How to Write a Relaxing Piano Piece • Music Theory from Ólafur Arnalds "Happiness Does Not Wait"

 

How to Write a
Relaxing Piano Piece.

 

 

Download PDF Tutorial
includes MIDI + WAV file examples

 

 

Intro.

 

The world seems to get more stressful every week. It’s no wonder that more and more people are seeking relief wherever they can find it. Sadly, though, their relief usually involves a substance or activity that isn’t very healthy. But it doesn’t have to be that way. There’s an abundance of scientific studies proving the effectiveness of music therapy. While a qualified professional is necessary for more serious issues, we can all freely enjoy the stress-relieving effects of relaxing music. And it’s safe, too. The only side-effect is drowsiness! So when you’ve finished this tutorial and you have your new piano piece, please don’t listen to it while driving. Mmmkay?

 

When writing relaxing music, we have to think completely differently to how we think when writing songs. The reason for this is because our goal is not to end up with a good song, but a piece of music that induces relaxation. You can think of it like writing soundtrack music. In films, the best soundtracks are the ones you don’t notice. Directors don’t want soundtracks taking attention away from their films, so they ask composers to write music that induces particular emotions. When we sit down to write a relaxing piano piece, we can imagine we’re making it for a scene in a movie. Perhaps the actor is walking on a beautiful Caribbean beach at sunset?

 

We’ve based this tutorial on “Happiness Does Not Wait” by Icelandic producer Ólafur Arnalds. In this track Ólafur perfectly balances simplicity with creativity. That balance is vital. If the music is too simple, it will get repetitive and annoying. That’s the opposite of relaxing! But, if it’s too creative, it will be stimulating, and that’s not relaxing either. This balance is what the art of relaxing music is all about.

 

So, inspired by “Happiness Does Not Wait”, here’s our 7-step method for writing piano music with relaxing arpeggios (left-hand) and soothing melodies (right-hand). But first… Tea! And maybe it should be a decaf this time?

 

 

 

Step 1 [Chords]. Common Notes

 

Open your DAW, change your time signature to 3|4, and set your tempo to 123 BPM. Next, create an eight-bar loop on your piano track, with an 1/8 note grid.

 

“Happiness Does Not Wait” is in the key of F minor, but we’ll use A minor to keep things simple, cos it’s just all the white notes on the piano from A to A.

 

A natural minor (notes)

1

2

♭3

4

5

♭6

♭7

A

B

C

D

E

F

G

 

 

A natural minor (chords)

I

II

♭III

IV

V

♭VI

♭VII

Am

Bdim

Cmaj

Dm

Em

Fmaj

Gmaj

 

 

You’ll notice a recurring theme in this tutorial: balancing simplicity with creativity.

 

We’re constantly gonna be striving to make the most creative music we can, but without stimulating our listeners. And when we listen to a chord progression, every time the chord changes, it has the potential to stimulate us with new notes. Newness and novelty are stimulating. So, we need to be extremely careful when introducing new notes. The best way to change chords without stimulating our listeners, is to use chords that have one or two notes in common. By doing this, we only introduce one or two new notes when the chords change, instead of all three.

 

Now, spend some time choosing four chords for your progression. Remember that your last chord will loop around to your first chord, so make sure those two chords also have a common note. Play your four chords for two full bars each. For interest sake, these are Ólafur’s chords: Im → ♭VImaj → ♭IIImaj → Vm. If you need help with roman numerals and chord symbols, read Hack 13 in our Free Book.

 

And here’s our progression: I (Am) → V (Em) → ♭VII (Gmaj) → IV (Dm).

 

As you’ll notice, Ólafur’s chord progression has two major (happy) chords and two minor (sad) chords, so his happy/sad balance is 50/50. If you want more of one, simply use three of that chord quality, and one of the other. We wanted a slightly more melancholic atmosphere, so we chose three minor chords and one major.

 

Also, although you can start on any chord in the key, beginning your progression on the root chord (Am) will be the most calming option. The reason for this is because starting on another chord will create some tension, as it’s not the “home” chord. While that’s fine in other circumstances, in this situation we want to instantly anchor our progression into the key, so the listeners feel instantly settled.

 

 

Our chord progression (root note of each chord highlighted)

 

 

 

Step 2 [Chords]Inversions

 

The next way we’re gonna make our chord changes even more relaxed is to use inversions - the chords will actually sound like they’re melting into each other! If you’re new to inversions, it’s just when you re-arrange the notes of a chord.

 

By keeping the common note in the same place (i.e. bottom, middle, or top note) within adjacent chords, we create a common musical thread that’s deeply relaxing.

 

For example, in our progression the first chord (Am) and the second chord (Em) have the note E in common. E is the highest note in our Am chord, so we need to make E the highest note in our Em chord as well. We do this by inverting the Em chord. So in our Em chord, instead of playing E, G, B (see the second chord in MIDI above), we’re going to play G, B, E (see the second chord in MIDI below).

 

 

Chord progression with inversions (root note of each chord highlighted)

 

 

Then between our second chord (Em) and our third chord (Gmaj), there’s actually two common notes: G and B. And they’re already in the same place (bottom and middle) within both chords, so we don’t need to invert our Gmaj.

 

Finally, between our third chord (Gmaj) and our fourth chord (Dm), the common note is D. That note is at the top of our Gmaj chord, so we re-arranged Dm (D, F, A) to get D at the top of that chord too. So, our Dm chord is now F, A, D.

 

By the way, you’d usually wanna do this process from your last chord to your first chord as well, but in our progression that would involve playing two different versions of our last chord (see MIDI below) in order to get the common note (A) into the same place as it is in our first chord (bottom note). We’d do this in other situations, but it would add movement and therefore increase the energy, so we decided not to do that here. You can do whatever works best for your progression.

 

 

Two versions of last chord (highlighted), which we chose not to use

 

 

 

Step 3 [Chords]Arpeggios v1

 

The next way we’re gonna soften our chords is by turning them into arpeggios. In other words, we’ll play each chord one note at a time. This is very relaxing indeed. To read the rest of this tutorial, please buy the PDF. Supporting our work helps us to keep teaching. Thank you :)

 

 

 

Download PDF Tutorial 

 

 

 

 

Lastly, are you new to music theory? Or are you experienced, but you want a refresher? Then download our FREE BOOK (link opens in new tab). It only takes 30 minutes to read, then you’ll have a solid theory foundation that you can instantly apply to your songwriting and producing. Enjoy!

 

 

 

 

Ray Harmony
Multi award-winning college lecturer