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Composing with Melanie Spanswick

In celebration of International Women's Day, we have an interview style blog from Melanie Spanswick. Within this blog Melanie covers how she began composing, where she starts with a new composition, and takes us through her processes when working on a project.

When, why, and how did you start composing?

I’ve written music for as long as I can remember. As a young student, I was perpetually composing little tunes during my practice sessions at the piano and I think that it’s important to start playing an instrument to be inspired to compose.

Later at college, as part of my undergraduate degree course, I wrote a string trio and quartet as well as piano music, fugues especially. These early efforts were all ‘pastiche’, or in the style of a particular composer, as was necessary as part of our course. Pastiche writing is an excellent way to understand how great composers wrote their music; it allows us to get into the ‘nuts and bolts’ of their style, and I certainly learned a lot of vital compositional elements by employing this method. I would’ve loved to have had the opportunity to study with the great teacher Nadia Boulanger; I have read about her wonderful sessions in Paris via various composers who were working with her at that time. 

After an illness I ceased performing and decided to learn how to navigate music computer software. This ignited my interest in composition again, albeit many years later. My first forays were ‘new age’ style compositions for strings and piano. They were nothing exciting, but they did offer a useful entry point back into writing and gave me a base from which to begin properly. 

In 2015, after I had started my piano blog and had written and published my first piano textbook, I wrote several books of piano compositions for a small publishing company that asked if I would compose some intermediate-level piano music for publication. I wrote two sets of little pieces which were inspired by the minimalist movement; I have always been a fan of this style and you can hear that in these short pieces.

As I have developed my writing style, I have relied less on external influences and more on experimentation. Having said that, I think you can hear minimalist influences in my set of 12 pieces for the intermediate level, No Words Necessary (Schott: 2018). These works are fairly sparse in texture and are tonal, as is generally expected from educational music. I do enjoy writing for the educational genre and it’s an element of my work that I am keen to develop further. You can hear the pieces here:

Listening to music is important for me, particularly hearing new music and new ideas, which in turn conjure different stylistic approaches and usually inspire a flurry of work. It’s not that I want to ‘copy’ others, it’s more about the sounds, and combination of various pitches and rhythms, which might set me on a new path.  

Where do you start with a composition? Are you ever daunted by the process?

Good question! I’m not usually daunted because if I am writing for a particular project or commission, I will be given a firm brief. For example, I contribute an elementary piano piece to every issue of Pianist Magazine. For this seemingly ‘simple’ composition, I am allowed just 16 or so bars and a sparse texture (or amount of notes), so that Pianist Magazine’s less advanced readers can play the piece with ease. I must also ensure that different piano textures are used in every piece exposing Pianist’s audience to a variety of techniques, and the piece must also be tonal. I like this brief as it gives me something clear to work with. 

When writing piano music, I’ll start by thinking about the texture; I might use chords or triads for the entire piece, or running arpeggios, or melody with Alberti Bass – it depends on what effect I am hoping to create. Next comes the chord progression; frequently, I’ll assemble a group of eight chords for an eight-bar phrase, and will follow this with another different, yet related, eight-bar chord progression. It’s all about this chord progression at this stage, and I do spend some time working on it. Finally, I will sort out the melody (if there is one) which is usually constructed from the notes in my chord sequence, and then add the texture already selected at the beginning of the process. I don’t always apply this approach but I find that it’s good to have a secure method in place. 

Whilst my music is largely tonal, I enjoy the interplay between tonality and dissonance; I’ve been more ‘daring’ of late, employing grittier tonalities. Last year I wrote a two-piano piece for two friends called Incantation: Rousing The Dead, which is quite dissonant in places; this work was first performed in October 2022 in Kolarac Hall in Belgrade, Serbia. I then wrote a violin and piano piece which moves into almost total dissonance – it’s a chilling piece called Therianthropy. I love writing angst-driven music, especially music inspired by the occult and the spiritual world.     

Simply Driven5 Virtuoso Piano Pieces (Schott: 2020) bucked those composition ‘rules’ a little as I wrote four of the five virtuoso pieces for four pianist friends and therefore needed to be mindful of writing for each one’s particular pianistic skill. Frenzy, the first piece in the book, is a concert etude that was written for inclusion in Play it again: PIANO Book 3 (a three-book series intended for those returning to their piano playing), as I needed a concert study in the book; each section of this series contains an etude or study. The level for this piece is around Grade 8/diploma, so it doesn’t tax the player too much, although obtaining clarity and evenness in the cascading semi-quaver passages does take a lot of work. The four other works have a more ‘unusual’ sound (or so I am told) and are very demanding in terms of tonal colour and technique. They were great fun to write and each pianist has subsequently played ‘their’ piece in concerts worldwide and they have recorded them, too. Various works from this set have also been used on several competition syllabuses, introducing them to a new audience. 

You can listen to these pieces here:

I love writing music for friends. Recently, a piece I wrote for Japanese pianist Aisa Ijiri was arranged, performed and recorded by Aisa and the AUN J Classic Orchestra, a renowned Japanese traditional orchestra in Tokyo. The film of my piece Heiwa (Peace) launches their European tour and is produced in conjunction with Steinway & Sons.

You can enjoy the piece here:

Do you ever get ‘composers' block’ and if so how do you overcome this in a project?

I don’t think I’ve ever experienced this! Composing, for me, is similar to writing about music; I am given a brief and off I go. Perhaps writer's block comes from thinking too much. Or maybe by being paralysed with the associated fear over the outcome of one’s composition? I tend to consider my composition projects as pursuits that sit nicely alongside my writing and teaching, and, therefore, I don’t place too much emphasis on them per se. I also try not to think about the negatives; my work might turn out badly, but I don’t care – it’s a risk I am prepared to take. The trick, for me, is to focus on my work, appreciate the journey and trust the process. This way it feels like fun - it really is a most enjoyable creative process.

Can anyone start composing or do you need to be talented?

Yes, I believe anyone can start composing and anyone can start learning the piano – or, indeed, any instrument. How much they will achieve will depend on their mental capacity, practice time, and determination. 

To compose, I have found it important to have received a good grounding in harmony and counterpoint. Assimilating music theory was incredibly helpful as was becoming a church organist. When working in a church (a job I did for quite a few years), organists need to read quickly, become completely at ease with four-part harmony (found in most hymns) and be able to transpose. I wasn’t particularly good at transposition, but I did manage to do it and learned a lot from the experience. 

Further to this, it’s a good idea to make sure you have a thorough knowledge of the instruments or voices for which you are writing. If writing for film or media, for example, you will need to know how to use the appropriate software. You can learn these skills without a teacher, and, indeed, many successful composers are self-taught. 

I am not sure if talent is all that it’s cracked up to be. Aptitude is highly beneficial and there are, of course, absolute geniuses in every generation; J S Bach, W A Mozart, L V Beethoven, etc. However, in my experience, hard graft is crucial as is motivation and determination. Arguably the most important element in composing is one’s imagination. If you can apply your imagination creatively then the sky is the limit!



Visit Melanies' website here for all her latest updates:


Visit Schotts' website for more on Melanies' publications and to purchase:

Melanie Spanswick (schott-music.com)

Series: Play it again: Piano (schott-music.com)

Series: Women Composers (schott-music.com)

A String of Pearls (schott-music.com)

Simply Driven (schott-music.com)

No Words Necessary (schott-music.com)