Instructor
Jonny May
Quick Tip
Beginner
Intermediate
Advanced
15:34

Learning Focus
  • Technique
Music Style
  • Contemporary
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Sometimes as a pianist, you might be asked to come up with a magical-sounding musical score. For instance, you may be called upon to collaborate with a local theatre or ballet company on a stage production. In today’s Quick Tip, 5 Steps to Play Magical Piano, Jonny May shares a straightforward approach in which pianists of all levels can create truly magical piano music. You’ll learn:

Intro to Magical Piano

One of my first gigs after college was playing keyboard at a local ComdeySportz club. As such, my role was to spontaneously come up with piano music for short-form improv comedy scenarios based on suggestions from the audience and cues from the actors. Typically, the catalyst for a sketch was a combination of stylistic and thematic prompts. Examples might include action, mystery, sci-fi, soap opera, suspense, love, betrayal, rage, boredom and so on. This gig caused me to reevaluate and recategorize my accumulated musical knowledge in extremely practical terms.

Admittedly, my gig as a improv comedy pianist was both short-lived and rare. Nonetheless, a pianist’s role often does have a lot to do with creating musical moods. Whether you’re an accompanist, a composer or a keyboard player in a band, people will often look to you to shape the emotional atmosphere of the music. Therefore, it’s extremely helpful for pianists have a deep bag of musical tricks to draw upon. In essence, this ability comes down to learning how to improvise according to “stylistic formulas.” That’s what today’s Quick Tip is all about. After this lesson, you’ll understand a simple and effective way to create a magical piano score.

All of the examples in today’s lesson are in the key of C major, which uses all white keys on the piano. If you’re a PWJ member, you can download the lesson sheet PDF from the bottom of this page after logging in with your membership. In addition, members can also easily transpose this lesson to other keys using our Smart Sheet Music.

Alright, let’s get take a look at Jonny’s 5 Steps to Play Magical Piano.

The 5 Steps to Play Magical Piano

Any pianist can create the perfect magical piano score using Jonny’s 5-step formula. In this section, we’ll examine each step in detail.

Step 1: The Magical Piano Range

The first step to play magical piano music is to identify the ideal register of the instrument. To capture the essence of a magical film score, we’ll want to target the upper register of the piano. Therefore, the range for our right hand will be between C5 and C7. Later in Step 4, we examine additional ranges for the left hand.

Play Magical Piano - Step 1

That was easy…now you’re ready for Step 2!

Step 2: Learn the 2 Magical Piano Shapes

The second step to play magical piano music is to learn two magical chord shapes. These two 4-note chords each contain radiant sound colors that will help us create the right harmonic temperature for the magical sound we’re after. The examples below allow you to examine each 4-note shape in traditional music notation as also to hear how they sound. (Note that Shape 2 contains an 8va indication, which means that these notes are to be played an octave higher than written).

Magical Shape 1

Magical Piano Shape 1

Magical Shape 2

Magical Piano Shape 2

The first chord shape contains the notes C–G–B–C (from the bottom up). This is like a Cmaj7 chord (C–E–G–B), except that the 3rd—the note E—has been omitted. Therefore, the chord symbol Cmaj7(omit 3) can be used to specify this exact collection of notes. Another way to think of this shape is that it contains the root, 5th, 7th and root (R–5–7–R) of the C major scale.

The second chord shape contains the notes G–C–D–G. This is similar to a C major triad (C–E–G), except that the 3rd—the note E—has been replaced with the note D instead. We call this a Csus2 chord (C–D–G). This shape uses the 5th, root, 2nd and 5th (5–R–2–5) of the C major scale. (To learn more about “sus chords,” check out our Quick Tip on 3 Incredible Techniques with Piano Sus Chords (Int).)

You might be wondering if these shapes have anything in common? If you look closely, you’ll notice that both shapes contain the notes C and G plus one additional note. This is what gives each shape the magical quality that we’re after. The notes C and G are the 1st and 5th scale tones in C major. As such, these notes are the most consonant and stable notes within the key. Then, by introducing one additional scale tone—either the B in Shape 1 or the D in Shape 2, we add a touch of radiance to the overall sound.

Alright, we’re now ready for Step 3.

Step 3: The Magical Arranging Technique

The third step to play magical piano is to apply a magical arranging technique to create various “popstinatos.” In music theory, the term ostinato describes a repeating musical figure or pattern. Therefore, Jonny coined the term popstinato to describe an ostinato that is strongly representative of contemporary pop music.

In order to create these popstinatos, we’ll begin by assigning a voice number to each note of our chord shapes. In this context, we’ll number the notes from the top down. Therefore, the top note in each shape is voice 1. Similarly, the second-from-top is voice 2, and so on. The following example visually illustrates this concept.

Magical Piano - Step 3

Now that we have a voice number assigned to each note of our magical chord shapes, we can easily experiment with various orderings of successive notes. For instance, a very simple example would be to apply a repeating 1–2–3–4 pattern. This would essentially cycle through the notes of each shape in descending order over and over. However, the popstinato patterns that we’ll actually use are a bit less predictable, which makes them sound more interesting.

Apply 3 Popstinato Patterns

The following table contains 3 unique popstinato patterns that are each 16 notes in length. Therefore, each pattern constitutes one measure of 16th notes in 4/4 time.

Magical Piano Popstinato Patterns

Let’s apply the Popstinato 1 pattern to each of our magical chord shapes to see how this arranging technique works. We’ll start with Shape 1, which is an 8-note sequence (3–4–3–2 | 4–3–1–4)  that repeats. Check it out…

Popstinato 1 – Magical Shape 1

Popstinato 1 - Shape 1 (RH)

Wow, that sounds amazing! It really does have a magical sound quality. Next, we’ll apply the same pattern to shape 2…

Popstinato 1 – Magical Shape 2

Popstinato 1 - Shape 2 (RH)

Although each of the examples above contain different notes, they exhibit a noticeably similar character. That’s because they have been generated using the same arranging technique—the Popstinato 1 pattern.


Let’s try another example. This time we’ll use the pattern for Popstinato 2, which is 1–2–1–2 | 3–4–1–2 | 1–2–3–4 | 1–2–3–4. Unlike Popstinato 1, Popstinato 2 does not have a symmetrical structure. In other words, beats 3 and 4 do not repeat the same note order as beats 1 and 2. Let’s take a listen Popstinato 2 applied to Shape 1…

Popstinato 2 – Magical Shape 1

Popstinato 2 - Shape 1 (RH)

Wow, another interesting magical sound. Let’s hear what Popstinato 2 sounds like over Shape 2…

Popstinato 2 – Magical Shape 2

Popstinato 2 - Shape 2 (RH)

Awesome! By now, you’re probably getting the hang of it, but we still have another pattern to explore.


Alright, let’s apply Popstinato 3 to Shape 1. The note order for this pattern is 4–3–4–3 | 1–3–4–3 | 4–3–4–3 | 2–3–4–3…

Popstinato 3 – Magical Shape 1

Popstinato 3 - Shape 1 (RH)

That sounds great too! And now, our final combination, Popstinato 3 over Shape 2…

Popstinato 3 – Magical Shape 2

Popstinato 3 - Shape 2 (RH)

Alright, now you’re ready to explore some left-hand patterns in Step 4.

Step 4: The Magical Left Hand Accompaniment

The fourth step to play magical piano music is to explore various left hand accompaniment textures. These left-hand patterns will add some low end to our score and supply additional harmonic context. In this section, we’ll explore 3 different left-hand options to accommodate players of all levels.

All of the left-hand parts outline the same chord progression: Ⅰ→Ⅳ→Ⅵm→Ⅴ. In C major, these chords are C→F→Am→G. However, Jonny has cleverly incorporated a few sus chords for a more contemporary sound. Therefore, our progression will be C5→Fsus2→Am→Gsus4. (Note: the chord symbol C5 is another way of indicating that the 3rd is omitted.)

Alright, let’s look at the beginner left-hand accompaniment…

Beginner

Magical Piano - Step 4 (Beginner)

These beginner left-hand chords provide just enough support for the right hand without adding too much additional complexity.

If you are a more experienced player, you can try the intermediate left-hand option below. This part contains some syncopation, which is not too difficult in and of itself. However, putting the hands together will require some hand independence. For now, let’s take a listen to the intermediate left-hand part by itself…

Intermediate

Magical Piano - Step 4 (Intermediate)

As you can see, the beginner and intermediate left-hand options are quite similar, except for the rhythms.

Now, let’s explore an accompaniment option for more advanced players. This pattern uses 10th intervals in the left hand for a richer and fuller sound. However, 10ths can be a stretch for some pianists. If you can’t reach the interval of a 10th, then you can simply roll the left-hand chords from the bottom up. Let’s take a listen…

Advanced

Magical Piano - Step 4 (Advanced)

As you can hear, those 10ths sound great! Alright, you’re ready for Step 5.

Step 5: Combining the Hands

The fifth and final step to play magical piano is to combine the hands. Keep in mind, we’ve considered 2 chord shapes, 3 popstinato patterns and 3 left hand options. Therefore, there a lot of different possibilities. In this section, we’ll examine some representative combinations for players of each level.

Beginner Examples

Let’s start by looking at how a beginner player might combine all of these different options. The example below combines the beginner left-hand accompaniment with Popstinato 3 over Shape 1. Let’s take a listen…

Popstinato 3 – Magical Shape 1

Magical Piano Step 5 (Beginner Level) | Popstinato 3 - Shape 1

That sounds great and should be pretty accessible to most students with a little practice. Now, let’s keep the beginner left hand and Popstinato 3, but this time we’ll use Shape 2…

Popstinato 3 – Magical Shape 2

Magical Piano Step 5 (Beginner Level) | Popstinato 3 - Shape 2

Alright, let’s take it up to the next level.


Intermediate Examples

If you are more of an intermediate level piano student, then the following magical piano textures are for you. First, we’ve combined the intermediate left-hand accompaniment with Popstinato 2 over Shape 1. Check it out…

Popstinato 2 – Magical Shape 1

Magical Piano Step 5 (Intermediate Level) | Popstinato 2 - Shape 1

Nice! Now let’s keep everything the same, except let’s substitute Shape 2 for Shape 1…

Popstinato 2 – Magical Shape 2

Magical Piano Step 5 (Intermediate Level) | Popstinato 2 - Shape 2

Nice job! Alright, now let’s explore some combinations for advanced players.


Advanced Examples

If you are an advanced pianist, here are some examples for you to try. First, we’ve combined the advanced left-hand accompaniment with Popstinato 1 over Shape 1. Check it out…

Popstinato 1 – Magical Shape 1

Magical Piano Step 5 (Advanced Level) | Popstinato 1 - Shape 1

Now that is a truly magical sound! Let’s listen to how this advanced left hand sounds with Popstinato 1 over Shape 2…

Popstinato 1 – Magical Shape 2

Magical Piano Step 5 (Advanced Level) | Popstinato 1 - Shape 2

That’s yet another fantastic sounding combination! Keep in mind that you can alternate between Shape 1 and Shape 2 to add a bit of variety into your magical piano score. As a matter of fact, you can also change the texture by switching popstinato patterns or changing the left-hand part. You can even invent your own popstinato patterns, which we’ll discuss in the next section.

How to Create Your Own Magical Piano Sound

When it comes to composing or improvising piano music with stylistic formulas, there is plenty of room for creativity. Therefore, you are certainly not limited to just the 3 popstinato patterns that we have presented here. Toward the end of today’s Quick Tip tutorial, Jonny shows 3 additional popstinato patterns that also sound great. In fact, one example even incorporates harmony notes into the popstinato pattern!

For even more ideas, check out our full-length course on Pop & Contemporary Piano Accompaniment: Popstinatos (Int/Adv). This course contains 16 additional popstinato patterns for you to explore!

If you enjoy the creative process, why not try coming up with your own original magical piano music? Using the 5 steps in this lesson as a template, consider experimenting with one or more of the following variables:

  • Different Chord Shapes (3-note shapes, 5-note shapes)
  • Different Popstinato Patterns
  • Different Diatonic Chord Progressions

As you can imagine, the sky is the limit!

(🎬 Cue magical music.)

Conclusion

Congratulations, you’ve completed today’s lesson on 5 Steps to Play Magical Piano. As a result, you now have a brand-new sound for your musical bag of tricks!

If you enjoyed this lesson, then you’ll love the following PWJ resources:

 

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

 

 

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Writer
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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