Being able to create your own music in an integral part to becoming a great musician. Having been a musician myself for 18 years, I know firsthand how exciting and rewarding it can be to write your own music. Creating a melody is the first step, but after that, how do you write the piano part to accompany it?
What skills do I need?
You will need a bit of a musical foundation in order to write a piano part for your melody. First, you’ll want to know how to identify notes on the piano (for example, how to find a C). It’s also important to know how to build major and minor chords from these notes.
The more experience you have with music theory the better. It’s helpful to know how chord progressions work and how to build them. However, that’s not necessary to writing piano accompaniment, and there are ways to get around that. Writing piano accompaniment is something that can be accomplished at nearly all levels of musicianship.
Writing the accompaniment:
The first step is to play your melody on the piano. Take note of which notes are played most often and which phrases of the melody are repeated. Also take note of which notes you start and end on. Your last note will likely be the key that the melody is in. If the melody sounds happy and pleasant, it’s probably in a major key, if it sounds more mellow and sad, it’s likely in a minor key. If you know how, write the melody down on staff paper.
Your next step is to establish the chord progression. This part is easiest if you’ve established what key your melody is in. Start with the tonic chord, also called the I chord, which is built on the same note as whatever key you have established. From that note, play a third (either major or minor, depending on the key) and a fifth.
If you’re unfamiliar with chord progressions, look up some common ones online. Here’s one in C major to get you started:
There are both major and minor progressions, so the ones you try should correspond to whether your key is major or minor. Learn how to play through them and try singing your melody while you play. Keep in mind that you may end up singing in a different key than the one you started with, and that’s okay! If you like how something sounds, write it down. If something’s not working, try rearranging the chords or find a new chord progression.
If you know how to write your own chord progressions, you can create one of your own through trial and error. Remember that tonic chords lead to predominant (or dominant), predominant chords lead to dominant (or other predominant), and dominant chords always lead back to the tonic. If you know the melody note that is being sung, use a chord that has that note in it. Try a lot of different combinations and write down the ones that you like.
What if I can’t find a chord progression that works?
Previously, I’ve taught young piano students that want to be able to write their own music to accompany a melody but couldn’t understand how to accomplish this using chord progressions. Other times, a melody may require an obscure or complicated chord progression that is difficult to find. These situations are common, but that doesn’t mean that all hope is lost!
In this case, I would suggest composing your accompaniment one note at a time, instead of with chords. Start by writing a bass line. Sing the melody while trying to find notes in the lower register of the piano that work and blend in well. It’s best to sustain the note for longer periods, instead of changing with each melody note. Write down notes that work so that you won’t forget them.
Once you’ve gotten through the whole song, go back through and add another note to be played with each bass note. Now you’ll be playing two notes together with your melody. Keep experimenting until you’ve found something that you like. Don’t be afraid to change your original note if you find something that works better.
I suggest repeating this process one more time so that you always have three notes under your melody. Once you’ve done that, you have your chord progression! It should provide a nice full sound under the melody. If you’re struggling to find notes that work, try notes that often appear in the melody. Also remember that repeated sections in the melody can probably use the same notes underneath.
What happens after I have my chords?
Once you have your chords, you can use your other hand to play some pitches higher up, or to double notes. You can also change the rhythms or transform your “block chords” to “broken chords” as shown here:
By doing this, you are adding movement and excitement to your composition. If also will sound more complicated and really make the song unique. Be creative! There’s really no end to the possibilities!
Creating a piano accompaniment, is not always easy, but is very rewarding when finished. Don’t be discouraged and keep trying! The more you compose, the easier it will become. If you decide you want to take your writing a step further, I would suggest learning more about music theory and chord progressions. There’s always more to learn! YouTube is an excellent source for this.
Good luck in your future compositions!