Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Composing with Flour and Salt

Would you rather eat a spoonful of flour or a spoonful of cake?  The answer is obvious, and yet the cake wouldn't be the same without the flour.  Keyboard skills (scales, arpeggios, chords, etc.) are somewhat like flour in piano study and although some students find them quite unpalatable or boring, when you mix several of the building blocks together, you end up with some fun and appealing results. 

Our studio piano quest theme for July is  "Be Creative" so we will be focusing on tips and tricks for composing and improvising using the patterns of scales, chords, arpeggios, chord progressions and rhythms as our ingredients.  Following are a few fun samples illustrating the use of keyboard skill patterns in a variety of songs.

EXPANDING INTERVALS - "The Snowflake" Technique from Ear Training and Improv.com demonstrates how to use intervals to create a cascading sound.

About 15 seconds into this video, you can hear the Piano Guys using this impressive sounding pattern.

By using the same basic PATTERN OF BLOCKED CHORDS as the accompaniment (I - V - vi - IV) and varying the melody line the possibilities are endless as demonstrated by BYU Vocal Point.
The Four Chord Song

Forrest Kinney's YouTube Channel has a variety of composition samples using the pattern suggestions in the series of  Pattern Play composition and improv books.
My Favorite Theme in Pattern Play 1 is Africa.  I love the rousing rhythms and REPEATING BASS PATTERNS.   World Piece is an amazing sample of what you can create by simply using the notes of the PENTATONIC SCALE (all black keys).  I love how even with a fairly simple repeating bass pattern, the melody line draws you into this reflective song.  Even a beginning student can play melodies on the black keys as seen in Piano Safari's Charlie Chipmunk song.  By adding one white key to the black set and some syncopated  JAZZY RHYTHMS, an entirely new piece Blues on Black is created.  In contrast an ALBERTI BASS BROKEN CHORD PATTERN in "For Nannerl" in Pattern Play 3 creates calming delicate classical style piece. And although it may take some time to achieve this level of proficiency in composing, the framework samples in the book can guide you step by step to expand your creative possibilities.  Piano Safari's Rainbow Colors illustrates the use of a series of ARPEGGIOS with a few omitted notes and added steps to create a sound picture to match the title.

Once you have a knowledge of a few basic "ingredients" (chords, scales, rhythms, etc.), the instructions vary on how to create a pleasing composition, but following is one way to begin.
1.  Pick a theme for your song  (princess party, skydiving, football, haunted house, etc.).
  •  Use pictures as a springboard for ideas or combine several pictures to make your piece tell a story (see Colorinmypiano Improvisation and Composition inspiration cards).
  • Think of how the objects or characters in your piece would sound.  A fun group activity to practice this skill in a group setting is  Mystery Bag Improv (Pianimation.com).
  • or Use words to a familiar song but change the melody (PianimationCamp Grenada Composer's Challenge)
2.  Choose a scale(s) that matches the mood(s) of your song.
  • Happy, Traditional - Major (used in the majority of popular songs)
  • Jazzy - Blues Scale
  • Oriental - Pentatonic Scale
  • Spooky, Sad or Melancholy - Minor Scale
3.  Create your melody.
  • Many songs start and/or end on the 1st note of the scale (tonic)
  • Do you want a march like feel (4/4 Time) or a waltz (3/4)?
  • Remember balanced repetition makes a melody pleasing and memorable
    • Do you like repeating rhythms? cascading arpeggios? a chord based foundation? question and answer phrases? ABA form? sound effects? theme and variation?
  • Select 1 or 2 rhythm patterns that repeat several times in your song.  Composing words to a  rhythmic poem or children's story (like Chicka Chicka Boom Boom) can be a great starting point if you are timid about starting from scratch.
  • Be sure to add dynamics (piano, forte, etc.) and articulation (stacccato, legato, accents, etc.) to fit the mood you want your song to create.
  • For a more in-depth explanation of what makes a good melody see composecreate.com
    A Good Melody: Rhythm  (balance of variety and repetition)
    A Good Melody: Motives (repetition, sequence, inversion, retrograde, augmentation, etc.)
    A Good Melody: Contour
4.  Add some chord patterns that match your melody.
  • Primary Chords (I, IV & V) are used most often
  • Pick a pattern to fit your melody (broken, blocked, march, open 5ths, 1 8va arpeggios, etc.)
5.  Record, Revise and Create until you are happy with your finished piece.

1 comment:

  1. Great metaphor with the flour, Heidi!

    I was actually wondering if you'd be interested in helping out with an article I'm writing for piano parents. It's a roundup-style post, so I'd just be looking for a quick tip from you to include! I wasn't able to find your contact info... please email me so we can chat! :)