6 Essential Passing Chords For Pop Piano

Instructor
Jonny May
Quick Tip
Level 2
18:02

Learning Focus
  • Accompanying
  • Analysis
  • Chords
  • Reharmonization
Music Style
  • Pop

Good versus evil. Eventually, good wins. Boy meets girl. Eventually, they fall in love. These are the fundamental storylines of many of the stories we love. So why do we watch and read them? Because we love the journey! The twists and turns. The transitions, developments, arrival, etc. Music is much the same: most of the underlying fundamental chord progressions are very similar. It’s the journey and transitional material where the interest lies. That is where learning passing chords for pop piano comes in!

Most pop piano players in the beginning simply go from basic chord to another basic chord for the entire chord progression. This creates a very dull and plain sound that many listeners will find uninspiring (like our basic storylines, they’ve heard it many times). That’s why we need to spice things up with passing chords and reharmonizations to really make our pop chords pop, whether arranging covers for piano or in writing for our original music.

In this lesson, we are going to take a simple melody and chord progression called “Happy Days,” and add 6 types of passing chords for pop piano.

You’ll learn:

  • The melody of a pop song and analysis of its basic fundamental chords
  • Increasing motion and direction in-between chords using secondary dominant passing chords
  • How inversions act as a glue in many ways to connect different chords
  • Introducing a minor sound on certain chords to keep the flow going
  • Reharmonizing dominant chords with sus chords for rich color

These are extremely valuable tools for any musical style.

Excited? Let’s dive in!

Learn The Basic Pop Melody and Chord Progression

Here are the melody and chord progression to the pop song we’ll be using in this lesson:

Basic melody and chords without passing chords for pop piano
Basic melody and chords without passing chords for pop piano

The first step, as with any song or chord progression,  would be to learn and play it until it feels easy.

Now, before we can spice it up with passing chords and such, we want to first know and understand the fundamental chord progression so we what we’re working with. To do this, we analyze each chord with roman numerals based on the song’s key and scale. In this case, the key of C major:

Basic Melody and chords for pop piano with roman numeral analysis based on the key of C
Basic Melody and chords for pop piano with roman numeral analysis based on the key of C

These roman numerals essentially provide for us a code(instead of random chords one after another). Not only can we use this code to play the chord progression in other keys but we can gather the general “roles” of each chord in the music. Then we’ll know much better our options are for adding interesting passing chords and reharmonizations!

If you don’t know yet your diatonic chords, their roles in music, or roman numeral analysis then check out our Key of C Major course and our Beginner Piano Foundations Learning Track (Part 1, Part 2).

Passing Chord #1: Secondary Dominant Chords in Second Inversion

Don’t be afraid of that name, it’s much easier than it sounds. Check out the version of “Happy Days” with all the passing chords and reharmonizations. You’ll see circled all the instances of passing chord #1:

Melody and chords now with pop piano passing chords, the first type being secondary dominants in second inversion (circled above)
Melody and chords now with pop piano passing chords, the first type being secondary dominants in second inversion (circled above)

There are two great concepts at play here that make it a perfect passing chord. Secondary dominants and use of chord inversion. Let’s briefly discuss each. We’ll discuss the first one in this section and the second in the next.

Chord progressions are kind of like playing with magnets of varying strengths. For example, while many chords have a “pull” towards one another, the strongest magnet we know is the V7(dominant)-I chord progression. But why should this intense “pull” be limited to just the V and I of the key?

This is the concept behind secondary dominants. They are intensifiers that can create a greater pull from any chord you’re currently playing and any following chord. This is done by using inserting the dominant of the destination chord in between a chord you’re on and the next chord you’re heading to. Check out the  difference in”pulling” power or intensity of the two chords, with and without a secondary dominant:

Comparison of the strength of a chord progression without a passing secondary dominant chord(left) and with a passing secondary dominant chord for piano(right)
Comparison of the strength of a chord progression without a passing secondary dominant chord(left) and with a passing secondary dominant chord for piano(right)

As you can see we had a C major to A minor, which sounds nice already. But then we threw in the dominant of A minor (E7) in between C and A minor (the secondary dominant). Quite a difference in the intensity, right? Adding secondary dominants is like adding a much more intense magnet that pulls you to the next chord!

As you can see, to do this well you would need to know all your dominant 7th chords and the V of each of key/chord. You can learn this in our Dominant 7th Chord Theory and Application in the Intermediate Piano Foundations Learning Track.

Passing Chord #2: Secondary Dominant Chords in First Inversion

Using an E7 secondary dominant chord in first inversion as a passing chord between G major and A minor for pop piano
Using an E7 secondary dominant chord in first inversion as a passing chord between G major and A minor for pop piano

This passing chord is also a secondary dominant, but it uses a different inversion than the first. If you haven’t learned all your inversions check out major and minor chord inversions and the dominant 7th chord exercises. 

So why are we using inversions instead of just root position chords here? There are 2 primary reasons:

The first being that root position chords in general sound very strong and emphasized.  Playing all root position chords is like having every scene in a movie be as equally as dramatic as the last. This might work in certain contexts, but when used too much it actually decreases the dramatic effect the root position chords create.

Especially in the context of passing chords when we want the destination chord to stand out more than the passing chord, we use an inverted passing chord instead of a root position one. This softens the intensity of the passing chords while still having some of that increased “pull” to the destination chord from the secondary dominant. Check out the difference below  between root position and inverted secondary dominant chords:

Comparison of the first bar of the chord progression with passing chords with root position secondary dominants(left) and inverted secondary dominants(right)
Comparison of the first bar of the chord progression with passing chords with root position secondary dominants(left) and inverted secondary dominants(right)

Second, notice the bassline that we create with the inversions below (notated with slash chords above the staff):

Using passing chords with inversions can create a beautiful smooth bassline
Using passing chords with inversions can create a beautiful smooth bassline

These types of inversions for the passing chords are selected because of the nice connected melody the bass plays down below. This connects the ideas much more than a bassline that jumps around everywhere.

For these two reasons, inversions act more like a “glue” between chords rather than calling attention to themselves!

Passing Chord #3: Inverted Diatonic Chords

There is one example of this in our song here:

Using an inverted diatonic chord as a passing chord for pop piano
Using an inverted diatonic chord as a passing chord for pop piano

This is generally the simplest type of passing chord for pop piano. You simply make a melodic bassline and harmonize it with a diatonic chord that sounds nice.

This is a similar concept to the last one but it’s simply more of a “glue.” It doesn’t intensify the pull as does a secondary dominant passing chord.

Passing Chord #4: Borrowing From Minor

Check out this passage here:

Passing chord that borrows from the minor scale, a ii diminished chord
Passing chord that borrows from the minor scale, a ii diminished chord

That D diminished following the D minor is actually borrowed from C minor. We generally can interchange chords from major and minor versions of the scale. Remember though, it can be quite a sudden shift in sound to the listener if not done carefully.

Take a look below at the middle line this passing chord creates:

Borrowing from minor on this chord creates a nice, smooth, and melodic middle line
Borrowing from minor on this chord creates a nice, smooth, and melodic middle line

This chromatic line smoothly connects our D minor to our D diminished and then later follows to the G chord. Following the same principle as inversions, this melodic line also acts as a “glue” that connects the two chords!

Passing Chord #5: Inverting the Original Chords

These last two can be considered either passing tones or reharmonizations of the chord progression.

Check out the subtle difference in the character of the last two bars of the original chords versus our more advanced version with passing chords:

Basic version ending with root position chords
Basic version ending with root position chords

Advanced ending with reharmonization using an inverted ii (D7) chord on beat 1
Advanced ending with reharmonization using an inverted ii (D7) chord on beat 1

As you can see we inverted the D7 chord. As discussed earlier, this decreases some of the strength of the chord but allows for a nice stepwise melody in the bass. The 3rd of the D7 resolves nicely into the root of the G7 chord.

Just simply playing with inversions of the original chords can really make for nice sounding chords and passing chords for pop piano.

This is also a great technique for pop piano accompaniment. If you want a deeper dive into that then check out Pop & Contemporary Accompaniment Patterns (Beginner/Intermediate, Intermediate/ Advanced).

Passing Chord #6: Sus Chords

Using sus chords for reharmonizing dominant chords and creating more motion
Using sus chords for reharmonizing dominant chords and creating more motion

If we raise our third of a dominant 7th chord up a half step, we get a dominant 7th sus chord. This creates a beautiful floaty sound that generally wants to pull that 3rd down back down into its place:

The sus note of the sus chord (the raised 3rd) wants to resolve back down to its normal place (the natural 3rd)
The sus note of the sus chord (the raised 3rd) wants to resolve back down to its normal place (the natural 3rd)

Sus chords are always a nice technique to use on dominant 7th chords to keep the chord progression moving and propelling forward.

Summing It All Up

I hope you’ve enjoyed this lesson on passing chords for pop piano. Be sure to take these concepts and apply them to as many chord progressions and songs as you can.

If you want a deeper dive into the pop piano, passing chords, reharmonization, and more, check out some of the following courses:

Thanks for reading this Quick Tip, see you in the next one!

Blog written by Daine Jordan/Quick Tip by Jonny May

Free Lessons

Get free weekly lessons to your inbox!

More Free Lessons

Do you want to improve your speed, strength, & control at piano? In this lesson, you'll learn a beautiful, musical exercise you can practice every day.

Would you like to play better-sounding chords? In this lesson, you'll learn to play rich major and minor chords on piano using magic chord shapes.

Do you have gaps in your music theory? This definitive guide to piano chords covers triads, 7th chords, 6th chords, extensions, alterations and more!

Looking for downloads?

Subscribe to a membership plan for full access to this Quick Tip's sheet music and backing tracks!

Start Your Free Trial

Join Us

The Piano With Jonny Membership


Guided Learning Tracks

View guided learning tracks for all music styles and skill levels

Progress Tracking

Complete lessons and courses as you track your learning progress

Downloadable Resources

Download Sheet Music and Backing Tracks

Community Forums

Engage with other PWJ members in our member-only community forums

Become a better piano player today. Try us out completely free for 14 days!

Get Started