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3 minutes reading time (533 words)

Creating by chance

Can't get started making your own music? No excuses! Use the laws of chance to prime your creative pump. In the eighteenth century, Mozart devised a game for composing minuets by assigning pre-written melodic fragments to the numbers on dice. Here's a similar activity you can use to prompt creativity in your studio.

1. Rhythm

a. Easy waltz rhythms

To create rhythms in waltz time, roll the dice two times per measure and write Xs in the corresponding boxes on a grid like those below. (If you happen to roll the same number twice, just roll again.) Then convert the resulting rhythm to standard notation.

For example, rolling the numbers 1, 3, 5, and 6 would look like this:

Now, you try it. Roll the dice twice for each measure and write down the results.

b. Advanced waltz rhythms

For more experienced students, assign dice numbers to eighth notes instead of quarters. Roll the dice three times for each measure. Here's one possible outcome:

You can notate the results exactly...

...or smooth out the rests.

Your turn. Roll the dice three times for each measure and write down the results.

2. Pitch

Add pitches to your chance-generated rhythms by assigning the notes of the C Major pentatonic scale to the six dice numbers.

Then roll the dice and write down the resulting note names. So, for example, rolling a 6, 4, 5, and 4 would yield: 

C–G–A–G

Next, write these notes on the staff using the rhythm you rolled earlier.

Now you try it. Keep track of the pitches you roll by writing the note names here:

Easy: ____ ____ ____ ____ (4 notes)

Advanced: ___ ___ ___ ___ ___ ___ (6 notes)

Now, combine notes and rhythms here:

Teaching Tip: Be loose with the rules. If a student likes a particular rhythm or pitch better than the results of the dice rolls, go with it.

3. Accompaniment

The last step is for you or your student to add an improvised left-hand accompaniment such as this:

The beauty of the pentatonic scale is that it sounds good with any diatonic chord. So, you can use any chords you like as long as they consist of notes in the key of C Major.


Other chord progressions to try

C, F, G, C

C, Am, F, G

C, Em, F, G


Keep going

At this point, you can roll the dice to add measures or allow the ear to take over. 

These are just a few of the possibilities. There's no telling what will happen when Lady Luck is invited into the creative process. Try assigning your own musical parameters such as licks, chords, or rhythms to the dice. You may be surprised at what she chooses for you. 

Until next time, enjoy your creative music-making journey.


Editor's note: For a decision-making app related to old-fashioned dice, see this issue's column by Leila Viss on page 66.

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Piano Magazine is the leading resource for pianists, piano teachers, and piano enthusiasts. We bring you informative, interesting, and inspiring ideas on all aspects of piano teaching, learning, and performing. The official name of Clavier Companion magazine was changed to Piano Magazine in 2019.

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