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Keyboard Basics Every Songwriter Should Know

What to focus on if you're new to piano

· Songwriting,Performing

I might be a little biased because I'm a piano teacher, but I think every musician should learn some basic piano skills.

Especially songwriters.

Because of the way the piano is laid out, music theory just makes a little more sense on the piano than it does on guitar. Arranging your songs on piano might give you a little clarity when it comes to key signatures and understanding chord progressions.

So if you're starting from scratch, here are the basic keyboard skills I think every songwriter should know:

Basic technique

Having proper technique is crucial to playing more advanced arrangements, so it's really important that you prioritize your technique early on! Fortunately, technique isn't too difficult on piano.

Posture: Sit up straight. Keep both feet on the ground. Don't put the bench too close to the piano. If you're using the pedal, remember to keep your heel on the ground. (If the bench is too close, pedaling will be extremely awkward.)

Hand position: Don't let your wrists droop down below the piano keys. The line from your elbow to your hand should be straight, so don't bend your wrist down or up!

Finger position: Play with curved fingers and hit the keys with your fingertips. Do not ever ever ever let your knuckles cave in, especially the knuckle closest to your fingertip. This is a really common problem that most people don't even realize they're making.

Scales and chords

Knowing your scales and chords will do wonders for your songwriting. I know, they're boring. But they're so helpful.

(Download the key signatures reference sheet to remember the sharps and flats in your scales and the piano chords reference sheet to remember the chord positions!)

Of course, if your only goal is to be a pop pianist, there's no need to learn lightening-fast, hands-together, four-octave scales and arpeggios. But practicing simple one octave scales will help you remember the key signatures and save you a lot of time and confusion when you're writing in an unfamiliar key.

If you're a beginner, end each scale with a chord, using fingers 1, 3, and 5. This will help you become familiar with the different major and minor chords. If you do it enough, eventually you won't even have to think about which sharps or flats are in each chord.

Once you're a little more advanced, try chord inversions. Chord inversions are simply different arrangements of the same three notes. Here are the chord inversions of the C chord:

  • root position: C, E, G
  • 1st inversion: E, G, C
  • 2nd inversion: G, C, E

P.S. Make sure you research the different fingerings for chord inversions, because it does get confusing. :)

How to create a simple arrangement

In the simplest arrangements of pop songs, the right hand is playing the chords and the left hand is playing just the lowest note of the chord.

Start with just the right hand. Play 4 (or however many you need) quarter notes of each chord with your right hand and practice moving from one chord to the next. (C, C, C, C, G, G, G, G, Am, Am, Am, Am...etc.)

TIP: freeze your fingers and your hand in the 1-3-5 chord position. When you're moving from chord to chord, keep your fingers/hand perfectly still and move only from your elbow. It will be SO much easier this way! Of course, your middle finger might have to move slightly depending if it's on a white or black key, but try your best to keep everything else still.

Once you have the right hand solid, choose a position for your left hand where you can hit all of the bass notes without moving (or without moving too much). So if you need to hit a C, a G, an A, and an F, in your song, I would suggest putting your 5th finger on F, that way you can hit every note without moving your hand position.

Every time you change chords in your right hand, you'll play your left hand once and hold it. So while your right hand plays 4 C chords, your left hand will play one C and hold it for 4 beats.

NOTE: If your song calls for a chord inversion, (like C/G, which means a C chord with G in the bass.), the only note you'll need to change is the left hand note. The right hand can always play whatever chord inversions you want to (even in a root position chord!), as long as the left hand is doing it's thing.

This simple style of arrangement will work with almost any song, and it's the structure that more difficult arrangements are built off of.

If you've never done this before, it's going to be a little challenging coordination-wise, but once you get the hang of it, I swear it gets easier!

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