Today’s post has gotten a complete rewrite and even a new title! Come check out my article on the emotional range that pianos can express, and how you can start making your piano “sing” with emotion of any sort!
Learning to play piano, for me, came entwined with the desire to create my own music, which I often began to write while just “playing around” (pardon the pun) on the keyboard. I call this “keyboard musing”…just playing a snatch of a song here, a few bars of a melody or bass line here, until BAM!–there’s a new melody or chord progression, and my brain is off to the musical races!
If you’re a beginner to piano, or if you’re a frustrated composer, I would highly suggest doing a bit of keyboard musing for yourself. There’s a whole lot of wonder and magic still left in music, and this process proves it!
Keyboard Musing, Step 0: Don’t Try to Be Perfect. SERIOUSLY.
I have heard fellow composers often say that they’re stuck on a piece of music, saying that all that they play sounds “trite,” “overused,” “not good enough,” and doesn’t “flow.” For that matter, I’ve thought those same things myself about my own music.
Keyboard musing fixes that. After all, there’s no “right or wrong” way to play around on a keyboard when you’re not going by any sheet music! Before you even get started musing on your keyboard, don’t constrain yourself to what sounds “good,” or what sounds “original.” Just play SOMETHING. Play a few measures of a favorite song for inspiration; poke around playing notes together until you run across something that sounds COOL. Then, allow yourself to go further, exploring deeper into the melody or chord progressions you’re enjoying.
Step 1: Play Along with Recorded Music to Get You Started
This is a trick I use when trying to learn new music, but this is a great way to help you recreate a favorite melody, too. Listen to a favorite song using a CD, MP3, Youtube/Spotify/Pandora, etc., and figure out what note the melody starts on…and your ear should be able to take you on from there. Get the notes right first, then match the rhythms and tempo till you can play it pretty close to the recorded song.
The reason behind doing this? Once you know how to pick out the melody of various songs, then you’ll be better equipped to pick out the melody that’s been bouncing around in your head!
Step 2: Try New Variations on an Old Familiar Melody
Now that you know how to play a favorite melody like it was originally written, try varying it up. Extend that short note out a little longer, or put in a little playful riff here and there–innovate and see what new creation you can make. Allow yourself the freedom to play in a musical sandbox.
I suggest this not to condone plagiarism, but to give your imagination a jumping-off point. Put that favorite melody through some permutations, find new chords to put with it, and eventually you will be inspired to create your own song!
Step 3: Keep Trying if You Come Up with Nothing the First Time
You may not come up with anything on your first keyboard-musing session–but then again, you might come up with something AWESOME! Allow yourself more chances to dig down into your imagination, even if nothing appeared the last time you tried.
Step 4: Listen for Inspiration in Weird Places
Especially if you’re stuck and feel like you have no “inner song,” allow your environment to inspire you. Keep your ears open for beautiful new melodies, neat chord progressions, etc., wherever you go. Sometimes even non-musical sounds like car engine roars, bird chirps, refrigerator hums, crowds of people talking, fan blades, etc. can inspire a new tune. (Don’t look at your screen like that, I’m not crazy! LOL)
When you hear inspiring sounds, try to record them if you can, or at least get to your keyboard as quick as you can. Then, try to replicate the sound you heard with the musical notes in front of you. It might feel a bit stupid at first, but don’t give up on it, even if you have to walk away from your keyboard and try again later!
Keyboard musing is a magical retreat for me, a way I can reconnect with the sheer joy of just playing music for music’s sake. If you’ve never tried music, or if you’ve found yourself stuck for a long time, just give this a shot. You might be surprised what you come up with!
Pianos can express such a wonderful range of emotions. Even before I started taking piano lessons at the age of 10, I had already heard for myself how a master pianist can make the simplest melody or chord progression absolutely gorgeous, just with the way he or she strikes the key–and I bemoaned my own inability to match this effortless grace in my early days of training. A pianist can glide across notes of joy, bang out a song of anger, sound soft sorrowful tones, strike quick, fearful notes, and even create the warm resonation of love–but it takes the knowledge of how intensely to strike the keys so that they give the right effect.
This makes the piano one of the most difficult instruments to master, in my opinion–and this comes from somebody who can’t wrap her head around the guitar or violin! It takes a real “feel” of the music to make the piano express an emotion.
Bad Playing vs. Good Playing: It’s All a Matter of Feeling
The above video is an auditory example of “bad playing” (mechanical, passionless, choppy somehow too strict on timing) as contrasted with “good playing” (flowing, passionate, human, slightly improvised timing). While it is important to stay in tempo, especially when playing in concert with others, there’s a decided lack of feeling when you try to adhere so close to the tempo that you become almost robotic.
This video, one of my favorite video game music arrangements for piano, shows how passionate playing can still be in tempo but express emotion. Slight rubatos here and there, harder strikes on the keys sharply contrasted with softer, gliding strokes, and the ability to let the melody ring out above the chords is what grabs me about this video–but what do you think?
If You’re Just Starting Piano: Some Tips
- Don’t be disheartened when you begin learning piano–you’re not going to sound like a master overnight.
- Listen to many different experienced pianists play, determine what you like and don’t like about their playing style, and then develop your own taste from that. Just like all other forms of music, everyone’s got their own style!
- Find sheet music for songs you absolutely love–that will make the “feeling music” part much, much easier to learn!
- Practice your pieces so that you know the rhythms and pitches inside out…then, allow yourself to slow down and speed up the tempo, just a bit.
- Listen to the melody of a song as it’s played. Which notes are louder? Which notes are barely there? Would you play it the same way, or would you stress different notes?
Piano can seem easy to learn at first and then startlingly difficult–but it can be mastered! Just be willing to feel the music rather than just play it, and you’re halfway there!