The true test of a musician should not be measured by their ability to recreate the work of others but to present something that is their very own. There are countless people who could play works of Beethoven or The Beatles. However, how many have composed their own pieces? Certainly much less. Therefore, what defines a truly great musician is their ability to create something that lasts long after their lifespan.
While we believe there is a place and a use for most different instruments in today’s music, not all instruments are created equal in regards to songwriting. Some songs were definitely not written in the way you think they were, and while most artists will know a little bit (enough to mess around) on some instruments that have nothing to do with their genre, there is one universal instrument which we believe everyone interested in songwriting should learn and attempt to use to improve their compositions. This is of course the piano. After all, playing piano scales is something both beginners and professionals alike must keep to regardless of their ability. But why the piano? What does the piano offer that other instruments don’t?
Some good tips here. 😉
What sets the piano apart
The piano is the ultimate polyphonic instrument. With proper use of the sustain pedal, you have the ability to play up to every single key at the same time. This can be used brilliantly to play rich, full sounds with no gaps by playing arpeggios on the left hand (i.e., play a chord as a series of ascending or descending notes) and sustaining the notes, or empty, solemn progressions running just two or three notes simultaneously when the time calls for it.
When applied to songwriting, this is arguably the main reason that it is the best all-purpose songwriting instrument you can have: It is one of the only instruments that allows you to play both chords and a melody at the same time. On a piano, when you play the lead and backing at the same time, the chords and melody can intermingle more closely with each other, providing a continuum of definition between the melody and the rhythm of the passage. If you like, you can even have two melodies going on at once, one with the left hand holding down a tighter rhythmic timing, and one with the right providing a dynamic lead melody. The possibilities are endless when there is no restriction on playing a simultaneous sound.
Lead melodies from a piano are catchier
One thing you can always use a piano for, no matter the genre, is to compose vocal melodies. First off, it is simply easier to get instant feedback of the melody in reference to the backing chords and other parts of the song, because you can play the rhythm and the melody at the same time on a keyboard – something not many other instruments allow you to do.
Also, melodies penned down from a keyboard-based instrument, in most cases, are frankly much catchier and much more likely to stick in the listener’s mind over a melody that was simply hummed off the top of someone’s head. While a guitar isn’t always bad for writing lead vocal melodies, a typical guitar playing style will lead most melodies to sound less dynamic in range, and more melodically repetitive and flatter, as you will likely be hitting the same notes over and over again. It is much easier to create an evolving melody with a sense of movement on a keyboard because you have to slide your whole hand several inches to get a significant pitch change out of a guitar, while most musicians can play over an octave range, playing piano scales can be left without lifting a finger, no pun intended.
Simply put, vocal melodies written from a piano will usually sound more dynamic in range, and with the increased range, comes more options, leading to an overall more interesting melody. This allows you to more accurately determine the feeling you are conveying to your listener that will emerge in the final product.
As Aaron explains, composing doesn’t have to be difficult.
What advice can you give an aspiring songwriter?
Burt Bacharach once said, “The hands always move to the familiar.” By expanding your skills on your instrument, you will expand what is ‘familiar’, and hence the array of songwriting tools at your disposal. So here are my top tips for the piano-playing songwriter.
1. Think like a pro-ducer
At home, start to listen to and recognize how simple the basic pop piano track can be. More often than not, we play too much. The first verse with whole notes in both hands, or half note chords in our right hand with whole notes in the left hand can be just what the song needs to create proper build and dynamic towards the chorus. Thinking like a producer, we can learn how subdividing the beats builds energy. As the song progresses, our right hand might move from whole notes to quarter notes and finally to eighth notes to reflect that build that is created as the band gathers energy and finally explodes in full swing at the chorus.
Remembering we can take advantage of the full range of the piano, we can start small and high in the first verse. Keeping our hands close together, we reflect an intimacy that might be there in the lyric. When we want to reflect the expansiveness, heaviness, or intensity of the main message, we spread our hands apart across the greater length of the keyboard.
2. All about that bass
A song like The Beatles’ Lady Madonna has a great left-hand bassline that has not been paralleled by many piano-playing songwriters in popular music since. The question is, are you going to let a bass guitar player out-write us on the piano in the left-hand riff realm?
To create an interesting bass riff of your own take a random bar of rhythm from a song and play notes from a scale to it in timing. Reorder them until you have a riff you like. Now test-drive each chord to the riff in the appropriate key, and collect the chords you liked best. Arrange the order of the chords to your liking and you will have a potential verse or chorus to a new song – and a new way of writing more songs.
3. Just play it ✔
Remember when you used to sit for hours and just bang away on some chords on the piano and improvise some singing over them? When it seemed so incredible just to be playing music? Whether you last felt that way two days ago or thirty years ago, that’s the feeling you need to get back to. There is a buzz to creating music because we are built to do it, and for no other purpose than the pure love of it.
4. Mr. Metronome
Okay, so the metronome is not everyone’s best friend and it can be argued that most piano players have pretty good timing comparatively speaking anyway. It could, however, also be argued that your sense of time can never be over-developed and that a good song can become great if it sits nicely in the pocket. The fact is the metronome is the tool that can get us there the fastest and most reliably.
Try putting a metronome on about 60 and instead of playing merely close to the ticking, try shifting concentration on hitting the ticks dead on. Make sure you set it up so that the piano is slightly louder than the metronome, so that the metronome ticks disappear when you have hit them perfectly on time. After some time you will actually hear your songs straighten out and become more musical and hopefully more likeable.
5. That’s why they call it the blues
Your artistic innovations become more valuable when they are born out of some tradition. For instance, if you put in your time learning every blues song you can get your hands on, you will be in a better position to see how to take the blues to the next level, for instance by coming up with a new fusion with some other style.
Thanks to the internet, learning how to play all of, say, Billy Joel’s songs on the piano is easier now than ever before, and if you throw in some Leonard Cohen with some Phil Collins you would have a very nice traditional toolbox to write some very interesting new songs from.
6. All for one and one for all
Write with singers and other musicians of the non-piano variety. By writing with singers in every major genre and players of any earthly instrument, you get the broadest possible range of creative landscapes to write within. Some of this music might even challenge your definition of what your music sounds like – which is a great thing, because it destroys self-limitation and develops the kind of creative openness from which great art can spring.
7. The keys to the castle on the hill
Learning the raw materials (piano scales and primary chords) in every key will encourage you to write in some of the keys less traveled by, and in doing so inspire some new melodies and lyrics as well as some fresh technical ornaments in your accompaniment that just don’t happen in the keys of C, G or F. Treat the materials in a key like a palette of paints, explore some of the shades you’ve never used before and see what hits the canvas.
8. Reach farther
Try using more extended harmonic options. Most piano players blend extensions like Sus 2, Sus 4, major and minor 6ths, and 7ths into their writing to help create greater harmonic colour and movement. Motion in songwriting creates emotion, and writing songs that make the listener feel something is one of your primary objectives. Harmonic extensions should, however, be added based on intentional calculation and thoughtful consideration rather than from muscle memory or a limitation of options. You should plan what you play and play what you plan. For ideas on almost every possible chord on piano, see our piano scales and chords page.
9. Mistakes maketh the piano man
Don’t fret too much about making mistakes as you develop your song. Mistakes can lead to some very cool sounding chords. Your “mistake” might end up being the very twist you need at the end of your song to add spice to your tune. Mistakes are just part of the process. Music composition is like pottery. You start out with a dirty blob (an idea) and you mold it into something. The process isn’t always pretty, but In the end, with persistence and skill, you may end up with something beautiful.
10. Variety is the spice of life
Once you have firmly established your melodic phrase and chorus, don’t pound them into the ground. You might play your melody twice the same exact way, but by the third time you ought to be embellishing it so that even though it’s the same melody, it sounds different. That might mean playing it in a different octave, adding more bass, more flair, or a slightly different rhythm. However you do it, enhance the melody throughout the piece. Don’t let it grow stale or your beautiful melody will begin to bore your listeners.
11. Practice puts you in the big leagues
Rehearsing your songs after you’ve finished writing them sounds to some songwriters like the most obvious next step. For these songwriters, the work of making the song a performance really only starts when the ink on the page is dry. For other writers, those that always seem to have a new song idea waiting in the wings, rehearsing something finished seems like a waste of good writing time.
Rehearsing the finished work allows the songs to survive their first three or four performances in front of an audience, and those performances provide a great opportunity to determine if a new work is engaging listeners. Rehearsing songs in front of a mirror can also helped train you to look up at the audience while performing, and therefore helps you see your performance from the audience’s perspective.
12. It’s never lonely together
Now, it might difficult be to perform live or record, it might hard be to write with someone, it might be trouble just to jam. Regardless of the circumstances, your goal should be to just play wherever and whenever you can. Success often follows enthusiasm around… but nothing cripples pure enthusiasm faster and more completely than the single-minded pursuit of fame and fortune. As Shakespeare said, “If music be the food of love, play on.”
Can you figure out what these 4 magical chords are?
While it’s true a good song can come from any instrument, and a great songwriter will be a great songwriter given any instrument, if you are trying to compose intricate, catchy melodies or interesting chord progressions, the piano would best be your weapon of choice. Even for a pumping metal song, we think the piano is the right place to start when laying down the initial chords and vocal melody – the bare bones of the song. No matter what genre you’re in, you’d be surprised at the change in your melodic quality when you first begin writing from a keyboard-based instrument. And even if you don’t intend to use it in every new tune of yours, we still urge every songwriter to learn a little bit of piano.
The ability for a musician to express themselves usually begins by learning to play their favorite music. However, the journey only really matures once they begin to create their own pieces using the skills they’ve attained to construct something that not only resonates with them, but their audience. After all, no one learns the piano to play only to themselves. Music is all about sharing, therefore, to share something which was created through your one-of-a-kind perspective is the epitome of musical endearment.
What do you think? Is the piano the best instrument to write music? Discuss your favorite songwriting tips in the comments below!
1. JacksFilms: How To Write A Hit Song
2. Aaron Bonneau: The Best Instrument For Songwriters To Learn
3. Take Note: Simple Piano Tips For Songwriters
4. Songwriting Magazine: Ten Tips For The Piano Playing Songwriter
5. The Beatles: Lady Madonna
6. David Nevue: How To Compose Piano Music
7. William Shakespeare: Twelfth Night – Act 1: Scene 1: Line 1
8. Axis of Awesome: – 4 Chords – Amazing, Funny, Comedy, Singing, Just Brilliant