Musical Composition, Theory and Songwriting/composing for the piano

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Question
Dear Dr Colin,
         My question is - - In composing for the piano, how arek the rules of part writing involved? Thank you for your answer.

Answer
Dear Ng,

Thanks very much for contacting me. I assume that when you say part-writing you are referring to independent melodic parts within the music. However, I am not quite sure which "rules" you are referring to. In any case, it is probably better to refer to "principles" or "conventions" rather than rules. I'll have to assume that you are referring to general principles, in that parallel motion should be avoided especially between intervals of the fifth and octave; parts should remain in a certain range; parts should not cross over; the 7th should always resolve to the tonic etc, etc. You probably know all that stuff. If you want to refresh your memory, go here:  http://smu.edu/totw/partwrit.htm


There are many conventions in part-writing, and let's not forget that the concept of music in separate parts goes way back to 12th century at least - almost 1,000 years! Some of the conventions used in the past have since been ignored and even conventions used 100 years ago are disregarded in much of today's music. For example, the rule of parallel fifths is largely ignored by modern composers, especially if they want to create a medieval or archaic kind of sound. Parts often cross each other - look at some of Bach's chorales and keyboard music and see how often this happens. So, these conventions are there only as very basic guidelines. And of course, they were first formulated so that students could learn to compose music in a conventional manner.

So, to return to your question. Basically, the conventions of part writing remain the same for any instruments or voices. They would be the same for a string quartet, a brass band and also for a piano. But, as I said before, traditional conventions can often safely be ignored - unless you are writing for some kind of examination. If this is the case, it is better to stay within the usual conventions because examiners delight in finding "mistakes" in candidate's composing exercises. For free piano composition though, you can do pretty much what you want provided that what you write makes musical sense and serves the purpose you intend.

My advice to students is invariably, "go and see what the professional composers did."  A great deal of part-music has been composed for the piano. There are countless works by J S Bach and his contemporaries written for keyboard. If you want to look at more modern keyboard works there are several websites that offer free downloads of classical piano music. Here is one of the most extensive:

http://imslp.org/wiki/Main_Page

Studying some of these works is far more useful than reading what I have to say!

I hope I have answered your question in a way that resolves problems and indicates some ways forward. If anything is not clear, please feel free to get back to me again. In the meantime, here's wishing you well for your composing studies!

Best wishes

Colin

Musical Composition, Theory and Songwriting

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Dr Colin

Expertise

I can answer questions from students of "classical" composing, arranging, notation problems and music theory, writing for instruments and voice and writing music for education. I can answer questions about orchestration but I do not cover questions about pop or rock music, pop song writing or electronic music.

I taught for many years in UK up to "A" level theory and composition. I have spent many years in music education, initially (like everyone else) as a teacher. Then I moved on to advisory work (teaching teachers!) and also lectured, giving many workshops for teachers in developing music education skills and techniques. For a time I worked as a teacher-lecturer at London University's Institute of Education and eventually worked full-time as a Music Education Adviser to schools in part of London, offering advice on music education and curriculum development.

Experience

I started composing music at the age 14 (it was mostly rubbish, since you asked) and now have a large number of compositions to credit as well as many publications, especially for instrumental music and choral music. I have also written several acclaimed works for large orchestra and choir. My work has been published particularly in the UK (under different names)(notably by Boosey & Hawkes, Novello, and Schott) but also in the USA and the Netherlands.

My music for elementary players (several publications) has been performed and broadcast worldwide. I am now retired from my previous job as Music Education Adviser. These days I spend most of my time composing and arranging. I am currently working on instrumental arrangements of world national anthems for my National Anthems website and also completing a suite of very easy piano solos and duets for elementary players. For many years I have used the music program "Finale" for all my music writing activities.

Organizations
International Society for Music Education; Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts.

Publications
"The Times" Educational Supplement; "Hi-Fi News and Record Review". For several years, I used to write for many of the state music education periodicals in the US and I also wrote several influential articles on instrumental music teaching for "Music Teacher" magazine in the UK. (UK).

Education/Credentials
PhD(Hons); MA(Hons); FLCM (compositon) ARCM, LMusTCL,(music diplomas)

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