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On this website, it says,

In elementary piano, the left hand (lower notes) typically plays chords, while the right hand plays the melody. If you're playing pop or rock and singing, you might want to play the chords with the right hand and the bass note of each chord with the left hand.

I've seen similar comments on other websites. When you're singing (or accompanying a singer), why is it more common to play the chords with the right hand? Is it so that the chords cover roughly the same range as the singing voice?

If that's the case, what would be the best thing to do when accompanying a singer with a deeper voice, e.g. covering roughly the range of the bass clef? If you also play the chords in the range of the bass clef, would you then play an even lower bass note with the left hand (which would make for some pretty messy sheet music), or would you switch hands and turn the bass line into something like a second melodic line played by the right hand in the range of the treble clef, above the melody sung by the singer?

On the other hand, if you stick with chords played by the right hand in the range of the treble clef and a bass line played by the left hand in the range of the bass clef, and if your bass line is a bit more melodic than just playing the bass or root note (which is more common in the case of inverted chords?) of each chord, is there a danger that this bass line will clash with the melody sung by a singer with a deeper voice?

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    Not a full answer, but an accompaniment is often about providing a backdrop. While you can certainly have an instrument harmonizing with the vocal melody or duplicating the melody, you frequently want to provide some fullness to the sound. As for vocal range vs. the register of the song, those things can be determined somewhat independently by the composer -- and generally you don't want to abandon the middle and higher registers just because the vocalist is a bass (etc.) as decreasing the dynamic range limits your options and can result in a muddy sound.
    – user28
    Jun 11, 2015 at 15:04
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    For a deeper voice you should get out of the way, take the LH lower and the RH higher.
    – user207421
    Jun 11, 2015 at 23:59

5 Answers 5

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When there's no vocals, the r.h. needs to play the melody. It may well put chords in under this, but the l.h. takes on the job of bass line and chords, often.

As soon as a vocal line is sung, there's no need for the r.h. to play the melody, as that's taken care of - unless it's doubled up, or harmonised. So the r.h. can take over chords, and other embellishments, while the bass line is played with l.h. There's usually no danger of the bass line getting in the way of a lower voice, even within the same register, as the timbres are different, and the way the line for bass goes is usually very different from the way a melody line is sung, albeit at the same approximate pitch. Bass lines have no lyrics, so the chance of bass and vocals stepping on each others' toes is minimal.

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I think it's not really about ranges, it's really about convenience. I'm going to ignore the possibilities of left-handed dominance in this response also :P

When playing on "elementary piano" alone, one wants to accompany themselves while also playing the melody. That requires two hands, and it is traditional and natural for the higher part to play the melody - the right hand. The bass hand therefore has to fill in the chords while some of the fancier, rhythmic work is handled by the dominant hand in a higher register. That doesn't have to do with octaves or anything, it could be in any octave, but it has to do with the way harmonies harmonize melodies.

When playing accompaniment, the singer / lead instrumentalist / lead band section takes precedence. This means the whole piano, as an instrument with both hands, is accompanying as background. Therefore the focus for the left hand, which is lower, is to fill in the lower sounds, while the focus for the right hand is to fill in higher sounds, both harmony. Due to the way inversions in music have developed and the primitive way that gives the lowest pitch a precedence, there is often a pressing reason to play a specific low note in a chord, so the bass hand will often play just that note, while the right fills in the rest. What I mean by a pressing reason: the bass hand wants to sound more "melodic," although usually one would say it adheres to stepwise motion, which is why inversions are often necessary. This doesn't mean the bass hand is doing more work - that would be inconvenient, since the right hand is dominant. It just means the bass hand is controlling inversions.

In the rarer occasions when the bass DOES have the melody, accompaniment actually gets rather sparse so as not to overpower the bass. It has to contrast, so it usually becomes breathy "oohs" in singing or softer dynamics in orchestras/bands. Here of course the bass melody might not be stepwise, it may jump around, so the harmony serves only to fill in chords and, again, tries very hard not to sound like a melody over a bassline, but to allow the basses to be prominent.

Of course at higher levels, only the pianist, the composer, and God really understand what is happening. Everyone else just appreciates the sound.

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First, accompanying a soprano or mezzo or alto singer, you probably do not want to double the melody, in general. For that matter, depending on the singer's preferences, you might want all your sound to be below the singer, and/or occasionally decorative stuff much above. This would often entail playing midrange in the right hand, around middle C. Depending on the style of the music, this may not leave much room for the left hand to do much "harmonic" stuff...

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I don't find that argument really compelling, and part of the reason is the considerable disharmonicity of piano strings.

When playing chords in the same pitch range as a guitar (which sounds an octave lower than written), piano chords sound seriously muddy and unclean. That makes it advisable to separate the bass and the "meat" of the chords, either by breaking up the chords in order to make a walking bass line, by alternating bass notes and higher inversions of the chord ("oom-pah", requires good "navigational" control of the left hand), or by moving part of the harmonic framework that would count as accompaniment into the right hand.

That will generally be the case even when the right hand carries the melody line but certainly more so when it is intended to do accompaniment.

For accompaniment, you usually want to have some notes in overall vicinity of the actual melody line so that the common overtones give the singer (or other melody instrument) a frame for anchoring their own pitch. Left-hand chord work in low ranges doesn't work all that greatly in that respect.

The lower notes of quieter but more "metallic"-sounding plucked (as opposed to hammered) keyboard instruments (cembalo, spinet) not employing the same kind of thick wound strings as pianos are quite more suitable for forming satisfactory chords for melodic instruments even at somewhat lower pitches. Grand pianos are also better in that respect than their shorter-string upright cousins, though not to the same degree.

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On the piano, bass notes should generally be separated from other chord tones by pitch distance, time, or both. If chords are being played by the left hand, this will generally require that chord tones only be played on beats when the bass note isn't, unless a player has a very large reach.

In some musical styles, playing most of the chord tones only on the offbeats is fine, but in some other styles it's better to play chords on the beat. Using the right hand for that purpose will offer much more rhythmic flexibility than would be available with the left hand.

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