Writing for the Pianola
The best technique is to write directly to the finished roll. With a little practice this becomes as easy as regular handwriting. The easiest method is simply a mouse click on the desired note and use of the mouse to further adjust the note value and positioning as desired. With computer music midi editors such as Cakewalk this is easy. Instant playback is possible. This facilitates and encourages experiment and honing of your skills finely in a fast effective way that was never possible in the non-computer age. You may very easily repeatedly play over sections and fine tune everything until you are happy with the result.
No piano stool composing
Unless you are writing only a piano solo piece never compose or arrange at the piano keyboard. The music generated by composing at the keyboard will invariably be constrained by your own personal keyboard technique and musical extemporization inventiveness at the keyboard (or possible distinct lack thereof). The best writing is always that which is done away from the keyboard. This permits the free-ﬂow of musical ideas onto the paper. By all means revert to a piano keyboard to work out harmonies if needed but do not write the whole thing note—for-note at the piano keyboard.
Sleep on it
After you have gotten together your ideas onto paper and worked up a suitable arrangement of the music and repeat-listened ad-infinitum until you are happy it is very important to stop. You must leave the work and completely set it aside for a few days or at the very least “sleep on it” at least one night. Returning to the work after allowing it to leave your mind will enable you to hear it fresh as it would sound to a new listener who had never heard it before. Take careful mental note at this fresh review of any and all sections that now sound a little rough or indeed glaringly rough. When one works constantly at a piece it is easy to get accustomed to sections of music that really do not sound easy on the ears to the new listener. Be self-critical and do not be afraid to make sweeping changes to what you thought the day before was your ultimate masterpiece. When done again “sleep on it” before returning to it cold another day and see if there is yet anything still you missed or could obviously improve upon.
Care of phrasing
In making music rolls great care must be taken in the phrasing of the musical notes. A pianist intonates and Vocalises the musical theme by phrasing of the music during performance. Some notes are more legato than written, some slightly more tied and so forth. A piano roll is a fixed thing thus where note lengths are all equal the proper phrasing of the music is nigh impossible by the pianolist. Where note lengths are too long any semblance of note attack may only be imparted by a crash of volume applied to non-staccato notes. Notes programmed perhaps a little short may be phrased by the pianolist to some degree by use of the sustain pedal. Neither approach is musically correct and it is easy to see how stemming from these roll defects well intentioned yet unmusical pianola playing is elicited.
In programming note length it is best to phrase the melody fully as you intend it to be heard. This makes life easy for the novice pianolist, guides the experienced pianolist as to your musical intentions and still leaves room for those wishing to twiddle about blissfully in the manner outlined above. Musical attack is paramount for the correct aural perception by listeners of your music. Not only must the roll be easily performable by the pianolist but it must also sit easily in the aural perception of the listener. One cannot expect the pianolist to be telepathic as to your musical intentions nor the listener. Obviating any great mental demands on pianolists and listeners is essential. The intellectual demands the music may require of pianolist and listener is a separate issue altogether and that remains solely a matter for your own ruminations. It matters not whether the music on the roll is tonal, atonal, experimental or otherwise — it must be correctly phrased.
Click to listen to the above midi example
Clarity of musical lines
It is essential for the listener to be able to follow the melody of the music. Some reliance for ensuring this may be offloaded onto the duties of a themeing system (such as themodist, solodant etc) of a player piano. This option should always be weighed against the somewhat heavier possibility that not all instruments have these systems nor owners capable of using them correctly. If the roll has clear musical line without recourse to mechanical aids so much the better. There may be occasions where their use is absolutely unavoidable. Nonetheless for music of a non-classical nature it is always preferable to consider alternate ways of writing the music roll so as to create clear lines without and need for themeing. Theme perforations can always be added which will further enhance the roll but the ideal is that it should, as much as possible, stand on its own without themeing assistance where at all possible.
In the orchestra many instruments with differing tones may play over the same pitches in the musical scale, in the same octaves, without clashing musically. This is how musical colouration is built up in orchestral writing. On a single piano keyboard there is both a limit to how much can be achieved in the same space and also how much the ear can comprehend and tolerate. Countermelodies occupying the same musical space in orchestral scores may need to move apart into different octaves on the piano to maintain coherent clear musical lines. This can of itself alter the mood of the music so care must be taken to observe the original effect intended in the orchestra and the result of manoeuvring parts about on a single keyboard. In transcription onto the pianola always maintain clear musical lines over and above attempting to retain and cram everything from the original score for some perceived sake of authenticity. You may find it preferable to create a musical painting of the work for pianola than attempt a high-definition musical photograph of it onto piano roll.
The sub-dominant lines of a counterrnelody need not occupy a space all of their own. By clever writing you may trail a counter melody over the upper note of the off—beat chord triad or weave through the midst of such triads and through the melody.
Orchestral tone combinations
By practice and experience you should aim to create a palette of tone colour templates. Throwing the melody into the octave below middle-C will create a fine cello tenor effect on the piano. Adding the octave above will create a different tone, adding the octave one above that creates a fine sound and playing the melody in unison on all three together creates yet another effect. Each octave may be phrased differently to produce further effects. For example the lower two could, in unison, play the melody legato whilst the third and uppermost unison could play entirely staccato to give a percussive glockenspiel-like effect onto the melody line. For a section of thundering brass you may choose three, four or five octaves simultaneously.
Be wary of striking grand chords compassing all 7 octaves together. Due to the way in which pianos are tuned and octaves are stretched the result may be unexpectedly discordant. Whether and where you fill out the intervening spaces with harmonizing thirds, fifths and so on again creates different effects. A melody line may be run in the middle-C octave but harmonized with thirds (or other interval) one or even two octaves above. Alternately the position of melody and thirds could be swapped giving an entirely different effect. Similarly counter-melody position up the musical scale may be varied to create different effects. Bass notes, their positioning, octave doubling and attack provide a further myriad possibilities. Remember that on the pianola you are never constrained by mere hand technique so do experiment freely as there is much uncharted territory still to explore.
Click to listen to the above midi example
Countermelody harmonic positioning
Extended countermelody notes for popular music are usually most effective when placed in the octave below middle-C. The melody harmonizes against these held notes as in orchestral and band scores. Further additional harmonizing notes may be experimented with and in certain circumstances provide musical function effectively when written into the uppermost high portion of the keyboard. In this position they may also provide useful harmonic frequencies rather than mere additional countermelodic currency.
The orchestral colouration suggested by melody, counter-melody and harmonic positioning may further be varied by additional phrasing. Beyond the phrasing of the clear melodic line careful experimentation with the rest of the musical notes provides further tone timbre variation. Again, this is where the possibilities of the pianola really come into their own and create new musical paths for exploration. In the hands of the experienced pianolist further interesting textures to the musical arrangement on the roll may be elicited and developed. You must leave this door unlocked for the inventive pianolist to pass through and make the path to the door plainly apparent also.
Weight of sound
It is important that the finished music roll is as well balanced as possible. The combined noise from everything going on at any one point should flow evenly with what comes immediately before and after it on the music sheet. A live pianist compensates automatically in volume for all the notes under his fingers at any one time. A player piano will play everything at the same level (notwithstanding the intervention of the pianolist) It is paramount that in programming a music roll you identify and control the weight of sound. Missing out or adding even a single note to the off-beat chord triads will substantially alter the total weight of sound. Filling out melody line chords with 3-part harmony as opposed to 2-part will also alter the weight and so on and so on. The solution to maintaining balance is the “sleep on it” technique explained above. In revisiting the music fresh to your ears after a break you will immediately notice any of these sound weight imbalances. Note them down mentally then revisit the work bar by bar affected. Examine what is going on in the bar and around it. It should become apparent where the addition or subtraction of a note or notes is necessitated. Sometimes the imbalance may be redressed by something as insignificant as adding or extending something in the countermelody or by altering the octave positioning of some note or other. Manipulating the overall weight of sound is also an essential and complimentary path to effective phrasing of the music. Experiment and repeatedly play back the affected sections until it is absolutely even where it is supposed to be absolutely even.
Number of musical lines
Just as it is important to maintain weight of sound it is also important to carefully observe the number of musical lines running through a piece. A counter—melody may start meandering beneath a melody line then split off into a 2-part countermelody. The ear now has three clear music lines to follow. You need to go back and ensure that all musical lines remain balanced and coherent. If one meanders off and fizzles out before returning this will create an aural imbalance in its own right. Make sure everything fits together.
The weight of sound combined with multiple clear musical lines will give ultimate musical balance to the player piano arrangement. As with all musical writing coherence of ideas is always a good thing. In the player piano genre the novice is easily tempted towards exuberance, suprahuman brilliance of bravura virtuosity and everything else the player offers. The spectacle of a bravura performance under the hands of the live pianist becomes meaningless and dull on a player piano in the absence of any pianist to observe. Musical balance and restraint are preferable over unnecessary musical exuberance. The ultimate point of writing any music should surely be that it may be enjoyed or convey some message. If the musical message is pointless clatter and noise the listener will soon tire and the music on the roll will have very little repeat playability about it.
The musical purpose of the sustain pedal in relation to piano music must be thoroughly understood. In hand-playing it should not be lazily relied upon as a short-cut to tidy up poor keyboard technique. On a piano roll it can be used for specific tasks but should not be moronically switched off and on to coincide with each bar of music unless you are aiming to imitate a sloppy pianist. Proper phrasing and note length should take precedence over reliance upon the sustain pedal. For bespoke writing and transcribing for the player piano the sustain should only ever be used where its effect is specifically required musically. It is worth remembering that orchestras and dance bands are not fitted with sustain pedals to fudge everything nicely together. There is no substitute for crisp clear precise playing.
For popular and lighter music; after you have completed your arrangement do spare a thought for the matter of pitch. A musical arrangement may sound vastly improved by merely transposing the piece as little as one semitone in either direction. Music is written in various keys often only for ease-of-performance considerations so do experiment. Pitch alteration should be considered judiciously however. It is inappropriate to improve upon classical piano solo works in this manner. Orchestral music may be nudged gently however. The original feel of the piece may have been different when composed due to the alteration of orchestral tuning frequencies over the past two centuries. Apply a little intellectual thought to the matter in deciding for yourself.
In writing your arrangement you will have geared all the phrasing and note placement to create a certain feel at the tempo you have set for the piece. This is then the principal tempo at which everything gels together or as I call it the “bounce speed”. During on—screen playbacks it is worthwhile trying out a few slightly slower or faster variants of this bounce speed. There are two reasons for this. Firstly with subtle different speeds other musical ideas may occur to you which will lead you forwards to better the musical content. These improvements may be by way of either subtraction from, or addition to the musical arrangement. Sometimes “less is more” but sometimes “more is more” also. Secondly, a player roll should musically hold together well around the central bounce speed for approximately plus or minus 10% variation in either direction. You may discover that certain things fall apart very quickly at as little as a minus 5% drop in speed. Judicious revising of the phrasing may nonetheless permit the music to hold together at slower playbacks speeds without affecting crispness at high speeds. Slight payoffs are often better than none. There is really no need on player rolls for the suggested tempo to be written on the production music sheet as the innate bounce speed of the music will subconsciously lead the musically intelligent pianolist straight to the optimum most musically appropriate tempo. Printed tempo suggestions are however, by convention, stated so as to cater for those in need of several sessions with Dr Freud of Vienna.
Much modem pop music writing is wonderfully inventive with truly magnificent bass and melody lines that will give most classical composers a run for their money any day. Many are modem masterpieces in their own right so never dismiss the genre. It is also worth noting that some pieces music really cannot be translated to the piano whether mechanically assisted or not. Much will prove entirely unworthy of any effort. Disco, funk, pop, dance, house, slowies, ballads and anything with half a tune and plenty of beat may all be successfully attempted. Rap, where the appeal is m the rhythmic monotone delivery of well- crafted lyrics, will become meaningless and dull on a piano. Indie music with it’s characteristically tiresome wailing whining lyrics and inane guitar strummings will prove similarly insipid. Lady Gaga and Amy Winehouse should work fine however with a little thought. The example illustrated below left is from my Version of Kool & The Gang’s “Ladies Night”
Click to listen to the above midi example
In modem pop music often the chord framework is not conventional. The chords against which the melody is laid are often just open notes plus harmonics tweaked to give a certain feel. Often a drum track has harmonics added which take the place of the rest of chords so do listen in closely and work out what is going on in there. This is not easily replicated on any piano and in many instances is technically impossible. Adding thirds and ﬁfths to simulate the feel of the music most often will not work properly nor ever can it. For this reason many modem pop songs played on mechanical music instruments sound like some sort of demented polka music. The workaround is to make a stylish, simple piano solo setting of the melody that works as a standalone piece in its own right.
Innate percussive nature of the piano
Unlike bowed string instruments, Woodwind or brass, the piano is percussive in nature. The commencement of every note played is its loudest point beyond which the sound decays in volume. The innate percussive nature of the instrument can be used to various good effect and there are many novel twists that may be explored via inventive Writing for the player piano genre. In the dance-band / pop music arrangement the alternate beat of bass drum and cymbal may be dispensed with as the percussive nature of piano notes takes their place.
The imitation of percussion on the pianola during music is fraught with pitfalls. Slavishly hammering every drum beat onto some suitable note will prove tedious to the ear. Listen to how the percussion is intended to be used m the band or orchestra. Does it provide a percussive rhythmic touch to a soft—edged string section? Does it merely maintain the beat? Is it just used for a grand crash? Determining what percussion is used and needed for in a score determines how you incorporate or discard it from your pianola score. With thought the musical point of percussion may be transferred into a pianola arrangement without tears.
It is worth noting that whilst the full-scale player piano scale encompassed all 88- notes many instruments fall a little short of this. Numerous late systems only operate 80 notes and lack the capacity to perform the highest and lowest four notes at each end of the 7 1/4 octave keyboard. A large number of early 20th century pianos are only possessed of 85 notes with the highest three omitted. A smaller number of instruments have a 65-note playing capacity but with retrofitted capability to read from an 88-note scaled music roll. These instruments play from low A one octave above the lowest note up to the high C-sharp below the highest treble note. While many roll arrangers bear these compass points in mind in order to ensure that most musical rolls perform well on all players you should not let it constrain your writing for the full 88-note scale. A piano roll arranger should also give some thought to the demands placed on the pianolist. If your composition has rapid repeating szforzando chords of 20 notes at a time the pianolist will soon run out of steam if the player indeed copes with any of it at all.
All notes end at a finite point in time. A live pianist may release the keys silently however all player pianos only cancel notes in uncontrolled fashion. From a roll-programming perspective it may be preferable, for lengthy notes in quiet passages, to tweak the note end point positions. This I call note shut-off point. In any quiet passage contemplate the optimum placing of the shut-off point for each note. Consider how a long chord may terminate during such a passage. After a chord is struck the sound decays. In the player, cancelling all notes in that chord simultaneously after the sound has faded will give a soft thud of piano and player action audiable against musical silence. Notes shut off together after sound decay cause this simultaneous valve, pneumatic and piano action noise (though slight) to detract from the serene moment. Extended chord perforations should ideally therefore have their shut off points staggered to diminish the effect of this. The sustain pedal can be operated, after the chord has been struck, with the notes’ shutoff points staggered and the whole phrase closed by the mere cancel of the sustain pedal as a sonic alternative. Whether you stagger the shut offs from the bass end upwards, vice versa or radiating out from the centre to the keyboard is musically another decision altogether. Inventive shut off staggering may also provide unique effects in its own right so do try various shut off speed intervals and sequences.
Click to listen to the above midi example
Unconventional musical form may be explored and developed by means of the player piano. It’s musical outer—reaches have been experimented upon for at least a century therefore much of this type of work (which all newcomers to the idea think to be entirely novel) is, infact, entirely passé. Some ideas are more successful than others in striking new ground, others have predictably unintelligible cacophony as the only foreseeable result. Graphical patterns, mathematic patterns, altered intervals, purely rhythmic, percussive musical patterns and every combination and variant upon these have all been done before on the instrument. Fortunately the computer screen offers a free doodling sheet upon which to experiment without committing to the expense of producing a hard copy to discover the result these days. Whether you want to probe the far reaches of tonal or post-tonal music theory via the pianola is merely down to you! Much interesting work has been produced but, like all music, much garbage also. Where the player piano really comes into it’s own is where experimentation is used to make the two musical spheres, conventional and unconventional, collide together.
Further skills and reading
There are numerous technical works on the various arts of music composition, arranging and orchestration. Arranging and writing music for the player piano is very close to regular orchestral writing. As such there are no real short cuts whereby music for the mechanically assisted medium may be conjured up to a high degree without a well grounded practical and theoretical knowledge of music. Beyond a thorough understanding of the piano’s technique and capabilities an insight into other instruments and their scoring is desirable. The combination of understanding how orchestral scores are composed, the logic behind that plus a thorough comprehension of the piano are what together are required to produce the best results from the pianola. As good background in addition to a thorough understanding of the piano I recommend reading through Berlioz’ Treatise on Instrumentation, Rimsky— Korsakov’s work on orchestration, Schumann’s Advice to the Young Musician, Ebenezer Prout’s book on the Orchestra and Collinson’s Orchestration for the Theatre. Many of these and similar works are available scanned online for free download and reading now.
To further discuss any of these points in more detail or music arranging for pianola generally please feel free to contact the author by email or Facebook.