Learning to produce your own music can be one of the most fulfilling things you can do as an artist. There’s no better way to have complete creative control over your music. As exciting as this is, it can also be daunting, as you’ve essentially taken on role of multiple musicians, songwriter and producer.
Maybe up until now, you’ve been focusing on your technical and production skills. Fair enough, jumping into a DAW has a huge learning curve and can take years to master. But now you’re starting to think about levelling up your songwriting skills as well.
Putting in the time to learn an instrument can feel like a big investment, especially when modern production allows you to make music with limited technical skill. So why would learning piano benefit you as a producer?
- Improve your songwriting abilities
- Be able to transfer ideas from your head to your DAW as smoothly as possible
- Add complexity and colour to your chord progressions
- Deepen your understanding of how to craft melodies and bass-lines
- Be able to play alongside and communicate with other musicians
Songwriting and creativity
When it comes to songwriting, learning piano can be the one of the most important skills you’ll ever develop. Far too many producers despair that perhaps they weren’t born with the natural talent of songwriting, and should focus their efforts elsewhere. But this really isn’t true! Songwriting and creativity are skills that can be taught and cultivated like any others, and learning piano is one of the best ways to do this as a songwriter.
Throughout the history of music, the piano has always been the ultimate writing tool. Its the place from which ideas are sparked that will eventually grow into fully fledged songs. This is true from back when Mozart was composing symphonies, all the way up to modern pop songs, and it’s not going to change any time soon. Piano simply gives a player the best understanding of harmony, note intervals and chord structure compared to any other instrument.
Understanding modern workarounds
If you’re working in a Digital Audio Workstations (DAW), you may have come across several clever solutions or hacks for building chords and placing notes into a key signature. Ableton’s aptly named ‘Chord’ MIDI effect is one example, but most DAWs have a version of the same thing. These plugins can be great for beginners who are starting to wrap their head around harmony. Often though, people find that their writing plateaus using this approach. One issue with these plugins is they remove human touch and imperfection, ultimately making your music sound like everyone else’s. It’s been said a thousand times before, but imperfections and human error are always the most beautiful and interesting parts of music.
Another popular method for getting around the hurdle of not yet being able to play keys is to add and edit notes in a piano roll. While editing MIDI in this way is certainly a valuable skill for any producer to have, the problem here is twofold:
First, it becomes far more difficult to transfer an idea from your head into your DAW. Making music is all about having something to say and expressing that idea or emotion through music. In this way, learning piano essentially helps to break down the barrier between your brain and your DAW.
The second issue with the piano roll is that you end up spending far too much time pouring over a computer screen making minor adjustments to minor details. Not only can this prevent you from reaching a flow state, it’s also simply unpleasant! For most people, the less time spent hunched over a computer screen, the better.
Apps & online courses
A great place to start is by jumping into an online course. Usually delivered as “play along” lessons in apps or a web browser, these tools can be a great way to get started on the keys, especially in regards to learning proper technique which will pay dividends in the long run. Playing any instrument is much harder when dealing with carpal tunnel and repetitive-strain injury.
A example of these apps is Melodics, an interactive and visual approach to learning piano. Melodics is great at encouraging consistency by tracking your progress and encourages a short daily practice routine. This approach to practise is proven to be far more effective than infrequent long practice sessions. Melodics also offers lessons on pop tunes, allowing you to avoid playing only scales and nursery rhymes, which is unfortunately, a far too common experience.
Don’t forget that it can be great to use a few different methods simultaneously. For example, use these apps to get an understanding of finger spacing and technique, then apply that to learning a simple tune that you love and are excited to play. The idea here is that there’s no right or wrong way to learn, and as long as you are motivated and have an open mind, you’ll always be moving in the right direction.
If you search ‘piano tutorial’ into YouTube, you’ll be met with millions of results, and this is precisely the problem. The sheer quantity can make it difficult to find a teacher that will offer what you need to know in an engaging way. Don’t let this be a cause for despair, Though! There are amazing educators out there and once you do find a teacher you like, it can be a great way to learn the theory or have someone break-down a song. The only disadvantage is not being able to ask questions and have real-time feedback, which brings us to the next method…
Sometimes, nothing beats the old school method of having a personal teacher who knows exactly how to help you progress. The main benefits of a personal teacher are getting real-time feedback, and having someone demonstrate the things you’re working on to keep you motivated.
Finding the right teacher can be difficult, so make sure you’re looking for someone who understands the kind of music you’re making. Chances are, progressing through formal grades & exams isn’t the right approach for you. Luckily, these days, it isn’t hard to find a teacher online who understands where you’re coming from as an electronic music producer who wants to work on their piano skills. With video classes becoming increasingly common, you can now access teachers from anywhere in the world and don’t have to be stuck with the only teacher in town. Plus, it’s a nice opportunity to support musicians who have lost income from gigging.
Jazz lead sheets
Full disclosure; this method isn’t for absolute beginners, it would be best to have a few lessons under your belt before diving straight into this. But if you like jazz and you’re up for just a little bit of reading and chord theory, learning from lead sheets is a great method. A lead sheet is essentially stripped-back notation of a jazz tune, usually showing only the chords and the melody in treble clef. The purpose of lead sheets is to give the players the minimum amount of information, leaving space for improvisation and adding personality to the chord expressions, or ‘voicings.’
This is also why lead sheets are a great way for an intermediate player to learn: because there’s no right or wrong way to approach them. You can start by simply playing the chords in your left hand (usually voiced as 1, 3, 7), and the melody in your right hand.
Over time, as you get more comfortable, try experimenting with ‘open voicings,’ where you extend the chords out over both hands, while still playing the melody in your right. This gives you the opportunity to add more colour to the chords by playing with extensions such as 9ths, 11ths and 13ths.
If any of that sounds like gibberish, don’t worry! Lead sheets are definitely more suited to an intermediate player and are best approached with a teacher, either on YouTube or in person.
Choosing a piano to learn on
There are so many options on the market, and so many considerations when looking into buying a piano to learn on:
- Do you have to spend a lot of money?
- Do you need weighted keys?
- Does the piano have to be full-sized with 88 keys?
- Should you get a digital piano, or a MIDI controller?
The short and unsatisfying answer: it all depends.
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Firstly, weighted keys are highly recommended. Learning piano without weighted keys is like learning to drive in a Little Tykes car. Sure, it will get you around at first, but it’s nothing like the real thing.
OK, so that’s an exaggeration, but you get the point. Without weighted keys, you’re missing out on a lot of the feel and responsiveness of a real keyboard. Remember, the whole point here is to add human touch back into your music. So why not choose a tool that gives you the best chance of doing that? Weighted keys will also strengthen your hands so you can develop dexterity and stamina on the instrument. This ultimately helps in becoming a better player and tackling more challenging pieces down the track.
Weighted keys aren’t all created equal, though. There are varying degrees of weight and quality, meaning some feel more “premium” than others. Unless your aim is to eventually progress into playing classical music, where the touch and feel of the keys becomes important, chances are the differences are negligible at this stage.
Does size really matter?
When it comes to picking a size, bear in mind that choosing a keyboard at this stage is a medium-to-long term investment. While a full-sized keyboard might feel too big now, you’ll grow into it as you continue learning. Many players find that when they start adding things to their playing such as octaves in the left hand, or melodies in the right, they run out of space quite quickly. Again, think about the goal here, you’re trying to develop a skill to progress as a songwriter and producer. So don’t sell yourself short!
Digital Piano or MIDI controller?
OK, so we’re after a full-scale piano with weighted keys, but which one should you choose? When it comes to MIDI controller vs digital piano, there are a few pros and cons of each to consider.
- Generally a cheaper option
- Often offer more flexibility for MIDI mapping parameters from your DAW (filter cutoff, delay amount etc.)
- Often lighter and more portable
- Needs to be plugged into a computer to control a software instrument
- Can suffer from latency issues, depending on the power of your computer
- Allows you to practise away from a computer using headphones or a built-in speaker
- Comes with inbuilt instruments (typically pianos, electric pianos and organs)
- Can also control software instruments via USB
- Can be more expensive
- Offers only basic MIDI capabilities
It’s worth considering that while digital pianos are typically more expensive, one huge advantage is that they come with professional-quality sounds built in. There are certainly great piano plugins on the market, but they don’t come cheap. Piano sampling and modelling is no mean feat, and you absolutely get what you pay for. Try out some of the free piano VSTs on the market to see what I mean: there’s nothing wrong with them, but they’re far from professional quality. While digital piano’s typically don’t offer the same depth of control over MIDI parameters, it’s extremely uncommon to find one on the market these day’s that won’t control a VST instrument using a USB connection at the very least.
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Deciding what's best for you...
So from here, it’s a matter of deciding what’s more important to you; in-depth MIDI control, or the convenience to play and write away from a computer using inbuilt sounds.
If you’re looking for a full-scale, weighted digital piano that’s not too expensive and will still let you play all your favorite software synths, something like the Roland GO:88 would be ideal.
If sound and build quality are important to you and you’re willing to invest a little more on something that’s not only amazing to play, but makes a beautiful addition to a studio or house, the FP-30 would be a great choice.
If you would get more value out of a keyboard designed to give you the most depth possible over MIDI parameters, the A-88 mk2 would be a great choice.
It cannot be overstated how learning piano is one of the most rewarding skills you can develop as a producer. Although it’s certainly a long-term project and something that can take a lifetime or more to master, don’t let that put you off! The goal isn’t to become a virtuoso, it’s to mend a gap in your songwriting and production skill set.
If you invest in a decent piano, stay motivated and stick to a practice routine, your technical skills and ability to be creative on the instrument will certainly improve, offering huge benefits to your music.