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?
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.
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!