In this post I am going to share a simple trick that will help prompt you to compose and improvise your own music.
This also provides an excellent strategy for helping more advanced students develop their creativity, and move beyond written music.
When making up our own music it’s useful to have a “trigger” that helps get things started – or perhaps a set of “rules” or self-imposed limitations within which we will work. Far from limiting our imagination, this can stimulate our creativity as we explore the boundaries we have set ourselves.
The Eight Chord Trick can be used in exactly this way.
- Using whole notes / semibreves for each, play eight chords.
- Each Chord must have four separate pitches (no octaves or doubled notes).
- Don’t play the same chord twice.
And that’s it.
For more elementary players, you could try this using just four triads, and build up to the full Eight Chord Trick once the player is at an intermediate level.
First, here’s an example which takes little account of any of the laws of tonality or functional harmony:
Many players start off with something like this. It’s interesting that if we ignore what we know about basic chord construction and composing, we end up with something that sounds a bit like Messiaen!
Moving on, here’s a far more confident example, which could easily be used as the basis for a more developed composition.
There’s obvious diatonic awareness, some advanced harmonic understanding (which could have been achieved from trial and error, aurally or through theory work). Simple triads have been extended with either an added 6th or 7th, and there’s awareness of the “circle of fifths” too:
The two four bar phrases are more evident, and the Chord voicings move more naturally.
Learning about Playing Styles
Once the eight chords have been selected, go ahead and write them out for reference, using staff notation, Roman numerals, figured bass, or as jazz chord notation.
This musical idea can now be used for learning more about vamping simple accompaniments, improvisation, and as the basis for a long-form composition.
In this clip, I have taken Version 2 from above and arpeggiated the notes of the chord to make an easy variation:
A Student Example
Here’s an example composed by one of my own students, 14-year old Maddi Thompson (who is around Grade 5 piano standard). This was recorded on my piano during one of her lessons, and is shared here with permission.
You can hear how Maddi has used broken chord configurations to expand on her initial eight chords, which she had previously worked on and notated. She repeats the figure building dynamic shape and textural complexity.
Learning about Harmony
If you are a teacher using this activity with your students, it provides a perfect launchpad for investigating chords, their construction and voicing, the “circle of fifths” and the role of key.
One extension to the activity would be to limit the chords selected to a single diatonic or modal key.
For the more advanced player, the exercise could be extended to 16 chords, including a modulation. These activities provide the ideal bridge between the pianist’s practical development as a player, and their academic development as a musician.
Those who get really into composition, music technology and popular music styles, could use their eight chord trick as the start for a new groove:
And with more instrumentation…
The possibilities for extending, adapting and developing The Eight Chord Trick – whether as a teaching and learning activity, or as a tool for your own creative development, are literally limitless.
Sunset in Gold
If any doubt remains that it’s possible to take such a simple idea and develop it into a fully-fledged composition, let me leave you with this composition of my own, which is actually based on a recurring pattern of just FOUR chords:
F9 – E7 – Am7 – Dm7
Unlike the examples so far, I didn’t stick to a regular four bar pattern with one chord per bar – in this piece, the chords follow a rhythmic logic determined by the melody line.
But this is what is possible when a melody is added, a little counterpoint perhaps, lots of instrumentation, electronic effects, and some poetry by Joseph von Eichendorff (1788-1857), as also used in the last of Richard Strauss’s Four Last Songs:
You’ll have seen that from our starting point – the very basic rules of selecting eight chords – we have come a long way. And the skills that bring us this far take a long time to develop.
But for those who are committed to our own creative development, and to helping students “learn music musically”, I recommend trying out this method right away.
It’s never too late to try, nor too soon to start. I hope you enjoy playing with the Eight Chord Trick!