5 Tips on Piano Accompaniment for Singers

John Proulx
Quick Tip
Level 2

Learning Focus
  • Accompanying
  • Songs
Music Style
  • Jazz Ballads
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Most experienced piano accompanists have gathered a few scars in their line of work. Usually, they are just embarrassing emotional scars such as a vocalist’s sharp glare or obnoxious finger snap letting you (and the audience) know that your tempo is off. Unfortunately, not all trauma in piano accompaniment with singers can be avoided. If fact, becoming an accompanist is a little bit like becoming a parent— you’re never really “ready” to become one. It’s a role that you grow into. Fortunately, they both get easier the more you do them and no one remembers your early mistakes besides you. However, there are some best practices that can certainly reduce your chance of scars from piano accompaniment for singers. That’s what today’s lesson is all about. You’ll learn:

  1. Set Up Chords for Pick Up Notes
  2. Long Held Notes—Adding Tension & Release and Fills
  3. Movings Inner Voices with Chord Substitutions
  4. Properly Harmonizing a 4-3 Suspension the in Melody
  5. Add Sequential Melody on 3-6-2-5 Turnaround Progression

If you want to keep your singers smiling, then be sure to apply these 5 tips for piano accompaniment.

Intro to Piano Accompaniment for Singers

In today’s Quick Tip, PWJ instructor John Proulx presents theory and application for 5 tips in piano accompaniment for singers. As both a vocalist and pianist himself, John possesses a special ability to convey how accompanists can best support vocal performers.

The lesson material for today’s lesson draws on the A section of the classic jazz standard, “Misty,” composed by Erroll Garner. John presents each of the 5 piano accompaniment tips for singers over different excerpts of the A section. In fact, the 5 excerpts combined cover the A section in its entirety. In addition, the Quick Tip lesson concludes with a performance demonstration of the entire tune.

The lesson sheet is in the key of E♭ and is downloadable from the bottom of this page after logging in with your membership. You can also easily transpose the lesson material to any other key using our Smart Sheet Music.

Basic Chords for Misty in E♭

To begin, let’s review the root position diatonic 7th chords in E♭ Major.

Eb Major Diatonic Chords
Root Position Diatonic 7th Chords in E♭ Major.

If the key of E♭ is less familiar to you, be sure to check out our Key of E♭ (Level 1) course.

The notation below presents the basic chords for the A section of “Misty” using 7th chords in root position and inversions to allow for smooth voice leading. Notice that some of these chords are from outside of the key of E♭. Therefore, the harmonic analysis is provided to indicate the function of each chord.

Misty A Section w Analysis
Chords for A section of jazz standard “Misty” by Erroll Garner.

Now that you have the general harmonic outline, let’s dive in to our first tip on piano accompaniment for singers.

Tip 1: Set Up the Singer with a Piano Chord That Fits the Melody

Sometimes, piano accompanists select chord voicings based on their musical interests or personal sound. However, it’s important as an accompanist that your piano voicings support the melody. This is especially true of pick up notes as in Misty’s famous opening line—“Look at me.”

This opening melody outlines a descending G minor triad in 2nd inversion (B♭–G–D). However, the first two notes are pick up notes that occur over the V chord (B♭7). This is a perfect example in which pianists must think collaboratively. While many jazz piano students view dominant chords in song intros as the perfect place to show off their favorite altered dominant sounds, this isn’t the best approach. That B♭7(♯9♭13) that you’ve been practicing just may not be the best choice here. For example, that chord from bottom up is B♭–A♭–C♯–D–G♭. While the ♭13 (G♭) sounds cool, it’s not going to help your vocalist hit that G♮ in the melody.

Instead, the prep chord you choose should contain the notes B♭ and G from the pick up notes in the melody. Therefore, B♭13(♭9) is a much better choice. This can be played B♭–A♭–B♮–D–G. Check out the following example.

Piano Accompaniment for Singers Example 1: Preparing Pick Up Notes

Tip 1 on Piano Accompaniment for Singers Misty Jazz Standard
Tip 1: Set up the singer with a chord that fits the melody pick up notes. Here, B♭13(♭9) prepares the vocalist to hear the pitches for Misty’s opening line…♪♪“Look at…”♪♪

Note: John also recommends playing the singer’s first note (B♭) in octaves in the upper register as a final handoff (not pictured above).

Resources for Additional Set Up Chords

By the way, a song intro technique that uses an arpeggiated prep chord like this is called an opening run. You can learn to master additional examples of this technique in our course Jazz Intro and Outro Runs (Levels 2 & 3).

If you want to learn more about which extensions and alterations you can add to a chord, check our our Piano Chord Extensions (Level 2) and Piano Chord Alterations (Level 2) courses.

Now let’s continue by looking at another tip on piano accompaniment for singers.

Tip 2: Use Tension & Release or Fills on Held Notes

A second consideration in piano accompaniment for singers is to be aware of held notes in the melody. These are appropriate opportunities for you to add artistic touches in the accompaniment.

“Your accompaniment should just be in the spaces, but then let the melody soar.” —John Proulx

Piano Accompaniment for Singers Example 2a: Tension & Release on Tonic

For example, in the first full measure of the tune, the singer has a long tone on the word “me” on the note D (see below). In fact, it’s always important to be aware of which chord tone is in the melody, as this will affect your embellishment options. In this case, D is the major 7th of  E♭▵7. Furthermore, this is the tonic chord. This presents the opportunity to delay the arrival of the tonic chord with a fully-diminished 7th chord built on the tonic note. In other words, instead of going straight from our B♭13(♭9) in the previous example to E♭▵7, we can play: B♭13(♭9) → E♭º7 E♭▵7. The example below demonstrates this technique.

Tip 2a—Dim Chord over 1 Chord
Tip 2a: Create tension & release on held notes by delaying the arrival of the tonic chord with a fully diminished chord.

Piano Accompaniment for Singers Example 2b: Tension & Release on Dominant

What if you want to add tension and release on a dominant chord? The next measure of the tune contains a 2-5-1 in A♭ and presents this opportunity. The corresponding chords are B♭m7 → E♭7 → A♭▵7.  The following example demonstrates how we can delay the arrival of the dominant chord (E♭7) by preceding it with a dominant sus chord (E♭13 sus4). In fact, we can also add tension over the 2-chord by moving from B♭m7 to B♭m(maj7). Check it out:

Tip 2b: Tension & Release On Dominant
Tip 2b: Create tension & release on dominant chords by adding IIm(maj7) and V7(sus4).

Piano Accompaniment for Singers Example 2c: Adding Fills

In the next measure, John chooses to add some melodic movement on the A♭ major chord. This is the IV chord in E♭, however it has been preceded by its II chord and V chord via tonicization so there is a sense of arrival here. However, this is another instance in which the vocalist has a held note. Therefore, John uses this opportunity to encircle the note A♭in the inner voice with its upper and lower neighbor notes. This melodic device is called a 2-1 suspension, in which B♭ is the 2 and A♭ is the 1. However, the term 9-8 suspension is also common. The lower neighbor (G) serves to embellish this melodic device.

Tip 2c: Melodic Fill encircle notes 2-1 suspension neighbor notes enclosure
Tip 2c: When playing piano accompaniment for singers, add melodic fills on held notes such as this embellished 2-1 suspension. 

Tip 3: Add Moving Inner Voices with Chord Substitution

A third tip on piano accompaniment for singers is to use chord substitution to add moving inner voices. For example, the traditional chords for the next two measures of “Misty” are shown below.

Tip 3—Basic Chords
Basic chords for measures 4 and 5 of Erroll Garner’s “Misty.”

This is a part of the tune is which the melody is fairly active so we don’t want our accompaniment to sound busy here. You can certainly play the chords as is. However, creating inner voices with chord substitution is a balanced approach for these two measure. This will add color and interest without competing with the melody. Consider John’s reharmonization below.

Piano Accompaniment for Singers Example 3: Inner Voices with Chord Subs

Tip 3—Inner Voice Movement with Chord Substitution Piano Accompaniment for Singers
Tip 3: Adding moving inner voices with chord substitution adds color and interest without competing with the melody.

How does this work? In the first measure, John precedes the IVm7 chord with a IVm(maj7) chord. This is common way to add inner voice movement on minor 7th chords. Then, in the following measure, John swaps out the I▵7 chord for a III13. As he mentions in the lesson video, IIIm7 is a common chord substitution for I▵7. However, in this case, John has added further reharmonization. By making the 3-chord a dominant quality, it is acting as the V13 of VI. Then, John adds inner voice movement by following this G13 chord with a G7(♭13). Finally, John adds another 2-1 suspension upon the arrival of the C minor chord. This is accomplished by moving from Cm9 to a C minor triad. The overall affect makes for a unique and tasteful piano accompaniment which singers will love.

Tip 4: Properly Harmonizing a 4-3 Suspension the in Melody

Another tip in piano accompaniment for singers is to be aware of suspensions that occur in the melody. In the next bar of “Misty,” the melody over the B♭7 contains ascending stepwise movement from D to E♭ to F. This movement is from the 3rd to the 4th to the 5th with respect to the chord. Since both the 3rd and the 4th are present in the melody, should you play a regular B♭7 or a B♭7(sus4)? Before we look at Johns’s solution for harmonizing this melody, let’s review a basic 4-3 suspension.

What is a 4-3 Suspension?

A 4-3 suspension is a compositional device in which a dissonance of a 4th above the bass occurs on a strong beat and resolves to a 3rd on a weak beat.

The example below shows a 4-3 suspension moving from B♭7(sus4) to B♭7. The suspension is prepared with an Fm7 and resolves to an E♭6.

Traditional 4-3 Suspension
Traditional 4-3 suspension in melody.

The melody of “Misty” does not follow the exact shape of a traditional 4-3 suspension, but it still must be handled thoughtfully. The following example demonstrates a careless piano accompaniment of this melodic line.

Improper 4-3 suspension in piano accompaniment for singers
Example of piano accompaniment with dissonance caused by careless treatment of the 4th (E♭) in the melody.

John solves this challenge by harmonizing each melody note individually.

Piano Accompaniment for Singers Example 4: Careful Awareness of Melody

Tip 4—Proper 4-3 Suspension in piano accompaniment for singers
Tip 4: When playing piano accompaniment for singers, be aware of suspensions in the melody and treat with proper harmonization.

Well done. Now let’s consider a final tip in piano accompaniment for singers.

Tip 5: Add Sequential Melody on 3-6-2-5 Turnaround

In the next two measures of “Misty,” the singer has a long melody note over a modified turnaround progression. The chords for this turnaround progression are 3-6-2-5. This chord progression creates the opportunity for a special melodic device called a sequence. 

What is a sequence in music?

A sequence in music is a compositional device that repeats a melodic figure or a series of chord relationships from different starting pitches.

In fact, a 3-6-2-5 chord progression is a harmonic sequence. Consider the movement from a 3-chord to a 6-chord. This movement is up a fourth. Likewise, the movement from a 2-chord to a 5-chord is also up a fourth. Therefore, the 3-6-2-5 chord progression repeats root movement in ascending fourths from starting points that are a whole step apart. The listener hears these chord relationships as a form of repetition.

Since this 3-6-2-5 chord progression contains a harmonic sequence, this is a great opportunity to play a fill that features a melodic sequence. In the final example below, notice that John repeats the same melodic figure from different starting pitches over the 3-6-2-5 chord progression.

Piano Accompaniment for Singers Example 5: Melodic & Harmonic Sequence

Tip 5—Add Sequential Melody on 3-6-2-5 Turnaround
Tip 5: Add a melodic sequence over a 3-6-2-5 turnaround progression.


Congratulations, you’ve completed today’s lesson exploring “Misty” using 5 tips on piano accompaniment for singers. For additional resources on piano accompaniment, check out the following courses:

Thanks for joining us today! We’ll see you again soon.


Blog written by Michael LaDisa / Quick Tip by John Proulx

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