• Register
  • Help
Results 1 to 4 of 4

Topic: Tip Of The Week: Composing with only a piano

Share/Bookmark
  1. #1

    Tip Of The Week: Composing with only a piano

    Composing at the piano certainly has a long, illustrious history. All of us can picture classical composers sitting at their keyboards, working out their scores for as many instruments as they wanted. Only later would they hear musicians playing the separate lines on their various instruments.

    With MIDI, this is still a viable way to compose, and with a long list of advantages over sitting down to compose on a physical piano.

    I think that MIDI musician/composers sometimes overwhelm themselves trying to develop music by working with all of the orchestral instruments from the very start, especially people new to computer recording. People of experience can work perfectly well that way, but I want to pass on a few suggestions for people who might like to try composing first with just one virtual instrument - the piano.

    I'm talking about using DAW software, since that's my point of reference. As usual, the working methods and challenges are different for notation users.

    I often restrict myself to using only the GPO piano as I write. I keep working until I'm satisfied that I've developed a solid piece of music that works with just that one instrument. At least the foundation is in place - the chords, melodies, harmonies, rhythms. I know I'll later be expanding things beyond this basic version, but it's gratifying to know that what I've written stands on its own in this simplest form.

    It's not as if I've necessarily written something that could be actually played on the piano. Sometimes I keep it within that restriction, but other times I have multiple parts happening in this foundation version which would call for a talented Octopus to play.

    Since we're working with MIDI, there's no reason that this piano sketch of a piece has to be on a single MIDI track. As I start developing counterparts and harmonies, I may record those on tracks of their own. I may record a bass part on its own track, counterparts on their own tracks, and so forth.

    Once I'm happy that the thing hangs together, then there's the fascinating second part of the project. I start expanding the music, assigning various parts of my MIDI tracks to appropriate instruments. I can easily experiment - try some of it with one instrument, audition it with another etc.

    In some cases, one of my piano MIDI tracks may be ready for trying as-is with a new instrument. In the case of other tracks that are more dense with notes, I'll select the notes I want in the Piano Roll View, and copy them into a new instrument's track.

    And from there, I do passes over the tracks as they accumulate, recording volume data, vibrato, whatever else I want.

    Eventually, what was at first a piano piece, is now exploded into one for any sized band/orchestra I want.

    A lot of work? Sure. But it can be a very interesting way to work, at least worth a few experiments if you haven't used MIDI this way before.

    Randy

  2. #2
    Senior Member Frank D's Avatar
    Join Date
    Apr 2006
    Location
    Suburban NYC
    Posts
    1,020

    Re: Tip Of The Week: Composing with only a piano

    Hi Randy,

    Thanks for all these great tips ... week after week, there's something in there for us to either try or, at least, ponder. It's much appreciated!

    This week's tip is a good one, and I'll share a variation of it based on the way I usually work.

    IMPORTANT TO NOTE: I am not a performance pianist ... my methods would not be of interest for someone who has better piano chops than I!

    I too usually start with a single piano track ... if it's in the jazz, theater, pop, etc., idioms ... essentially any non-classical style ... I start with the metronome tickin' and lay down dome sort of harmonic and rhythmic roadmap ... as simple as some four-voice chords. In some cases, it may ultimately become part of an actual piano track in my final arrangement/orchestration, but then again, it may not. It's just the way I like to get some form into the new project. Even if I have a melody buzzing around my head, I will have no doubt worked out the harmony against it before the DAW studio session stage, so I start with the harmony-rhythm aspect 9-times-outta-10.

    Where I differ from Randy's method, just a bit, is I will use separate piano tracks for when I add the melody and bass lines (they can, however, all be on the same channel for now). I like being able to mute/solo the three components, even at this early stage.

    After I have laid in (on separate piano tracks) the harmony, lead/melody, and bass, a reiteration process begins: create a more interesting bass line (necessitating a tweaking of the harmony), etc., play around with the melody, etc.

    After this stage, I cut and paste this material from beginning to end of the arrangement ... and I may need to do the same thing on some new, different sections (intro, ending, transitions/interludes, bridges, etc.) ... but before I do anything else, I like to have the entire arrangement fleshed out with this all-piano road map and all important tempi established and in my project.

    The 'Roadmap' ... and that's all it is, a road map ... I am 'allowed' to deviate from it whenever I wish ("It's good to be king!" LOL), but I like having the form in place before I develop and detail the pieces. I feel I write a more balanced arrangement when I can see the beginning and end. For projects with duration constraints, it's a must! Later on, since I live and die in the PRV, when I am developing brass or reed (or string) voicings, it's really great to 'see' the basic harmonic landscape right there in those piano roadmap tracks.

    (Note to non-Sonar Users: We have the ability to see the notes of the road map piano tracks, but at the same time, with a single click, remove it (turn it gray) from being selected or accidentally moved while we work on other tracks we are developing that may have notes that are coincident with the piano track ... it's like visually freezing the piano track.)

    Sometimes, once the road map is created all the way through, I may convert/copy the bass line to an actual bass instrument, but probably just as often, I leave it with the piano sound. Also, if I need to add a piano solo that probably will be a part of the final work, that also goes on a separate track.

    Another point, from my way of approaching orchestration, is I don't like writing actual wind or string lines as piano lines. I prefer to have my piano roadmap for reference, but I think I can write more idiomatically for winds and strings when I use the actual instruments. But it's hard to beat that all-piano roadmap for preliminary creation of your project.

    I have worked exactly as Randy has stated, and cut and extracted from the single piano track as the piece develops, but I found for my way of creating, I like a tad more control over the roadmap, right from the start. Either way works well, it's a matter of preference, and for those just getting their feet wet, less is best and Randy's single-track approach is an excellent approach!

    I agree, Randy: using a single (or just a few) piano track(s) is a quick way to get a very useful roadmap for your entire arrangement!

    Frank

  3. #3

    Re: Tip Of The Week: Composing with only a piano

    Super post, Frank - I figured there had to be other folks here who work this way at least some of the time.

    The way you described how you do this is pretty much the same as what I do.

    AND you made me realize I must've been unclear in my post -

    Quote Originally Posted by Frank D View Post
    ...Where I differ from Randy's method, just a bit, is I will use separate piano tracks for when I add the melody and bass lines (they can, however, all be on the same channel for now). I like being able to mute/solo the three components, even at this early stage.After I have laid in (on separate piano tracks) the harmony, lead/melody, and bass, a reiteration process begins: create a more interesting bass line (necessitating a tweaking of the harmony), etc., play around with the melody, etc...
    We're not differing at all - I said:

    ...there's no reason that this piano sketch of a piece has to be on a single MIDI track. As I start developing counterparts and harmonies, I may record those on tracks of their own. I may record a bass part on its own track, counterparts on their own tracks, and so forth...
    It works great. As a piece develops, one does need to start feeling out how each added instrument needs to be played idiomatically, as you said. But that well worked piano version can be a temporary backing track as you play new parts - it doesn't all happen with copy and paste, for sure.

    Thanks much, Frank!

    Randy

  4. #4
    Senior Member Frank D's Avatar
    Join Date
    Apr 2006
    Location
    Suburban NYC
    Posts
    1,020

    Re: Tip Of The Week: Composing with only a piano

    Hey Randy ...

    Quote Originally Posted by rbowser- View Post

    AND you made me realize I must've been unclear in my post -

    Randy
    No, you weren't unclear at all in your post ... I was unclear in my mind!

    Quote Originally Posted by rbowser- View Post

    It works great. As a piece develops, one does need to start feeling out how each added instrument needs to be played idiomatically, as you said. But that well worked piano version can be a temporary backing track as you play new parts - it doesn't all happen with copy and paste, for sure.

    Thanks much, Frank!

    Randy
    I love how there are so many different ways that we all attack the same beast of music creation ... ours are very similar; maybe some other members will post how they get started. Of course notation-driven composrer/arrangers will have a radically different workflow than ours, but possibly some other DAW-driven creators will share their methods here.

    Great thread Randy!

    Frank

Go Back to forum

Tags for this Thread

Bookmarks

Posting Permissions

  • You may not post new threads
  • You may not post replies
  • You may not post attachments
  • You may not edit your posts
  •