How to write piano sheet music and compose a song

23.12.2021 Ben Maloney Piano

If you’re wondering whether to try your hand at writing sheet music, then hesitate no longer. Absolutely go for it. Writing sheet music for the piano is a lot easier than it may seem. It’s not something reserved for learned composers and experienced pianists. All that’s required is a bit of imagination.

This is a guide to writing piano sheet music. Whether you want to pick up some composition techniques or just know more about the notation software that’s available, you’re covered.

If you’re not at all familiar with music notation, you do need to be. It’s like a language – until you learn how to communicate with it, it’ll be difficult to express your ideas in an understandable way. 

Take a look at this quick guide to reading sheet music if you’re yet to get to grips with it. Then you’ll be in a better position to make the most of this article.
 

Writing piano sheet music: an overview 


Writing music for the piano starts with the birth of an idea and ends with the creation of a piece of notated sheet music - printed, hand-written, or rendered digitally. 

An integral part of this journey is the act of notating itself – actually putting notes on a page. This can be done the old-fashioned way, with pencil and paper, or with swish notation software which speeds (and tidies) things up greatly.

However you decide to go about the writing process, it should be separated from the composing process, especially if this is all still new to you. Notating your ideas - physically or digitally - is one thing, but actually creating those ideas is another. 

We’re making this distinction because it’s too easy to let the writing process get in the way of musicality, especially if you’re using electronic software. 

The majority of notation programs have digital playback, which allows you to hear what you’ve written using digital instruments.

Playback can be helpful but it’s tempting to treat what you hear as gospel, when it isn’t necessarily the best test for your ideas. For this reason, music teachers tend to discourage beginners from using these digital instruments to compose, so they can musically nurture their work. 

So, we’re going to start with the composing and move on to the notating. Then we’ll look at bringing everything together to create a piece of sheet music. This is the information that you will have come here for - this is what’s going to get you writing sheet music. 

You can use the contents below to jump to each section.
 

How to write piano sheet music
 

  1. Before you start
  2. Develop your ideas
  3. Compose at the keyboard
  4. Bring your ideas together
  5. Handwriting piano sheet music
  6. Creating piano sheet music with notation software
  7. Bring your piece together
  8. Finishing touches
  9. What to do with your completed piece
     

Composing for the piano


Composition and songwriting are arts, not sciences. This means that there’s no one magic formula that can be put into words – there are no right and wrong ways to go about it. The bottom line is to create music in a way that suits you.

Still, it’s helpful to bear a few things in mind – tips and tricks that can streamline the process and help you to create your piece of functioning piano music. 

Before you start


Before you play any note, it’s worth thinking about what you want to achieve with your new piece. 

Ask yourself how it should sound or what kind of style or genre it should emulate. Think about length, mood, energy, pace. Will it be a challenging piece or an easy song? These are just a few ideas that can give you some direction before you get started.

Then again, this kind of approach can drag. It isn’t a particularly ‘musical’ way to start. You might find that it just overcomplicates things and clouds your rhythm. Some musicians prefer to just get stuck in. See what works for you.

Develop your ideas


Something could materialise when you ask yourself those questions or a tune might pop into your head out of nowhere. You might even stumble across a nice motif while noodling at the keyboard.

One way or another, an idea will come. However it appears, just go with it. Play it, sing it, vary it. Add notes here and there. If it’s a chord, find others that go well with it. If it’s a melody, try a chord alongside it.

Learn to trust your ear. If it sounds good, that means it is good – that’s all that really matters. If there is a secret to composition, it’s this: find your voice and have faith in it. Once you do, you’ll tap into your very best ideas.

Looking ahead, you’ll gradually figure out the best way to connect with your creativity. To labour the point, there are no right and wrong answers – only answers that are right and wrong for you.

Compose at the keyboard


Eventually, you will get to the point where you can hear ideas fully formed in your head and notate them immediately. But before you get to this level, you’ll probably have to use an instrument to develop your composition.

Seeing as it’s piano music that you want to write, a keyboard’s going to be the best place to hammer out those ideas. Straight away you’ll hear how the chords, melodies, and phrases that you come up with are going to sound in performance. 

You can also compose with other musical instruments, for the keyboard. Flute, saxophone, violin - whatever you have. There’s such a thing as idiomatic, ‘pianistic’ writing, but seeing as a piano can do what most other instruments can – and more – you can transfer any ideas that you come up with using a different instrument. 

In piano music, it’s not uncommon for the right hand playing in the treble clef to take on more melodic material, while the left hand in the bass clef attends to more harmonic duties. Try incorporating this into your composition - play with some chords and arpeggios in the lower and middle registers with a melody higher up. 

Perhaps it hits your ear better to have bigger chords spread across the keyboard. Chords whose notes move together to those of the next and onwards. Or maybe you feel like playing more melodically in both hands, though this kind of texture demands more independence from your hands and can be difficult to execute.

Your skill level will likely affect the type of material that you’re able to play, but it shouldn’t affect the kind of music that you compose. And that’s where notation comes in. 

Bringing your ideas together


You may have already made a few notes to flag particular shapes and phrases, so that you don’t forget them when inspiration strikes. But at some point you’ll have to start writing things down to make progress.

Perhaps you have a series of ideas that need to be strung together – a chord progression, a couple of tunes, a great-sounding motif and a loose but pleasant sequence of notes. Or perhaps your material is already assuming some kind of structure, a verse-chorus kind of thing, but it’s beginning to get too big. 

Whether your ideas are too large or too numerous, eventually there’ll be too much to keep track of mentally, and you’ll have little choice but to write them down to bring your piece together. 

Methods of writing piano sheet music


You have a few options when it comes to deciding how you’re going to actually create your sheet music. We’re going to look broadly at the two options that are open to you: notation software and the pencil.   

Whether one method or the other is right for you largely depends on how you want to use your sheet music. Hopefully you’ll get a sense of which will suit your needs better. 

Handwriting piano sheet music


Writing sheet music by hand is a great way to set down your ideas quickly in the early stages of composition. You can draw a stave and fill it with notes on any kind of paper, and then you can polish your ideas on the keyboard.

You can also buy manuscript or staff paper with staves printed on it, which will immediately tidy up your notes and allow you to jot things down quickly. 

But when it comes to writing out a complete piece, hand-writing sheet music can be a long-winded process, even if you’re using manuscript paper. 

It can also get quite messy if you’re inexperienced at notating by hand. Writing piano music across two staves means the notes have to line up properly – this can be one of the great challenges of handwritten notation. 

Should your sheet music be intended for personal use only, then tidiness and legibility won’t be an issue. It doesn’t have to look pretty – as long as you know what’s on it, it’ll do the job. All it really needs to be is an aid to memory.

But, if you’re looking to produce a work for others to read or perform from, then it’s worth exploring notation software. See if it’s a good fit for you.

Creating piano sheet music with notation software


Music notation software allows you to construct a piece of sheet music digitally. The great benefits of this method are threefold: it’s quick, it looks great, and the digital playback allows you to hear what you’ve written. 

There are a few good programs out there to buy and download on your Mac or PC. Sibelius and Dorico are the most popular, but there are others. Each has its pros and cons, so it’s worth doing some research to see which suits you best. If you’re just thinking of writing piano music for now, then they’re all pretty capable at that. 

A major advantage of this method is its unmatched efficiency. You can get your ideas down quickly, you don’t have to worry about lining up the notes, and of course you can chop and change your music to your heart’s content.

Perhaps you just want to get your ideas on to the page and don’t need the polished scores that notation software can craft. You can still use a pencil and paper for that. But, once you’ve invested in some software, it’ll be there to support all your sheet music needs.

This software is a marvel and has revolutionised writing sheet music. However, you mustn’t place too much faith in its digital MIDI playback. Trust your playing. No matter how good those digital instruments get, they’ll never better the visceral experience of hearing a real-life piano being played by a living, breathing player.   

Creating a piece of music


Musical composition and musical notation are two separate processes, but they unfold in tandem. Opting for a notation method certainly won’t put an end to your composition. The following steps will help you sculpt your ideas into a fully fledged piece of art. 

Bring your piece together


It won’t do you any good to kick back simply because you’ve written a functioning chord scheme or a memorable tune. Composing a piece of music is just that – it’s about the work as a whole and not its constituent parts. 

So you’ll need to find ways to join your ideas together and work them into a larger structure that has a sense of musical purpose. Each section, each passage has to seem like it justifies the direction it takes and the material it comprises.  

Again, there’s no science to this - composing isn’t a box-ticking exercise. But there are some things that you can try deliberately.

Contrast can help to develop your work. Try following a loud and busy section with a more laid-back one. Utilising dynamics can really bring a piece to life – even digital playback will pay attention to this. 

Repetition or the recurrence of material can also instil a sense of structure, or perhaps your piece will be marked by a gradual thickening of texture or intensity. A composition can assume all kinds of attributes, and can even begin to almost compose itself as some kind of characteristic naturally emerges. 

Finishing touches


When you’re satisfied that the notes themselves are in place - that the musical substance of your work is complete - there are a few things still to consider.

Make sure your key signatures and your time signature are correct. Dynamics were already mentioned, but it’s not uncommon to forget about them until this late stage. They’re an underrated parameter of music and have the power to turn a good work into a great one.

Make sure you’ve set the tempo, too. It can even speed up or slow down in the course of the piece - but ensure you don’t make these kinds of changes just for the sake of it.

Articulation is another thing to pay attention to. Lyrical phrases will call for slurs, those bow-shaped marks that diminish gaps between notes to create that legato feel. Other passages may need their notes to be punctuated separately – there are staccato dots for this.

It sounds obvious, but take a moment to check if your piece is even playable. So think about things like how spread out the notes are, and how many have to be played at any one time. Having said that, it’s surprising what pianists are capable of - see below.

What to do with your completed piece


It’s important to know when to step back – perfection can be a dangerous target. When you do, you’ll have to decide what to do with your sheet music. Is it for personal use? Is it for others to play? 

If you're using notation software, for example, you can print your music or export a PDF. Perhaps you want to distribute it more widely – we have an article on publishing sheet music to help.

In any case, it’s an achievement in itself to have reached the end of the composition process. It’s an incredible accomplishment – to bring something into the world out of nothing. Be proud of what you’ve done.

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