THE KEY TO EFFECTIVE POP PIANO PLAYING IS TO BE STRATEGIC ABOUT HOW MANY VOICES YOU USE, what range you play in, and how you use dynamics. You don’t have to play ten notes all the time, or play constant rhythms that mimic guitar strumming. Instead, the goal is for the piano part to shape-shift based on the dramatic requirements of the song. Here are a few ideas to help.
1. Piano as Orchestra
Let’s create an orchestral feel using piano, as in Ex. 1. Start quietly and play a simple melody. Add a few harmonies. Get louder and then suddenly drop in volume before the vocal entrance. Be aware of the vocal. Add small details high above or way down low, just like orchestral instruments would do. Bring in quiet low octaves to impart drama. Arpeggiate chords so that they have movement and don’t get too dense. Use unison doubles to play strong melodies. You can even double the vocal melody in sections to create a powerful change from the harmonic role of the piano. The key to making this work is making dramatic shifts over the course of a few bars—a staccato section followed by long held chords, a soft section followed by a large section, playing in the middle of the piano followed by the extreme ends of the range, and so on.
2. Wall of Sound
Sometimes the project you’re working on already has a large bed of synth pads, guitars, and drums, as in Ex. 2. Here, the piano has to find a place to fit in. The first step is to leave out anything below C, because it will only add to the mud. Find a range where you can hear the piano clearly without it fighting the vocal or guitar. Typically, this would be in the octave above middle C. Use two-voice chords that leave out the third or the fifth, because guitar and piano clash when everyone plays all the notes in a chord. Add colors like ninths or fourths for interest. Use octaves to bring out melodies and add excitement. Try playing the chords around the melody instead of with it. You’ll play less and sound better.
Suppose you’re cutting a ballad with just piano and vocal. Typically, you’d play a simple intro and then break into quarter-note triads in the right hand with a bass note in the left. We can make it much more interesting by asking the following questions: What’s the range of the vocal? Is the melody busy or fairly static? Where is most of the movement? Suppose the melody sits around middle C, and that most of its rhythmic movement occurs in the first two beats of the measure. First, we’ll make a “hole” where the vocal sits by playing the root note below in the left hand, breaking up the chord so there’s a good fifth between the vocal and the piano part. Try using only two voices in the right hand—it’s amazing how much clearer a vocal melody sounds when it’s not constantly doubled by piano triads. Next, try to create a rhythm pattern that’s mostly static during the front of the bar, but then moves towards the back. Try alternating rhythmic figures between the right hand and the left hand. Add a nice melodic fill to the end of the bar after four or eight measures. Modify that fill to create a melody in the intro phrase. Put it all together, and you have Ex. 3: lots of room for the vocal and a nice build heading into the chorus.
Piano Processing Ideas
“Piano doesn’t have to be in super-wide stereo to sound effective in a mix,” says David Baron. “Try tracking piano in mono. Try leaving the piano mostly dry, with just a touch of room sound. Scoop out the mids where the vocal sits to make the piano envelop the vocal. This also lets you make the piano louder without stepping on the vocal. Mono-ize and compress to high heaven, and you’ll get into Beatles “Lady Madonna” territory. Chorus it and you’ll be back in the 1980s.” Baron has appeared on records by Lenny Kravitz and Michael Jackson. He makes his own records on vintage analog gear and plays keyboards in the band Media. Visit him at edisonmusiccorp.com.