I'm wanting to start playing along with popular songs and the easiest way to find lyrics and music only has guitar chords. I can play those chords on the piano but it just sounds boring. How should I be filling the space between chords to make it sound more interesting and more full?
A guitarist has exactly the same problem as you do. If you just strum the chord on the downbeat, or on every beat, it sounds boring. You have to play more interesting patterns.
The guitarist does have a couple of advantages over a pianist in this respect. Early on, a guitarist learns to get more rhythmic interest out of a basic chord, by varying the rhythm of strokes, and by muting. Some of these effects are more difficult on a piano, and some are impossible.
The simple guitar chords a beginner learns are in a variety of inversions, so that level of interest is added "automatically" to a beginner's guitar playing.
At the very basic end of what a guitarist might also do:
Of course, from there, there are plenty of variations. Learn by copying.
But you're on a piano. Fortunately, all of the above have direct equivalents on a piano keyboard:
In addition, some songs are driven by their chord progression, so you can get away with block chords without it sounding boring.
Some songs have few, or no, chord changes, and interest is provided by the riff. In cases like these, you're going to need to create an approximation of the riff (or develop your own riff that fits).
As with all music, listen to the sort of stuff you'd like to sound like, and copy what they do.
There's three starter ways to do this:
I'm a pianist for a contemporary church, and 90% of the time, I only have chords to work off. The main elements are broken chords and rhythm. I will seem a bit dictative here but I don't want to talk too much and feel free to experiment around. (Will use C Major as an example, / = rest)
When you play a song with just the piano, you have to fill out every register, so with two hands I try to spread out as much as possible. Left hand will always play bass and right will go from G upwards.
It will sound blockly but this is what I normally do for fast songs... with some mixing.....
This is pretty much my base for songs and what I work off. The left hand will retain the beat with broken chords and the right will be more flexible with rhythm.
It is really hard to explain without showing you, there's a lot more to explain, ideas for improvisation, adding dissonance, building a song, rhythm with both hands etc. if you're interested, just ask and I shall blabber on because improvisation on chords is a joy to play.
The easiest thing to do is to add full sound. Figure out which key the song you are playing is in. Let's say it's the key of C. Since there are no accidentals in that key, it's easiest.
Read the top staff. If the note is C, play
This pattern continues for every key there is. It's kind of tricky at first, but with practice it becomes second nature.
I usually improvise to include something like the melody, parts of the melody, harmony or an accompaniment. Sometimes I mix and mash with these things, or play a counter melody. Practice is key, eventually you can just sit at a piano and play most songs in an interesting way regardless of looking up chords (it is so much faster looking up chords though).
Everything above is reasonable advice, but I think an additional consideration is just learning lots and lots of songs, because the more you have under your hands, the more you will naturally draw on this expanding musical vocabulary. When you think it sounds boring, you can draw on the entirety of your resources to add interest, whether that is adding melodic interest with a counterline, harmonic interest by increasing the density of the sound (adding to or changing the basic chord structures), or rhythmic interest (don't forget that the piano is ultimately a percussion instrument).
Also don't forget that one way to add interest is to consider, when it is appropriate in the entire context, not playing at all. In a group context, this is something that is not considered frequently enough. When you lay out and then introduce the new element later, what seemed boring now may sound entirely new and interesting. Of course, this doesn't work for a solo piano setting, but in virtually every other context it is worthy of consideration.
One frustration for chordal instruments in play-along settings is that the background is usually pretty full, and there is just no space for an additional chordal instrument. Not much to do about this when playing along with an actual commercial recording of a song, but on properly done play-along materials, you should be able to dump the channel or track that contains the instrument you play, which will open up the sonic space.
Make Chords more Interesting
You can try different inversions of the chords. For example, you might use chord
Fill out the chords
Try experimenting with adding notes in, for example, in a perfect cadence, you might you V⁷ (dominant seventh) instead of just chord V. In the key of C, that would be G B D F. There are many other notes you can add into chords to vary/thicken the sound - for example if you add the 6th into a chord it can often make it sound more jazzy. The best way is to experiment and find ways that you like of varying the chords.
Start by playing inversions and partial chords/bass notes with the rhythm of the song. It's hard to explain, but don't just play block chords in both hands, mix it up a little.
You don't have to go crazy, but even just playing some inversions mixed in with partial chords to fill in spaces… you'd be surprised at the change it can make. Also, don't always expect the guitar chords sites to always have the correct chords, so if something sounds wrong… it probably is.
Once you learn a pattern that works well, remember it, because as you've probably realized… a lot of popular music is based on the same patterns, rhythms and harmonic structure.
protected by Matthew Read♦ Feb 6 '13 at 21:30
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