Want to compose music? Steps 1 to 4 help you begin [Printables]

In a world where we have instant access to so much ready-made information and entertainment in ever-decreasing byte-sizes, I believe that now, more than ever, it is important to get in touch with your inner creative life. To slow down. To take time away from the videos or memes or instant photos or social media or binge-worthy series, and create something that comes from inside of you. 

Our students are growing up with instant access to a shocking amount of information – a literal unending barrage of online distractions. It is imperative to show them how much potential they possess inside to make their own creations from scratch.

It’s a little more work to create something new than it is to simply veg and receive the finished products of other people’s efforts, but it is infinitely more satisfying.  

I’ve improvised since I could walk to the piano, and composed music since about the age of eight. I know first-hand the joy of composing. It’s my obsession. But over the years I feel I have done a sloppy job of teaching my students how to compose. When something comes so naturally, it’s difficult to break it down into a step-by-step procedure in order to explain it or teach it as a concept. 

But it’s not just me. I’ve noticed that most piano teachers are hesitant to teach composition. There’s a myriad of excuses.  

But here’s the rub: to be fully literate in a language it isn’t enough just to learn to read it, do writing exercises or recite memorized passages. One must also learn to use language spontaneously and creatively. 

Music is a language. Therefore, it isn’t enough to just learn to read it, do theory and perform memorized pieces. To be fully literate, one must also take the plunge and improvise a little and create unique music. 

There are so many reasons to start composing music. To slow down and enjoy making music from the beginning, and to fully realize music as a language.

Don’t think you can? Let me show you.

A composition workshop where I showed students how to compose with a rhythm first.

There are two challenges in this post. First, to compose your own piece. Second, to show your students what you’ve done and guide them through the steps so they, too, can compose. I’m going to show you in just a few steps how to get started. I’m going to help you awaken your inner composer.  

Step 2: Build your rhythm.

Yes, we’re at step 2 already. Step 1 was your decision to do this, and you’ve already made it. I know this because you’re still reading. Composition is that easy! 

To create your rhythm (no pitches yet), grab your rhythm cards. If you don’t have rhythm cards, make some. 

Left: beginner rhythm cards. Right: intermediate rhythm cards.

[Aside: You, personally, may not need the cards to create a rhythm. But remember, you are composing a piece first so that your students can emulate what you’ve done. Rhythm cards fast-track the beginning of the composition process and give students easy access to rhythm-building abilities. When they build their rhythm, you may not even tell them they’re starting a composition.] 

Each card is one beat, with the various types of rhythms that can happen within one beat. Quarter notes, eighth pairs, four sixteenths, and various combinations of eighths and sixteenths, including dots. (It is a very useful set of cards, whether teaching rhythm, composing or doing ear training.)

For beginners who know only quarter, half, dotted-quarter and whole notes, use those rhythm cards.

Choose a time signature. 

Arrange your cards into two (2) measures to start. 

Arranging cards into two-measure rhythms.

If you choose four beats per measure, place four cards in a row to complete each measure, with a piece of yarn or popsicle stick or a simple space between cards to represent the bar line.

Two-measure rhythm, four beats per measure, with time signature and bar lines.

Clap and play around with your rhythm, changing the order of the cards if you want to, until you like it. 

Here’s what to look for in a good rhythm:

  • Patterns. Patterns hold a rhythm together. 
  • Some longs and some shorts. 
  • A long note at the end. Two eighth notes or four sixteenth notes at the end of a rhythm are very difficult to clap gracefully or musically. Finish your rhythm with a sense of landing. 
  • Keep it simple. If you put every type of rhythm under the sun into a two-measure rhythm, it will seem awfully busy. Learn to make your music about one or two things only, leaving all of the other possibilities for other pieces you might someday write. 
Student composers creating rhythms with cards.

Step 3: Copy your rhythm onto plain white paper. 

The first time you write your rhythm down with pencil, it will be rhythm-only. Still no pitches yet. This will be your working sketch. In my printables section I’ve included four rhythm-first composition sheets that you may print for free. You’ll find wide and narrow staff choices, as well as sheets with and without prompts.

Students at a composition workshop writing out their two-measure rhythms.

Steps two and three are done in the same sitting. Now place your notated rhythm paper on your piano’s book rest.

The two-measure rhythm has been copied by hand onto paper.

Step 4: Wake up your composer fingers.

Experiment on the piano keys. Every note you play is a right note. Your goal is to create five different tunes for your rhythm. Some will sound “unfinished” (i.e. will end on a note other than the tonic). This is a good thing, because it leaves the door open to making your tune longer. Try these suggestions to awaken your fingers:

1) One pitch per beat: Choose a five-finger hand position. Start with your thumb (the lowest key of your five-finger pattern). Play up and then down, one key per beat. This means that if you have two eighth notes on beat 1, both will be played by your thumb, finger 2 will play any notes in beat 2, finger 3 beat 3, and so on. Write your tune down on staff paper. 

The rhythm set to one pitch per beat.

2) Moving steps: Start with finger 1, 3 or 5. In your five-finger position, use your same rhythm and step up and down. There may be several steps within each beat. Write it down.

3) New five-finger position: If your first position was major, try minor. (Or vice versa.) Start on another different finger (3 or 5) and play your rhythm stepping up and down from there. Try adding other intervals, like skips (thirds). Write your new tune down. 

4) Different range: If you’ve played only your right hand so far, try playing with the left hand lower on the keyboard. Play on any keys, starting with any finger. You may wish to extend your tune outside of five keys. Write it down.

5) Your choice: Continue using your original rhythm. Try anything. High, low. Major, minor. Piano or forte. Broken triad (chord) shapes, scale shapes, intervals. Have fun experimenting. Write it down.

Another two-measure rhythm.
Copied by hand.
Each new tune is slightly more adventurous than the last.

Congratulations! Your composer fingers are now awake!

You have created a rhythm and set it to five different melodies. No one before you has ever played this exact same music in this exact same way. You have awakened your inner composer. You have made music the slow, authentic way: straight from scratch.

When you do this with your students, you might do step three as an activity in your lesson (either in a private or group lesson) and oversee them writing down their first tune in step four. But it is advisable once they know how, to let them finish the remaining four melodies at home. 

Coming up with your rhythm and experimenting with it is the first important step to becoming your own composer. Maybe in time you will write pieces for your students to play. Maybe you’ll write pieces for yourself. To make your piece longer, click here for steps five to eight.

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I appreciate shares, comments and likes. Happy teaching!

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