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I am a self-taught pianist. I have been playing piano for about 7 years. I can play all my major and melodic minor scales comfortably. I excelled in AP Music Theory in high school.

My goals are to improve my piano technique, eventually compose music, and learn my music theory well. I eventually want to compose for a wide variety of genres, including some subgenres of EDM such as future funk, synth-pop, and the experimental/glitch genre.

I am not going to school to study music, but on the side of my schoolwork I have been meeting with music professors to get some guidance. I have been looking at counterpoint textbooks and learned the five species of basic counterpoint. I have also read the first 200 or so pages of Mark Levine's Jazz Theory, up to the part about sequences.

I am not sure how to proceed next - I don't know if going further into the jazz textbook will give me the skills I want, since I myself do not consider jazz my favorite genre, but found the seventh chords and smooth voice leading interesting.

I don't know what to do at this point. I don't know what textbooks to study next, or what techniques to practice. I can always practice my scales on the piano, but I want to grow my knowledge that will help me compose better music as well.

I could compose some more music, but I'm not sure that would expand my skills - only reinforce my existing ones. I could improvise, but I don't know exactly how to improvise in a way that will help me improve, as I have no formal knowledge of improvisation. I could also pick up another textbook on harmony.

However, I don't really know what to do next. Does anyone have any suggestions?

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Study the map

Continue with things like the counterpoint and the jazz theory books. It's always good to devote a small amount of your time to learning new things even if they don't apply directly to your goal because you'll never know if you do want to go in that direction unless you wander down that path for a while.

If nothing else it's a matter of understanding the topology of what you don't yet know. Maybe skim the table of contents of books that you think might be over your head or not directly applicable to you. If you see a topic you've never heard of read a little bit about it. Don't waste a lot time but at least read enough that you'll know it exists and whether you might want to revisit it at some point later in your studies. In other words, it's good to be a little bit familiar with the entire map even if you're not going to those places anytime soon.

Pick a path

But spend the majority of your practice time directly chasing your goals. Decide what that goal is and start working toward it. Find the shortest distance between where you are now and your goal by figuring out which topics and techniques you'll need to know. Then take each topic and break it down into smaller and smaller chunks until it's something you can work on right now. As for how to find those topics, let the music itself inform you.

Learn the rules of the road

For instance you said you'd like to compose "some subgenres of EDM such as future funk, synth-pop, and the experimental/glitch genre". So start breaking apart and analyzing those types of songs. Learn how to play some of them. Then learn what makes that genre sound like that genre. Analyze the melody, harmony, rhythm, timbre, song form, etc. Which aspects of those things in a particular genre seem similar from song to song and which are different? What techniques do you need to work on to be able to play these genres? What aspects of the theory are most important to the genre or which ones don't you understand yet? Let these type of questions inform your practice and study time.

Then try recreating some of these songs or write new ones in the same style. Dive right in and let your failures guide you. Get a MIDI keyboard and DAW and record the song trying to recreate the sounds as closely as you can. The act of doing this will teach you the genre-specific theory, technique, and timbre that it takes to make that kind of music. So not only are you learning something but it's tailored specifically to your goal.

Break the rules

Once you've learned the "rules" of that genre, try breaking them. Write your own tune and put your own spin on it. Try to apply what you're learning in your counterpoint or jazz piano studies and see what works and what doesn't.

Then rinse and repeat with a new genre or song.

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I'm sure I don't have a definitive answer to offer, but I'll share what I've learned being in a similar position -- self-taught pianist and composer for about 14 years. I haven't read as much as you, but I've probably improvised more.

One of the most valuable things has been alternation between book learning and finger learning. My method for the longest time was to just play and play and try new things and see what I liked and investigate anything that was interesting. Often, songs would develop through improperly or accidentally struck keys! For example, the bridge in one song started from meaning to hit D, A/C#, F#m/C#, which was part of the standard melody line, but for that last chord played C#sus4 instead, transitioned into F#m/C#, and from there back to D. Sounded nice so I developed it further!

But now and then I will take the time to learn theory. Sometimes experimentation leads to original composition, but very often it just chips away (slowly!) at well-established and basic principles. Since it's possible to digest a principle in an hour with a good chapter instead of over weeks of experimentation, I now try to get these "infusions" of knowledge and start playing on a structure. Similarly, I will play other people's songs, sometimes spending a day or a week working through new songs or sheet music, or more if I'm finding it helpful, and notice what I like best in it and intentionally improvise on the base that they've given (whether it's their song structure, their rhythmic pattern, their chord progression, their melody line, their harmony style). This provides fresh "mutations" for my basic compositional DNA.

In the same way, many of my new songs actually start the same as an existing one; they'll have the same intro, for example (say, 4 or 8 bars of a rhythm or a chord progression). This provides a runway for the creative process. Then I just go in a different direction, again experimenting, whether it's physically or mentally: Physically, shall I try this higher octave to see what it has to offer? Mentally, shall I try a new minor chord where my instincts tell me to use the familiar major one? Physically, shall I do a chromatic trill on this note to open up the scale? Mentally, shall I modify the harmony to work in snatches of counterpoint?

Now, sometimes I do work intentionally instead of experimentally. I sit at my score without my hands on the keyboard and think, "What is needed for this climax is a modulation up a major third. I'll need to use two measures to transition that, which I can give to the flute and accent the key 'pivot' notes with the horn," or something. But because I'm not as well-read, I do more discovering the other way. You might find that your scale is balanced more to this sort of thing.

Also, I record a lot of content to make sure I don't lose ideas, but I do at least 3 or 4 times as much playing without recording. This playing is other people's music or favourite songs of mine I know aren't quite developed. Like a toddler babbling, this is the exploration, the dwelling and steeping in the piece until something new emerges. As the cliché goes, the voice of inspiration comes when you least expect it, but I find it rarely comes if I'm not listening. How I "listen" is often just to spend that patient time with a piece.

Happy composing!


Appendix on improvising

In reply to your comment: I'm not sure the process is easily transferable, and I wouldn't say that I improve "in order to learn something new". What I meant above is that I learn either by intentionally reading or by accidentally playing, usually after getting to the point of boredom with whatever framework I started with. Instead, I improvise to get ideas for new pieces. :)

That said, for what it's worth, here's the sort of thing I do.

  1. Pick a key — whether this is done by fingers finding familiar keys or intentionally choosing one doesn't matter.

  2. Start with a few chords or a more or less random melody line.

  3. Whichever was chosen first, add the other.

  4. Develop! Repeat one element while testing the other. (One thing I really enjoyed about Miles Davis' ensembles was how they would sometimes have a constant rhythm while changing the melody, and sometimes change the rhythm while having a constant melody!)

  5. Make your way gradually towards a melody that you would call the central idea, and a consistent chord progression for it. Play around in the space between. New chords, new melody fragments within the key. Make your way back to that central idea every now and then, taking longer ways round till you return to it, which immediately lends it new thematic interest as the context around it changes. Try to build an arc so that you remain emotionally interested.

This process is generally enough to get an idea that I can then begin to more intentionally elaborate.

Here's a snippet of the opening of an old improvisation of mine (nowadays I hope my timing is better... my recording quality certainly is!). I don't know if it'll be your cup of tea, and it may not actually be representative of the above since it's 3 minutes of what became 26 and doesn't even begin to touch on the main theme, but for me it represents a good balance between a repeating structural element and playing minor variations to get somewhere new and find something I like. Towards the end of this clip you can hear where I found it got samey and decided to throw in a non-diatonic change in the hopes of slightly changing the game.

2015 improv bite

  • How do you improvise exactly? When I improvise I sometimes feel like it's either too unstructured so I don't learn anything, or I follow the rules too much and so I'm not learning anything new. What I have done before is take ii V I progressions and just improvise over them, or take a melody and try to develop it and transform it in some ways - sequence, extensions, etc. Are there other useful tips you would suggest for improvising? – reincarnationofstackexchange Sep 18 '18 at 18:20
  • @reincarnationofstackexchange Added some more to the end of the answer that might be useful. It's probably similar to what you do. Feel free to ask any more follow-up questions — if you think I might have anything more you don't already know :p – Luke Sawczak Sep 19 '18 at 13:38
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My goals are to improve my piano technique, eventually compose music, and learn my music theory well.

I'm not sure that these goals are specific enough to help you plot a path. (I know you mentioned a bit more detail in the post, but I was still left with this impression).

if you improve your piano technique, how do you know when that goal is 'achieved'? if you improve, you'll be better than you were a while back - but there will still be room for improvement. So you may still feel you need to improve... in other words, you may be back where you started.

It's the same with learning music theory. There is always more to learn - there are always more ways to describe and analyse music; always more methods to try. So although learning music theory is an interesting activity, it isn't really a goal that can be achieved, as such. (Of course you could set an intermediate specific goal, like passing a particular exam - if that is, indeed, a genuine goal).

"eventually compose music" is another interesting one. Why eventually? Why not now? With the genres you mentioned, there's no real low bar to entry - generally, people get the equipment they need (which could probably just be the computer you're using now) and get started. You could set a more specific goal, like "get an album uploaded to bandcamp in the next 2 years", or even just to complete one plausible-sounding track in the next X months.

I guess some people are in music because they actually want to contribute something (however small) to the world of music, or a particular musical community. If you want to do this, you could work out if there's something specific that you want to contribute. If not, perhaps you could just have a look around in communities accessible to you and see what opportunities there are.

On the other hand, it seems that some people just want to explore. If this sounds like you, don't pressure yourself to find a particular path - just keep picking something that seems interesting to learn about now, and you'll naturally learn and develop your ideas. You may eventually come up with some ideas about making a more active contribution... or not! Not a problem either way.

  • Well, I do compose and arrange some music already. I also enjoy simply exploring music. Both are fun for me. My main concern is, how do I explore in a way that is efficient for learning? – reincarnationofstackexchange Sep 19 '18 at 23:23
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    @reincarnationofstackexchange I think that's a hard question to answer. In a subject like music, I'm not sure that focusing on efficient learning would always be healthy; you don't necessarily want to take short cuts or deny yourself the opportunity to explore, especially when you enjoy that exploration. "Follow your bliss" might be an idea worth thinking about - focus on the thing that you are feeling most passionate about at a given moment, so that the time you put in gives you the maximum pleasure. That may be a healthier kind of efficiency IMO. – topo morto Sep 20 '18 at 0:19
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"I could compose some more music..."

Yes. That's your aim, isn't it? So do it. Do it LOTS.

And why not take some piano lessons? Whatever you're studying, I'm sure the Arts department offers some outreach classes.

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