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I am a singer, but wanting to write my own songs, my lack of piano skills constantly slows me down. I don't have the time for classical lessons, standard sight reading & laborious finger technique exercises. I understand basic music theory & can construct scales & chords, but I need to gain more aural skills & basic facility so that piano technique doesn't constantly get in my way & rob me of attention.

If you only had a few months to teach an amateur enough piano to facilitate songwriting, what would be the highest leverage approach?

Recommendations by expert players & industry veterans would be much appreciated. Results backed by real experience & academic research would be ideal too.

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closed as primarily opinion-based by Wheat Williams, jjmusicnotes, American Luke, Jason W, Dr Mayhem Sep 19 '13 at 10:43

Many good questions generate some degree of opinion based on expert experience, but answers to this question will tend to be almost entirely based on opinions, rather than facts, references, or specific expertise. If this question can be reworded to fit the rules in the help center, please edit the question.

My initial thought would be to NOT be in a hurry... Learning piano technique in a way that it comes to you naturally and "not in your way" will require long time earned experience. Sorry. –  awe Sep 18 '13 at 10:38
There are no shortcuts to success. –  Carl Witthoft Sep 18 '13 at 11:35
getting the piano learning out the way is, in my opinion, exactly the wrong way to go if you want to write industry level pop songs. Most successful level pop songs are written by creative, skilled teams. Treating the piano as a hurdle to get past will not help you understand how and why the piano can be used to help you compose. –  Dr Mayhem Sep 18 '13 at 11:43
I think what may drive much of the discontent is the perception of the attitude: "what is the least amount of work I have to do to be successful?" This mindset is perceived as lazy and is mostly damaging to individual artistic integrity. Throughout the last century, our culture has cultivated and rewarded this mindset, and the current pop climate is a hyperbolization of realistic or thoughtful artistic contributions. Since when is being mediocre acceptable at anything? Are you really content with being mediocre at something? This translates more than just piano, but songwriting as well. –  jjmusicnotes Sep 18 '13 at 17:43
I think there is no hate for pop music here - every comment suggests more practice so you can compose pop music effectively. –  Dr Mayhem Sep 18 '13 at 18:31

5 Answers 5

From what I understand, you want to "get it out of the way", because you want to focus on the song writing aspect, but not get too in depth with piano technique intricacies. What most people are trying to tell you is that even learning the basic skills, techniques, patterns takes quite a lot of practice and time, because piano is not by any means a simple instrument. Even if you develop a basic level of piano skill that allows you to comfortably write songs, you will most likely be stuck at that level until you continue to learn piano properly. Many of the current industry pop artists that use piano, all started from learning classical music and from bottom up.

That being said, I believe there are ways that can allow you to familiarize with techniques and patterns quickly without diving too much into theoretical knowledge (although some may disagree with my points).

  1. The first thing to write pop music is to listen to it. Listen to a lot of pop music with the piano and actively listen to it (as opposed to passively). Active listening means you're listening to the music intentionally and while doing so, try to analyze the piano part specifically for the chord progressions, scales, arpeggios, key rhythms. Also try to compare songs, because most general pop music uses similar chord progressions.
  2. Play and practice the piano by imitation and replication (ie. play the piano while you're playing the music track from your computer/youtube, etc...). Obviously, if you don't have even rudimentary skills, this can be hard, but you know scales and chords so it should be okay. Start with music pieces that use simpler and slower piano tunes and work your way up to something more intricate (like Vanessa Carlton's A Thousand Miles, which is a fantastic piano pop song btw). If you have trouble with even simpler songs, then start by focusing on just the melody lines. If you know how to read music, it would also help if you can find sheet music versions of those songs and give those a try. Doing this replication is helpful because it helps you associate the sounds and patterns you hear with actual finger/hand movements.

My answer is based on my experience currently learning the bass guitar. I couldn't stand practicing just scales and playing random notes and tunes from the back of my head, while a lot of the beginner tutorials were just to simple. So instead I just started trying to play the bass parts of actual songs, which is a lot more fun and it seems to be helping me learn faster. However, I do have years of experience with the piano, so I would think my faster learning at the end of the stay still attributes back to the sweat and tears from piano practice.

At the end of the day, even the points I mentioned will take some time and I agree with all the comments in the question, that there are no shortcuts in life. You may end up learning the basics, but it won't mean you understand it (ie. You may know a chord progression but don't know why a certain chord progression sounds good). Writing industry level music doesn't take days, weeks, months and if you want to learn piano so that you can progressively get better as you write music, the only way is through learning piano properly.

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Picking up melodies by ear is what I intuitively do for singing, but I also need a strategy (analogous to the number system used by studio musicians for sight reading) for piano technique & musical analysis. Again, it's obvious expert levels require years of practice, but a good strategy abstracts the unnecessary complexity for beginners! In your words, what would be "learning piano properly"? –  user1891836 Sep 18 '13 at 16:19
By learning properly, it would through piano lessons or going through the theoretically and practical stuff in details. But you said that's something you want to skip right? As for a good strategy? I already mentioned it generally: keep listening and keep imitating. By doing so, you're learning by sound and picking up techniques by sound while abstracting all the theoretical knowledge away from your focus. –  gitsitgo Sep 18 '13 at 17:32

I would recommend to get a piano teacher to give you personal lessons. That would probably be the most efficient way to achieve what you want in the least amount of time.

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Do what Irving Berlin did. Learn to play three or four chords, and then pay a professional pianist and arranger to sit next to you on the piano bench full-time while you compose songs, and have him properly arrange and write down everything you come up with. It will cost money, but hey, it worked very well for Irving. His arranger and constant working musical companion for 60 years was named Helmy Kresa.

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Proof it can be done! :) I guess Madonna did a lot of this too. –  user1891836 Sep 18 '13 at 16:21

One trick I used to learn enough guitar to write good songs was to play along with the tv. After school, when you switch on the tube, pick up the guitar, too.

Commercial breaks are the best. You've got 4 to 8 (or more) 30-second songs to jam with. If it's an ad that you've never seen before, maybe just try follow the bass line. Second time around, try to figure out what key it's in. By the time you've seen the same ad 4 or 5 times, and you know the chord changes, play a solo over it. Don't worry about if it's a style you don't like or anything like that.

Playing along with the incidental music of the shows has the possible side-effect of ruining the show for you :(. You may have difficulty not paying attention to the music!

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If you don't want to master piano, maybe it's better just to get some theory book and read it, and use a MIDI programm (I think there should be something like Guitar Pro for piano) to create songs. Music theory is universal and may be applied to any modern musical instrument.

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I would have sided with you, but programming is significantly slower than playing, because you can't test things quickly. Improvisation & natural feel are out of the question too. Unfortunately, music theory is the core, but not enough. You have to play the instrument. –  user1891836 Sep 18 '13 at 13:52
Slower? You just write notes and it plays it, from any part to any part. At any speed with any sound effects you want. Yeah, sound is not natural, but if you've bought a good programm, it should sound very decent. –  kemerover Sep 19 '13 at 7:21

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