In my face-to-face lessons, the vast majority of students want to play songs on the piano. Some progress quicker than others and play them better as you would expect, but often it’s not solely down to practising more.
It’s about what process they’re using to learn songs on the piano. In this article, let me show you how I teach songs to students on the piano to get them to learn songs faster, perform them better, and create their own unique arrangements.
I would argue the most important part of making quicker progress for playing songs on the piano is to listen more. It never fails to amaze me when I teach my one-on-one students and I ask them if they have listened to the song outside of our lessons.
The majority of the time I get a resounding ‘no’ with excuses like:
“I didn’t have time”.
“The dog ate my sheet music” (ok I made this one up)
I can’t stress this enough, if you want to play popular songs on the piano and play them well you NEED to listen to more music. You need to adopt an active listening approach where you listen to a song in different ways, focusing on different elements each time.
- When do the chords change?
- Can you pick out the baseline?
- What are the drums doing?
- What are the lyrics in the verse and chorus?
Now I would adopt this approach whether you are trying to play by ear or from sheet music.
Of course, if you can read sheet music you have an advantage as you can see the melody written out and see the chord symbols.
But if you skip the listening process that I just explained above then students who are playing songs from sheet music can perform them without much feel and it can sound rather wooden. In fact, you could argue in the essence of the song can get lost. This is because it is often hard to notate exactly what a vocalist is singing as they add all sorts of inflections and play around with the phrasing and timing.
Although I can play songs fairly well from sheet music, as long as the melody and chords are written out (for classical pieces I struggle a bit more!), I always make a point to listen to the song a couple of times first. For me it’s all about melody and I have to hear the singer’s voice in my head when I play a song.
You should think of your right hand as the singer’s voice.
Know your chords (and chord inversions)
For me playing songs on the piano is all about chords. In fact you can apply this to classical pieces as well. While the melody is what people remember when they sing a catchy tune from a pop song, chords are the building blocks which make up the music.
When you are learning a song by ear, you should always learn the chords first as it can help you work out the melody later. This is because when you learn chords and the notes inside them, you’ll have a better idea of what notes make up the melody.
This approach is also useful when you’re playing from sheet music, which some people find surprising. With practice eventually you start seeing different chord shapes in the music. For example, you might be able to see a broken chord pattern in the left hand or an ascending arpeggio in the right hand. This make sight reading a lot easier.
I sometimes write chord symbols in traditional sheet music as it helps me to play everything more accurately.
Furthermore, when I say “know your chords” you should know them in different inversions. Playing chords in root position all the time (this is when you play a C major chord as C-E-G, or an A minor chord as A-C-E) can actually make songs harder to play.
Assuming you’re playing the chords in your left hand, it will jump around a lot more. Knowing chord inversions can help you to play the chord changes more smoothly, which in turn will make the whole song easier to play.
Another thing I’m constantly drilling into my students is practicing S-L-O-W-E-R. Adults tend to be better at this than younger students, but slow practice really is your friend. I think for many young students they feel you have to play fast to sound good.
But you still need to have a good structure to your practice as well as play through things slowly.
- For learning songs I would play the chords first in the left hand, and practice moving between them until you can do this fairly easily. Pay attention to your fingering. If anything feels awkward when you’re playing simple major and minor chords in a chord progression, you might be using the wrong fingering. Start slowly and gradually build up the speed.
- Seventh chords can be a little more awkward to play when you’re just starting out so it’s even more important to learn these in different inversions.
I find certain chord inversions for 7th chords a lot easier than others. e.g. For a C7 chord (C-E-G-Bb), playing it as G-Bb-C-E is a lot easier than Bb-C-E-G.
- If you’re playing from sheet music, go through the melody slowly next and use the right fingering (hopefully it’s written in, but if not just go through everything slowly so it feels comfortable).
When I’m playing songs from notation, my main focus is always more on the fingering and notes and a little less on the rhythm.
As I explained above, if you’ve listened to the song enough, you should be able to play the rhythm fairly well by thinking of the lyrics and focusing on the singer’s voice in your head. Also, some written out melodies in songs just sound too wooden and robotic when you play them too precisely.
Gradually increase the speed of the melody once you have it under your fingers.
If you’re learning the melody by ear, this is a little more challenging, but it does get easier with practice.
Related Post: How To Learn Songs By Ear On The Piano
- Once you have the melody and chords down separately, put them together and do this slowly. Don’t rush at all as it takes time for the brain to really process things when you’re putting the hands together.
- The final step is to add the secret sauce and start adding things to make the song sound your own. Can you make the left hand sound better? Can you use more range on the piano? Can you thicken the right hand melody to make it sound bigger?
Becoming a good improviser is crucial to playing songs and making them sound great. For one, it can help you if you’re learning songs by ear as you can pick out the notes easier. It can also help with your technique and sense of rhythm.
Furthermore, once you become comfortable at improvising you can add a little solo here and there when you play songs and add nice fills. You can really develop your own style once you can improvise.
Play with other musicians
It’s so easy to think of the piano as a solo instrument, but if you want to become better at playing songs overall, you should definitely consider playing with other musicians.
Do you know someone who sings? Playing with singers forces you to play very differently than if you’re just playing by yourself. You have to leave space and really listen to what the singer is doing, which will improve your musical ear. Consequently, you’ll find it easier to work out other songs you want to play, learn more chords and it just snowballs from there.
You also may need to play songs in a different key to suit the singer’s voice. This is a great exercise as it means you become familiar with even more chords and you’ll find it easier to play and work out chord progressions.
Join a band
Taking it a step further, why not join a band? If you can find a local band who need a keyboard player, you’ll realise it’s a great way to improve as a musician and learn more songs. It’s also great fun and a good way to meet new people.
Once you can play a few chords on the piano, you’re usually ready to join a band. In fact this is probably an easier step than accompanying a singer and playing as a duet.
You have a bass player who can lay down the baseline, another guitarist playing the chords and a drummer to keep time. You don’t need to play as much, but you really need to focus on what the other musicians are doing so you don’t get lost!
If you can set some realistic goals each week or each month, you can make some rapid progress as a pianist when it comes to playing songs. Depending on your schedule:
- Can you learn one song a week, or one a month?
- Can you listen to a new song every day?
- Can you learn 3 new chords a week?
- Can you learn a new pentatonic scale every month to practice improvising?
Write it down in a diary. It’s amazing how well this can work. Playing with other musicians can certainly help with this as it makes you accountable for completing tasks every week. For example, you may need to learn three songs before the next rehearsal. You won’t want to feel embarrassed if you haven’t learnt your part!
Don’t go over the top and be too ambitious though as you may burn out and get frustrated if you’re doing too much. Remember little baby steps every day can lead to something wonderful and amazing after a few months.
I think I read somewhere that most people are too ambitious what they can in one day, but they under estimate what they can achieve in a year.
Find a teacher
Of course there is no substitute for finding a good piano teacher in your local area. They can see you play and make suggestions on different fingerings, chord shapes and exercises which can help you progress. They can gauge your level and put you on the right path to playing the songs you love and learning them quicker.
Of course, this all depends on whether you can find a good piano teacher. Sometimes this isn’t that easy as you have to work around their schedule. You also need to find a piano teacher who is comfortable playing and teaching songs on the piano which is actually quite hard as most are classically trained. And then there’s the cost of lessons which you will have to pay for every week.
In my online course, I teach students using a structured step-by-step method through a series of songs, learning more advanced techniques and expanding their knowledge of chords. And this doesn’t take months or years of practice to achieve. You should start seeing results in a matter of weeks and you will feel more confident to play the songs you love on the piano.
If this is something that might interest you, you can start today and download my FREE workbook here.
Martyn Croston has over 20 years experience teaching the piano. He specialises in teaching popular music and songs, showing students how to play chords and develop their own style.