John Proulx
Quick Tip

Learning Focus
  • Chords
Music Style
  • Jazz Swing
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Are you too easily contented as a piano student? In other words, do you consider a musical passage “complete” after learning all the right notes? Unfortunately, for many students, musical components such as tempo, articulation and rhythm often take a back seat to correct pitches. Even though this obstacle is understandable, it’s also limiting. However, in today’s Quick Tip, 4 Piano Styles With 4 Chords, John Proulx provides a primer to help students focus on the big picture in their playing…their feel! You’ll discover:

By limiting the harmonic material to just 4 chords, you’ll be able to explore and develop these 4 essential piano styles with greater musical conviction than ever!

Intro to Jazz Piano Styles

Before diving into any specific materials on today’s lesson focus, we have to start by dispelling a common old music myth. Ironically, this task may not be so easy. That’s because this old myth is usually not vocalized out loud, although sometimes you may hear it in one form or another. Instead, the myth we’re speaking of is more of an attitude or assumption about musical priorities. Simply stated, the myth sounds something like this:

 Old Music Myth: “A good performance is when you play all the right notes.”

Of course, most of us understand, whether from formal music training or pure intuition, that there is much more that goes into mature playing besides the pitches. In fact, most of us would hesitate to say anything that even closely resembles this myth because it’s so obviously incorrect. To do so would represent a deficit of musicianship, which is that last thing that any serious music student wants to convey about their own musical understanding.

Just to be clear, the problem with this myth is not that it states anything that is absolutely false. Rather, it omits too many other musical truths. In other words, this myth belittles the contribution of nearly every other aspect of artistic expression in music.

Here’s the hard part. Even though most of us would never promote or repeat this myth, many of us are inclined to practice as if it were true! Usually, this means rehashing a passage until we get the notes right, and then simply moving on. Another way piano students buy into this myth is by failing to breakdown the music into tiny segments, which are necessary for giving adequate attention toward multifaceted musical expression. A third symptom of believing this myth is failing to practice slowly enough to achieve consistency. So what happens instead? We just focus on the notes. As a result, our musicianship plateaus rather than grows.

Addressing the Skeptics

Perhaps there are some skeptics out there who disagree and want to insist that a good performance is playing all the right notes. Usually the presupposition behind this conviction goes something like this: If fixation on musical expression is causing incorrect notes, then skip all the “fancy expression” and just play the right notes! Certainly, this perspective is not without logic. However, the entire argument rests on the assumption that incorrect notes proceed from an over emphasis on musical expression. While this is plausible, it’s probably not often the case. Instead, incorrect notes are most likely symptoms of other practice problems. For instance, wrong notes often have more to do with failing to comprehend the underlying harmonic framework of the music. Think about it…how many times have you missed a sharp or flat that was in the key signature?

Need Further Evidence?

In order to decisively dispel this myth, let’s allow the music to speak for itself. What better way to demonstrate that a “good performance” goes beyond the correct notes than with and A/B test? In the example below, we have notated a simple bossa nova groove followed by two performance demonstrations. Both performance demonstrations contain all the right notes. However, the first demonstration is computer-generated using MIDI software (Music Instrument Digital Interface). On the other hand, the second demonstration was recorded by a human performer.

Let’s take a listen…

Sample Bossa Nova Groove

Exploring Piano Styles - Sample Bossa Nova Groove (Dm7–G7)

MIDI Performance

Human Performance

Do you hear a difference between these two demonstrations? If you were a horn player, which groove would you prefer to solo over? Most readers would probably agree that the human performance feels better. Therefore, if we want to develop a mature sound in our playing, then we must keep the big picture in mind when practicing…our feel. And that’s what today’s lesson is all about!

Exploring the Chords

As the title for our lesson alludes, all of the piano styles that we’ll explore today contain just 4 chords. The specific progression that we’ll be dealing with is a Ⅰ→Ⅵ→Ⅱ→Ⅴ progression—a.k.a. the “turnaround progression.” All of the lesson sheet examples are in the key of C major. In fact, you can download the complete lesson sheet PDF from the bottom of this page after logging in with your membership. In addition, PWJ members can easily transpose the lesson materials to any key using our Smart Sheet Music.

First, let’s examine the four chords of a turnaround progression in C major. If we’re dealing exclusively with diatonic 7th chords, then a Ⅰ→Ⅵ→Ⅱ→Ⅴ progression in C equals C▵7→Am7→Dm7→G7. The following example demonstrates a diatonic turnaround in C using root position 7th chords. (Note, each demonstration in this section concludes with an additional C▵7 chord to give a sense of closure.)

Diatonic Turnaround: →Ⅵ–7→Ⅱ–7→Ⅴ7

Diatonic Turnaround Progression

Now, let’s explore some common variations of the turnaround progression. In the following example, the Am7 has been changed to A7 instead. Of course, this is not arbitrary. Rather, A7 has a special relationship with the subsequent Dm7 chord. That’s because A7 is the dominant 7th chord (a.k.a. the “Ⅴ7”) in the key of D minor. Therefore, even though A7 is not native to the key of C major, we can use A7 in this context because it resolves convincingly to Dm7. We call this type of dominant 7th chord usage a secondary dominant function.

In our harmonic analysis, we could indicate the A7 chord as Ⅴ7/Ⅱ which is read as “five seven of two.” Alternatively, we can keep a Roman numeral Ⅵ for the A7 chord but label it as Ⅵ7 to differentiate it from the diatonic Ⅵm7 chord (Am7). We’ve opted for the latter here. However, we’ve included a curved arrow to draw attention to the secondary dominant relationship between this pair of chords.

Turnaround Variation: 7→Ⅱ–7→Ⅴ7

Turnaround Progression Variation with Secondary Dominant

Now, let’s look at one more turnaround progression variation that we’ll use latter in this lesson. In this example, we’ve made all of the chords dominant 7th chords to create a more bluesy sound. First, we have a C7 chord. This C7 occurrence is not considered a secondary dominant function because it fails to resolve like a Ⅴ7 chord would. In other words, C7 must resolve to F▵7 or Fm7 to behave like a Ⅴ7 chord. Instead, this C7 is just a tonic chord which bears a dominant 7th chord quality—a characteristic idiom of the blues sound. However, the subsequent A7 and D7 chords are both secondary dominants. Let’s take a listen.

Bluesy Turnaround: 77→Ⅱ7→Ⅴ7

Bluesy Turnaroud Progression with Dominant 7th Chords

Before we leave this section and start playing some piano styles, let’s learn a better way to voice these chords on the piano. In the following example, we have 3-note voicings in the right hand over a bass note in the left hand. For C▵7 and Dm7, we’re using a 7–3–5 voicing. Then, for the Ⅵ7 and Ⅴ7 chords, we’re using a dominant 7(♭9) sound, which is voiced using a 3–7–♭9 construction. Let’s take a listen.

Turnaround Variation with Two Hands: 7→Ⅱ→Ⅴ7

Exploring Piano Styles - Bluesy Piano Chords

Not too hard, right? Great, now you’re ready to dive into the 4 piano styles that John Proulx unpacks in today’s featured Quick Tip tutorial.

Exploring the Piano Styles

Are you ready to have some fun at the piano? In this section, we’ll use the chords that we learned in the previous section to play four different piano styles: (1) swing, (2) bossa nova, (3) ballad and (4) blues.

#1: Swing Piano Style

We’ll begin by playing in a jazz swing piano style. Characteristics of the swing piano sound include walking bass lines and syncopated accompaniment figures, which we often call “chord pops.” Let’s take a listen to the example from today’s lesson sheet.

Turnaround with Swing Feel

Exploring Piano Styles - Jazz Swing Feel

Walking Bass Line Techniques

First, let’s discuss how to construct that cool jazz bass line. John uses 3 different approaches in this example: (1) root-5th, (2) walkup and (3) walkdown.

Root-5th: This technique places the root of the chord on the strong beats of the measure, beats 1 and 3. Then, the 5th of the chord is placed on the weak beats of the measure, beats 2 and 4. See measures 1 and 3 in the example above for application of this approach.

Walkup: This technique connects the root of one chord to the root of the next chord by means of a stepwise ascent. The roots occur in each measure on beat 1 and the stepwise ascent occurs on beats 2 through 4. See measure 2 above.

Walkdown: This technique connects the root of one chord to the root of the next chord by means of a stepwise descent. The roots both occur on beat 1 and the stepwise descent occurs on beats 2 through 4. See measure 4 above.

🔎 For a deep dive on jazz walking bass lines, check out our courses on Jazz Walking Bass Lines (Int, Adv).

Right Hand Chord Pops

Now, let’s address the right hand “chord pops” in the jazz swing example above. It’s important to recognize that these rhythms should be interpreted according to an underlying triplet grid. If this is unfamiliar to you, be sure to scroll all the way to the top of this page and review John’s explanation of this concept in the featured Quick Tip video which begins at 2:44 in the timeline.

For the right hand, John is using a common jazz swing syncopation. Sometimes, you may hear this type of rhythmic figure described as “off-on-off.” In other words, we have 3 chord pops in which the first and last stabs are “off the beat” and the middle stab is “on the beat.” Need that broken down even more? The first C▵7 entrance is on the “and of 1.” Then, the next C▵7 enters on beat 3. Afterward, the A7(♭9) enters on the “and of 4.” Then, the same rhythmic figure is repeated over Dm7 and G7(♭9).

🔎 For a deep dive on other characteristic jazz swing rhythms, check out our courses on Jazz Swing Accompaniment (Int, Adv).

If you find it difficult to get your jazz swing groove to feel good, you may need to spend additional time practicing each hand in isolation with a metronome. Afterward, as you put the hands together, practice one measure at a time slowly. Pause, and repeat after each attempt. Then, try practicing two measures at a time. Stay positive and don’t give up. Often times, today’s practice is merely laying the groundwork for tomorrow’s victories.

#2: Bossa Nova Piano Style

The next piano style that we’ll explore is a bossa nova groove. This subdued Latin jazz style is played with a straight 8th note feel. The following example uses the same 4 chords; however, now our bass line and right -and accompaniment are modeled after characteristic Brazilian jazz rhythms. Check it out.

Turnaround with Bossa Nova Feel

Piano Styles - Bossa Nova Feel

Bossa Nova Bass Line Techniques

Let’s briefly unpack this groove. The left hand is playing a common bossa nova bass line rhythm that accentuates the strong beats of the measure, with the root of the chord on beat 1 and the 5th of the chord on beat 3. In addition, we have another note on the “and of 2” that further delineates the bossa feel. For the “and of 2,” John uses the 5th of the chord in this example.

Bossa Nova Right Hand Pattern

In the right hand, we have a repeating rhythmic figure that is two-measures in length. However, the chords change every measure. This creates an intriguing groove with a pleasing sense of symmetry. It’s important to notice in this style that the chords that occur on the “and of 4” are played as anticipations of the harmony in the subsequent measure. Therefore, even though the chord symbol for measure 1 is C▵7, we play A7(♭9) in measure 1 on the “and of 4.” Likewise, in measure 3 the chord symbol is Dm7, but we play the G7(♭9) on the “and of 4.”

Another important factor for getting a good bossa nova feel is articulation. Occasionally, a piano score may include articulation markings indicating which notes should be played staccato. However, this is definitely not a mainstream practice in the notation of Latin rhythms. For example, you’ll hear in the demonstration above that the quarter notes on beat 1 in measures 1 and 3 are played short, even though this is not indicated in the notation. The best way to develop your intuition for bossa nova articulation is through listening. To get started, check out the following tunes by Antonio Carlos Jobim (1927–1994): (1) “Garota de Ipanema (The Girl from Ipanema)”, (2) “Desafinado”, and (3) “So Danco Samba.” In addition, Jonny gives a considerable amount of attention to articulation in Lesson 1 of our Bossa Nova Soloing Challenge (Beg–Adv). (Hint: Use the video chapter markers to select the chapter on “Right Hand Groove.”)

🔎 To learn one of the most popular and most requested Latin jazz standards, check out our courses on Girl from Ipanema (Beg, Int, Adv).

#3: Ballad Piano Style

Now let’s slow things down a bit and explore a jazz ballad piano style. The example that we’ll explore here features a triplet subdivision. Instead of playing chords in the right hand, we now have a melody. However, if you look closely, you’ll see that this melody is based on the top note of the voicings that we’ve been using. The left hand here uses a stride piano technique. Let’s take a listen.

Turnaround with Ballad Feel

Piano Styles - Ballad Feel

Left Hand Stride Technique

To create the left-hand stride pattern in this example, John uses the root of the chord on beats 1 and 3. Then, on beats 2 and 4 he is using the guide tones of the chord, which are the 3rd and 7th. However, in jazz arranging, sometimes it becomes necessary to invert the guide tones so that the 3rd is above the 7th. For example, in measure 1, we have the 3rd and 7th of C▵7, with the 7th on top. Then, in measure 2, we have the 7th and 3rd of A7, with the 3rd on top. In measure 3, we have the 3rd and 7th of Dm7, with the 7th on top. This is followed by G7 in measure 4, with the 3rd on top. As a result, the harmony transitions smoothly from chord to chord.

🔎 To learn more about how to use guide tones with proper voice leading, check out our course on Chord Shells & Guide Tone Exercises (Int).

🔎 Discover additional left-hand techniques for jazz ballads and how to add right-hand harmonies in our course on The Jazz Ballad Challenge (Int, Adv).

#4: Bluesy Piano Style

Lastly, let’s examine a more bluesy piano sound. This example is similar to our jazz ballad example. However, it moves slightly faster and contains all dominant 7th chords. Moreover, the melody is more playful and animated, with added bluesy inflections resulting from finger slides and chromatic neighbor notes.

Turnaround with Bluesy Feel

Piano Styles - Bluesy Feel

To play this example with a good feel, it’s important to keep impeccable time. Moreover, even though there are only a few triplets scattered throughout the melody, be sure that you are continuously internalizing the triplet subdivision.

🔎 For a deep dive on how to play in the slow blues piano style with an authentic feel, check out our course on Bernie’s Blues–Slow Blues (Adv).


Congratulations, you’ve completed today’s Quick Tip on 4 Piano Styles With 4 Chords. Be sure to congratulate yourself as well! Focusing on your feel is a lot like investing in your future. It takes discipline and consistency, but the sacrifice pales in comparison to the reward.

If you enjoyed today’s lesson, then be sure to check out the following PWJ resources:


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



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Michael LaDisa

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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