The piano is a virtual symphony orchestra arranged in a linear fashion. With it, you can create melody, underpin it with harmony, and keep it in time with rhythm—all by yourself. Playing piano solo has been a subject that I’ve studied for years. I started out taking classical piano lessons with my mother, and there was great emphasis from the beginning for me to play music by myself. It wasn’t until later that I started playing in trios or groups. For that reason, I’ve always searched out pieces of musical vocabulary that I can learn and apply in a solo setting. The way pianists use the instrument in a solo format has always been a measure of their mastery of craft. In this lesson, we’ll take a take a melody line and give it progressively more harmonic foundation and rhythmic movement, all in a solo context.
Scroll down for audio examples.
1. Melodic Beginnings
Ex. 1 is a four-bar melody taken from my song “Hope,” from my new album Breakthrough. We will use this as the starting point for our solo piano explorations.
2. Melody Plus Basic Harmony
Ex. 2 features the melody from Ex. 1, but adds a basic harmonic structure to support it. It’s basically the I chord, followed by a ii-V-I turnaround sequence. This chord sequence is a good launching point to support the melody. Here, the left hand supplies the bass notes as well as the harmony.
3. Melody With Extended Harmony
Ex. 3 demonstrates alternate harmonies for our melody. This harmonic scheme makes the melody sing more, and imparts a bit more yearning to it. The resolutions inherent in this harmonic sequence help create tension and release in the music. This occurs because of the voice leading that happens in the left hand. Watch for certain notes to go up or down a half-step or whole-step, while other notes stay persistent throughout the progression.
4. Melodic Improvisation
Ex. 4a (above) is an improvisation that outlines the harmonic sequence while referring back to the original melody. Ex. 4b (below) introduces a blues inflection to the improvisation’s sound. It also references the melody and again creates tension and release, especially when the harmony goes from E majorto G7. When your listeners hear these ideas after hearing the melody, they’ll still remember the original melody to which these musical extensions refer.
5. Improvised Introduction with Cadence and Comping
Ex. 5 is an improvised introduction comprised of a short motif that offers tension and release while referring back to the original melody. There’s a left-hand cadence that underpins the melody while also creating a wave of sound that outlines the harmony. The last four bars demonstrate rhythmic chord comping (accompaniment) in the left hand, while the right hand spins variations on the original melody. This example demonstrates that you can outline the chord changes and harmony through movement rather than just chorded structures. Again, what makes these movements logical and musical is the relationship between the chords the tones have in common and the voice leading: Certain notes are moving while others remain constant.