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If we take a classical piece on the piano, what is the left hand doing?

I find that figuring out the right hand, the melody, to be easier -- I am mainly playing by ear and improvising. But the left hand, I understand it's harmony. But it seems trickier than pop music. Are they primarily arpeggiating chords? I thought harmony was just chords. Or maybe it isn't? Or are they just randomly picking notes from the scale that sound nice with the melody?

  • 2
    If you want to learn to play classical piano, you should really get the actual sheet music. The classical world is very much about the actual literature. – Todd Wilcox Apr 21 '17 at 12:54
  • I do everything by ear. I avoid sheet music, I find it too boring. But I found that once I get the melody. I can create my own harmony. it doesn't need to sound exactly like the original piece. – foreyez Apr 21 '17 at 13:05
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    You should not think of classical music as melody + harmony. Pre-18th century, composers thought of music as several melodies going on at once, and the tradition continues that even 'harmony' parts are structured in a way that they form little melodies of their own. – Alexander Woo Apr 21 '17 at 16:10
  • Guess you've never seen a cross-hand piece? :-) – Carl Witthoft Apr 21 '17 at 18:05
  • Classical music is much more complicated than you think. Once you go through good classical pieces, the harmonies, themes, melodies, and everything intertwine, unlike the simple melody+harmony structure of pop songs. Although I would recommend pop songs to be played by ear, try to appreciate the complexity of classical music by playing the notes on the page. If you play them correctly, I can assure you that they will be more interesting than you think. – Ansel Chang Apr 22 '17 at 12:07
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I once went through "The International Library of Piano Music" studying left-hand patterns. There were several; in fact, most pieces had several.

  • Block chords
  • Bass and block chords
  • Bass and arpeggiated chords (bass being heavier)
  • Arpeggiated chords (Alberti bass)
  • Counterpoint (more complex that a bass line)
  • Several part counterpoint (including some in the right hand)
  • The melody itself with the other mentioned ideas in the right hand.
  • Rests.
  • A (perhaps modified) copy of the melody.
  • An organ point (or pedal point), a long held note usually the tonic or dominant note or both.

All of these can be blended into each other; they all can be played smoothly or percussively. Parts can be exchanged among "voices" in either hand.

Examples can be found at IMSLP.

http://imslp.org/wiki/Category:Frescobaldi%2C_Girolamo http://imslp.org/wiki/Sonate_per_pianoforte_(Beethoven,_Ludwig_van) http://imslp.org/wiki/Category:Chopin%2C_Fr%C3%A9d%C3%A9ric http://imslp.org/wiki/Category:Brahms%2C_Johannes

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Are actual chords being played in classical music?

Of course they are. But I sense that the title of your question doesn't really show what you're actually asking.

What is the left hand doing? Is it primarily arpeggiating chords, or is it doing something trickier?

This is the better question, but the answer isn't too helpful: the left hand can do whatever the the composer wants it to do.


Sometimes it just provides the harmonies by playing chords in the left hand, like in Beethoven's Piano Sonata Op. 10/2, first movement:

enter image description here


Other times it lends harmonic support by only playing one pitch in the left hand, as in Beethoven's Piano Sonata Op. 13, second movement:

enter image description here


Other times it arpeggiates the harmonies with what we call an Alberti bass, like in Mozart's Piano Sonata K545, first movement:

enter image description here


It can also just play a melodic line, causing the right hand to play the harmonic support, as in Liszt's Consolation No. 4:

enter image description here


Or why not multiple melodic lines at once, like in the first fugue from Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier? Here the melodic line in mm. 4--5 is added in in mm. 6--7 while the earlier line continues.

enter image description here


And then some composers just said screw it and put the whole damn piece in the left hand.

  • thanks for your great answer. when you say it "lends harmonic support" does that mean it's a single one of the notes of a chord that could be played with that melody. or if it's not one of those chord notes. is there a musical term for that that I could investigate further how to harmonize melody notes. or do you just wing it and play "whatever sounds good" with that melody note (assuming you're harmonizing it with one of the notes of that scale that would only have 7 options). – foreyez Apr 21 '17 at 0:00
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    Typically it's a chord tone in the left hand, yes. And you're right on it: we just call it "melody harmonization" when we add chords to a given melody! – Richard Apr 21 '17 at 0:02
  • In the late 19th century, composers started doing what we may equate with "whatever sounds good." (That's a gross oversimplification!) But in the late 1700s/early 1800s, harmony was pretty "by the book," and there weren't too many surprises with weird bass pitches. – Richard Apr 21 '17 at 0:05
  • Another common texture has the left hand doubling the right usually with octaves, thirds, or sixths. The right hand may have additional decorative notes. Examples: Mozart K 283, 1st mv. starting m.16, or K 332, 3rd mv. m.3-4. With this texture there is less chord, more scale. – Michael Curtis Apr 22 '17 at 4:10
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Ravel and Prokofiev both wrote piano concertos for the left hand only. So, in those cases, the left hand was doing everything.

Both were written for the same pianist, Paul Wittgenstein, who lost his arm in the First World War but he did not ever play the Prokofiev. I used to have it on vinyl but I have given up all of my vinyl and hence I have not heard it for a long time.

Ravel Piano Concerto for the Left Hand at Wikipedia

Prokofiev Piano Concerto 4 at Wikipedia

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