Writing Piano Songs: A Journey

by elriggs5 min read10th Aug 20203 comments

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This is an account of how I got good at writing piano songs. My first instinct is to write a perfect formalization and algorithm of “how to write a good piano song”, but that would be a lie. Instead, this is a story of slow progression and learned heuristics. I use some music jargon, but the main points can be grokked w/o understanding them.

(If you’d first like some proof of my claimed prowess, go to the bottom for links to songs I’ve written. Or listen while you read!)

Heuristic 1: Trial and Error

In 4th grade, my friend wanted to start up a band. I had a piano at my house, so I was keys. I went home and played different notes in various orders until I came up with a 7-note melody that sounded good. We never actually wrote any songs.

Years later (middle school), I wrote a 2-minute song just by writing 3 melodies that flowed into each other (by lots of trial and error). I even incorporated the left hand, again, by lots of trial and error.

Heuristic 2: Jealousy

In high school/middle school, I took piano lessons for 2 years. My mother paid for them. I only practiced the night before lessons, and really only knew ~4 songs? Not even all of Fur Elise!

But then, I saw a classmate play a cover of Daft Punk’s “Working Harder Makes Us Stronger” for a pretty lady. I’ve had lessons for TWO YEARS! I could impress a pretty lady too! So I went home and found the 4-part tutorial on youtube and learned it.

[A friend shared that he also got into piano to try to impress a girl]

Heuristic 3: Blatant Plagiarism

Somehow I realized that the “fancy left hand” pattern of the Daft Punk cover was repeating like several other songs were [it was a chord progression using a specific arpeggio for each chord]. So I played that same pattern using different chords and voila, everything I played sounded amazing (read, made me appear talented). I used that fancy arpeggio in Fur Elise, Heart & Soul, that song I wrote in Middle School that I still haven’t named, and Pop! Goes the Weasel. I was unstoppable.

But I didn’t stop there; there was a fun “hopping” melody in the Daft Punk song that I took the first 4 notes and then trial-and-errored into a new melody. I’ve since stolen so many chord progressions, melodies, left-hand patterns/ arpeggios, and no one has ever called me on it!

[Most people won’t consider this “plagiarism”/”stealing”, but it’s a memorable heuristic. And, I’m trying to fight against a large (American?) bias towards being original]

Heuristic 4: Enumerate All Possibilities!

Every time I would learn a new chord progression, I would use it in the songs I knew. Sometimes this was horrible beyond repair. Others, I would need to change part of the melody (through trial and error) to make it great, and some would just sound very cool, first try!

New melodies would be paired with different chord progressions (and varied in ways stolen from other songs too, but I don’t know how to describe it. See the “Pure Imagination” cover for an example). Same with left-hand patterns and specific keys (like pentatonic scale).

It was very satisfying to “own” an idea after seeing how it fit with everything else I knew. It was also very exciting to come across something new and try to figure it out right now!

But I didn’t actually try out all the possibilities.

Heuristic 5: Science!

Whenever I would play something “good”, I would make up a hypothesis for why it sounded good to me. It was easily actionable, so I would play all the patterns that should sound good (according to my theory), and then update when I came across those that were bad.

It wasn’t just “good” and “bad”, but I had hypotheses on how to play something dark, or jazzy, or lullaby-esque, or… Things like harmony and dissonance had simple reasons, but categories like “dark” were very complex and fuzzy.

Heuristic 6: Consume!

I would get so much motivation and so many ideas from watching Musical Basics piano songs and improv. I would listen to his songs every day while doing homework, and many of the left-hand patterns/ arpeggios I use today were stolen from him. I didn’t know it was even possible to improv whole songs until watching him! Thanks Lionel Yu:)

[I experienced something similar with runner’s magazine for running, WHZGUD2 for dancing, meditation books and Deconstructing Yourself podcast for meditating, and LW & podcasts for AI Alignment]

Summary & Recommendations

If I was to give concise advice it’d be this:

Have fun playing every day. Listen to people who are better than you every day. Copy them, then further their ideas.

I might include something about making sure you get good feedback, like recording yourself sing or dance, but honestly just having fun playing every day and watching others is 80% of the battle.

I’ve provided this as a case study for just creating piano music, afraid I’ll try to overgeneralize if I tried to encompass all creative endeavors. I have successfully applied this advice to improv dancing, songwriting, and coding video games. I expect parts to fit with Alignment research. I would say “I’ve gotten better at singing by just doing it every day”, but the last time I said that, I was told “Well go sing us a song then Sing-Boy!”. I said I was better not necessarily good!

Songs

I wrote 7 songs for my ex several years ago. Some are original and the others are covers or mashups (a bunch of covers put together). I recorded this while sick w/ several mistakes, but I approve of the quality. They're listed from most recommended to least.

Chloe’s Lullaby - My favorite original song

Fur Eloise - Chloe’s cat was named Eloise; I’m hilarious. This is the only song I sing in. Mashup of Fur Elise, Pink Panther, Star Wars “Death March”, and Star Wars Main Theme. [note, this isn't my account, but they had a better background picture]

Chlo Flo - I originally wrote a rap w/ dance moves called “The Chlo Flo”. It was very popular within my in-group, let me tell you. Sadly, this is not the rap, but it is very flowy.

Miss you already (lights flicker) - After driving home my cousin’s boyfriend, he would flicker the lights and text “miss you already”. I thought this was very cute (they were middle schoolers at the time), hence the title.

Hallelujah Little Secrets - Mashup of Jeff Buckley’s “Hallelujah” and Passion Pit’s “Little Secrets”.

Cher’s Heart Goes Missing - Mashup of Rooney’s “When Did Your Heart Go Missing”, Walk the Moon’s “Quesadilla”, Reliant K’s “The Best Thing”, that secret agent jingle(?), some other song I can’t recognize, Cher’s “Different Kind of Love Song”, and Gungor’s “Beautiful Things”.

Pure Imagination - cover of Pure imagination w/ Jake on french horn. Probably best captures what I mean by “variations of a melody”.

Miscellaneous Thoughts

This is a collection of various tid-bit thoughts from playing piano throughout the years. Feel free to skip.

  • Talent shows always tempted me to finally get good at singing. That would have gone horribly, and I’m glad I instead used it as a chance to polish off a song.
  • Related, my favorite talent show performance was “Beethoven’s Ghost vs Mario Space Pirates” where I pretended to have my arms possessed by Beethoven. Not only did I mime trying to pull my arms off the keyboard and slap myself (already a smashing hit!), but I also played a lovely mashup of fur elise, canon in D, Mario, “He’s a Pirate”, and Star Wars.
  • I love getting others to play piano with me, even when they had no experience playing piano. Just having them play melodies on the black keys (while I played chords) made good music. It was interesting to see people afraid to hit the same key twice in a row. They would also tend to play all notes at the same rate/tempo. Notably, bot of these were things I struggled with too!
  • I can’t read sheet music. Everyone assumes I can and will buy me sheet music. Stop buying me sheet music!
  • People tend to ask for song requests, but I never know them. Although I can write a song on the spot, I still don’t know how to play Amazing Grace or Piano Man nor am I motivated to learn them.
  • I’ve taught 5 people how to play piano. The high school ones were successes: one has a studio now and has recorded several songs, and the other wrote a couple of decent songs years later (though, oddly, I still have no memory of teaching her). The college ones usually lasted only a few lessons until they didn’t show up for lessons again (I guess school work and life?), even though they were excited, making progress, and had free lessons. The last one was actually going great until the coronavirus hit and they had to fly back home to France.
  • I tried to learn Music Theory. I predict there’s a lot of useful stuff there, but I bounced off of it quick. It was never anything actionable that helped me write better songs. Five hours of music theory felt just as valuable as playing around with a song I like.

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