Don't Let The Piano Fool You

The piano is the go-to instrument for many composers, and that's great! However, let's highlight a few points that frustrated me a lot when sketching on the piano so that you don't have to run into the same dead ends.

Note: Please note that there are many musical demonstrations in the audio version of this episode, which are not accessible in the transcript.

The Problem with the Piano

Let me talk about a serious problem I've had in the past. Interestingly enough, it led to a lot of frustration on my end before I could identify it as a problem. It really was one of those frustrations that can and will poison your whole musical life and how you see yourself as an artist. That's why I want to talk about this. Don't step into the same trap as I did, so let's get to it.

Today's topic is: Don't let the characteristics of the piano fool you. I should add "fool you when you sketch" because the piano is a beautiful solo instrument and works very nicely with the orchestra.

But when we sketch a composition, we often go to the piano, whether it is a big band arrangement, an orchestral piece, or another combo you're writing for. 

The piano very often serves as a sketching tool because it covers a pretty comprehensive playable register and a lot of dynamics. But there are some downsides, and you might not even be aware of them. In fact, I've interpreted some of these downsides as my lack of composition skills, which almost created a fear of writing.

The Decay

So, what are those things to be aware of? First, I want to mention the decay of the tones. Playing a pedal note or pedal structure on the piano over a long time is impossible as the tones fade out. This can dramatically determine how you compose. Or even worse, it can bring out bad notes or register problems you haven't been aware of.

Just because something works on the piano doesn't necessarily mean it will work equally well in the final arrangement for the orchestra.

So, be aware of those tied notes that spread over several bars because the piano gives an inadequate representation of that.

The Hierarchy of the Musical Elements

The next one was a big one for me. It's actually pretty hard to define a clear hierarchy of elements using only the piano. The sections of the orchestra have different levels of power. Take the full woodwind section, for example. This can never compete and cut through a full-blown brass section playing in fortissimo. And that's actually good!

Let this help you create a better and more defined structure in your orchestral composition.

A piano sketch would often sound weird and useless to me before I brought in the orchestration.

That's a problem because you won't get to the orchestration if you trash your sketch too early. So, you keep changing it and tweaking it while you're getting more and more frustrated. In this situation, you can't even realize that you're barking at the wrong tree! It's not apparent, yet the frustration is real.

So, how do you get past this problem then?

If you never realize that it's a piano-related problem, you can't solve it because you keep looking in the wrong direction all the time. The easiest way for me to get over this problem was by seeing others take it from their sketch to the orchestration.

After listening to some sketches from my partner in crime, TC, I was skeptical that his piano sketches would translate appropriately to the orchestra later. Of course, I was curious to listen to his orchestration, and honestly, in almost every case, my initial gut feeling was proven wrong! The orchestrated versions sounded fantastic, and the sketches now made total sense! However, the orchestration was necessary to put the sketch into context.

It was like a mystery solved! Years of analysis and conventional training were not helping me solve this problem. In fact, the opposite was true. I became increasingly frustrated, and at some point, I had to believe that I was the problem.

And that's the quickest way to lose confidence and run into imposter syndrome. Again, that's why I'm talking about this - don't run into that same problem.

The extreme registers can be tricky

As great as the piano is, the endpoints of the playable register are not easy to handle. The low notes on the piano tend to overshadow everything else. And the highest notes are often almost invisible against the middle parts. It's tricky to sketch out decent future orchestrations on the piano that spread over the full range of the orchestra.

But please don't confuse the sound from the piano with the orchestrated version later. The notes may be the same, but the emotion, clarity, and transparency can change dramatically.

Don't confuse the composer with the performer

The last point is not explicitly connected to the piano but every instrument you sketch on. Usually, you're the composer and not the performer! If you only compose those things you can perform, you have to become a monster performer before you can write decent music.

Too many composers still believe that they have to be the performer, too. But the truth is, you are the composer and not necessarily the performer. Performing music (on stage at least) is another discipline requiring different skill sets and training. I'm not referring to playing your lines into the sequencer, as you can adjust every note later.

But the problem is that many composers, including my past self, rely on their performing skills when composing.

If they can't play it, they won't write it.

That's the problem. So again, knowing what works in the composition will help you overcome this problem and turn you into an efficient composer who doesn't need an instrument to compose in the first place.


Every instrument has its unique upsides and downsides when sketching. And as the piano probably is the most common option, please become aware of those problems and don't confuse them with your lack of creativity or skill.

To summarize, we talked about ...

  • the decay
  • the different layers of sounds
  • the endpoints of the playable range
  • and the performing problem

Lastly, I want to give you a concrete example. Let's listen to a rather unconventional piano sketch (at least) to my understanding. It's a sketch for an orchestral composition called "The Escape".
[please listen to this episode at 8:59 min.]

I'm not sure how many composers would see value in that sketch, but I feel many would rewrite significant portions of that sketch or even trash it completely. Let's dive into the orchestral version now and see how these ideas flourish when orchestrated. Don't judge too early; it's all about the context we create around it.
[please listen to this episode at 10:02 min.]

Now we're talking, and the exciting part is that the sketch and the orchestral version go hand in hand bar after bar. So, if you played them simultaneously, they would give a perfect match even.

The critical takeaway is that you shouldn't stop too early. You might be closer to your next masterpiece than you think. And if you need a bit of help getting there, I invite you to have a deeper look at the Academy

Well, that's all for today. Keep pushing the barrier for yourself daily and play the long game - and you're most likely to succeed.

This was Frank, have a wonderful day and until the next time, bye.


If you sketch, the piano is an excellent instrument for that but try to avoid running into performance problems later. We suggest you start sketching for only one orchestral section and orchestrate it to have this direct A/B comparison.

Author: Frank Herrlinger