Jonny May
Quick Tip

Learning Focus
  • Lead Sheets
  • Reading
  • Songs
Music Style
  • Jazz Swing
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Do you want to learn to play solo piano in the jazz swing style? In today’s lesson, we’ll show you how you can play “Fly Me to the Moon” in a jazz swing piano style even as a beginner! There are three basic steps to getting a good swing feel. First, learn to play and interpret the melody with a swing feel. Secondly, accompany the melody using diatonic 7th chords. Lastly, apply a swing pattern to your left hand. You can use these three steps to create solo piano arrangements for dozens of swing tunes in your Real Book. Using “Fly Me to the Moon” as an example, we’ll break down each step of the jazz swing style on piano for the complete beginner including:

  • Swinging the Melody
  • Understanding the Chord Symbols
  • Identifying the Guide Tones of Each Chord
  • Applying a Swing Groove

Let’s take a closer look.

Beginner Piano Tips for the Melody on “Fly Me to the Moon”

Before we begin, be sure to download the lesson sheet for today’s lesson. We will refer to it throughout this lesson. The lesson sheet appears at the bottom of this page after logging in with your membership.

In Step 1 on the lesson sheet, you have a very typical setting of “Fly Me to the Moon” in lead sheet notation format. Lead sheet notation is the most common format used for notating jazz standards. Lead sheet notation includes the melody (usually in treble clef) and chord symbols written above the staff. Notice that the melody is written almost entirely in quarter notes and everything is “on the beat.” If you want to faithfully create an authentic swing style, you will have to play the melody with more playful swing rhythms.

Understanding Lead Sheet Notation

So why isn’t the melody written with swing rhythms in the first place? This is a great question! The answer is that lead sheet notation serves a different purpose than the grand staff piano notation so common to classical piano literature. In classical piano literature, the score represents the composers intentions which the performer must faithfully present. Generally speaking, the performer will perform the piece in the same way for every performance and take few liberties beyond those indicated in the score. In a sense, grand staff notation is like riding on a train and the score is the train tracks.

On the other hand, lead sheet notation is much more like a map. Maps represents the terrain of a city, but the user must interpret the map based on their travel needs. The same map can be used again and again to navigate to multiple destinations. The lead sheet only supplies the timeless essence of the tune—the melody and harmony. It is up to the performer to supply the stylistic interpretation.

As you grow as a pianist, you will interpret your lead sheets with more advanced chords and rhythms. As a beginner piano student, the way you play “Fly Me to the Moon” today is not the same as how you will play it a year from now. However, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t get started now. Taking the first step to play the tune using beginner jazz piano techniques is essential to learning to read and interpret lead sheet notation.

Swinging the Fly Me to the Moon Melody

It’s important to recognize that jazz is an aural art form. Even though the melody appears mostly in quarter notes, think of this as a broad, “catch all” representation of the melody as performed by various performers. The question is, how should you perform it? The best piece of advice is to listen to how other have performed it. Here are a few versions for you to check out:

By listening to performances of “Fly Me to the Moon” by jazz legends, you will develop the intuition needed to swing the melody instinctively. It’s important to note that as an improvisatory style, it is common to swing the same melody in different ways on each pass. However, there are some general principles.

Anticipating the Downbeat

One common stylistic convention of the jazz swing style is to anticipate the downbeat. For example, performers will commonly shift a quarter note occurring on beat 1 to the “and of 4” of the previous measure.

Quarter note melody in rhythmic notation
Rhythmic notation representing quarter note melody

Rhythmic notation anticipating the downbeat swing convention
Anticipating the downbeat show in rhythmic notation

Dotted Quarter Note + Eighth Note Rhythm

The dotted quarter note + eight note rhythm is a staple rhythm of the swing era. James P. Johnson’s 1920’s swing mega hit “The Charleston” prominently features this rhythm. Consequently, this rhythm is often called The Charleston Groove or The Charleston Rhythm. Sometimes, the eighth note is tied to a longer duration as in the second measure below.

Dotted Quarter Note + Eighth Note swing rhythm for fly me to the moon beginner piano
Examples of dotted quarter note + eighth note swing rhythm (aka: “The Charleston Groove”)

There are many opportunities to apply the dotted quarter note + eighth note Charleston Rhythm to the repetitive quarter note melody of “Fly Me to the Moon” shown on the lead sheet. For example, in the excerpt below, the dotted quarter + eighth note rhythm is applied to the downbeat of measure two in conjunction with the anticipation previously described in measure 1. Additionally, the Charleston Rhythm appears again in measure 3 and the whole note of measure 4 features an anticipation.

Swing Rhythms Applied to Lead Sheet of Fly Me To The Moon for Beginner Piano Student
Swing rhythms applied to lead sheet

Many beginner jazz piano students feel shy or uncomfortable departing from the rhythms on the lead sheet. However, just the opposite is necessary. As a beginner jazz piano student, your should explore multiple ways to rhythmically vary the melody of “Fly Me to the Moon.” Initially, it is best to practice swinging the melody with a metronome or backing track to ensure you are maintaining solid time. This lesson comes with three downloadable backing tracks that appear on the bottom of this page after logging in with your membership. You can also transpose this lesson to any key with a single click using our Smart Sheet Music.

For more examples on how to swing the melody from a lead sheet in the jazz swing style, check out our course on Autumn Leaves Jazz Swing 1—Lesson 1.

“Fly Me to the Moon” Beginner Piano Chords

Now that you have learned the melody to “Fly Me to the Moon” and how to apply a swing feel, you’ll want to add in some beginner piano chords in the left hand. Initially, we’ll begin by playing diatonic 7th chords in root position.

What are Diatonic 7th Chords?

Diatonic 7th chords are four-note chords consisting of a root, 3rd, 5th, and 7th that occur naturally within the key signature. For example, in C Major, our diatonic 7th chords will only use white keys on the piano. In other words, diatonic chords use every other note of the scale above whatever root is in the chord symbol. The image below shows all the diatonic chords in C Major.

Diatonic 7th Chords in C Major for Fly Me to the Moon Beginner Piano
Diatonic 7th Chords in C Major

Adding these chords to the melody sounds like this. (Often times, pianists will play the melody an octave higher than shown on the lead sheet. This helps prevent the chords and melody from overlapping.)

Fly Me to the Moon melody with Diatonic 7th Chords for beginner piano
Accompanying the melody of “Fly Me the the Moon” with root position diatonic 7th chords for beginner piano

Borrowed Chords in “Fly Me to the Moon”

The are a few chords in “Fly Me to the Moon” that are not diatonic 7th chords. This means that these chords are not native to C Major. They are “borrowed” from related keys. For example, the chord E7 (E-G♯-B-D) appears in measure 7 on the lead sheet. This chord does not belong to C Major. This type of chord usage is called a secondary dominant. The E7 is the V7 chord from the key of A minor and it works because is resolves to an Am7, which is a diatonic 7th chord in C major. Similarly, the A7 (A-C♯-E-G) in measure 12 is also a secondary dominant that resolves to Dm7. You can learn more about secondary dominants in our course on Passing Chords & Reharmonization (Level 2, Level 3).

Identifying the Guide Tones of 7th Chords

The 3rd and 7th of a 7th chord are called its guide tones. These are the most important notes that define the chord quality. They also “guide” the resolution by resolving in a predictable manner that is pleasing to the ear. Specifically, the 7th generally resolves downward, although there are plenty of exceptions to this principle.

Many players refer to the chords’ guide tones as its chord shell. However, a chord shell is best understood more broadly to mean a 2 or 3 note simple chord voicing. A 3-note chord shell includes the guide tones plus the root. A 2-note chord shell can use any combination of root, 3rd and 7th. However, the term guide tones always refers to the 3rd and 7th of the chord. The term inverted guide tones refers to a voicing in which the 3rd of the chord is place above the 7th as in measures 1 and 3 of the example below.

This excerpt from our course on Play Piano Lead Sheets with Shells and Guide Tones features the root and guide tones in the left hand. This example is based on “Fly Me to the Moon,” however the melody has been altered due to publisher’s restrictions.

Play Piano Lead Sheets with Guide Tones
PWJ Course Excerpt—”Play Piano Lead Sheets with Shells & Guide Tones”

Beginner Piano Jazz Swing Feel

The final step is to add a swing rhythm to your accompaniment. Instead of playing half notes as in the example above, we’ll play The Charleston Grove. To do this, play the root on beat 1 and the guide tones on the “and of 2.” This will clearly identify that we are playing in the swing style.

Beginner jazz swing piano arrangement in the style of "Fly Me to the Moon"
Beginner jazz swing piano arrangement in the style of “Fly Me to the Moon”

Great job! The last step is to practice along with the backing tracks to “lock-in” your feel.

If you enjoyed this lesson, you’ll want to explore the following courses also:

Thanks for joining us. We’ll see you next time!


Blog written by Michael LaDisa / Quick Tip by Jonny May

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