If you’ve decided to embrace teaching pop in your studio in the last few years, well done! (If you haven’t, then keep reading as I’m determined to get you thinking more about how this can impact your studio positively starting right now).
There are myriad pedagogical benefits of working with students on pop music including keeping things relevant, helping teach theory, harmony, chords, musical structure and rhythm in an engaging way and keeping students highly motivated.
However, when you first get into teaching pop music, it can be hard to know where to start.
Do you start teaching pop by searching for and downloading music and then helping the students carefully read all the intricacies of the score, or do you approach it from a chord perspective by reading the chord chart and if so, how do you make that interesting? Or do you let students learn songs from YouTube tutorials or perhaps learn to play it by ear together in lessons?
The answer is that you can approach pop through any of these channels and they all have their benefits.
In fact, I tend to teach songs via a combination of all these methods at the same time!
Let me explain.
Sometimes score reading is easy, so we’ll start working there. But when the music gets too tricky for a student, we might listen to the recording and nut-out the rhythm by ear. You don’t always have to follow the score!
Other times, it will be easier learning the chords first and then letting the student play the chords in the rhythm that they already know because they’ve listened to the song a hundred times. Then we can use a backing track app to add the singer or we can try playing the melody notes.
Remember, above all, modern piano teaching is flexible.
If you are comfortable teaching in a flexible way (ie. not always following every dot and dash in a score above all else) and using a variety of methods to learn a piece, you’re ultimately going to be a much more versatile teacher and you’re going to be giving your students a much deeper and broader understanding of musical styles and structure.
The foundation that’s most important to piano students learning music of any genre is for them to understand and experience the chordal structure of music.
Because chords are the ultimate foundation and building-block of tonal music. If your students understand chords, they will understand music in a much more comprehensive way.
What’s the best way of teaching about chords?
Yup, pop music.
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When you’re teaching students about chords, the first thing they need to know is how to make Major and Minor chords anywhere on the piano.
I do this using a method called the “Big/Small” (BS) method of noting how many notes are skipped between the notes of the chords. It’s a similar way to thinking about the notes of a Major chord being comprised of a Minor 3rd and then a Major 3rd. Other teachers tap the keys counting all the notes between the chord tones. Eg. Is it a 4-tap or a 5-tap gap?
Not sure about how to teach chords?
Check out my step-by-step lesson plans for teaching chords, chord progressions and chordal composing in your studio today at topmusic.co/chords. You can even watch me teach one of my teenage students live!
Whatever method you use to teach students how to play chords, this information is pretty useless unless you put it into context for them.
That’s where my Top 10 Pop Songs for Piano Students come in!
Practising Chords Through Pop
The best way to get students to practice chord finding and playing is to get them playing some music they know.
But what are the best songs to teach from a pedagogical perspective?
Finding the most appropriate songs is particularly important when you first introduce chords because if you don’t put the chords into context and make it relevant, students will very quickly lose interest.
Don’t waste time on trial and error in your own studio, use these songs and have your students playing pop in no time!
My Top 10 Go-To Songs
So without further ado, here’s the list, in approximate order of level of difficulty:
- Let it Be – Beatles
- Lean on Me – Bill Withers
- Mad World – Roland Orzabal
- Hallelujah – Leonard Cohen
- Hey Jude – Beatles
- Clocks – Coldplay
- Piano Man – Billy Joel
- Three Famous TV Show & Film Themes (see download)
- House of the Rising Sun – The Animals
- You Raise Me Up – Josh Groban
No doubt you’ve heard of a number of these songs, and for good reason. Most of them are easy to play with only a few notes or chords and kids really seem to relate to them.
Want to know why I’ve chosen these? Want to know how I teach them? Want a copy of the chord charts so you can get stuck into them with students right away?
Then make sure you get my free, 12-page, full colour handy resource guide, which you can download below and you can print and keep on your piano.
In it you’ll find:
- Examples of the notation, chord progression, lead sheets and lyrics
- Notes about why I chose each song and how I teach it
- Tips about teaching each song and other activities you can do with them (eg. transposing)
What’s Your Favourite Pop Song to Teach?
Leave your best song in the comment area below and let us all know why you’ve chosen this song and any tips you have about teaching it.
Free Webinar on Pop Music
Do you want to know how to teach pop music the right way?
I held a webinar on pop music a little while back and you can register and watch the replay at a time that suits you.
In the webinar we cover…
- How to make pop music a meaningful experience for your students
- How to simplify pop music
- A fool-proof method of bridging the chordal aspects of pop with pop-style composing that students love
As usual, I’ll be giving away a number of bonus downloads only available on the webinar, including your certificate of professional learning.
Sound like something you might be interested? Great! I’ll see you there 🙂
“Faded” ( use broken chords ) and
“ Memories” ( a great rhythm in this one)is a little more modern. Students so often haven’t heard the songs on the Pop List but their parents become excited to hear the older pop songs that they grew up with in their younger days.
My current pop song is Billy Joel, “Piano Man.” We Listen. We learn the chord progressions, first the verse, find patterns etc then look at how the bass notation uses the chord. Then the Intro. Some notes are left out of the chord, but still sounds great.
There are only Intro, Verse, Bridge same as Intro , more verses, Bridge then Chorus gives another 4 bar progression that is broken into open 5th 6th 7th etc. Soon the whole five pages are learned. I find this pop song offers freedom to play within the students present ability and brings satiety.
Great article and a good list of simple songs to practice chords for beginner. I normally try to get the students to understand the sound of the quality of the chords and teach them learning it by roman numeral. Practicing in that way, they could normalise and get familiar with the sound.
I also like teaching 4 chords songs like you’ve mentioned in the other article. That is the easiest way to have fun and learning songs at the same time. (especially the top 40s)
Great topic. Great website, which I found via the Musical-U podcast you did. Thanks Tim. However, I’m another one who can’t see the form to request the download. If I ‘view source’ I can see the code is there, but it’s not visible in any browser combination I’ve tried. Hopefully there is an alternative route?
Ah. Now I see how to do it! I found the form fields appeared when I clicked on the ‘Yes Please’. 🙂 Thanks again.
Thank you Tim for your inspiring and informative blogs and all information relating to teaching the piano. You are inspiring me and no doubt, countless others with your relaxed and educational approach; exactly what we needed.
Pleasure Phyllis – I’m so glad you’re finding it helpful.
My favorite pop song to begin with is the Beatles “Yesterday”.
Great website, with lots on inspiring ideas! Thank you, Tim!
this very good tech blog i like it
thank very much for people helping
‘Call me maybe’ is a good chordal song to teach – mainly because of the groovy rhythm and tune which kids love
Great list Tim. My son has just recently started learning Eleanor Rigby and I can’t believe the progress he has made (especially considering his pace on classical pieces). Perhaps we will try some of more. 🙂
Great news, Janie 🙂
Apologize by One republic. So much to love in this tune.
My favorite popular song to teach students is Over the Rainbow and at times, My Favorite Things – both from Sound of Music. The kids relate to the songs and they are great for students to begin moving from one 5 finger position to another within a melody.
I just came upon your blog, and I love your ideas! I found the link from ComposeCreate.com. I find that my students always love learning chords to play the pop music they love to listen to, and it keeps them engaged in the learning process (as well as makes them want to create their own!)
Thanks so much for the effort you have put into this blog!
Thanks TK! Glad you found me 🙂
Thanks so much for sharing your Top 10 pop songs with us. At the bottom you reference your Pop Rifts for Intermediate students but I can’t seem to locate it anywhere on the web site. Could you forward that on to me as well please. I’m excited to try some of these with my students.
I love playing City of Stars from La La Land and Rolling in the Deep by Adele.
Hi Tim, where do we find that handy 5 page resource guide? I couldn’t find a link to a download site…
thanks very much
Hi Janet – Sorry the optin box disappeared for a few days for some reason! It’s back now above 🙂
Hi Tim. Thank you for your website and all that you are sharing. It’s great. I’m an enthusiastic teacher, and I’m loving your ideas and attitude towards teaching. I thought I got this guide, but of course, when I’m ready to use it now, I can’t seem to find it anywhere, and putting my name in again just gets me the message that I’ve already subscribed. Could I please have this pdf to go with the chord guide and lessons I just bought. 🙂 Thank you!
Hi Aimee – sure, I’ll email you directly.
Hi- I have signed up but don’t see where to get the 5 page guide that goes with the pop songs? thanks-
Hi Karla. So did you enter your name and email into the fields? When you hit submit, a new page should have opened with a link to your download. Let me know if that didn’t happen and I’ll get you a copy.
Sorry- I don’t see any fields to enter anything into- I tried it in several browsers- is it possible it’s down or something? I was looking earlier and ended up signing up for something else because I thought that’s what might work since there was no other form I could see
Hi Karla. Sorry about this! ARe you on an iPad/iPhone? It doesn’t look like it’s Showing on mobile for some reason.
no problem- no I am on a macbook on Safari and on Google Chrome.
OK thanks for letting me know – I’m going to look into it 🙂
ok- if there’s another way to get the content in the meantime, please let me know- thanks!
I am trying to access the pop songs guide but it tells me I am already subscribed – I cannot see where the guide is… The email that arrived tells me it should open as a PDF but it didn’t seem to 🙁 Any help welcomed!
Hi Frances. No problem – I’ll send you an email with the details.
Hi Tim, I am sure I have your resource guide to the top 10 pop songs on my computer somewhere but can’t find it. I am already a subscriber to your newsletter, do I subscribe again to download another copy?
Hi Lynda – I’ll send you a link to it again.
This is great. I’m a classically trained pianist and I teach the Suzuki Method in the UK. I also teach in few schools, semi traditionally. As the Suzuki repertoire is brilliant for very young kids and develops all the aural/technical skill, I always thought pop songs are a great way for my older students to understand the building blocks of any style and any piece of music. It helps the “older” beginner, who is well past “twinkle twinkle”, to relate the harmony they learn in Mozart or Haydn (uncool and hard to relate to) to Adele (cool and easy to relate). I’ve been doing a lot of this in my lessons and glad I found some new resources. It makes my students more excited about their repertoire … and they figure out quickly that Ed Sheeran is based on the same stuff as alla turca or fur Elise .. then they start to experiment and I love it 🙂
Thanks for this and I’m looking forward to more.
Hi Anna. The older beginner is exactly who this works perfectly for: you’ve hit the nail on the head. And the connections we can make (as you say between Ed Sheeran and Beethoven) suddenly opens huge understanding for students!
Take a Bow as sung by Rhianna – is really good – sounds great and easy patterns to learn.
Hey Dawn – just been exploring more Rhianna and I agree. “Stay” was a piece by her that really captured the imagination of one of my students and I can see the potential with “Take a Bow” too. cheers!
Thanks for sharing your top 10 pop teaching hits. There’s only one or two I don’t know so well, but will definitely now check them out. I’d be interested to know what you do with both intermediate and advance piano students? I often have students who need more of a challenge than these 10 posess.
HI Cathy. For intermediate and advanced students, I often use pop songs as the basis of their own compositions or their own arrangements of the pop songs. Ie. I help them learn enough about the structure of music and common accompaniment patterns, etc. to make the song their own. I also like using backing track apps like Notestar for them to play along with. I also find that often, many advanced students tend to naturally phase-out of pop music music because they get more out of playing music specifically written for piano, so another way to go is to help them read good transcriptions of pop songs 🙂
Thanks for the tips. I find Hallelujah by Leonard Cohen is a great starting song which they all love. Stay with me by Sam Smith also a really good straight forward one and current. Also House of the Rising sun is good (like the Beatles is old, but has great chord sequences and fun to play).
Totally agree, Judy – thanks for these tips. Sam Smith has come up a lot so thanks for reminding me!!
The issue with pop songs is how quick they move from the top and others take their place. My students who would improve with this technique want last weeks top 10. I can’t keep up with all of them! They literally don’t know Beatle songs anymore (how could they live without knowing that?)
Hi Bev – this is a great question. I guess the reason I put out my list of Top 10s is that while I know some students want the latest (and I’ll help them with it if there’s enough musical substance), I try and refer them back to these ones as they are so good at teaching about chords. I’m consistently amazed by the number of students who know Beatles songs, so always worth a try. Even without knowing them, they will catch on quickly given they are such well-written songs. Show them a cool youtube of something like Hey Jude with all these famous performers, and they’ll get excited https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PgJQ6LQ8x1E. Songs like these are also where backing track apps like Notestar can really bring them alive.
I find that when students are introduced to pop music like in my Top 10, that are actually piano-based, they suddenly realise that the modern Top40 stuff is actually a lot of rubbish in many cases and they can have much more fun with the old stuff… and the parents like it too 🙂
Good luck with it.
Great, got it, thanks. I’ve recently started moving into teaching ‘pop’ music on the piano. I have been teaching ‘pop’ on the guitar for a little while longer so have used quite a lot from my practice in this area – although not everything transfers to the piano. I have an evolving system of teaching blues improvisation which has worked really well with young (and old) pupils. Also, I have recently started working on teaching improvisation using Indian Raags on the piano with one boy that got interested from a lesson at his school. This is an interesting area, which I hope to develop more. Have you ever done any work in this area? We have been using Raag Tilang, which is an accessible pentatonic raag.
Thanks again for sharing your ideas and resources.
Thanks for the ideas, Nathan and I’m glad you’re looking more into pop and improv – it’s such a great thing to do.
Thanks very much for the download which I have found very informative and useful. I’m going to try out ‘Let it be’ with a student on Saturday. The download came to my phone is it possible to get it re-sent to my PC?
Hi Nathan – Let it be is such a great starter for students. Can’t go wrong. I’ve resent you the link so hopefully that’s all OK.
Looks fantastic but I can’t seem to find the link
Hi Elise. It’s just above the video of me. Look for the picture of the blue resource guide and space for your details. Refresh the page if you can’t see it and perhaps try a different browser. Just checked and it’s showing ok 🙂
Tim: Thank you so much for this wonderful resource. The piece that has been the most useful for me this year has been “The Escape Song,” most commonly known as “The Piñacolada Song.” It was used in the 2014 summer Marvel Comics blockbuster movie (in the US) “Guardians of the Galaxy.” There are also a few other good late ’70’s songs used in the soundtrack as well that the kids seem to like.
The song only uses F and C Major – yes, for the entire song! (The story behind that can be found on youtube featuring the composer himself telling it.) So, I teach the groovy bass line first, because that’s what the kids recognize the most. Then we add the F and C chords. Next, it’s possible to embellish it with some “neighbor” chords, as in F-G-F, then C-Dm-C that follows the bass line. For super coordinated kids, I would then teach the melody of the chorus of the song in the RH, so that they can then hopefully add the basic chord in the LH, or even better, the groovy bass line.
Thank you as well to the other contributors here and their suggestions!
What a great idea, Lisa! Thanks for sharing. I’m going to try that out today 🙂
Hi Tim, I would like a free 5-page handy resource guide.
My favourite ‘pop’ to teach is Pink Panther. It’s a beast to read and is/was set for AMEB Grade 5, I think, probably because of the reading. But I teach it aurally to all, even if they are doing Grade 5 (in which case I do quite a bit of analysis on it once they have it). It’s such a piano-ly piece. The younger ones get an adapted version, but they love the opening chords. They love the ‘screaming’ Em9 at the end, especially as they can take time to get to it.
Hey Dot – thanks for your idea. I agree, Pink Panther is a great one to learn by ear for kids, especially the opening sliding 5ths. If you’d like to get a copy of the book, please scroll up and you’ll see a place for your name and email above the NCKP video. Enjoy!
Thanks for the book Tim. Regards
You’re welcome Lynda 🙂
Let It Be has always been my favorite. Everyone knows it and the progression is easy and used over and over. It’s also been a great one to form an ensemble on. A few years ago I had an autistic boy who sang it dressed like Paul McCartney, a student on electric guitar and two on keyboards, one set to the Hammond B3 sound and the other on piano. It was so much fun teaching that and the kids and audience loved it. They were age 10 to 14. If I do say so myself, they sounded just like the Beatles. LOL
Hahahaha what a great story, Tanya! Thanks for sharing 🙂 It’s Amazing how appealing the Beatles continue to be, so many years later.
“Stay with Me” Sam Smith. Only 3 chords and even easier if you use Am7 instead of Am. Thanks for this post, Tim. I’m very keen to access the resource guide but I can’t see any link. Am I missing something? Thank you for all you do to help us.
Hey Jeanine. I love Sam Smith so I’m going to look into “Stay With Me”. It’s a great piece but I haven’t thought of teaching it before. Thanks for the idea. The link for the resource guide should now be showing – apologies for the trouble.
Lean on me…Bill Withers…good for early on as it’s basically the three primary chords…..same thing with You Raise me up…however it adds minor and sus chords but still based around the primary chords Robyn
GReat ideas Robyn. I’d forgotten about Lean on me which is a great one!
This is a wonderfully helpful post. I would love to access the resource guide but there is no active link. How do I get to it? Thx!
Hi Kathleen – Sorry there was a glitch in the system but it should be showing up now in the area above the NCKP video.
Brilliant article TIm! Am I missing something – how do we get the resource guide? I tried clicking above where highlighted but no link?
Hi Rebecca. Sorry – I”ve been having some trouble today with my download forms. You should see it on the post now. If any further issue, just reply to this and I’ll get in touch 🙂
Hi Tim -yes thanks – got it now! Looks great, thanks again 🙂