One of the greatest things about being able to appreciate several different genres of music across to board is to be able to study some commonalities in great songs from completely different genres. When a K-pop dance song and a power metal anthem straight out of Germany are put up side by side with each other, you might find nothing in common, but if you strip away the textures and surrounding context down just to the chords and melody, you’ll be surprised what you find.
While I believe there is a place and a use for most different instruments in today’s music, not all instruments are created equal in regards to songwriting. Some songs were definitely not written in the way you think they were, and while most artists will know a little bit (enough to mess around) on some instruments that have nothing to do with there genre, there is one universal instrument that I believe everyone interested in songwriting should learn and attempt to use to improve their compositions.
The piano is the ultimate polyphonic instrument. With proper use of the sustain pedal, you have the ability to play up to every single key at the same time. This can be used brilliantly to play rich, full sounds with no gaps by arpeggiating the left hand and sustaining the notes, or empty, solemn progressions running just two or three notes simultaneously when the time calls for it.
And when applied to songwriting, I believe this is the main reason that it is the best all-purpose songwriting instrument you can have: It is one of the only instruments that allows you to play both chords and a melody at the same time. On a piano, when you play the lead and backing at the same time, the chords and melody can intermingle more closely with each other, providing a continuum of definition between the melody and the rhythm of the passage. If you like, you can even have two melodies going on at once, one with the left hand holding down a tighter rhythmic timing, and one with the right providing a dynamic lead melody. The possibilities are endless when there is no restriction on polyphony.
Lead Melodies From a Piano Are Catchier
One thing I’ll always use a piano for, no matter the genre, is to compose my vocal melodies. First off, it is simply easier to get instant feedback of the melody in reference to the backing chords and other parts of the song, because you can play the rhythm and the melody at the same time on a keyboard – something not many other instruments allow you to do.
Also, melodies penned down from a keyboard-based instrument, in most cases, are frankly much catchier and much more likely to stick in the listener’s mind over a melody that was simply hummed off the top of someone’s head. While a guitar isn’t always bad for writing lead vocal melodies, a typical guitar playing style will lead most melodies to sound less dynamic in range, and more melodically repetitive and flatter, as you will likely be hitting the same notes over and over again. It is much easier to create an evolving melody with a sense of movement on a keyboard because you have to slide your whole hand several inches to get a significant pitch change out of a guitar, while most musicians can play over an octave’s range on a piano without lifting a finger. (no pun intended)
Simply put, vocal melodies written from a piano will usually sound more dynamic in range, and with the increased range, comes more options, leading to an overall more interesting melody.
When writing out a guitar solo without a looping pedal or pre-recorded rhythm track, it becomes difficult to determine exactly how the melodic notes will flow with the rhythm track; this is because you are writing without reference. When you write on a piano, the ability to play hoards of notes at the same time lets you create for yourself all the reference you need. You know exactly where a certain melody will fit in a song, how well it will sit on top of the written chords, and allows you to more accurately determine the feeling you are conveying to your listener that will emerge in the final product.
Use of the Piano as the Chief Songwriting Instrument Is More Commonplace Than You Think
It is no secret that keyboards rule over guitar in today’s pop music. There is a reason why most of the greatest modern composers are opting to write (their melodies especially) from a piano rather than a guitar. But whether you are a fan of hard-hitting rock or bubblegum pop, piano will always make for a more memorable, better composition.
As an example that even hard rock artists use piano in their writings, we’ll take a look at heavy metal band Avenged Sevenfold as an example. Based on over 22,000 votes from fans of the band, (these are metalheads we’re listening to), their top three rated songs are Afterlife, Nightmare, and A Little Piece of Heaven, respectively. What do all three of these songs have in common?
They were either entirely composed on, or have parts that were composed on a keyboard.
As the now deceased James “The Rev” Sullivan stated in an interview, “A Little Piece of Heaven’s” melody was composed entirely on the piano by him on a vacation with the band. Upon closer inspection of the song (ignoring the unusual and downright creepy lyrics), you’ll notice it has a much more melodically dynamic composition style than most of the heavy metal giant’s other releases. The chorus relies on a rhythmically faster and upbeat vocal melody, which then contrasts nicely into a slower, more emotional passage. I personally think this is one of their better vocal melodies, and I didn’t find out why until after I watched the interview video of it being composed.
That being said, of course there are exceptions. I would never write a guitar solo on a piano, and I would definitely gravitate more towards a guitar-based writing technique to craft raw, hard-hitting rock riffs. Sometimes an intricate, smooth sound with lots of finesse isn’t what the song calls for, and you shouldn’t try to force anything that sounds unnatural. While a keyboard is great to get down the chords and ideas for a song, it has its limits, and often a solo should be written on its instrument of performance. (of course over a backing track of the rest of the song)
In the end, of course a good song can come from any instrument, and a great songwriter will be a great songwriter given any instrument. But if you are trying to compose intricate, catchy melodies or interesting chord progressions, the piano should be your weapon of choice.
Even for a pumping metal song, I think the piano is the right place to start when laying down the initial chords and vocal melody – the bare bones of the song. No matter what genre you’re in, (save black metal) you’d be surprised at the change in your melodic quality when you first begin writing from a keyboard-based instrument. And even if you don’t intend to use it in every new tune of yours, I still urge every songwriter to learn a little bit of piano.
What do you think? Discuss your favorite writing styles and instruments in the comments below!