Songwriting Tips for Pianists (Part 1)

Guest post by Doug Hanvey of Portland Piano Lab

Got a song idea you'd like to write down but not sure how to start?  Composer, author, and teacher Doug Hanvey is here to give you some ideas.  In part 1 of this two-part series of articles, Doug guides you through the basics of how to write a song using the folk song "By and By" as a template. If you're eager to try his suggestions, you can find free staff paper here .  Happy composing!

If you're like most adult piano pianists, you not only want to play music but also express yourself creatively.  One of the most satisfying ways of expressing yourself musically is perhaps the most obvious: by composing!

In my experience as a piano and composition teacher, I've found it's often easiest for students to learn the fundamentals of composition by learning to write songs. By "song" I mean "a musical form with words that's meant to be sung." The brevity of the song form, and the fact that it has words make it a practical and inspirational form for learning to compose.

Nonetheless, even a brief song requires a multitude of knowledge and skills, including melody writing, choosing chords, and working within one of several time-tested song structures. Until you learn the ropes, it's easiest to begin with a high degree of structure, leaving fewer creative choices to be made.

The following songwriting challenge, which can be truly fun and creatively satisfying, assumes you can read music and play piano at an advanced beginner level. There will be rules to follow, which may feel limiting, but which will also maximize your chances of success. After all, a good piece of music, like all art, has limits. A painting is limited by its canvas and color palette. A piece of music is limited by its key, time signature and instrumentation, among other things. If you can do anything, being creative can actually be more difficult because there are so many choices to make.

In this exercise, you'll be given words, a chord progression and a melodic rhythm. Your job is to complete the melody by choosing notes for it.

Why start with the melody? Melody is the most salient aspect of music, especially in songs. Most good songwriters begin with the melody, allowing the harmony (chords) to develop organically in relationship to it. (Songs that begin with a chord progression are usually not as effective.)

In this exercise you'll complete a melody for By and By, a folk song chosen for its simple, heartfelt words and relative obscurity. After all, writing an original melody for lyrics you already know that goes with timeless music you've heard a million times, such as Over the Rainbow, would be daunting!

Let's take a look at the template you'll work from:

Notice the following:

  • There's a single-line staff above the grand staff. This staff shows the melodic rhythm (rhythm of the original melody) and original words. When completing the melody you will use this rhythm but choose your own notes.
  • The word "by" in measures 1, 3, 9 and 11 gets two notes (this is called a melisma). When singing this word, you will simply glide from one note to the other. To make it singable, choose an interval between these two notes that's no larger than a third.
  • The left hand plays chords. The chord symbols are shown above the treble staff.
  • The form of the song is A1-A2 (shown above measures 1 and 9). This means there is one eight-measure section ("A1") followed by a nearly identical eight-measure section ("A2"). The only slight difference is in the melodic rhythm and chords at the end of each section.
  • To match the original form, the two sections should use nearly all the same notes, except as needed to match the different melodic rhythm and chords at the end of each section. In other words, you need only choose notes for A1, then repeat the same notes for A2, slightly varying the ending.
  • The first A section concludes with a G7 chord in measure 8. This is called a half cadence. The G7 chord (the dominant chord) calls for resolution to C major, the tonic chord, which smoothly takes the song into A2.
  • The song concludes with a G7-C chord progression, known as an authentic cadence. The vast majority of songs, and solo piano music for that matter, end with an authentic cadence. An effective authentic cadence typically requires the melody to end on the tonic, as explained below.

Follow these guidelines when writing your melody:

  • The best compositions flow from your brain, not your fingers. Let your voice and ear guide you. Compose your melody mostly by singing, playing notes as needed to keep yourself on track. 
  • This song is in the key of C major, which means the chords come from the C major scale. Your melody should also use the notes of the C major scale, i.e. only white keys.
  • Choose a chord tone for your melody when a new chord is played, i.e. on the down beat (first beat) of most measures. For example, the first note of your song should be one of the tones of a C chord:  C, E or G. The first note of measure 2 should be F, A or C to match the F chord. Note that you may use D with any G7 chord, since D is a chord tone of G7 but has been omitted from the chord for ease of playing.
  • The last note of your melody should be C, the tonic. The vast majority of songs end on the tonic.
  • Your melody should optimally move more by step (second) between notes than by skip (third or more). Smaller intervals are easier to sing. But singability is the ultimate test. You may also repeat notes.
  • If you sing as you compose, you'll be likely to constrain your melody within a range that works for most singers. The melody of most effective songs, especially folk songs, is typically no larger than an octave or tenth between bottom and top notes.

Now it's time to compose. Have fun!

In Part 2 of this series, I'll provide an example of a melody I composed according to the above rules, and also offer an alternative chord progression for extra practice.

Doug Hanvey started playing piano at age 6. He studied classical piano and music composition at the Jacobs School of Music at Indiana University Bloomington, later working as an accompanist at the School. In Los Angeles, Doug studied contemporary (jazz/blues) styles with keyboard guru John Novello. In addition to his musical training, Doug holds a master’s degree in adult education. He is the author of the Creative Keyboardist Adult Piano Course and composer of hundreds of piano pieces and songs and the score of a full-length musical. He is a member of the Oregon Music Teachers Association. He teaches piano and composition online and locally in Portland, Oregon.