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Beginning piano composition

Posted By: alex s

Beginning piano composition - 09/28/12 03:55 PM

I have been playing the piano on and off for over ten years now. My musical maturity has progressed to the point that I feel confident in getting some melodic ideas out of my head and putting them in compositional form. My main interest would be writing nocturnes in the form of Field and Chopin. I have played several of these works and studied the scores. My grounding in theory is fairly basic. Any resources out there would anyone suggest so I can ultimately write a full nocturne? My approach would be first to analyze the Field nocturnes (his seem less fully developed than Chopin's), understand his techniques, write a few pieces that mirror a specific nocturne. I think by understanding the "why's" of using such techniques of what makes these nocturnes beautiful, that will help my understanding of creating something of my own. From there, I would use those techniques and write something original. Sounds like a good approach? What technical understanding do I need to write a piece to see what works? Counterpoint, harmony, and knowledge of intervals?
Posted By: alex s

Re: Beginning piano composition - 09/28/12 05:47 PM

I know these are a lot of questions, but I had a question about a melody as well. Is it okay to pick a key and try to hum a melody in my head, write it down, develop it and add harmony, etc? Also on a somewhat related note, is it preferable to hum a melody and figure out the key secondly or vice versa?
Posted By: Sand Tiger

Re: Beginning piano composition - 09/29/12 11:30 PM

As to the second question, different people use different methods. Experiment and see what works for you. For original melody lines, the "taste test" tends to be more important than how a person gets there. By taste test, I mean how audiences react to it, though before audiences there is the composer ear's, heart and spirit.

As for the question about Nocturnes, I know nothing about that form, other what what I learned in five minutes from the Wikipedia entry. It has to do with the mood of the night, often imitating nature sounds, with something about four part harmonies being used.

I might have all that wrong. The part about night is probably correct so I'll go with that. Start with simple pieces that evokes that mood to you. It might be as simple as a single note melody line, or a melody line with a single note harmony on the left hand. Build on that. The mood is all important for that particular form.

Studying other pieces of music is likely not a good use of your time right now. It is more important to get into the habit of creating and experimenting than studying. After 10 years you have more than enough vocabulary to work with. You don't need to learn more words, you need to actually sit down and write.

I'll repeat that I am a fan of process. Play, free play, record for five minute stretches. Listen back. Take the best of the bunch and embellish upon it. A pleasing section might be as small as a single motif. It can be repeated, inverted, moved up, moved down, shortened, lengthened, to give flower to a short piece. From there, the other parts of the nocturne can be built.

Spend an hour a day for a month on actually writing music using that kind of process, and I will guarantee that you will have written some interesting music after that month. Keep studying historical pieces for another month, and you'll likely only have learned more about vocabulary and structure and still not have written anything.
Posted By: alex s

Re: Beginning piano composition - 10/01/12 07:18 PM

Thanks for the reply. But wouldn't you need to know some of the harmonic and other devices to give a composition added flavor? Maybe I am thinking it all wrong but I see it as how a painter uses different techniques that are learned. Some of the lucky few may intuitively pick up on this, and some may take much longer, but I think it helps to have a few stylistic techniques spelled out to give some working room for a new piece. I liked the Lucky Penny piece - the beginning melody sounds like its from an 80s song. Facebook is one stock I would have written naked puts a short while after it opened. Risky move though!
Posted By: Sand Tiger

Re: Beginning piano composition - 10/02/12 03:19 AM

Alex S, I would tend to vote no. Because you asked for advice, I think it best that you start spending time on writing and very little on further study for now. Ten years of playing off and on should give you plenty of foundation. You've probably learned more than a dozen complex pieces of music, and hundreds of simple ones, during your ten years. That's more than enough to serve as a foundation.

Beginners need to learn some vocabulary and grammar in order to write. However, you have ten years foundation in musical grammar and vocabulary. It may not feel like enough to you. A person will never be "ready."

Try writing music for an hour a day for a month and see how far you can go. Most people that devote that much regular time to the task, and suffer through all of what they see as poor music coming out of them in the process, tend to be amazed at what they have written after only a month.

Some might find it useful to think of it in terms of learning to play piano. Many beginners dutiful do their hour a day of practice. Aspiring composers that do that with writing music, can do great things. I've seen others do it. I've done it myself.

You'll likely learn much more about harmonic devices by actually writing than you will by reading about it. If a nocturne indeed has four part harmonies, how can someone aspire to that and make it work, if they can't even create a simple piece with a basic two part harmony.

Walk before you run, run before you try the pole vault. There are many simple, powerful and effective music techniques used the world over. Learn the basics first, copy if you must, perhaps by writing some derivative pieces based on other works. The end goal of a modern classical nocturne written by an amateur is likely to be somewhat derivative in any case.

Focus on the mood of the night because that is the heart of the nocturne. Perhaps start with a short repeating melody line perhaps with a simple chord progression that invokes that mood to you. If you can't invoke the mood in a simple piece, all the studying in the world probably won't get you to where you want to go. No one paints a masterpiece their first time out, certainly no one that needs to ask for advice.

For many aspiring writers, immersion is what gets them kick started. Many cut way back on other activities (TV, Internet, Facebook, reading) to focus on their music writing.
Posted By: alex s

Re: Beginning piano composition - 10/02/12 05:29 PM

I see where you are coming from and I think you made a good point. If I can't intuitively grasp how to write something with a basic grounding of theory, then I probably can't write anything on a grander scale. I think it's just like how you write papers for classes in school - they don't teach you all the english composition techniques, you just write. And then, that is where the learning of techniques come into play.

Therefore, I'll start with something simple and post it here soon for a listen. I would love a critique from another artist.

Thanks sandtiger!
Posted By: Foxes

Re: Beginning piano composition - 10/28/12 03:46 AM

Stop thinking you need this solid foundation in harmony, counterpoint and whatnot to compose, just sit at the damn piano and play something pretty.
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