3 Steps to Play Misty on Piano
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In 1954, American jazz pianist and composer Erroll Garner wrote “Misty”—a timeless jazz ballad. To this day, it remains one of the most recognized and requested jazz standards. In today’s Quick Tip, 3 Steps to Play Misty on Piano, John Proulx helps beginner jazz piano students embark on learning this classic standard for the first time. You’ll learn:
- Intro to “Misty” by Erroll Garner
- 3 Steps to Play Misty on Piano
Upon completing today’s lesson, beginner jazz pianists will develop a strong foundation for how to approach “Misty” and other popular standards in the jazz ballad style.
“Misty” is the most well-known song of pianist and composer Erroll Garner. A native of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Garner was born on June 15, 1921, along with his twin brother Ernest. Young Erroll began playing piano at age 3 and was a prodigious talent. In fact, Garner was self-taught and played everything “by ear.” By age 7, he began performing professionally. Garner’s playing style is both joyful and romantic, and is often compared to Art Tatum, Fats Waller and Claude Debussy.¹
To describe “Misty” as a popular jazz standard would be an understatement. Indeed, according to one popular online archive, there are over 780 available recordings² of the tune! In fact, for many jazz piano students, “Misty” is one of the earliest jazz ballads that they learn to play.
Garner originally composed “Misty” as an instrumental tune. However, in 1955, Johnny Burke added the now familiar lyrics, which were popularized by Johnny Mathis on his 1959 album Heavenly. Mathis’ recording reached the #12 spot on the Billboard Hot 100 and remains the highest charting version of the tune.³
In 1971, director Clint Eastwood further popularized “Misty” with his directorial debut in Play Misty for Me. In this thriller, Eastwood stars as Dave Garver, a disc jockey whose life is turned upside down by an obsessed fan (Jessica Walter) who repeatedly calls in with the request, “Play ‘Misty’ for Me.”
One of the most important disciplines for any jazz student is listening. That’s because our music notation system is cannot depict all the stylistic nuances of jazz performance. This is especially true of lead sheets—a minimalistic notation format used in fake books which includes a basic sketch of a tune’s melody with accompanying chord symbols.
The following recordings will assist you in learning to play “Misty” on piano by helping you internalize the melody and form. First, we have Erroll Garner’s original recording from his 1954 album Contrasts. Secondly, we have a beautiful vocal duo recording by Ella Fitzgerald with Paul Smith on piano. Finally, we’ve included an exceptional trio recording by Red Garland with Jamil Nassar on bass and Frank Gant on drums. As you listen to these recordings, be sure to play attention to how each artist phrases the melody.
Now that you know some general background about Erroll Garner and “Misty,” you’re ready for the next section where you’ll discover 3 steps to play “Misty” on piano.
In today’s Quick Tip video, John Proulx organizes the task of how to play “Misty” on piano into 3 steps:
In fact, you can use the outline above to explore or review each step.
Keep in mind, there are always two ways to learn a jazz tune on piano—(1) from a recording, and (2) from a lead sheet. Frankly, both methods are rather scary for beginners. However, when you combine these methods, they both get a bit easier. For example, an accessible recording can aid you in interpreting a lead sheet. Similarly, a lead sheet can help you identify what you may be hearing in a recording. Therefore, even though this section addresses 3 steps to play “Misty” from a lead sheet, this is not intended to circumvent active listening and imitation.
Technically, there is also a third way to “learn” a jazz tune. Sometimes, you can buy a piano arrangement designed for a particular skill level. While such arrangements may get a student up-and-running in less time on a familiar jazz tune, unfortunately they are rooted in a paradigm inherited from classical piano pedagogy. This paradigm dictates each note and rhythm to be played while requiring little awareness from student regarding the harmonic framework. As such, this approach is actually antithetical to the spirit of jazz and does not benefit a student in developing the skills required to improvise freely. Therefore, this approach is not included as a normative method for learning a jazz tune.
As you work through following 3 steps to play “Misty” on piano, be encouraged…you’ll be learning to think like a true jazz musician!
When learning a jazz tune from a lead sheet, there are several observations that a student should try to make, including:
- What is the primary key for the tune?
- What is the structure of the song form?
- Are there any indications that suggest a particular tempo and rhythmic feel? (i.e.: straight 8th notes or swung)
In this section we’ll answer these questions, and more! First, be sure download the PDF that appears at the bottom of this page after logging in with your membership. This PDF contains the “Misty” chord changes and a piano chord chart of all the chords that you’ll need to know in order to play this classic jazz standard.
Due to publisher’s restrictions, we cannot share the copyrighted Misty lead sheet here. However, the expanded edition lesson sheet shown in today’s featured video includes Erroll Garner’s original melody and is available through our partners at MusicNotes.com. In addition, PWJ members should be sure to check out the Smartsheet for this lesson which is accessible via the blue bar at the top of this page. PWJ digital Smartsheets are interactive, allowing members to easily transpose tunes and adjust the playback speed on performance demos.
Misty is traditionally performed in the key of E♭ major, which has 3 flats (B♭–E♭–A♭). Some beginner piano students may be less familiar with the key of E♭ major. Therefore, let’s take a minute now to review the E♭ major scale and its corresponding diatonic 7th chords.
E♭ Major Scale
E♭ Major Diatonic 7th Chords
As you can see, there are seven naturally occurring 7th chords in E♭ major. (Note, the demonstration above performs these chords an octave higher than written). “Misty” uses all of these piano chords except for Dø7—the Ⅶø7 chord. In addition, “Misty” also includes several chords from other keys as well. Don’t worry, we’ll cover those chords in detail in Step 2. For now, just try to get comfortable with the E♭ major scale and the diatonic 7th chords shown above. If you’d like additional support to master the key of E♭ major, then be sure to check out the following PWJ resources:
Take a moment now to scan the Misty chord changes below in E♭ major. Notice, the example below includes Roman numerals which provide a harmonic analysis for each chord. The icons ▷→⃝⤳⌂ represent the presence of a 2-5-1 chord progression from a key other than E♭ major.
Next, we’ll examine the structure of this classic tune. This is especially important if you’d like to be able to play an improvised piano solo over the form of “Misty.”
Erroll Garner’s classic jazz ballad “Misty” follows a common 32-bar AABA form, also known as “song form.” This structure contains 4 sections, each 8 measures in length. Generally speaking, each A section features the same essential melody and chords with different lyrics. On the other hand, the B section typically features a contrasting melody and chord progression. Examples of jazz standards that use this form are Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn’s “Take the ‘A’ Train,” and Harold Arlen and Yip Harburg’s “Over the Rainbow.”
Here’s something you might not have realized. Tunes that are written in AABA form commonly employ a D.C. al Fine. The diagram below demonstrates this architecture.
Now that you understand how “Misty” is structured, you can begin to master this tune one section at a time! But first, let’s discuss the tempo and feel of “Misty.”
Most jazz lead sheets contain a brief indication at the top of the page that suggests both the tempo and feel of the tune. Usually, these indications are quite concise, often just a word or two at most. For example, a typical lead sheet for “Misty” by Erroll Garner might say “ballad” or “medium ballad” in the upper-left corner. That’s all! Therefore, the discipline of listening to historical recordings is indispensable in helping jazz students determine an appropriate tempo range for any given song. In the case of “Misty,” our reference recordings span a range of approximately 42 BPM to 58 BPM. However, Jonny Mathis’s popular version moves at about 65 BPM.
Sometimes, jazz artists will reinterpret a popular tune with a completely different feel. For example, jazz organist Richard “Groove” Holmes recorded “Misty” at a swingin’ 184 BPM! Consider also Dan Haerle‘s balmy bossa nova interpretation of “Misty” which moves at 125 BPM.
For the purposes of today’s lesson, we’ll play “Misty” on piano in the jazz ballad style. In fact, this lesson includes two downloadable backing tracks. The first track is recorded at 65 BPM whereas the second track moves at a slightly faster 75 BPM.
After examining the lead sheet to determine the key, form and feel, you’re ready to start practicing the melody. The examples in this section use the first 8 measures of “Misty” to demonstrate how students can learn to phrase jazz melodies by interpreting a lead sheet.
Initially, you’ll want to focus on identifying the correct notes and rhythms as indicated on the lead sheet. Therefore, be sure to pay attention to both the key signature as well as any accidentals that may appear. Here is a demonstration of the first 8 measures played along with the slower backing track at 65 BPM.
Misty Melody – Measures 1–8 “As Written”
The piano demonstration above accurately plays the melody to “Misty” with a good melodic tone. However, it does not contain any melodic interpretation. In other words, it views the printed page as a dictator rather than a coach. Beginner jazz students must come to understand that lead sheets do not demand this type of unwavering devotion.
Instead, jazz musicians personalize melodies according to a collective, communal vocabulary. Students acquire these melodic instincts through listening and imitation. For example, the following “Misty” demonstration is modeled after Ella Fitzgerald’s recording that we listened to earlier in this lesson.
Misty Melody – Measures 1–8 with Interpretation
What a beautiful rendition! What differences did you notice? First of all, this performance uses rhythmic displacement, an interpretive approach that shifts some notes slightly earlier or later in the measure. Secondly, this performance also applies melodic ornamentation, an interpretive technique that draws on common, vocal-like gestures such as neighbor notes, leaps, slides and turns. To learn more about melodic interpretation, check out John’s Quick Tip on 7 Techniques to Spice Up a Jazz Melody (Int).
Since we’ve covered the A section here, and because “Misty” is in AABA form, that means you’ve already learned 75% of the melody! We’re going to move on to Step 2 now. However, you can learn the rest of the melody from John Proulx’s demonstration in the featured Quick Tip video at the top of this page, from the extended edition lesson sheet, or from our full-length course on Misty—Jazz Ballad 1 (Int).
In this section, we’ll focus on how to play the left-hand piano chords for “Misty.” In fact, we’ve provided a helpful piano chord chart containing all 16 seventh chords that you’ll find on a typical “Misty” lead sheet. This resource is especially designed to assist students whose reading skills are still in early development. Incidentally, if that describes you and you’d like to grow your ability to read sheet music, we’re here to help! Be sure to check out our Early Beginner Piano Foundations—Level 1 Learning Track.
The default piano fingering for seventh chords in the left hand is 5–3–2–1. That means that you’ll use all of the finger on your left hand except for the ring finger when playing each of these chords. Take a moment now to try playing each of the chords below. As you do so, try to make associations between the proper name of the chord, its appearance on the musical staff, and its arrangement of black-and-white notes on the keyboard.
Once you feel comfortable playing each of these piano chords in isolation, the next step is to try playing through the “Misty” chord changes in the order that they occur in the tune. Ideally, you should be able reproduce the correct chord shape on the keyboard directly from the chord symbol on the lead sheet.
A great personal goal for beginners is to become familiar enough with the chords that you can keep up with the backing track. In fact, if you treat this like a game, it can make practice rather fun. Here is a demonstration of the left-hand chords for the first A section of “Misty.”
Misty L.H. Piano Chords – Measures 1–8
How did that go for you? If you found it difficult, don’t be discouraged. This can take some time. Don’t be ashamed to slow down the playback speed via the settings icon in the blue control bar. If you’ve already mastered the chord changes, then you may enjoy adding in the melody also. Remember, as John Proulx pointed out in today’s lesson, it’s common to play the melody up an octave in the right hand so the hands are not colliding over a common terrain.
Let’s go on to the final step!
So far, we’ve examined how to play the melody and chords for “Misty” on piano. The final step is to apply specific jazz piano techniques that will stylize the tune into a recognizable jazz sub-genre, such as stride, swing, ballad, bossa nova, etc. In most cases, this means adapting the chords into a particular groove or pattern for the left hand. Of course, today’s lesson focuses on the jazz ballad style. However, for a fun example of how to interpret a given chord progression in different jazz styles, check out our course on Cycle of Fifths in 3 Jazz Styles (Int, Adv).
In this section, we’ll be applying a half-note groove in the left hand using chord shells. The term “chord shell” is broadly used to describe any 2-note or 3-note voicing that provides the essential tones necessary to imply a given chord. In most cases, a chord shell contains any combination of the root, 3rd and 7th. However, sometimes the 6th is used in a chord shell and occasionally the 5th is used as well, although less frequently.
Today’s lesson uses both 2-note and 3-note chord shells. The instructions below will help you understand when each type of chord shell has been used in today’s expanded edition lesson sheet.
Chord Shells with 3 Notes
When a chord in “Misty” lasts for a whole measure, we’ll use a 3-note chord shell that contains the root, 3rd and 7th (or 6th, when applicable). We’ll call these shells R-3-7 for short. For example, an R-3-7 chord shell for E♭▵7 contains E♭–G–D. We can describe this as a closed shell because the total span is less than an octave. The best range for closed shells on piano is when the root is between B♭²–F♯³. When you go lower than B♭², closed shells start to sound too muddy.
Sometimes, we can get a more preferable sound by playing open shells—a term that we use to describe chord shells that span greater than one octave. To convert a closed shell into an open shell, simply take the 3rd of the chord up an octave so that it becomes a 10th (Note: 10th = 3rd + octave). We’ll designate these shells as R-7-10. For example, an open shell for E♭▵7 contains the notes E♭–D–G. Even though many pianists’ hands are not large enough to play the notes of an open shell simultaneously, these voicings are still quite useful because the root can be played separately from the upper portion. Open shells sound great over a fairly large portion of the keyboard, but they start getting too dark when the root descends below D².
Now, let’s learn how to create a half-note jazz ballad groove using closed and open shells for E♭▵7. In either case, we’ll play the root on beat 1 and the upper portion on beat 3. This type of left-hand movement from root-to-chord is described as a stride technique. The first example below shows an R-3-7 closed shell stride for E♭▵7 that lasts one measure. Then, the following example demonstrates an R-7-10 open shell stride for E♭▵7.
Next, see if you can create open and closed shells for the A♭▵7 in measure 3. You may notice that the R-3-7 closed shell (A♭–C–G) sounds just a bit muddy. However, the R-7-10 open shell (A♭–C–G) sounds quite nice. Therefore, John Proulx chose to play an open shell voicing in measure 3.
But what should we play in measure 2? Since there are two chords in this measure, we’ll take a different approach.
Chord Shells with 2 Notes
When there are two chords in the same measure, we don’t want to use a stride technique because that would transform our half-note groove into a quarter note pattern. Instead, we’ll use a 2-note chord shells. The voicings will contain either the root and 3rd (R-3) or the root and 7th (R-7). Occasionally, you may need to play the root and 6th (R-6) when applicable. Pianists with large hands may even play the root and 10th (R-10).
Frequently, the smoothest voicing leading is accomplished by switching from an R-7 shell to an R-3 shell, or vice versa. For example, in measure 2 of “Misty”, we’ll play an R-7 shell for the B♭m7 piano chord on beat 1. Then, on beat 3, we’ll play an R-3 shell for the E♭7. Then, we’re back to a stride pattern in measure 3 for A♭▵7.
Putting It All Together
Now that we’ve identified when to play each type of chord shell based on how many chords occur in each measure, we are able to come up with the following beginner piano arrangement of “Misty.”
Misty Melody with Chord Shells – Measures 1–8
Congratulations, you’ve complete today’s lesson on 3 Steps to Play Misty on Piano. In the process, you’ve gained some important transferable skills that will help you play other jazz ballads from a lead sheet.
If you enjoyed today’s lesson, be sure to check out the following resources:
- Jazz Standard Analysis (Int, Adv)
- Jazz Intro and Outro Runs (Int/Adv)
- Create Inner Voice Movement for Jazz Piano (Int)
- Breaking Down a Jazz Solo (Int, Adv)
- Jazz Walking Bass Lines (Int, Adv)
- Play Piano Lead Sheets with Shells & Guide Tones (Int)
- Play Piano Lead Sheets with Extensions & Alterations (Int/Adv)
- Breaking Down a Jazz Solo (Int, Adv)
- 32 Colorful Jazz Endings (Int)
- 3 Must-Know Jazz Piano Intros (Int)
- Block Chord Piano Riff for Intros and Outros (Adv)
- 7 Techniques to Spice Up a Jazz Melody (Int)
- 3 Essential Techniques for Jazz Piano Walking Bass (Int/Adv)
- 7 Beautiful Endings for Jazz Tunes (Int)
- Playing Solo Jazz Piano With Jeremy Siskind (Int, Adv)
- Jazz Piano Chord Voicings–The Complete Guide (Int)
- Jazz Piano 10 Steps from Beginner to Pro (Beg-Adv)
Thanks for learning with us today! We’ll see you next time.
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¹ “Biography.” ErrollGarner.com.
² Monsieur, Denis. “Misty by Erroll Garner Trio.” SecondHandSongs.com.
³ “Johnny Mathis: Biography, Music & News.” Billboard.com.
Michael LaDisa graduated from the University of North Texas with a major in Music Theory & Composition. He lives in Chicago where he operates a private teaching studio and performs regularly as a solo pianist. His educational work with students has been featured on WGN-TV Evening News, Fox 32 Good Day,...
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