How to Play 80’s Power Ballads on Piano
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Do you ever wonder what makes certain song intros instantly recognizable? Well, in today’s Quick Tip, How to Play 80s Power Ballads on Piano, John Proulx performs and analyzes the piano intros from 5 iconic 80s power ballads. He then explains the songwriting techniques that were used to create these memorable intros. The goal of today’s lesson is to empower you to create your own “ear candy” intros when arranging in the pop style. You’ll learn:
- Intro to 80s Power Ballads
- 5 Iconic 80s Power Ballad Intros
- Intro Techniques from 80s Power Ballads
With the insights that you’ll discover from artists like Journey, Chicago, Lionel Richie and Richard Marx, you’ll be all the more confident when the spotlight is on you!
When you first start gigging as a pianist, you quickly find out that everybody looks to you for song intros, especially on ballads. While that might not initially sound like such a big deal, it often involves more than you’d expect. For example, what if your band plays original music? In that case, the intro doesn’t even exist until you create it! In fact, working pianists experience this dilemma constantly, whether playing from a fake book or hymnal. The question remains, “What do I play for the intro?” By studying the songwriting techniques of 80s power ballads, pianists can develop the necessary musical intuition to create the perfect piano intro for any occasion.
Today’s lesson sheet contains the piano intros from 5 well known 80 power ballads, including “Open Arms” by Journey and “You’re the Inspiration” by Chicago. Due to copyright restrictions, the lesson sheet PDF is available through our partners at MusicNotes.com. However, there is an exclusive PWJ coupon code for you to use when checking out.
Why the emphasis on the 80s power ballads? After all, the 1980s wasn’t the only decade to feature slow songs with potent songwriting. In fact, the very first power ballad is often attributed to Styx with their 1973 hit “Lady”.¹ Of course, some argue for other contemporary songs of the era, such as “Behind Blue Eyes” (The Who, 1971) “Stairway to Heaven” (Led Zeppelin, 1971), “Goodbye to Love” (Carpenters, 1972), “Dream On” (Aerosmith, 1973) and “In Trance” (Scorpions, 1975).
Even though the essence of power ballad was born in the 70s, the quintessential ideal of the song form “came of age” in the 80s. Indeed, the 80s power ballads are supercharged with more emotional lyrics, more exhilarating build-ups, more electrifying solos and more euphoric climaxes.
“You could be suckered into serenity by a gentle 12-string guitar or a lonely baby grand, only to be assaulted moments later by crunching power chords, squealing solos and a singer coming off the gas to a painful skin graft of the heart…such was the majesty of the power ballad.”
—Serene Dominic, Author
As Serene Dominic indicates in writing for the Detroit Metro Times, the piano intro is a staple ingredient in the overall architecture of the 80s power ballad.² In fact, as you peruse through the examples in today’s lesson, you’ll discover anew just how effective the songwriters of the 80s were at getting the intro just right.
Therefore, before we look at any specific song examples, there is a more fundamental question that we should answer first.
The purpose of a song intro is both functional and emotional. To begin with, an intro serves the practical purpose of starting the tune. In doing so, the listener receives information about the song’s tempo, key and musical style. However, an intro isn’t merely functional. Rather, an effective intro also creates an emotional connection with the listener. For example, many 80s power ballads contain intros that are palpably sorrowful, romantic or heroic. In any case, these serene sounds captivate the listener’s attention in such a way that they don’t just hear the song—they experience it.
Now that we have the purpose of a song’s intro in the forefront of our mind, let’s examine the 5 iconic 80s power ballads featured in today’s lesson.
In this section, we’ll explore interesting song facts and intriguing musical facets of the 5 iconic power ballads that John covers in today’s lesson. We’ll also link to related PWJ materials where you can further develop the skills employed in these songs.
#1: “Right Here Waiting”
Richard Marx’s 1989 single “Right Here Waiting” was a #1 hit off his quadruple-platinum sophomore album, Repeat Offender. Ironically, Marx initially never intended it to be released. Instead, it was written as a musical love letter for actress Cynthia Rhodes, his then-girlfriend, whom he later married. At the time, Rhodes was shooting a film in South Africa. When Marx’s visa application was rejected, he began writing: “Oceans apart day after day, and I slowly go insane.” Marx considered that the song had served its purpose when he mailed the demo to Rhodes. However, Rhodes and other close friends persuaded him to release the song.³
“Right Here Waiting” (1989)
As John Proulx points out in today’s Quick Tip video lesson, the memorable piano intro to “Right Here Waiting” draws on the melody from the chorus. In fact, it’s almost as if the piano were singing “Wherever you go, whatever you do, I will be right here waiting for you…”
One consideration that makes this piano intro particularly effective is that it employs a common arranging technique in which the initial phrase is tenderly preformed 8va (one octave higher). Afterward, the subsequent phrase is performed in the warmer middle register.
To learn how to improvise tender pop piano melodies in a similar style, check out our course on The Love Progression (Int).
#2: “Open Arms”
Journey keyboardist Jonathan Cain initially composed the melody for “Open Arms” in the late 70’s when he was with his previous band, The Babys. However, John Waite, The Babys lead singer, dismissed the tune as “too syrupy.” Later, when Cain presented the tune to Journey frontman Steve Perry after joining the group in 1980, Perry immediately sensed its potential.⁴ The duo finished writing the tune together for the band’s seventh studio album, Escape (1982) and it became the band’s highest-ranking Billboard hit, reaching #2 for six weeks. In 2003, VH1 ranked “Open Arms” as #1 on their list of the 25 Greatest Power Ballads.⁵
“Open Arms” (1982)
The iconic intro to “Open Arms” draws its material from the tune’s verse: “Lying beside you here in the dark, feeling your heartbeat with mine.” Musically speaking, this composition contains two aspects that are rather rare of power ballads. Firstly, it is written in 3/4 meter. Secondly, the intro, interlude and outro use simple meter subdivisions (1-and-2-and-3-and) while the chorus section uses compound meter subdivisions (1-trip-let-2-trip-let-3-trip-let). The subtle transition between simple and compound subdivisions occurs as each verse segues into the pre-chorus.
To learn more about simple meter versus compound meter, check out this Quick Tip.
Lionel Richie’s signature ballad, “Hello,” from his sophomore solo album Can’t Slow Down, was released in 1984 and climbed to the #1 spot on three different Billboard charts: the Hot 100, Adult Contemporary and Hot R&B/Hip Hop.⁶ The tune also hit #1 on the UK Singles Chart.⁷ Moreover, Can’t Slow Down earned Richie the 1984 Grammy Award for Album of the Year.⁸ In addition to being one of his most popular songs, “Hello” is also the name of Lionel Richie’s signature fragrance, which was launched in 2019 in both men’s and women’s scents.
The intro to “Hello” features plaintive quarter-note piano chords in A minor under a mournful synth melody. As John Proulx points out in today’s Quick Tip video, this intro melody is structurally unique in that it comes from neither the chorus nor the verse. Instead, it functions as a melodic hook that is reserved for the intro and interlude sections of the tune.
To learn how to improvise beautiful pop piano melodies in a minor key, check out lesson 3 in our course on Scales for Improv on Major and Minor Chords (Int).
Journey’s enduring power ballad “Faithfully” was released in 1983 as the second single from the band’s eighth studio album, Frontiers. Keyboardist Jonathan Cain, who joined the group in 1980, wrote the song out of his experience as a married man who was facing life on the road for the first time. Cain originally scribed the opening lyrics on a napkin while on a tour bus: “Highway run into the midnight sun. Wheels go ’round and ’round, you’re on my mind.”⁹ The song peaked at #12 on the Billboard Hot 100 and helped catapult Frontiers to achieve platinum certification two months after its release.¹⁰
From a songwriting perspective, “Faithfully” is unique in that it doesn’t really have a chorus in the traditional sense. However, the melodic hook that serves as the song’s intro recurs after each verse as a sort of instrumental chorus. Finally, at the song’s climax, lead singer Steve Perry triumphantly belts out the intro theme, singing “Whoa-oh, oh-oh; Whoa-oh, oh-oh, oh; Whoa-oh, oh-oh, oh-oh!” The anthem-like melody is then reprised by lead guitarist Neal Schon before breaking out into a cathartic solo that is marked by Perry’s impassioned interjections, “Faithfully…I’m still yours!”
#5: “You’re the Inspiration”
The songwriting collaboration that eventually became “You’re the Inspiration” was co-written by “Hitman” David Foster and Chicago frontman Peter Cetera. Ironically, the songwriting duo originally wrote the tune for Kenny Rogers. However, when Rogers rejected the tune, Foster and Cetera reworked it to be released in 1984 as the third single from Chicago’s 14th studio album, Chicago 17.¹¹ Both the song and the album became massively successful. “You’re the Inspiration” reached #3 on the Billboard Hot 100 and climbed to #1 on the Adult Contemporary charts. Meanwhile, Chicago 17 became the band’s all-time bestselling album, reaching 6x platinum certification.
“You’re The Inspiration” (1984)
The piano intro for “You’re the Inspiration” contains a unique, 16th-note-based rhythmic hook. Surprisingly, the catchy rhythmic figure begins on beat 3, an unusually long length for a pick-up measure. What’s even more curious is that the intro, which is solidly in A♭ major, segues by direct modulation into the verse in B major, a distant key brought near by its chromatic mediant relationship. Then, after a series of harmonic detours during the pre-chorus, the chorus dawns in E♭ major like a rising sun, made possible by another chromatic mediant relationship. However, midway through the chorus, there is another triumphant direct modulation to G♭ major, yet another chromatic mediant. As the chorus comes to a close, G♭ major recedes like a high tide returning to sea, leaving behind shells of B major as the intro theme returns and crests back in to the verse.
For a deep dive on music modulation techniques, check out our courses on Modulations Essentials—How to Modulate a Song (Beg/Int, Adv).
In the final section of today’s lesson, we’ll take a nostalgic trip down memory lane as we revisit 12 additional epic power ballads from the 1980s. These selections are grouped according to common songwriting techniques employed in their piano intros.
So far, we have considered how important it is for aspiring pianists to be able to craft an effective song intro when necessary. We’ve also clarified the purpose for which a song intro exists. In this section, we’ll give further examination to John Proulx’s 4 intro techniques while we lift a lighter to 12 additional timeless 80s piano intros.
The first technique that John presented in today’s Quick Tip video lesson was that songwriters often draw upon a tune’s chorus for the intro. The case study for this intro technique was “Right Here Waiting” by Richard Marx.
The 80s power ballads featured below also draw upon the same intro technique of chorus as intro. The first example we’ve included is “Sara” (1986) by Starship. In the music video version below, the intro has been elongated to 4o seconds by means of two full choruses. However, the single version features just one chorus for the intro. In fact, this brings up a good point. When using the chorus for an intro, it isn’t necessary to quote the chorus in its entirety. Often times, just a portion of the chorus is sufficient.
Our second example is “It’s All Coming Back to Me Now” (1989) by Pandora’s Box. As you listen to this intro, notice to how the string backgrounds become more present in the second phrase of the intro. Often times, pop song intros use this type of orchestral layering so that the tune seems to blossom like a flower by the that time the lyrics enter. You can also simulate this effect on piano by adjusting the density of your arrangement as the intro progresses. For example, you might try changing registers, adding harmony to the melody or increasing the subdivisions in the accompaniment.
Our third example is “How Am I Supposed to Live Without You” (1982) by Michael Bolton. This is an example of a song intro that uses an abbreviated version of the chorus. Furthermore, the melodic reference to the chorus is more like a paraphrase than a direct quotation—a subtle touch that works well for this song.
“It’s All Coming Back To Me Now” (1989)
“How Am I Supposed to Live Without You” (1982)
The second intro technique that John presented in today’s Quick Tip video lesson was to draw upon a tune’s verse for the intro. The case study for this intro technique was “Open Arms” by Journey.
Each of the 80s power ballads below use of the same essential intro technique: verse as intro. The first example we’ve included is “Alone” (1987) by Heart. In this song, however, the intro doesn’t reference the verse’s melody. Instead, it simply uses the piano accompaniment from the verse for song’s introduction. In fact, this approach is fairly common. For example, the second example below,”Keep On Loving You” by REO Speedwagon, also uses the piano accompaniment from the verse for the song intro. On the other hand, in our third example, “Tonight I Celebrate My Love” (1983) by Peabo Bryson and Roberta Flack, the song features a direct quotation of the verse’s melody for the piano intro.
“Keep On Loving You” (1980)
Peabo Bryson & Roberta Flack
“Tonight I Celebrate My Love” (1983)
The third intro technique that John presented in today’s Quick Tip video lesson was to use a melodic hook for the song intro. The case studies for this intro technique were “Hello” by Lionel Richie and “Faithfully” by Journey.
The 80s power ballads selected below are presented as further examples of the melodic hook as intro technique. First, we have “Against All Odds (Take a Look at Me Now)” (1984) by Phil Collins. The memorable melodic hook in this intro only returns at the end of the song for the final outro, where it is expanded slightly.
Our second example below is “Heaven” (1983) by Bryan Adams. The catchy melodic hook in this intro is repeated before the 2nd verse. Interestingly, however, the song ends with a fade out—a studio engineering technique that is typically ineffective when attempted in a live setting. Therefore, you would need to come up with an outro to play this tune live. In this case, the intro also makes for a suitable outro, just like the previous example by Phil Collins.
Our third example of melodic hook as intro is “This Could Be the Night” (1985) by Loverboy. The chord progression for this intro is taken from the verse. However, the keyboard intro contains its own unique melodic hook.
“Against All Odds” (1984)
“This Could Be the Night” (1985)
The fourth and final intro technique that John Proulx shared in today’s Quick Tip video lesson was rhythmic hook as intro. The case study we examined on the lesson sheet was “You’re the Inspiration” by Chicago.
The 80s power ballads shown below provide further examples of the rhythmic hook as intro technique. The first example is “When I See You Smile” (1989) by Bad English, which features a keyboard ostinato intro with built-in rhythmic accents. To learn more about ostinatos, check out our course on Pop & Contemporary Piano Accompaniment: Popstinatos (Ind/Adv).
Our second example that uses the rhythmic hook as intro technique is “The Search Is Over” (1985) by Survivor. This song intro features a straight forward rhythmic figure that contains two beats of quarter notes followed by two beats of 16th notes (think “1, 2, 3-e-&-a, 4-e-&-a”). This rhythmic hook is so versatile and easy to follow that it could conceivably be applied as a “stock intro” to virtually any tune in a pop style.
Our third example of an 80s power ballad that uses the rhythmic hook as intro technique is “Glory of Love” (1986) by Peter Cetera. Part of what make this rhythmic hook so catchy is its combination of broken 16th notes and 16th-note triplets.
“When I See You Smile” (1989)
“The Search Is Over” (1985)
“Glory of Love” (1986)
Congratulations, you’ve completed today’s lesson on How to Play 80s Power Ballads on Piano. As a result of the time that you’ve invested in examining the iconic 80s ballads in this lesson, you’ve gained a strong understanding of what goes into an effective song intro. The next time you’re in the hot seat to come up with an intro, you’ll know exactly what to do!
If you enjoyed this lesson, be sure to check out the following PWJ resources:
- Pop Piano Accompaniment: The One Chord Wonder (Int)
- Contemporary Progressions and Improv (Int, Adv)
- Pop & Contemporary Accompaniment Patterns (Beg/Int, Int/Adv)
- Pop & Contemporary Piano Accompaniment: Popstinatos (Ind/Adv)
- Two-Hand Coordination Exercises (Beg/Int, Int/Adv)
- Modulations Essentials—How to Modulate a Song (Beg/Int, Adv)
- Piano Accompaniment 6 Steps from Beginner to Pro
- 5 Sad Piano Chord Progressions (Int)
- The Most Powerful Piano Chords–The Power Progression (Int)
- How to Play Rock Piano (4 Steps) (Int)
- 3 Incredible Techniques with Piano Sus Chords (Int)
- The Most Romantic Piano Chords–The Love Progression (Int)
- 6 Essential Passing Chords for Pop Piano (Int)
Thanks for learning with us today! We’ll see you next time.
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¹ Schaffner, Lauryn. “Who Really Invented the Power Ballad?” Loudwire.Com, 10 July 2023.
² Dominic, Serene. “Power Me, Ballad Me: The Power Ballad Timeline.” Detroit Metro Times, 11 June 2003.
³ Chiu, David. “Richard Marx on the Stories behind His Big Hits and Collaborations with Music Royalty.” Forbes.com, Forbes Magazine, 16 July 2021.
⁴ Rapp, Allison. “How a Rejected Babys Song Became Journey’s Signature Ballad.” UltimateClassicRock.com, 16 Jan. 2022.
⁵ “VH1 25 Greatest Power Ballads 2003.” Spotify.com, 2003.
⁶ “Lionel Richie: Biography, Music & News.” Billboard.com.
⁷ “Lionel Richie.” OfficialCharts.com.
⁸ “Lionel Richie.” Grammy.com.
⁹ Benitez-Eves, Tina. “Behind the Song: ‘Faithfully’ by Journey.” AmericanSongwriter.com, 10 Sept. 2021.
¹⁰ “Journey: Biography, Music & News.” Billboard.com.
¹¹ “You’re the Inspiration.” Song of the Week: A Site Dedicated to David Foster, Fozfan.com, 23 Aug. 2015.
¹² “Gold & Platinum.” RIAA.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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