5 Tips on Piano Sequencing

August 1, 2016

By Andrew Kim


Piano is one of the most versatile and expressive instruments, and many musicians/composers will use the piano as the basis for their writing process. However, there are many musicians/composers who do not play the piano, and specialize in other instruments instead. In this article, I will go over a few simple tips on how to improve your piano sequencing. Using these tips, even a novice piano player will be able to create more realistic and natural sounding MIDI piano sequences.


Tip # 1: Staggering Notes

  • When sequencing MIDI notes, most people's instincts will tell them to simply line up all the notes of the chord exactly with the grid line. However, a “real human” piano player almost never presses the keys down at the exact same time. Rather, a “real human” piano player will press each key in the chord at a slightly different time, perhaps less than a 64th beat apart from the other notes in the chord. In order to simulate this “real human” feel in your MIDI sequencing, try to stagger the notes in a chord very slightly. You want to hear a little bit of separation in the notes, but not overly so. For songs with slower tempos, you may want to stagger the notes even more (again, I'm talking tiny increments) to give a more expressive feel.


Tip # 2: Arpeggiating Chords

  • To add more expressiveness to a basic piano chord, you may want to try arpeggiating the chord. This means simply to play each note in the chord separately on its own beat. This is a very basic musical technique, but if you aren't experienced with sequencing piano in your music, you might be neglecting this. Try experimenting with chord arpeggios by sliding the notes in your chord to different spots in the bar. Eventually, you will discover some 'natural' sounding arpeggio patterns that offer more expressiveness than simply hammering all the notes of the chord on the one-beat and calling it a day.


Tip #3: Adhering to the Two-Hands, Ten-Fingers Rule

  • Quite simply, this rule dictates that a piano player only has 2 hands and 10 fingers. Before you start sequencing 25-note chords that span 7 octaves, you must understand the physical limitations of a real human piano player. When sequencing piano, you want to keep the number of simultaneous notes struck to a maximum of 10 notes. To take this further, realistically you want even less than 10 notes, since a piano player rarely (if ever?) uses all 10 fingers at once to play a chord. Using 5 or 6 simultaneous notes in a chord is probably a more realistic number. Another consideration to take when sequencing realistic piano according to the Two-Hands Ten-Fingers rule is the physical spacing between notes played by one hand. By this, I mean the human hand can only stretch a certain distance between the thumb and the pinky finger in order to play a chord. Try to keep this distance in mind when sequencing chords.


Tip #4: Sustain Pedal Automation

  • Chances are, you might not have a physical sustain pedal (an expression pedal attachment to your MIDI keyboard, often bought separately). However, in every DAW (I would hope, anyways) there should be a way to automate the sustain pedal (in a similar way that you would automate simple things like Volume and Pan). Experiment a bit with which sustain pedal level is good for your particular track or section of the track. If the music requires it, you may need to meticulously automate the sustain pedal for every bar or beat, even. For simpler tracks, you may be able to simply leave the sustain pedal on for the entire time and not worry about micromanaging it. If you don't want to muck around with the sustain pedal automation, and just need a simple 'sustain'-like effect for your piano, simply put a reverb on the piano, and adjust to taste. It's not perfect, but it's useable.


Tip #5: Adjusting Note Velocities

  • One of the most important ways to make your MIDI piano sound more expressive and natural is to adjust the velocities of each note. If you want to accent a particular note over others, simply raise its note velocity. If you want a section of the music to be quieter and delicate, simply lower the note velocities. If you want to add variation within a repetitive section, try raising and lowering the velocities of random notes within the section. I suggest doing a 'note velocity adjustment pass' for all of your tracks, including piano, so that your MIDI sequences sound like they are breathing with life, instead of being stagnant and uniform.


Thanks for reading, and stay tuned for my next blog entry, coming soon!


Andrew Kim is a music composer and sound designer at Level-Up-Audio.com