How to Play Piano Like Hans Zimmer
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Would you like to get a cinematic piano sound in the style of Hans Zimmer? If you don’t know Hans Zimmer by name, you certainly know his work as one of the most prolific film composers of the last four decades. The Zimmer library includes his Academy Award winning Best Original Score from The Lion King (1994). In addition, he has received multiple honors for his collaborations with writer, director and producer Christopher Nolan, including Inception, Interstellar, Dunkirk, and The Dark Knight. Gamers are also familiar with Zimmer for his contribution to video game scores including Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2. In today’s Quick Tip, you’ll learn favorite piano scoring techniques of Hans Zimmer including:
- 1 Cinematic Chord Progression
- The Hans Zimmer Piano Groove
- Left Hand Accompaniment
- 2 Scales for Improv
If you love film music, then you will love recreating these classic cinema sounds on piano in the style of Hans Zimmer! In fact, you can do it in just 4 steps!
Step 1: Hans Zimmer Chords
Modern film composers like Hans Zimmer gravitate toward chord progressions that create suspense and introspection. For example, consider the following piano chord progression:
While these are all major chords, you probably notice right away that there is something different about this progression. But what is it? Music theory calls this writing technique modal mixture.
What is modal mixture?
Modal mixture is a compositional technique that combines chords from parallel major and minor keys. For example, the chords of F Major and F minor are combined to offer an expanded harmonic palette, while still preserving an overall tonal center of F. This technique is also known as modal interchange or described as using borrowed chords. The example below shows the chords that are native to the F major and F natural minor scales.
One of the most common ways to use modal mixture is to borrow chords from the natural minor mode into a major key. When we import chords from F natural minor into F major, notice how some Roman numerals change slightly. Numerals beginning with a ♭ have a root that is a lowered note with respect to the major key signature.
Thus, using modal mixture in our harmonic analysis, our Hans Zimmer chord progression is expressed in the following manner:
Adding Chord Extensions
The next step is to add additional harmonic color to these chords by adding chording extensions. Chord extensions are any of the three additional notes above the 7th of the chord that add harmonic color. The additional notes are the 9th, 11th or 13th. However, if you are new to chord extensions, don’t let these double-digit numbers scare you! Many players prefer to think of these compound intervals (intervals larger than one octave) by their simple interval equivalents. Therefore, the 9th is the same note as the 2nd. Similarly, the 11th is the same as the 4th. Likewise, the 13th is the same note as the 6th of the chord.
Now, listen how rich our Hans Zimmer chord progression sounds on piano with the added chord extensions.
Wow! The result is absolutely captivating. This is definitely harmonic vocabulary that you’ll want to save. You can download and print the complete lesson sheet for today. It appears at the bottom of this page after logging in with your membership. You can also quickly change these Hans Zimmer piano chords to any key using our Smart Sheet Music.
Step 2: The Hans Zimmer Piano Groove
The next step is to set these chords into a rhythmic context. The following 16th-note groove in 3/4 time creates a driving cinematic texture.
Great job! Did you notice that the top note of each chord is the note F? This is a called a common tone (a note shared by two or more chords). Placing a common tone in the top voice is a popular arranging technique. This is especially effective when connecting chords that are a little more harmonically distant from each other.
As you probably know, modern film composers frequently combine acoustic and electronic mediums in their scores. In some cases, this includes synths and electric bass. In other cases, composers may use sample libraries and sound effects of non-instruments. However, another modern technique is to record acoustic instruments with various microphones at different distances and to apply digital effects. Hans Zimmer often uses piano sounds captured in this manner. The result is a dramatic effect that feels both familiar and unfamiliar at the same time, like a dream! If you have own a synthesizer, try playing this Hans Zimmer piano groove with various piano samples and effects to get a truly cinematic sound. Here are a few examples:
As you can see, the sky is the limit!
Step 3: The Hans Zimmer Piano Accompaniment
If you want to play this groove in a performance setting, then you may also want to improvise a solo. Therefore, you’ll need to adapt the chord voicings so that they can be played by the left hand alone. The following reduction works great to free up your right hand.
Well done! Now you have a solid foundation to improvise over.
Step 4: Scales for Improv
For this progression, we’ll use two different scales. The first scale an F Mixolydian scale, which works well over the F(add2) chord. This scale is comparable to a major scale with the exception of a lowered 7th tone. This ♭7 tone gives the scale a slightly darker sound. The following example shows the F Mixolydian Scale over an F(sus2) for the first measure of the progression.
The second scale we’ll use is the F Dorian scale. There are two ways to construct a Dorian scale. First, you can use a scale formula. For example, the Dorian scale modifies the parallel major scale as follows: 1-2-♭3-4-5-6-♭7. Secondly, you can determine the notes of a Dorian scale based on the key signature of the note which is a whole step below. Therefore, to play F Dorian, you can think in terms of the key signature for E♭ major. The key signature for E♭ major contains three flats. Therefore, if you build a scale ascending from F , you get the following Dorian scale: F-G-A♭-B♭-C-D-E♭.
The F Dorian scale sounds great over the remaining chords in the Hans Zimmer progression: A♭Maj7, E♭(add2), and B♭. For the 2nd measure of the progression, try playing the F Dorian scale over A♭Maj7.
Similarly, for the 3rd measure of the progression, play the F Dorian Scale over E♭(add2).
Finally, for the 4th measure of the progression, practice playing the F Dorian scale over B♭.
Getting Started with Improvisation
Now that you have practiced each scale in its harmonic context, you are ready to start improvising. One of the best ways to get started improvising to begin with a smaller set of notes. In fact, some educators recommend as few as 3 notes in the beginning! For the purposes of this lesson, we’ll frame our improv within the bounds of 5-finger hand positions. This often helps students create lines that have a more deliberate melodic shape and syntax.
To begin, we’ll use a 5-finger position starting on F. The example below shows each chord with its respective 5-finger hand position.
Next, we can following the same process using a B♭ 5-finger hand position. The following example shows each chord with the corresponding B♭ 5-finger position. In fact, in this hand position, the 5 notes are the same for each measure!
Great job! Now you are ready to improvise by combining these two hand positions.
Congratulations! You completed this lesson on playing piano in the film style of Hans Zimmer. If you enjoyed this lesson, you’ll love the following courses as well:
- Film Improvisation (Level 3)
- Contemporary Progressions and Improv (Level 2, Level 3)
- How to Improvise a Solo with the Mixolydian Scale (Level 2, Level 3)
- How to Improvise a Solo with the Dorian Scale (Level 2, Level 3)
Thanks for joining us. We’ll see you next time!
Blog written by Michael LaDisa / Quick Tip by Jonny May
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