2. Compose at the piano
Many composers - with good reason - will totally ignore that first stage, simply because it doesn’t suit their creative process. They’re at the top of their game when they get straight down to the keyboard and begin messing around with ideas.
If that resonates with you, then you’re welcome to do likewise and ignore that first stage. After all, this article is just a guide, designed to get you to the top of your own composing game. You’re encouraged to discard it as soon as it stops serving you.
That said, it’s very often the case that composers have to work their way up to this stage. It takes a certain degree of experience to organically develop music from the inception of an idea to the completion of a work. You’ll probably need to have a bit of compositional experience under your belt to do this. That’s why we stress the value of planning.
At any rate, plan or no plan, ideas will arise at some point. When they do, let them. Trust in them, expand them, vary them, combine them with other ideas. If it’s a nice-sounding chord, string a few others into a growing progression. If it’s a tune, envelop it with some harmony. In time, it’ll naturally evolve and expand. Just make sure that you keep note of everything that you think of.
It should go without saying that, particularly as you’re writing for piano, the optimal way to bring out and nurture ideas in this way is by playing at the keyboard - if you have access to one.
If you’re an aspiring composer, you’ll no doubt be familiar with digital notation software - Sibelius, Dorico, MuseScore and the rest - and you may well be using it to notate your pieces already. Unless you’re skilled enough to compose in your head, straight to the page, then there’s a good chance you’ll be using it to develop your ideas, too.
That these programs exist is a technological marvel. They empower you to produce sheet music of a professional standard in no time at all, and to work on composition practically and quickly. But be wary of placing too much faith in digital MIDI playback.
Any music teacher worth their salt will agree: writing at the keyboard is far better than writing with software. Particularly in the early stages of writing, or if you’re new to it altogether. It encourages you to develop music in a natural and nuanced way. This is what puts the ‘soul’ in. It facilitates inspiration and spontaneity. It widens your creative horizons. It steers you clear not only of the mechanical approach that MIDI leads to, but also of the demoralising feeling that your music doesn’t sound that good. Playback is there to support, not lead.
Trust your ear. If it sounds good to you, then that means it is good, for your personal quality barometer is all that matters. The long and the short of composition is to create, and to do that successfully you’ll need have faith in your ability and recognise the potential in everything you do create. Get into the habit of maintaining this and you’ll encourage your very best ideas. This is why it’s crucial to rely on your playing and avoid MIDI playback as much as possible, especially at this stage.
In time, you’ll gradually work out the optimal way to get in touch with your inner creativity. There are no right and wrong answers here, only those that work and don’t work for you. A huge part of this has nothing to do with music, rather psychology. You need to get good at believing in yourself, at persevering, at getting in the zone. Establishing a location dedicated solely to writing, and working out a composition schedule or routine, will work wonders when it comes to finding your best creative headspace.
And if you ever find yourself doubting that you’re cut out for composing, feeling as though your ideas aren’t good enough, just don’t give thoughts like that the time of day. Close the lid. Come back later. Things are guaranteed to sound different with fresh ears.
For extra tips on nurturing material in the initial stages of the composing process, take a look at steps three to six in the article on writing a song on guitar, mentioned previously. Although it approaches composition from a guitarist’s perspective and focuses on popular songwriting, it still explores a range of creative steps that you can take when approaching your piano compositions.
As it's focused more specifically on songwriting, it's able to go into more detail on the theory, exploring how to write chord progressions and melodies, develop phrases and structures, and so on. If that's the kind of support you're looking for, give it a quick read.