Writing Piano Songs: A Journey

post by elriggs · 2020-08-10T21:50:25.099Z · score: 23 (10 votes) · LW · GW · 3 comments

Contents

    Heuristic 1: Trial and Error
    Heuristic 2: Jealousy
    Heuristic 3: Blatant Plagiarism 
    Heuristic 4: Enumerate All Possibilities!
    Heuristic 5: Science!
    Heuristic 6: Consume!
  Summary & Recommendations
    Songs
    Miscellaneous Thoughts
None
3 comments

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.

3 comments

Comments sorted by top scores.

comment by Alexei · 2020-08-11T02:40:16.871Z · score: 3 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I was learning a bit of piano last year too, and found it very motivational to try to write my own songs. Even as a completely beginner and basically through pure trial and error, it was very fun. Then when I learned bits of theory it was nice to view my songs through that lens and see what resonated. (E.g. "ah that's why this key sounds nice here: because it's following the major scale I'm in")


Oh, and I strongly second the "play the songs you want" approach. It's so much more fun than trying to learn what you "should".

comment by oceaninthemiddleofanisland · 2020-08-13T02:25:00.973Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

This probably won't add too much to the discussion but I'm curious to see whether other people relate to this or have a similar process. I was kind of stunned when I heard from friends who got into composing about how difficult it is to figure out a melody and then write a complete piano piece because to me, whenever I open up Sibelius or Dorico (and more recently Ableton), internally it seems like I'm just listening to what I wrote so far, 'hearing' a possible continuation lasting a few bars, and then quickly trying to transcribe it before I forget it, or if I really want to be precise then just the next note-group. It doesn't really come from anywhere and it doesn't require any thought, but I can tell it's obviously taking up a share of my cognitive RAM from multitasking experiments, it's definitely influenced by the music I've listen to recently (e.g 1930s/40s jazz), and there are a lot of recognisable patterns. I gave up piano at Grade 1 and my theory went to Grade 2 (I think) where I stopped because I intensely despised it. I actively avoided formal instruction. It makes transcribing harder because I'm just clicking on notes to see if they match up with what's in my head and that interferes a lot with my memory, playing on an actual piano is even worse. So now what I do is use a phone app to record myself whistling 10-12 seconds of the 'top' melody, and then I play it back while making a new recording and I whistle the notes underneath it to, and I keep doing that until all the chords are right and the signal isn't too degraded. It's still very annoying. Something I should note is that I whistle whenever I'm alone pretty much obsessively and that's been the case since I was maybe eight or nine, especially to accompany whatever music is playing around me, and that I have mild autism. It makes me think that with pretty much any creative skill, there are unconscious cognitive modules/black-boxes in play that have been developed either through a lot of exposure or through the internalisation/automatisation of heuristics and rules, which are responsible for predicting small sequences of actions ("what note comes next?") or doing error-correction ("what sounds good?"). It's difficult to notice/interact directly with them, but it's possible when you override conscious controls. The easiest way to see this is to try asemic writing/typing – just typing or writing mindlessly and allowing your hands to just move by themselves. Once you get into the groove with asemic typing, you get Markov-chain-like strings of letters that reflect the character distribution of the language you type with, and sometimes common words like 'the' or 'and'. With asemic writing, you get common patterns of loops, vertical and horizontal lines, and connectors. I've seen what seems to be higher-level language modules at work when I'm in a semi-lucid verge-of-fully-waking-up/falling-asleep state where my eyes are open but I'm also in dreamspace at the same time (I have no idea how to describe this), and I can read an imaginary book in front of me or listen to someone, and it's just a fluent stream of meaningless babble often with a poetic quality to it, sometimes where consonants are carried over to the next word or semi-rhymes that would be a pain to come up with consciously.

comment by elriggs · 2020-08-15T00:07:19.153Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I tend to write melodies in multiple different ways:

1. Hearing it in my head, then playing it out. It's very easy to generate (like GPT but with melodies), but transcribing is very hard! The common advice is to sing it out, and then match it with the instrument. This is exactly what you did with whistling. If I don't record it, I will very often not remember it at all later; very similar to forgetting a dream. When I hear someone else's piano piece (or my own recorded), I will often think "I would've played that part differently" which is the same as my brain predicting a different melody.

2. "Asemic playing" (thanks for the phrase!) - I've improv-ed for hundreds of hours, and I very often run into playing similar patterns when I'm in similar "areas" such as playing the same chord progression. I'll often have (1) melodies playing in my head while improvising, but I will often play the "wrong" note and it still sound good. Over the years, I've gotten much better at remembering melodies I just played (because my brain predicts that the melody will repeat) and playing the "correct" note in my head on the fly.

3. Smashing "concepts" into a melody:

  • What if I played this melody backwards?
  • Pressed every note twice?
  • Held every other note a half-note longer?
  • Used a different chord progression (so specific notes of the melody needs to change to harmonize)
  • Taking a specific pattern of a melody, like which notes it uses, and playing new patterns there.
  • Taking a specific pattern of a melody, like the rhythm between the notes (how long you hold each note, including rests) and applying it to other melodies.
  • Taking a specific patter of a melody, like the exact rhythm and relative notes, and starting on a different note (then continuing to play the same notes, relatively)