A friend asked me how I go about playing songs on piano just from their chords. Here are the preliminary notes on the subject which I sent her.
When I’m playing a piano, I switch between several different behaviors:
- playing a bassline with my left hand and chords with my right, making up both as I go based on the chord sequence and dynamics of the song. This is my default behavior.
- playing riffs
- playing parts which are copied note-for-note from the original piece, because they’re intricate or important enough that I can’t replace them.
- playing a bassline with my lefthand and a melody in my right. Eg when I play the instrumental sections of We Will Fall Together. In this situation, my left hand is doing what I’d be doing in my default behavior.
meta level notes
I mostly got good at this through playing pieces on piano for a long time until I had an intuition for what sounded good. I also tried to imitate piano parts from piano driven songs I particularly admired.
When you start playing songs on piano, your parts will probably sound somewhat boring. I think that it’s worth playing pieces boringly, because playing them boringly you’re still practicing chord shapes and transitions between chords.
object level notes
When I’m playing piano without any other accompaniment, I often play rhythms which correspond to drum rhythms. I play the left hand when I’d play the kick drum, and I play the right hand approximately when I’d hit a snare drum. Here’s what that previous rhythm sounds like as a drum beat: https://dl.dropboxusercontent.com/u/98145731/triumph1.mp3. This rhythm would be excessively busy if I were playing with a full band. I’d want to let the bass guitar take most of the rhythm of the bass notes, and think more carefully about what I wanted the chords to sound like. To some extent, playing busy rhythms is a bad habit of mine, learned through all my years of playing music on a piano and wanting it to sound to me like I was playing with a whole band.
How can you choose good rhythms? Here are a few ideas:
- Go with some of the super simple default options. Eg play the root note on the 1st and 4th beat of the bar, and play the chord with half notes starting on the 1st and 3rd beats.
- Use the drum rhythm from the original song, as I suggested above.
- Play the root note with a rhythm matching the kick drum, play the chord at regular intervals (quarter or half notes, probably)
I play chords with a lot of extensions. For example, I often play a Cmaj7 or a C7 or a C9 in place of the original chord. Using the dominant seventh is most appropriate on the dominant chord (the G if you’re in C). Using the major seventh is most appropriate on the subdominant or tonic chord (F or C in C). Both of those sound jazzy. Pop and rock music often sound good with extensions that aren’t sevenths.
It’s worth learning these two jazz chords and inserting them as seems appropriate.
You can learn more about chord voicings by copying the parts of keyboardists in good songs, or by asking jazz pianists to teach you about them.
As I change chord, I try to move to an inversion of the right hand chord which requires me to move my hands the least. For example, to go from C to F I might change from the first inversion of C (C, E, G) to the third inversion of F (C, F, A). This makes your transitions sound more natural and smooth than moving your whole hand from (C, E, G) to (F, A, C). Changing inversion between chords evokes the way that chord changes sound on an acoustic guitar with open chords, or how they sound in an orchestral arrangement with several monophonic parts. (On the other hand, sometimes I play all the chords in first inversion, to make my piano part sound somewhat more aggressive and rocky. I use this device in the chorus of many of my songs. Playing the same inversion is more evocative of electric guitar parts, because when you’re playing barre chords on a guitar the chord shape is maintained through chord changes.)
Another classic device when you’re changing chord is to maintain some of the the notes from the last chord which aren’t actually part of the new chord, and using them as extensions (this is often called a suspension). For example, to go from a C to an F, I might play the C as (C, E, G) and then the F as (C, F, G), which is an Fsus2 chord. This is a common device in jazz piano.
I usually play the root note in two octaves simultaneously. Like my rhythm choice, this is somewhat inappropriate when I’m playing with a full band, but fills out the sound nicely when I’m playing on my own.
Instead of playing the root note, you can play the bassline of the original song, or use some of it in your left hand part.
This article is also a good intro to writing basslines.