What’s the secret to writing beautiful and awe-inspiring piano music? Learn the steps in this guest post by St. Augustine, FL piano teacher Heather L...
Music industry legend has it that Lady Gaga, being a classically trained musician, writes many of her songs on the piano first. She’s undoubtedly not the only pop, or country, or rock star to use the keys to compose. And if you’re studying piano already, you might be itching to try your hand at your own songwriting.
Allow me to preface by stating that what follows is an old-fashioned method of writing with a pencil, piano, and staff paper. In this day and age, a songwriter has dozens of forms of technology to assist him or her. You can create music with computer software alone, through a keyboard connected to a computer, and even through free or low-cost apps.
I’ve heard a lot of people talk about writing piano music like it’s magic—and sometimes it is, but usually it’s pretty simple. As you grow as a musician, you’ll develop your own unique process of songwriting, but here’s my personal process.
1. Decide on a general song idea.
What I mean is to decide on a theme, or perhaps an audience. For instance, you’d think, “I’ll write this one to my husband about our wedding,” or “This song will be centered on the political unrest in Africa.”
2. Choose a key and a tempo.
Each key and each tempo can affect listeners differently and are essential elements in what kind of atmosphere or mood that your song possesses. Play scales and chords in the keys that you’re comfortable with, then choose a key that feels like it fits the theme of what you’re conveying. Pick a tempo that matches your general song idea. Does what you’re saying call for high-energy, high-tempo music in the key of E (bright and cheerful), or does it call for a serene, slow ballad sound in the calm key of C?
3. Learn the I-IV-V-vi chords, if you haven’t yet.
This means the root chord (the chord that shares your key’s name), the dominant (the fifth chord above the root), the subdominant (the fourth chord above the root), and six chord (a minor chord). Some progressions, called the Nashville progression or the pop progression, consist of these. Let’s say that you’ve picked C major for your song. You’d play C, G, Am, and F. Play with fingers 1, 3, and 5 in both hands at the same time.
4. Play the chords in different orders.
Play four beats for each chord in the key and tempo that you’ve chosen, going from one chord to the next in different orders. For instance, play C for four beats, then G for four beats, then Am, then F, then C again. Go slowly and listen carefully. Mix it up and change it around! Start with Am, then F, then C, and end with G. You’ll eventually find a progression, or order, that appeals to you and fits the song’s theme.
5. Write down your progression and keep playing.
Take note of the order that you like best and then play it over and over, thinking about the theme that you’ve decided upon. If you’ve dedicated the song to your mom, then keep her image in your mind, or better yet, have a photo of her on your piano. Listen carefully to the chords and concentrate, and you may be able to “hear” lyrics begin to pop up in your head.
6. Jot down everything.
Every word, every phrase, every chord change should go down on that staff paper, even if you think they sound silly or they don’t sound good together. Something that sounds terrible today may sound great next week, or maybe even in another song that you find yourself working on down the road. Think of yourself simply as a reporter, jotting down what you’re hearing.
7. Think of your song’s lyrics as a box within a box, within a box.
One helpful tip for songwriting, which I learned in an online course from a professor of songwriting at the Berkelee College of Music, is to think of a great song unfolding like a small box that’s found within a larger box, which is found in a larger box still. The first box, or verse, that you open should give a general view of the world that you’ve created in your song. You can open with something general, just like you’re beginning an important conversation. In the second verse, reveal more. If you’re writing a song about a current issue or political statement, then the second verse could mean articulating your views more emphatically and clearly.
8. Build the bridge.
Now, remember, not every song has to have a bridge. Many songs don’t. But I think that it can be a useful element. It can break up a song if you’ve chosen to change keys for it or simply change the progression. But more importantly, the bridge can be the very climax of a song. Think of a ballad from a great singer, such as Whitney Houston or Carrie Underwood, and you’ll probably remember her big high note at the end of the bridge. This moment may be what takes your song from being pedestrian and simplistic to something really memorable. To build the bridge, try playing only the six and fifth chords, or the four and the second chords with two beats each.
9. Make a final draft.
Some songs may be written in a matter of minutes, like John Denver’s “Annie’s Song”, but most take a few days or weeks to polish. Over time, making notes and changes on the original staff paper, a final version will come together. Make a final draft on a new sheet of staff paper with lyrics.
Finally, remember that songwriting is a creative art. While I’ve laid out a formulaic method for how to do it, it’s important to know that it’s a method that’s meant to be bent and broken. The most important step of all in writing piano music is the K.I.S.S. idea: “Keep it simple, silly.”
Photo by Daniel Oines