3 Steps to Play Contemporary Folk Music on Piano
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Some of my favorite memories involve sitting around a fire with close friends while someone with a guitar sings a tender song. Sometimes, we might even end up singing along! That is the heritage and the feeling that runs deep in this style of music and it bleeds all the way down to today in contemporary folk music.
The question is though, if this style of music is mostly associated with guitar, how do we capture that same feeling on the piano?
Well, I’m here to tell you that contemporary folk music sounds beautiful on piano too, and brings its own unique feeling. We’re going to learn how to create that folk sound and how to come up with our own folk piano parts and accompaniment. There’s something to learn whether you are a beginner or a more advanced pianist.
Take a look at this lesson’s outline and feel free to skip ahead if you’d like:
- Intro to Contemporary Folk Music
- 3 Steps to Play Folk Piano
Excited to make your audience a bit emotional? Let’s dive in!
Before we get into the nitty-gritty with chords, arpeggios, patterns, etc. let’s give a bit more background to this style and talk a little bit about some of the best contemporary folk artists and songs.
Traditional folk music has been around for a long time and has historically been very important to the cultures and customs all over the world. However, in the mid-20th century, we saw a great comeback in this style which came to be known as contemporary folk music.¹
This music features a distinctly soulful and emotional vocal quality often accompaniment with meaningful lyrics. Musically, we usually hear slower tempos and diatonic or modal harmony. Often, the sound of a flowing guitar (known as guitar picking) sweeps us away to another world.
These techniques and patterns can also be created on the piano, and we will be learning not only which chords and harmonies sound good in the style but also how to emulate that beautiful guitar-picking pattern for solo piano.
Take a listen to the following examples that showcase the sound that we are going for in this lesson. Some popular contemporary folk music artists include Eva Cassidy, James Taylor, and Carol King.
“Over the Rainbow” (1996)
“Over the Rainbow” (2020)
“You’ve Got a Friend” (2017)
Note how 2 out of 3 examples are performances of the song “Over The Rainbow” by Harold Arlen and Yip Harburg. Hopefully, that gives you some more context since we’ll also be using that melody in today’s lesson!
Now that we understand a little bit more about the folk music style we are going for, let’s go ahead and talk about the steps to actually achieve this rich sound on the piano!
Keep in mind that as a PWJ member, you can access the downloadable lesson sheet PDF from the bottom of this page after logging in with your membership. However, due to publisher’s restrictions, the expanded-edition lesson sheet which includes John Proulx’s arrangement of “Over the Rainbow” is available from our partners at MusicNotes.com. Be sure to use the PWJ-exclusive MusicNotes coupon code when checking out.
Our first step to get that contemporary folk music sound on the piano will be to emulate that classic guitar finger-picking feel. To do this, we need to take a chord and break up the notes in a certain pattern.
You could use basic major and minor chords, but if you really want your sound to pop it’s nice to add some color notes to the chord. In this case, we’ll add the 2 to the chord (this note will be a whole step above the root). For C major, that would mean adding a D to the chord!
Below you’ll see an example of a C major add 2 chord voicing for piano and how we might break it up in contemporary folk music. You’ll also notice we’ve analyzed the chord tones. The “R” means the root of the chord, and numbers represent the intervallic position relative to that root.
The pattern above starts from the bottom of the voicing and arpeggiates all the way to the top in 8th notes before climbing back down. Specifically, it goes root-5-2-3-5-8(octave)-5-3.
Be sure to try it out, but don’t forget to experiment with changing the broken chord pattern to something else you like as well.
If you want to learn more about these kinds of chord colors and voicings, check out the course Piano Chord Extensions.
Now, let’s apply this idea to a chord progression. As stated above, we are going to use the tune “Over the Rainbow” by Harold Arlen and Yip Harburg.
Below you’ll see the chords for “Over the Rainbow” but we’ve already added the color note discussed in step 1, so most of these chords have an added 2. Following that, you’ll see the chord progression broken up in the contemporary folk pattern:
Chord Progression with Add2 Chords
Chord Progression with Folk Piano Accompaniment Pattern
You might notice the pattern is cut short compared to step 1 since each chord is only 2 beats long. That’s okay because the key thing to remember is to have mostly a continuous string of 8th notes in your pattern. That way, in a sense, no matter which pattern you use you’ll still be emulating that classic guitar-picking feel.
“Notice how in this example…how there’s continued moving 8th notes. That’s very important, because that’s how you would hear a guitar playing that, constant 8th notes.”
TIP: You may notice we’ve added Roman numeral analysis below the sheet music. This helps us understand the functions of the chords and to transpose them into different keys. If you want to learn more about this, you can check out our Analysis Learning Track.
The only thing left to do now is add the melody in the right hand. This will be necessary if you’re playing solo piano as opposed to accompanying a singer or instrumentalist.
Check out an example of how this could be done below in the first couple of measures of “Over the Rainbow.” You won’t be able to hear/see the entire melody due to copyright restrictions. However, the full contemporary folk music piano arrangement is available for download at MusicNotes.com.
Melody Over Folk Piano Accompaniment
As you can see above, we will generally need to alter the specific octave or the pattern itself a bit to make things work with the melody. Sometimes, we might even alter the pattern as an artistic choice or to create counterlines (or a melody played beneath the main melody as a compliment).
That’s it for this lesson on contemporary folk music on piano! Congrats on making it all the way through. Be sure to practice each step slowly and carefully, be curious, and always experiment along the way. With that method, you’ll be able to accomplish any musical goal you can dream of!
If you create any awesome contemporary folk music after going through this lesson, be sure to share it with us in our Facebook group with the hashtag #contemporaryfolkmusic.
Don’t forget you can download the sheet music, full arrangement, and smart sheet music which allows you to transpose into any key below! 👇
In addition to the above techniques, John Proulx includes a few more jazz colors to spice things up even more in the full arrangement. Be sure to check that out to learn tons of valuable musical lessons!
If you want a deeper dive into this topic and other awesome musical topics, be sure to check out some of the resources in our library shown below:
Thanks for learning with us today! We’ll see you next time.
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¹ “Contemporary Folk.” RateYourMusic.com
Daine is a diverse and award-winning pianist, composer, and producer. Trained from a young age on classical piano, Daine has since ventured into nearly all avenues of music. He began to play professionally starting at age 16. Daine has composed for and performed with nearly every type of ensemble, from...
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