by Steve Case
Remember the last time you were asked to play a song but it wasn’t working? Just didn’t sound like the song? Yep, so do I. What was missing? How can you make your piano tune sound like it does with a full band.
Looking at the basic components of a song, there are five things you’ll need to get right: range, rhythm, dynamics, the hook, and transitions.
Your tools are limited: 88 keys, 10 fingers and maybe one voice. It may take a little work, but here’s how to make your piano sound like the song.
How a Band Works
In a band, the bass and kick drum handle the bass range, setting tonal and rhythmic foundations. Keyboards and rhythm guitar handle the midrange, and you could include the snare drum and toms. Here you will find the rhythmic framework (eighths, sixteenths, or a shuffle). Listen for the hi-hat. Lead guitar, vocals, and cymbals make up the higher range. Most of the melodic work is done here.
Now, think about your piano as having three overlapping ranges: bass (C3 and lower), upper (C5 and higher), and midrange (C3 to C5, more or less). Middle C is C4. You will use these ranges to imitate the instruments in the band.
Here’s How to Do It Yourself
Listen to the recording for:
- The rhythmic framework. Tap your foot on each beat, determining if there are two, three, or four parts to each beat (the hi-hat will probably tell you.) Determine which parts are emphasized in each measure and if there is any snycopation. You’ll need to reflect the same framework and emphasis in your rhythm patterns. This is the groove, or feel.
- The chord pattern. Write it out alphabetically (you don’t need to write it in proper music notation. In fact, that would unnecessarily box you in.) Be sure to note major or minor.
- The bass line. Determine the notes and rhythm your left hand will play.
Find your groove.
- Start by playing the bass line. Your left hand rhythm will usually be different than your right hand, and most often consists of roots (the letter name of the chord) and 5ths. Experiment with other scale tones, but generally play the root on beat 1. Practice the bass line separately until it feels easy.
- Using the chord pattern, play at least one note on each part of the beat. Wherever you need emphasis, play full chords or play louder, then softer everywhere else. Keep the chords close to each other on the keys.
- Check the rhythm. Playing between beats, but not on the following beat, is syncopation or a push-beat. It feels like we’ve pushed the beat ahead at that moment, and it’s really common. Listen for chords that feel like they are happening early, then make sure you play them early in the song. Add even more variety and surprise, by occasionally hitting the wood with your hand for extra percussion.
Use a full range of dynamics.
In the studio, there is the freedom to use as many or as few instruments as the artist wants, anywhere in the song. But when it’s just you and your piano, dynamics (volume levels measured on a scale from 1 to 10) and thicker/thinner chords (playing block or broken chords, that is, all at once, or in various combinations) can produce the same effect. Changing from soft to loud can signal the beginning of a chorus or an instrumental, while getting softer can take you back to the 2nd verse, or maybe ending the song.
Add the hook.
Most songs have some sort of musical identifier, a phrase or short chord pattern uniquely its own. Like the melodic intro to “Pretty Woman” or “Day Tripper,” or the chopped chords that begin “Takin’ Care of Business.” As soon as the song starts, you get excited about the rest of the song because you know what you’re going to hear.
When you play it, the hook replaces the rest of the chord pattern. The bass line may or may not continue.
Pay attention to transitions.
In the band, transitions are signaled by fills, melodic or chord patterns that take the energy level in the direction of the next song section. Going into a chorus, for example, fills might be busy, ascending phrases ramping up the energy. If you’re leaving the bridge to go to a softer verse, the fill would be emptier, a descending pattern with longer notes. Or insert a glissando in either direction (drag your thumb quickly across the white keys) to add excitement.
Ultimately, it’s all about what the listener thinks he hears. Keep the groove (rhythmic chords and bass line) steady and solid, frequently change dynamics, use fills in transitions, and play the hook often. And the next time someone asks you to play a song, you can say, “Sure. It goes like this!”