How to Play Piano and Write Music

You are neither too young nor too old to play piano and compose. If you think otherwise, get that fairy tale out of your head.

A few geniuses began at age 3 and burned out in middle age. Gustave Mahler, a modern symphonic artist and Jazz Guitarist legend Wes Montgomery didn't start serious composing until they were well in their 30's. Verdi was still going strong at 87. Some of the great pop, jazz, and rock music of our time has been written by musicians who consider the age of 25 as "over the hill."

Conclusion: forget about age.

What about music theory? Does it have anything to do with playing the piano and composing a piece of music?

Sounds come first. Theory books and systems tag along behind, explaining in words what you've already experienced by ear.

Composing is a "hot" creative act. Studying theory is a "cool" analytical act.

Theory explains what is going on in a piece of music. It shows us the machinery that makes the music tick. Training in theory helps sharpen our understanding, and helps the player and composer organize his or her musical materials.

Absorb theory for what it has to offer. But watch out for the trap of "rules." In the early stages of playing piano and writing music, rules can be helpful disciplines to help focus our thinking. But given too much importance, rules become handcuffs; break them if you know what you're doing.

Use your good ears to break through the endless blanket of sound that surrounds our lives.

Direct you hearing. Sharpen your perception. Isolate sounds. Listen, and make yourself aware of your sound-world.

A painting, a statue, and a building have a certain kind of life. All of their parts exist at the same time. But music is like a movie or a stage play: it unrolls slowly, bit by bit. A movie begins, continues, and ends before your eyes. Music does the same for your ears. Your piano playing and compositions live and breathe.

Guidelines for Playing Piano By Ear to Write Music

Begin your sketches with a simple, basic idea: a sound you like, a group of pitches, an interesting harmony, and attractive rhythm pattern, an idea for lyrics, and so on.

Next step: think out a number of possibilities for developing, expanding, exploiting, and contrasting your basic idea.

For example:

1. A group of pitches can be played forward, backward, upsidedown, or with its order rearranged.

2. You can keep the overall shape of a pitch group (the way it moves up and down), but change it by opening up or tightening the distance (interval) from one note to the next.

3. The same pitch group can be varied by changing its speed, meter, or rhythm... or by changing its "color" through changes of instrumental register (high vs. low).

4. A rhythmic idea, no matter how simple, can be stretched, tightened up, fragmented, or transformed into a repeated figure

5. A rhythmic idea can be applied to differnet pitch groups, or used to give movement to your favorite chord progression.

6. A harmony can be intensified by adding "color" tones (7th, 9th, added 6th, suspended tones, etc.); or softened by subtracting chord tones; or given a refreshed sound by the way you voice the harmony on the piano.

Try to keep a relaxed attitude toward you study of piano, and an open mind about new ideas that almost always turn up while you're experiementing with your sketches.

Above all, don't lock yourself into one way of thinking. After a certain point, a piece may have its own ideas about the way it should deveop; don't try to force it into a cookie mold!

Ron Worthy is a Music Educator, Songwriter and Performer. To learn more "Trick of the Trade," go to: and

Copyright 2005 RAW Productions by By Ron Worthy

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