Composing For Piano

Jenny Leigh Hodgins, Composer.

Jenny Leigh Hodgins, Composer.

I have been asked how to compose for piano. Basically, I recommend two approaches to composing for piano:

  • Improvise to generate free-flowing ideas, and
  • Create a blueprint based (strictly or loosely) on music theory (i.e., form, key signature, tempo, range, motif/themes).

Compose By Improvising

A: Determine a chord progression.

Start simple. For example, use C major key and this chord progression: C, Am, F major, G7. Typical ‘Heart and Soul’ chord progression. If you can’t remember the order, write these on paper.

B: Practice playing.

  1. Play each chord’s bass home tone (C,A,F,G) with your LH, and perhaps the chord triad itself in your right hand.
  2. Play each chord/bass tone for one measure.
  3. Experiment within that perimeter by using RHYTHM only to alter the feel/groove of your progression.


  1. Once you have a chord progression and a bass line mastered, drop the chord triads from RH and use RH to play around with notes in the C major scale as you continue playing your LH bass line progression.
  2. For me, I like to use a DAW’s drum loop to find a groove and play along with that for tempo and rhythmic phrasing/groove.
  3. You can also alternate between playing the chords and the melody to make things more varied.

D: Practice Specific Piano Styles

Since you are interested primarily in PIANO, use the above basic improvisation exercises to practice specific piano styles: walking bass, chords with color tones (7, 9, 11, 13ths), arpeggios, triads, 6ths, octaves, doubled notes, etc… Just repeat the chord progression using one or more of those (or other) piano techniques.

These are some of my ideas for improvising outside of the jazz tradition. Of course, pick your own chord progressions for more challenging, intriguing and fresh music.

Compose By Blueprint

  1. Song Form

For the blueprint approach, either on paper or using a DAW, I like to map out a song FORM (ABAB, ABABCBB, AABB, et) first to set a parameter of structure.

  1. Write out 16 blank measures and call that A section.
  2. Follow that with another 16 bars as B section, and so on. Or limit to 8 bars per section.
  3. Possibly add a C section with few or more bars or equal–whatever you want for your structure. An even numbers of bars seems to feel better for most contemporary music, though.
  4. Alternately, you could copy the form of a favorite song or blues style as a template.

B: Determine Harmonic Progression

Once you have a form or structure for your music mapped out, determine a chord progression for each section. Usually the B section changes keys to the dominant chord or something else to be less predictable and sound different from the A section. For example if A section uses that C major progression above (C, Am, F, G), then the B section would start in the key of G major (or often Am, the minor 6th of C major). Then go back to your original chord/key in the next A section.

C: Discover Melodic Motifs

Once your form, key and chord progressions are drafted (this may change, pending how your melody transpires! Be flexible and go where you musical ideas take you, of course!), using notes within that progression/key (C major in the A section), play around with melodic motifs that fit within that key/chord progression.

  1. A good rule of thumb is to make something, then repeat it, then CHANGE it very slightly. AAA1. Or, same, same, slightly varied. The ear likes patterns and repetition. But not TOO much! Continue until you have a few motifs/lines to complete your A section.
  2. Then CHANGE to the new key in the B section and play around with creating a motif/line/melody that is completely different than what you did in A section.
  3. For example, if you used lots of busy, faster rhythmic phrases in the A section, use longer, slower rhythmic phrases with lots of rests and breathing space within the B section.
  4. Or, if your A section note ranges are low, then use higher ranges of notes within the B section.
  5. Another idea for creating the melodic motif is to limit the amount of melodic notes used and focus more on the rhythmic patterns of those limited notes used.
  6. Think of Beethoven’s 5th Symphony: only 2 melodic notes used in the opening line (dun dun dun DUN) and four rhythmic notes/durations. But WOW he repeated that phrase and developed it into a massive symphony of greatness!

There are SO many things you can do, and so many books have good suggestions for your question, so check some of them out! Hope this gave you good food for thought!

Click here for some of my original piano compositions: