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Teach Pop Songs on Piano
Imagine it’s time for your Wednesday afternoon student and they saunter in with a big grin on their face.
Student: “I just heard the most amazing song.”
You: “What piece was it?” (Notice how you might intentionally change the word song to piece)
Student: “It just came out, have you heard of Billie Eilish?”
You: “Billy Eyelash? No, never heard of him – let’s hear how that G major scale is coming along!”
Does this scenario sound familiar?
If this sounds like you (and let’s face it, I think we’ve all been guilty of trying to get lessons ‘back on track’), let’s consider a more appropriate response:
You: “No, but I’m excited to hear it. How about we start our lesson with a little listening? Go ahead and blast it through my Bluetooth speakers!”
I’m of the belief that we should take the time to teach pop songs our students show an interest in. It’s important to show students that we can play any pop song on the piano.
And yes I mean song.
Whenever I tell new or transfer students this, their eyes always inevitably get bigger as if a whole new world has opened up for them.
What I don’t do anymore, unless the student is a really good reader, is find sheet music for their new project.
Reading every note and rhythm 100% accurately from a fully notated score takes too long and most of the time the arrangement is either over-simplified or overly complex.
When I adjudicate the popular selections category at the local music festival, many of the students seem so stuck to what is on the page even if it doesn’t sound good.
This prevents them from playing the music freely and expressively, and I can’t tell what their own sense of the feel of the original song is. I wonder what would happen if teachers took the same amount of care teaching pop music styles as they do sonatinas.
Over my teaching career, I’ve taught a lot of pop music, and so I developed my 6-step process to successfully teach any pop song.
This is not just “dessert” music: I want my students to learn how pop music is made, and create their own sound through this process.
Step 1: Listen to the original song
Not a piano cover, not a YouTube video with those annoying piano tiles; the original song that the student loves. They will probably have it on their phone or you can look it up online together in the moment.
Don’t listen to it by yourself before the next lesson. Do it there in the moment when they are interested and can show you the best version, etc.
Some students ask “where is the piano part?” when listening to a song, and I think that’s a great ‘teachable moment’.
The beauty of the piano is that because we have all the keys in front of us, we can cover the harmony, melody and any other sound effects/interludes as we wish. Which brings us to…
Step 2: Find the chords
Step 3: Comp to the music
I would recommend finding the easiest way to play the chords first so that the student experiences some measure of success during the lesson. This is also when we make sure that the chords we discovered are accurate and in the right key and if not, make adjustments.
You can also transpose in Anytune, so you can find the key that works the best. Beginners will probably find C major or a minor to be the easiest; however, if they have strong ears, they may not want to deviate from the original.
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YouTube also has a feature (Settings -> Playback Speed) where you can slow the video by 25, 50 or 75%. Sometimes you can find the original song in different keys if you specifically search for it.
While comping, tailor the chording pattern to the student’s comfort level and style of the piece. Solid chords in root position in one hand is usually the first step.
Subsequent steps could include adding the root of the chord in the bass in left hand, playing the chords in different inversions for better voice leading, splitting the chord tones between the hands, using broken chords, changing the rhythm in the bass, using octaves in the bass, adding passing notes between chords, etc.
Step 4: Create a lead sheet template with the form and chords in the right places
The student will have to discover the time signature and how many bars/beats each chord receives. I usually use the app Notion, but old-fashioned staff paper will do too!
Write in sections (verse, chorus, pre-chorus, bridge, etc.). Analyze with your student the form so they can add in the appropriate instructions (DS, repeats, etc.) Ideally this ends up being no more than one page.
I recommend writing in the text below the staff corresponding to the correct chords, which helps immensely with the next step.
Step 5: Transcribe the melody
The student might want to jump to this first right after having listened to the song, or have already figured out some of it by ear. That’s okay!
I like to start with the harmony and form as a framework which we can then drop the melody into so that we have the context. As we know, the pitches in the melody will be synchronous with the key and chord progression.
Having this already written down helps the student narrow down the parameters when transcribing the melody. If the student struggles with rhythmic dictation, try putting just a dot for pitch (no rhythm) above the appropriate lyric.
If they are more rhythmically inclined, they should transcribe the rhythms first (write the rhythm above the staff), then add pitches to those rhythms.
In my experience, this is the most tedious of the steps, especially if there are many lyrics. I will usually start this process at the lesson and then assign to be completed at home. This diligent work is so beneficial for the student’s theory knowledge as well as their ear and I do want them to go through the process themselves and really own it.
They have to be able to read it afterwards, so neatness counts!
Step 6: Play with your own flair
Now they’ve gone through these steps, they will have a working lead-sheet that they can play from. You may need to step in and check the melody they’ve written and have them practice it hands together with solid chords until they realize how they want to personalize it.
To make the melody more interesting, consider adding thirds or sixths (chord notes) under the melody note, moving to higher octaves, adding echoes, filling in gaps, etc. Consider comping in different styles for the different sections (verse, chorus, bridge) or even colouring chords by adding 7ths, 2nds or suspensions.
Think back to the original recording, can you capture the same feeling? Do you want to create a totally different feeling? You may want to add a backing track or play along with the original song again. I’m quoting a teacher friend and colleague David Story when I say “just don’t be dull”.
Here are a few of my students with their finished products:
Rihanna playing “Shallow” – this student did all the steps on her own in one week but didn’t write anything down; she has an exceptional ear and memory.
Here’s my student Rachel performing her take on “Falling” by Harry Styles. She loves to play pop music and really nailed this one so we decided to record it.
Try this process out with the following songs. I’ve found these to be quick studies and have included the repeating chord pattern here.
Lost Boy by Ruth B (Em, G, C, G). The student may want to just comp and sing along like the artist in the video. Watch out for the stray D major chord!
Hello by Adele (vi, I, V, IV). Try first in C major then the original key of f minor if they are able.
Just the Way You Are by Bruno Mars (F, F/D or Dm7, F/Bb or Bbmaj9). This chord pattern lends itself well to passing bass tones and the melody is really easy to find by ear. Enjoy!
Please know that these steps are just a guideline and feel free to modify at your leisure based on both the unique tune and the student. You may be surprised to find out who in your studio finds this tediously easy, and who may really struggle.
This process is a great lens with which to see how high your student’s level of musical literacy really is – trust me, it’s worth the effort. Don’t worry if you will be “figuring it out” along with the student. It builds a lot of trust when you admit you don’t have all the answers.
Discovering a new song together is really quite fun and stimulating to the lesson time as well – make sure you watch the clock because you might just go over time!
I’d love to know how this goes with any readers who try it out with their students. Feel free to leave your thoughts in the comments below. Happy Teaching!
As a thanks for reading today’s blog post, grab a download of Tim Topham’s Pop Piano Teaching Algorithm.
Tim’s Pop Teaching Algorithm is a flow chart to help you pick the right piece of music and the right teaching method.