6 Steps to Play Relaxing Piano
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Have you ever noticed that there is a strong correlation between relaxation and music? In fact, the piano in particular is one of the most popular solo instruments that listeners choose for meditation, casual listening and unwinding. In today’s Quick Tip, 6 Steps to Play Relaxing Piano, John Proulx teaches students how to easily create serene piano soundscapes. You’ll learn:
- Intro to Relaxing Piano Music
- Examples of Relaxing Piano Music
- Characteristics of Peaceful Piano Music for Relaxing & Meditation
- How to Play Relaxing Piano Music in 6 Steps
Given the soul-soothing effects of relaxing piano music, we can just about guarantee that someone will appreciate you for digging into today’s lesson. However, the first person to receive the relaxing benefits will actually be you!
Relaxing piano music isn’t a musical genre in and of itself, but the phrase has wide popularity in the music streaming industry on platforms like Spotify, Apple Music, and Amazon Music. Even though listeners may find relaxation in various genres of piano music—including classical, jazz and pop—usually, the genre most commonly associated with relaxing piano is new age music.
New age music is a broad term applied to music that promotes tranquility, meditation, healing, relaxation and optimism. While early usage of the term “new age” emerged in the 1960s and 70s, the trend of marketing new age music as a genre gained popularity in the 1980s. In particular, Windham Hill Records, established in 1976 by guitarist Will Ackerman, became popular for producing instrumental acoustic music that combined elements of classical, jazz, pop, folk and bluegrass.
“In 1980, Windham Hill Records released George Winston’s Autumn, which became a huge hit. Windham Hill became the most successful new age label and the solo piano became the new age instrument of choice.”
—Todd Lowry, pianist and author
In 1987, the Grammy Awards created a new category for Best New Age Album, which was awarded to Swiss harpist Andreas Vollenweider for Down to the Moon. Then, in 1988, Billboard magazine followed suit, creating a chart to track the popularity of new age albums.
Ironically, the “new age” categorization that had emerged did not have many unifying musical characteristics. Instead, albums were classified as “new age” if they were created for the purpose of promoting mindfulness and relaxation. In fact, many new age albums prominently featured nature sounds combined with either acoustic or electronic instruments. By the 1990s, new age music had developed negative connotations as a genre characterized by blandness that was marketed by record company executives for easy profits. In response, some artists tried to distance themselves and their music from the new age designation.
In modern times, artists who continue to create music that exemplifies the optimistic characteristics of new age music before its public decline tend to prefer the term contemporary instrumental music. Similarly, the music of pianists in particular is frequently described as contemporary solo piano. However, in most cases, the term new age music has stuck.
Depending on the specific musical characteristics, other names for new age music may include:
- instrumental folk music
- electroacoustic music
- minimalist music
- ambient music
- Celtic music
- easy listening
By contrast, modern streaming platforms aren’t bound physical bins or racks for displaying records and CDs as in previous generations. Oftentimes, listeners browse contemporary solo piano music in playlists with catchy titles that evoke a particular mood, including:
- peaceful piano
- atmospheric piano
- sleep piano
- soft piano
- focus piano
- coffee and piano
- chill piano
- lofi piano
- piano vibes
Next, we’ll listen to some examples of the relaxing piano music that you might discover under any of the categories listed above.
Some of the most popular artists that have recorded contemporary solo piano music include George Winston, David Lanz, Jim Brickman, Ludovico Einaudi, Kevin Kern, Lorie Line, Yiruma, Scott D. Davis, Jon Schmidt and Liz Story. The following examples contain many of the contemporary solo piano techniques that we’ll explore later in this lesson.
“Sundial Dreams” (1996)
“I Giorni” (2001)
In the next section, we’ll examine the musical elements that contribute to this relaxing piano sound.
While each of these artists that we’ve mentioned are unique, they collectively represent a mainstream school of contemporary solo piano composers and performers with calming musical characteristics. In general, this music contains the following four musical elements: (1) major & minor chords, (2) flowing left-hand patterns, (3) tranquil tempos & dynamics, and (4) pensive melodies.
1. Major & Minor Chords
One of the distinctive traits of calming music is minimal and controlled use of dissonance. In music, the term dissonance refers to intervals or chords that sound jarring, discordant or unresolved. For example, intervals such as a minor 9th (an octave + a ½ step, as in C to D♭), or a tritone (three whole steps, as in F to B) have brittle sonic properties. By comparison, major 3rds, minor 3rds, major 6ths and minor 6ths are much more consonant, or pleasing to the ear. Therefore, new age composers prefer chords that contain consonant intervals. Consequently, new age music features lots of major and minor chords.
However, this doesn’t necessarily mean that new age music is comprised entirely of major and minor triads. Instead, new age composers incorporate harmonic variety by adding color tones such as add2 chords, sus chords, major 6th chords, major 7th chords, minor 7th chords, major 9th chords and minor 9th chords.
Another way that new age composers introduce harmonic variety is by occasionally including major and minor triads that are borrowed chords from related keys.
Later in this lesson, we’ll examine examples of relaxing piano music that incorporates many of these harmonic concepts with beautiful simplicity.
2. Flowing Left Hand Patterns
Another common characteristic of contemporary solo piano music is flowing left hand accompaniment patterns. These patterns often use the damper pedal in conjunction with 8th notes or 16th notes to give the music a smooth, soothing texture. In fact, we’ll play an example of a flowing left-hand pattern when we get to Step 2 in this lesson.
3. Tranquil Tempos & Dynamics
Contemporary solo piano music is often characterized by minimalism or understatement. This quality helps to create a calming sensation. As such, it is rare to find robust tempos and forceful dynamics in new age music. Instead, slow and moderate tempos are the norm. Similarly, soft and medium dynamics are used to promote a relaxing or contemplative mood.
4. Pensive Melodies
New age melodies are marked by a simple, pensive quality. Rhythmically speaking, this is accomplished by using long tones and rests to create lots of space. Faster durations also occur, often as a means to ornament or prepare long tones, giving the melodies a romantic quality.
Tonally speaking, new age composers are particularly fond of pentatonic scales which lack half-steps. In addition, major scales and minor scales are also common. Frequently, new age composers will select specific chord shapes from within the major scale that elicit a dreamy effect.
In the next section, you’ll discover how to create all of the relaxing piano qualities we’ve just described!
Now that you know about the history and musical characteristics of contemporary solo piano music, let’s discover how to build a relaxing piano arrangement from scratch. In today’s featured Quick Tip video, John Proulx provides 6 Steps to Play Relaxing 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. You can also easily transpose this lesson to any key using our Smart Sheet Music.
Alright, let’s check out the first step.
Step 1: Simple Chord Progression
The first step to creating relaxing piano music is to start with a simple chord progression. For example, the following progression in the key of C major uses mostly major and minor chords. An exception to this is the G(sus4) in measure 8. Also, notice that the B♭ major chord in measure 7 constitutes an example of a borrowed chord.
Now you’re ready for Step 2.
Step 2: Apply Relaxing Piano Left Hand Pattern
The second step to creating relaxing piano music is to apply a flowing accompaniment pattern in the left hand. Here is an example of the same chord progression from Step 1 arranged with a flowing 8th note pattern. Notice, this broken chord pattern outlines the harmony with a shape that can be described as “low-middle-high-middle-high-middle-high-middle.” If you look closely, however, you’ll notice that not all of the “high” notes are the same. Instead, John has built in some beautiful countermelodies into this accompaniment that highlight added color notes such as the “add 2” or even the major 7th in measure 4.
To explore more contemporary piano accompaniment patterns, check out our course on Pop & Contemporary Accompaniment Patterns (Beg/Int, Int/Adv).
Now, let’s continue to Step 3 where we’ll introduce a melody.
Step 3: Add Simply Melody
The third step to create relaxing piano music is to add a simple melody. Here, we have a beautiful melody composed primarily with half notes and quarter notes. This melody draws on the C major scale and uses a two-measure motive that repeats with minimal variation. Notice that the melody is orchestrated in the upper register of the piano to give it an extra tender effect.
In the next section, we’ll add an additional note in the right hand to create some delicate harmony.
Step 4: Harmonize Melody with Consonant Intervals
Once you have your basic melody and accompaniment, now you’re ready to add some harmony notes. To do so, we’ll add a consonant interval below the melody note that supports the chord symbol. In other words, the note you add should be in the chord. However, if the melody contains a passing tone (like the note D in measure one), then the harmony note can also be a passing tone (like the harmony note F in measure one).
The most consonant intervals to consider are perfect 5ths, perfect 4ths, major 3rds, minor 3rds, major 6ths and minor 6ths. In particular, major and minor 6ths sound especially pretty in contemporary solo piano music. In fact, John Proulx’s harmonization draws heavily on the sound of 6th intervals, with just a few exceptions. You might notice that John has modified his original melody slightly in measure 7. Yet, this change occurs in such a way as to preserve the overall melodic character.
Step 5: Add Melodic Variation
To extend the length of your relaxing piano composition, you’ll need to add some melodic variation. Here, John uses the simple melody from Step 3 as a skeleton on which he hangs 16th note ornaments.
Step 6: Open 5th Relaxing Piano Accompaniment
The final step in today’s lesson is to explore an alternate accompaniment texture. This can be used as an intro, an outro or to accompany an instrumental soloist, such as a violin or flute.
John calls this accompaniment “The Rose Pattern” because it’s modeled after the piano part from Bette Midler’s Grammy Awarding winning song, “The Rose,” from the 1979 film by the same name…also starring Bette Midler. The tune was composed by Amanda McBroom, who sings the background vocals on the recording.
To form this accompaniment, first play open 5ths (root + 5th) in the left hand. However, when you encounter a slash chord, you’ll have to play a 6th interval instead. Next, we’ll create a rocking 8th note pattern in the right hand centered around a persistent G in the right thumb.
Congratulations, you’ve completed today’s lesson on 6 Steps to Play Relaxing Piano. With the skills you’ve learned in today’s lesson, you’re ready to record your own playlist of relaxing piano music.
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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Lowry, Todd. New Age Piano: The Complete Guide with CD. Hal Leonard Corp, 2013.
Coffey, Dan. “New Age Music.” Encyclopedia.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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