Write a Song Using only Piano!

The piano is a wonderful instrument, and can be all you really need to write a song. How often do you hide behind lots of different instruments to create interest in your music when you could just write a better composition?

Piano?

All too often, we as home musicians focus way too much on creating a production rather than a song. By that I mean that we use lots of weird and wonderful instruments and sounds to fill the soundscape with interesting focal points, keeping us entertained by the novelty of all the different sounds instead of by a genuinely well written song. If you take away all the pizzicato violins, thundering synth basses, and rhythmic pads, are you left with a song or – essentially – a percussion piece with each note simply rhythmic rather than melodic?

Music is a funny thing. If you look at it purely pragmatically it almost seems as though it’s just a bunch of mathematic rules that dictate the flow of notes, but ignoring the emotional value of music is a surefire way to end up with a song that doesn’t evoke anything from the listener. There’s a good acid test for a piece of music: could it be covered on piano and still be recognisable? Have a listen to these examples to see what I mean.

Examples

Remember Outkast’s Hey Ya? Remember how undeniably world shatteringly huge it was? It’s because it was a good song! Will Young’s cover may switch up the key a little, but the piano takes the role of the bass, guitars, and synths and it’s still instantly recognisable as Hey Ya.

Ah, Alicia Keys. If there was ever a prime example of creating contemporary piano music, Keys is up there with the best of them. Even though there’s nothing but piano in this track, it’s instantly recognisable. The studio version beefs up the instrumentation, but it’s the piano piece, the original melodies, that drive it through.

One of the most recognisable guitar riffs of all time, Nirvana’s Smells Like Teen Spirit is a masterclass in unforgettable melody. The guitar is another instrument that can easily take on the task of composing entire songs, but here in Tori Amos’s piano cover of Teen Spirit the entire song is encapsulated in those keys – bass, lead, hook, all with a subtle beauty that transcends the need to change the amp settings on the guitar for different parts, combine instruments, and so on…

What to do

So, what can we do about it? Well, try loading up a nice, basic acoustic piano patch in your sampler. Try writing something that feels like music before you even think about creating any other instruments, and you’ll soon see where you start leaning on those production crutches to add excitement to music before you even start to approach a song. You don’t have to be a great keyboardist – part of the beauty of modern DAW software is that you can take your time, mix between recording yourself playing and drawing in notes and chords, and rearrange things as you go.

Focus on composition; don’t just play notes that work with each other, try to really make each note, each chord, each rest, count towards the memorability of the song you’re making. When you’ve got yourself something that sounds good, that’s when you can start playing producer and add in interest with other instruments, or perhaps even divide up the piano part between other instruments and remove it entirely. The important thing is that the piece will be stronger for having that base, and you will be making better music!

Have fun playing with just the piano this week – and if you come up with anything let us know! Check out the rest of our assignments for an interesting task to get you thinking about music in new ways, and most importantly enjoy your quest to make music at home!

  • http://www.facebook.com/marcusprato Marcus Prato

    Love this post- and so glad you thought of this. I’m classically trained in piano, and have been writing my own music on piano and my Rhodes for a solid 10 years. I have tons of material but can’t figure out what to do with it- do I just record as piano? I don’t sing, but I have a gal that have a loose project with- do we have her sing and strum over my compositions? Or do I chop up my stuff into piano loops and make them more into electronica instrumentals? I’m a better composer than producer, but I spend all my time these days learning production and trying to complete tracks. It’s a classic lack of focus really, and my wife always says my electronica stuff sounds busy and not distinguishable, but my piano stuff is so beautiful and has soul, and people would like to hear that more. I have to admit, I’m addicted to gear, and have more stuff that I can’t even put to full use as I haven’t learned all the ins and outs (eg my Virus TI2, FM8, Maschine, not to mention FabFilter set for comp and EQ, the list goes on and the Rhodes sits idle!

    • http://www.ohdratdigital.com Chris

      Hi Marcus! Wow, I’d love to hear some of your work! I always say that art is about process, not product, so I think it’s all about finding a process that really works for you. Have you tried approaching one of your Rhodes pieces as if you were going to ‘remix’ it? Perhaps this would allow you to find exactly what it is that you want to add to your original pieces with your electronic setup – and similarly, what you want to take away…

      • http://www.facebook.com/marcusprato Marcus Prato

        Hi Chris, appreciate your response and sorry for the delay in mine. Thanks for the interest in checking out some of my stuff. You can listen to some random stuff at: soundcloud.com/mprato- at the top are some iphone gb tracks I did while riding the bus to work but towards the bottom are raw audio tracks of Rhodes riffs recorded with iphone soundcloud app. As for process vs. product, I actually grapple with that. I suppose I’m still searching for the right process, and what tools I should turn to. I absolutely suffer from too many palettes and it keeps me more on the prep and less on the painting! I have been trying to take some of my Rhodes riffs (which tend to have sections that stand on their own as if they were purely played on piano solo) and turn them into loops, using maybe the first “movement” as a verse and then a second movement as a chorus. Then I try to add a little bass and a drum loop (to be replaced with an original drum pattern later) and finally, some synth hits, pads, FX, etc. to round it out- by this time it’s becoming more electronic. Anyway, sorry for the long post but thanks again for taking a listen! Let me know your thoughts.

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