Moonlight Sonata Manuscript

The manuscript of Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata

Too few piano students (and teachers) understand the value of musically creative activities – especially classical students. Even if your main goal is simply to learn how to play well, I believe I can convince you that engaging in some musically creative activities will help make you a better player than you would otherwise become.

Musically creative activities exist on a spectrum from writing down a piece of music you know (transcribing), to making a unique version of a pre-existing piece (arranging), to improvising or composing original music.

Creativity demands a better understanding of music theory. Now, theory for the sake of theory is pointless. But developing a better understanding of how music works, which is all that music theory really is, not only aids creativity but will increase your appreciation for music, and your motivation for continuing to learn your instrument. Not to mention that it will make you much more confident about everything having to do with the piano!

As far as I can tell, I’m one of relatively few people offering piano lessons in Portland who puts such a strong emphasis on creativity. If you’re still with me, let’s look now at some specific skills that creativity helps you develop.

Transcribing Music

Transcribing means learning (and typically writing down) a piece of music by ear. While transcribing is on the low end of the creativity spectrum, it helps to build fundamental musical skills (ear, reading, rhythm etc.) that provide a foundation for more advanced creative activities like arranging or composing.


Arranging means writing or spontaneously playing a unique version of a piece, often from a lead sheet showing chords and melody only. Arrangements can be improvised or worked out slowly and then notated.

Arranging involves many more creative choices that transcribing, and is a good way to get more comfortable with being creative at the piano by relying on pre-existing music as a foundation.

Arranging is most often applied to jazz or pop tunes, but classical players can do it too. You may not be ready to play the Moonlight Sonata, yet also not willing to wait until your technique is a match for the original. You or your teacher could look for an “easy piano” arrangement, but why not consider writing your own (with help from your teacher)? You’ll get to choose the key, learn more about notating (and thus reading) music, improve your ear by making the many musical choices necessary to create an arrangement, and enhance your understanding of many aspects of musical theory. And you’ll feel a much greater sense of accomplishment!

Improvising and Composing

Improvising and composing are the summit of musical creativity. Improvising means spontaneously creating music at the piano. Composing usually includes the process of improvising but requires more forethought and attention to structure, and notating what you’ve created.

In addition to the fun and sense of accomplishment you’ll get from learning to improvise or compose, developing these skills will enhance your ear, reading, and rhythm skills, and give you a much better understanding of harmony and other aspects of music theory.

Every Musician Can Be a Creative Musician

Creative activities from transcribing to composing offer music students of all levels an opportunity to improve important skills by tapping into the well of creativity from which all music comes. This can be a particularly important and exciting adventure for those studying classical music. To engage in the same creative activities as Beethoven or Chopin helps us to more profoundly understand, interpret and appreciate their music. Creativity isn’t just for dead composers. Every musician can be a creative musician.

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