I love chord charts, but I'll be honest: they're not very helpful, especially for pianists. No melody, no rhythm, no tempo, no dynamics, no phrasing. It seems so simple, but it can be daunting.
In this tutorial I'll give you a few helpful tips to boost your creativity when reading a chord chart.
Though the tutorial is intended for all pianists, if you're classically trained and are used to playing everything exactly as it is spelled out on the page, then this will take some of the guesswork out of playing charts and give you some concrete steps to follow.
Tip 1: Listen!
This is the first tip because it is the most important tip. Chord charts are extremely limited in how much information they give you, but extremely free in how many options they give you. With this freedom come endless possibilities for creativity... and mistakes.
The key is to learn to listen well.
This is what overwhelms note-reading pianists the most. No longer is notation the guide for what you should or should not play; instead, it's your ear. If you don't learn to listen well, you've killed the notation.
Here are the things you should be listening for:
- When the chords change—learn to anticipate when a chord is about to change. Don't rely on the chord being placed over the correct lyric. Chord charts are rarely 100% accurate.
- Rhythm—know the time signature, how long each chord is held for, and what the drums are doing (if playing with a drummer).
- Dynamics—take note of how the song ebbs and flows, where the climax is, and the overall mood.
- Holes—take note of what's needed in the sound. Your job isn't just to "play something" but to play what's needed.
Tip 2: Play Around With Different Textures
I typically think of three different kinds of contrasting textures. In each section of a particular song—going back to tip one—let your ear guide you.
Consider for yourself the most appropriate texture to match the rhythm, to convey the dynamics, and fill holes.
Thick / Thin
Wide / Narrow
Blocked / Rolling
Become familiar with the different contrasts. Learn how they create a certain mood and how they would sit with other instruments if played in a band context.
Importantly, experiment often.
Don't always assume that thick, wide, and blocked has to be for the loud sections and that thin, narrow, and rolling can't carry a lot of energy.
Tip 3: Change the Way Chords Are Voiced
Chord charts aren't a map to follow, they're an outline to get you started.
Beginning pianists have a tendency to take a C-chord and play it as written: C-E-G (or its inversions, E-G-C or G-C-E).
While this works well enough when you're playing by yourself, it gets boring quickly and often muddies the sound when playing with other instrumentalists. Try getting outside the box.
Consider tips one and two. Let your ear tell you what texture is needed and then find a way to play the chord that communicates that texture.
Here are some examples:
If I need something that's pretty and full, but not thick, I'll just play three notes and spread them out:
If I need something that rocks but doesn't muddy the sound, I'll play just the one and five of the root chord and move only the bass note:
If I need something that's dense and rich, I'll play the chord in both hands as close together as possible and maybe throw in some extra notes (like the 7th or 2nd):
The variations are endless. Above all, let your ear guide you. If there's a way of voicing a chord that you like, keep using it.
Find other ways to voice the chords, and then keep using those. Keep using favorites, but don't stop searching.
Your favorites will become your own well-worn bag of tricks, and your continuous search for new sounds will keep piano playing interesting to you for years to come.
Tip 4: Be Intentional With Rhythms
Resist the tendency to just play simple quarter-note rhythms. I like to call that plunking. Figure out how to groove and not plunk.
If you're playing in a band context or you're covering a song that has drums in the original version, listen closely to when the drummer plays the kick and snare drum. That tells you which beats in the measure to accent. Then you accent the same beats in your playing.
If there's no drummer to lock in with, listen to the other instrumentalists, especially guitars. Though the accented beats will be more subtle, they're still there, and you can learn to hear them. If there are no other instrumentalists to feed off, then make up your own groove.
Experiment, be creative, and let your ear tell you if it works or not. You may end up plunking, and that's ok if you have good reasons for it, but try to stretch yourself.
And never be afraid to leave space. Pianists are notorious for overplaying.
Seriously, most of the time, I just play whole notes and let the sound carry while the guitars do all the heavy rhythmic lifting. It may seem boring at first, but if you're listening to the sound of the whole, you'll learn to enjoy your thoughtful contribution to the team way more than just getting to play as much as you possibly can.
Tip 5: Play the Melody, Harmony, or a Countermelody
Melodic piano playing is one of the most underrated kinds of playing in contemporary styles. It's really unfortunate because the piano is so suited for it, and it can add so much.
A few options:
- listening for breaks in the melody line and adding your own little melody in those spaces
- finding a simple, slow-moving melody that sits above the main melody line (like a descant)
- coming up with a complex countermelody that doesn't conflict with the main one
And though it's easy to overdo, doubling the vocalists' melody or harmony parts is almost never done but can be a really tasteful addition.
I hope these tips spark some creativity for you. If you have any helpful tips of your own, feel free to leave them in the comments below.