10 Ways to Spice Up a Simple Piano Chord Progression

Instructor
John Proulx
Quick Tip
Level 2
22:29

Learning Focus
  • Accompanying
  • Chords
  • Groove
  • Reharmonization
Music Style
  • Gospel
  • Jazz Ballads
  • Pop
  • R&B
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As pianists, we all work with the same basic materials—12 pitches, 48 triads and the 60 primary seventh chords. However, what we do with this material determines our personal sound. In today’s Quick Tip, John Proulx will show you 10 ways that you can spice up a simple piano chord progression. You’ll learn:

  • 7th Chords & Suspensions
  • Inversions & Extensions
  • Right Hand Rocking Broken Chords
  • Broken 8th Notes
  • Broken 16th Notes
  • Spreading Out Broken Chords
  • Repetitive Patterns
  • Chromatic Bass Lines
  • Combination Approaches
  • Adding a Gospel Feel

The key is stylization, not complication. By learning to play a simple piano chord progression in a variety of ways, you’ll discover how small tweaks can make a big difference! As a result, you’ll feel empowered to construct the perfect piano accompaniment for any occasion.

Introduction: Simple Piano Chord Progression

Today’s piano lesson is in the key of F Major and explores a chord progression using 4 simple chords. These chords are the 1-chord, the 3-chord, the 4-chord and the 5-chord. The image below shows these chords in their most basic form as root position triads.

Simple Piano Chord Progression in F Major (I–III–IV–V)
The pianist’s role often requires creative approaches to play simple piano chord progressions like this I–iii–IV–V progression in F Major.

Keep in mind, at this point, these are only raw ingredients. As a pianist, we must take these basic elements and decide how to best apply them to our instrument. For instance, the example below arranges this simple chord progression in two hands for the beginner piano student. Notice, we’ve added a simple bass line and have applied inversions in the right hand. This creates a full sound with smooth transitions from chord-to-chord.

Beginner Simple Piano Chord Progression
Simple chord progression arranged for beginner piano students.

Songs that Use I-iii-IV-V Chord Progression

The I-iii-IV-V progression is a timeless chord progression that frequently occurs in popular music, including the following songs:

Now that you have a grasp of the basic chord progression, let’s see how we can make it sound more interesting. Today’s lesson sheet features 10 ways to spice up this chord progression. In fact, you can download the lesson sheet from the bottom of this page after logging in with your membership. You can also easily change the key of this lesson with our Smart Sheet Music.

#1: Add 7th Chords & Suspensions

The first method we’ll explore to spice up a simple piano chord progression is to replace some of our triads with 7th chords and suspensions.

Adding 7th Chords to a Chord Progression for Piano

Generally speaking, adding the 7th to minor chords is usually in good taste in most styles including pop, rock, R&B, gospel, jazz and latin styles. However, an important consideration for beginner pianists to keep in mind is that you do not need all four notes of the 7th chord in either hand. In fact, that will give you a less desirable sound. Instead, if the root of the chord is in the left hand, then you can generally omit it from your right hand.

Voicing Minor 7th Chords for Two Hands for Piano
Voicing Minor 7th Chords for Piano: if the root of the chord is in the left hand, then you can omit it from the right hand.

The example above demonstrates that when a 7th chord is properly voiced, the right hand will still often play a simple triadic shape. However, the right hand triad may appear to be a different chord. For example, the preferred Am7 voicing shown above features a C major triad in the right hand. Nonetheless, with an A in the bass, the resulting sound is Am7. In fact, this Am7 voicing only differs from the Am voicing in the previous example by 1 note. Can you find the difference? Small changes like this go a long way in spicing up simple piano chord progressions.

Adding Suspensions to a Chord Progression for Piano

Many popular styles commonly use “sus chords” in place of the dominant triad or dominant 7th chord. Remember, the word dominant in music theory is simply the proper name for the 5-chord, just as tonic is the proper name for the 1-chord. The dominant sus chords found in pop music generally use 3 notes, such as a C(sus4). On the other hand, some styles may employ sus chords with as many as 6 notes, such as a jazzy C13(sus4). The diagram below shows various common sus chord constructions. Today’s lesson sheet focuses on the versatile C9sus4, which is common in jazz, gospel and R&B styles. Notice that this chord is often expressed in chord symbol notation as a slash chord—B♭/C.

Common Dominant Sus Chords Suspension Suspended
“Sus chords” (mm 2–4) are commonly used to replace the V chord (mm 1) in popular styles including pop, jazz, gospel and R&B.

Now that we’ve learned how to add minor 7ths and suspensions, let’s see how our simple chord progression sounds with these small changes.

Spice #1—Add 7th Chords & Suspensions Piano
Method 1: simple piano chord progression featuring minor 7th chord and dominant sus chord.

You can hear that this progression is already starting to have a warmer piano sound that is characteristic of popular styles.

By the way, if you need to know more about any chord type we cover into today’s lesson, you can find answers in our Piano Chords—The Definitive Guide.

Now, let’s move on to our next method to spice up a simple chord progression for piano.

#2: Add Inversions & Extensions

A second way you can easily spice up a chord progression is to add inversions and extensions. An inverted chord has a note other than the root as the bass note. For example, tonic chords and dominant chords both frequently occur in 1st inversion to connect chords with passing movement in the bass voice. You can use our Smartsheet Lessons to practice all your Major Chord Inversions and Minor Chord Inversions. On the other hand, chord extensions create beautiful piano chord colors by adding notes such as the 9th, 11th, or 13th. You can study this topic in depth in our course on Piano Chord Extensions (Level 2).

The example below applies both inversion and extensions to our simple chord progression. For example, the second chord which was formerly Am7 is now an Fmaj9/A—a first inversion chord. This chord has also been expanded to include the 7th and the 9th. In addition, the first and third chords have been upgraded to an “add2” voicing for a warm, contemporary sound. As the name implies, an “add2” chord is a four-note chord made from a triad plus the note that is major 2nd above the root. Keep in mind that the 9th and the 2nd refer to the same pitch. However, the indication of 9th implies that the 7th is present in the chord. When the 7th is absent, the most common designation is the “add 2” chord symbol.

Spice #2—Inversions & Extensions for Simple Piano Chord Progressions
Method 2: simple piano chord progression demonstrating use of chord inversion and extensions.

Well done. Now, let’s shift our attention to common rhythm patterns that professional pianists use to animate simple chord progressions into a stylized accompaniments.

#3: Right Hand Rocking Broken Chords

So far, you’ve learned some cool ways to give a simple chord progression a more contemporary harmonic flavor. But you probably don’t want to play all half notes, right? So how do you propel the music forward? Broken chords are a great way to create a classic piano ballad accompaniment.

How do you play a piano accompaniment with broken chords?

To play a piano accompaniment with broken chords, apply a right-hand rocking pattern with two upper chord tones on the downbeats and one lower chord tone on the upbeats.

For the left hand, simple play the roots each chord in the left hand, or for a bigger sound, you can play octaves. Here is an example of our simple piano chord progression using rocking broken chords.

Spice #3—Broken Chords Rocking for Piano Chords
Method 3: rocking with broken chords is a common technique used to play simple piano chord progressions in pop music.

For examples of pop songs that use a rocking broken chord accompaniment, check out the following tunes:

Next, we’ll examine additional types broken chord patterns.

#4: Broken 8th-Notes

Another way to spice up a simple piano chord progression is to play broken 8th notes instead of rocking 8th notes. In this method, your right hand will play one note at a time. As such, this method often works best when you can arpeggiate a four-note voicing. This frequently requires the addition of a chord extension (see below Fadd2 and B♭add2) or a doubled note (see below Am7) to create a four-note grouping. The following example demonstrates this approach.

Spice #4—Broken 8th Notes
Method 4: broken 8th notes create a flowing piano chord progression with a gentle feel.

In the next example, we will explore this idea in 16th notes.

#5: Broken 16th-Notes

Similar to the broken 8th notes method, we can also play our simple piano chord progression with broken 16th notes. This is essentially a rhythmic compression of the previous example. Therefore, each four-note grouping is repeated before changing chords. The example below demonstrates the broken 16th-note approach. Notice that the final four 16th notes break the pattern in order to create an ascending line that sets-up the repeat.

Spice #5—Broken 16th Notes Simple Piano Chord Progression
Method 5: example of I-iii-IV-V piano chord progression with broken 16th notes.

You’re doing great! Next, we’ll explore methods that employ creative use of space.

#6: Spreading Out the Chord

When applying rhythm patterns to a chord progression on piano, it is not necessary to place a note on every subdivision. In fact, the use of space can actually enhance an accompaniment. Space can be applied in the form or rests, or more commonly, long tones. In the example below, notice that the chords have been spread out between the hands in 16th notes.

Spice #6—Spreading Out the Chord
Method 6: the notes in a piano chord progression can be spread out between both hands as in the example above.

Cool! Let’s look at another option.

#7: Repetitive Patterns

If you want to play a simple piano chord progression with a more individual sound, you can employ a repetitive pattern that immediately makes your song distinguishable from other tunes with the same chord progression. In the following example, John uses the repetitive figure F-E-F-C over each of the chords.

Spice #7—Repetitive Pattern piano accompaniment simple chord progression
Method 7: piano accompaniments with repetitive patterns are great for converting common piano chord progressions into recognizable tunes.

Also try playing this example an octave higher for a great piano intro. For additional pop piano accompaniment ideas, check out our courses on Pop & Contemporary Accompaniment Patterns (Levels 1 & 2, Levels 2 & 3).

So far we’ve focused on right hand variations. However, you can also spice up your left hand. Let’s take a closer look.

#8: Quarters with Chromatic Bass

Let’s shift our attention now to our left hand. In the following example, we’ve added hip chromatic passing tones that mimic an electric bass guitar. Specifically, the chromatic passing tones are used to approach the Am7 chord as well as the B♭/C.

Spice #8—Quarters with Chromatic Bass
Method 8: add chromatic passing tones in the left hand to imitate an electric bass.

Chromatic bass lines also work well with other right hand patterns we’ve already explored. The next example uses a combination of approaches.

#9: Broken Chords with Chromatic Bass

Combination approaches are another great way to spice up a simple piano chord progression. The following example combines broken chords in the right hand from #3 with the chromatic bass approach from #8. As a result, you have a truly original sounding piano accompaniment.

Spice #9—Broken Chords with Chromatic Bass
Method 9: combining approaches such as rocking broken chords with a chromatic bass line creates a truly original piano accompaniment groove.

Well done! Let’s explore one final piano groove using our simple piano chord progression.

#10: Gospel Feel Chord Progression for Piano

Another method to spice up a simple piano chord progression is to add passing chords in the right hand. This gives the groove a gospel feel, especially when you add in the slides shown below. Check it out.

Spice #10—Add Gospel Feel with Passing Chords
Method 10: adding passing chords in the right hand to a simple piano chord progression gives it a gospel feel.

Wow, what a great sound! If you want to learn more gospel piano grooves, check out the following courses:

Today’s Quick Tip also features a bonus section on how to incorporate jazz harmony into our simple piano chord progression. Don’t forget to log in with your membership and download the complete lesson sheet to view this content.

Conclusion

Congratulations, you’ve complete today’s Quick Tip. No doubt, you’ve gained tons of insight on how to spice up a simple piano chord progression. If you enjoyed today’s lesson, then you will love the following courses:

Thanks for learning with us! We’ll see you next time.

 

Blog written by Michael LaDisa / Quick Tip by John Proulx

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