a sense of what you are really writing and you will notice jumps and stretches that you might not just by looking at the little black notes. Sometimes you will get a very specific sound in your head that is unlike anything mentioned here, and you really just need to use common sense (as much as I want LH 32nd note 10th run... maybe the pianist isn't a robot). At the end of the day, you might just have to ask a pianist yourself (one of the best ways to find out if something makes sense) but if you follow this guide, you can be pretty sure that everything will work okay!

Stephen Eckert said...

Checking the spacing of chords written is absolutely essential in piano music, awkward chords that make for awkward hand position significantly increase the difficulty of the music. With the correct motions, piano music should feel easy to the pianist and awkward hand positions are some of the most prominent difficulties that pianists face since they increase tension especially if a part of a fast section or if they are sustained/repeated for a while. Hand-crossings are cumbersome to notate however they are the most effective and least difficult way to write rapid arpeggios. An example of this is the arpeggiation of a CMaj7th (or an equally easy FMaj7th). This is one of the first flashy "riffs" I experimented in playing, this kind of motion is achievable even for students in high school and does not require tremendous technique.
One of the most significant things however is the change in direction, large leaps and arpeggios are not horrific if they continue in the same motion or change direction infrequently, but passages that have jagged changes in motion are most certainly the hardest to play.

Alison Petten said...

As somebody with very limited piano skills, I find my biggest challenge is knowing the restrictions, like the span that one hand can physically play. Often I will have written a lengthy passage for piano that I really like the sound of, only to look it over and realize that I have 12ths or 13ths in the right hand. This can be frustrating, especially when you're very happy with how a piece sounds. I also find it very difficult to know which other patterns are difficult to play. For instance, it never would have occurred to me that consecutive octaves are difficult and require extra practice. I guess it is easy to overlook this, because so many famous composers wrote especially challenging music.

I also feel like this article taught me a lot about the piano. For instance, I'm sure I'm not the only one that didn't know what all three piano pedals did before I read this. It was great to learn about things like this, I feel much more confident composing for piano now than I did before!

Josh McCarthy said...

This helped me before, and it will help me again. A couple years ago, it helped with my improvisation, and now it will begin to help me in my writing. Thinking about using techniques such as having things in multiple octaves, and just using strictly octaves in general could be a good way to sound like Liszt! I will also take a listen to the composers mentioned about the "shredding" because I feel like my piano writing could still use a little zest.

Freya West said...

I also feel like this article taught me a lot about the piano.

Freya, UK

Ryan said...

Your tips and guide are incredibly helpful for the beginner.I appreciate your work.Kindly keep writing so we can learn a lot of valuable guidelines from you.

Lindsay Wood said...

I appreciate so much this post, I learned and also I enjoy making this activity. I am grateful that I found this helpful and informative post. Keep posting so much more will discover this and have an inspiration for learning. Thank you for sharing your knowledge about the piano to us. Cheers!

Shane Tetford said...

This post does a fantastic job of addressing issues with idiomatic piano writing. As a pianist, I have had much experience performing works that are very pleasant to play, and others that feel forced and unnatural. It is almost always obvious when the composer is an accomplished pianist, but as you said, there are many exceptions (Ravel being a fantastic example). I particularly like your suggestion on selective octave doubling, as this not only reduces the difficulty when compared to constant octaves but can also add an extra layer of rhythmic interest.

One thing I would like to add to your list is the topic of scales. While scales are one of the most commonly used techniques in all piano literature, they are sometimes very difficult to execute at the speed and clarity some composers desire. They can also be particularly troublesome for the left hand for many pianists.

The usefulness and effectiveness of the pedals can also be overlooked by many composers. The depth at which the damper pedal can be used to shade is staggering and should be explored more. It can also facilitate the execution of larger chords for pianists with small hands, as they can roll the chord with the pedal depressed. The una corda is extremely effective in passages that require a more delicate sound, and using it makes it much easier to remain confident while playing very quietly.