How to spice up your piano compositionsBy Cecilia Gigliotti

So you’re developing as a composer—that’s great! But maybe you feel like your work has a bit of a generic feel to it, or that you’re falling into patterns that you’d like to break.

Never you fear: we are here with a handy guide to getting you unstuck from your composer’s slump and back to crafting material that intrigues and inspires both you and your audience.

There’s a reason so many people try and fail to create compositions they feel they can be proud of. They fall prey to any number of obstacles, from self-doubt and lack of imagination to poorly scheduled time and limited access to resources.

Your output can suffer from these and more issues…but it doesn’t have to. Here are seven ways to spice up your composing life and keep your listeners (and yourself) engaged.

1 – Get back to basics

At the end of the day, all music is made up of phrases, all phrases made up of chords, and all chords made up of notes. Don’t be afraid to get molecular and deconstruct your current project.

Experiment with piano intervals, string notes together into different sequences—try as many combinations as you like—and focus intently on how the piece moves from one musical moment or idea to the next.

When you devote yourself to the details, the whole will fall into place. Who knows, maybe one of those note-by-note themes will inspire a whole motif, movement, or melody. Rely on the building blocks you’ve used from the beginning.

2 – Draw from your favorites

Let the musicians and composers who resonate with you act as your muses. Read up on their philosophies of composition; do your best to find out the sort of thought processes that go through their heads when they create, and try to emulate them (while bearing in mind that what works for them may not necessarily work for you).

Think about the stories behind some of your favorite musical works, whether pop songs or classical symphonies, and let the spirit of those origin stories give you a starting push down your own creative path. You’re more likely to gather and maintain momentum with a few tried-and-true approaches in your pocket.                                                  

3 – Don’t box yourself into one genre

Many composers, particularly of staged works like musical theatre, have found themselves stuck and short on ideas until they considered playing around with the genre they intended to represent. The end result may not have been what they anticipated when they set out on the project, but it became just as successful and enduring, if not more so.

What to take from this? Always keep in mind that the way you hear something in your head initially might not be the only (or the best) iteration of the sound. This is where drawing from your predecessors and learning from their processes can come in handy: you might come across genres or styles that hadn’t occurred to you before and consequently be able to put a hitherto-unknown spin on a piece you’re composing.

4 – Sample (with care)

On the same subject of taking cues from your heroes, why not try quoting a particularly meaningful melodic line or chord progression? This baseline experimentation could well spark a variation or improvisation that becomes your own. Just be cautions: there’s a fine line between sampling and plagiarism, so make sure you know which side of the line you’re on.

5 – Lost for new ideas? Try something that interests you

If you always get excited by certain chord arrangements, cadences, or other techniques, infuse your work with them—see where one of those would fit into what you’re at work on. It’s never a bad idea to turn your work into something that you yourself would want to listen to. Chances are you’re not the only one.

6 – Step away for a while

Giving yourself space and returning with fresh eyes never hurt a project, and in fact usually only helps it. Engage in other hobbies, go for a walk to clear your head, and generally immerse yourself in other aspects of life.

Sometimes the ideas with the most staying power come to you when you are concentrating on something else entirely, or not concentrating at all. This isn’t to say you should wait around for inspiration to strike, but removing yourself from the active state of composing can at times be a secure way of getting the ball rolling again.

At the very least, you’ll gain new perspective on your own work and reduce the risk of going blind to mistakes or pitfalls. It will also help you to stay impartial and assess your creation for its quality without bias.

7 – Just keep playing

Getting past an impasse in composing can often be traced back to something as simple as your musical practice having been derailed. For as much as we like to think the act of composing requires undivided attention, you can push through the plateau and return to feeling productive by just playing idly with no specific thoughts or ambitions in mind.

A regular practice of simply engaging with the piano will lead sooner or later to discoveries of those note patterns or chord progressions we mentioned above and can jumpstart more progress on your composition than you might give it credit for.

Composing music is a daunting task for the most skilled musicians among us. Remember to treat yourself with kindness and patience. The process is not linear, and you’ll have days which err on the more or less productive side without being able to pinpoint just why.

Keep at it and don’t get discouraged. You’re hardly the first to come up against these problems, and with enough perseverance you can and will push through. The results of your efforts will be on brilliant display in the music you perform. Take those blinders off and let your musical mind roam free.