Learn How to Play Bossa Nova Piano in 5 Steps

Instructor
Jonny May
Quick Tip
Level 2
Level 3
11:31

Learning Focus
  • Accompanying
  • Chords
  • Improvisation
  • Lead Sheets
  • Songs
Music Style
  • Latin Jazz

Do you want to learn how to play Bossa Nova piano? In today’s piano lesson, you are going to learn how to play Bossa Nova piano in 5 simple steps. You’ll learn:

  • The lead sheet for In Your Eyes (based on Girl From Ipanema chords)
  • The left hand basic chords
  • Chord shells
  • How to play a Bossa Nova accompaniment
  • How to add right hand harmonies and fills

If you love jazz piano and you love music from Brazilian composers like Antonio Carlos Jobim, then you’re going to love this Bossa Nova piano lesson.  Let’s dive in!

Step 1: Girl From Ipanema Lead Sheet

The first step to learn how to play Bossa Nova jazz piano is to pick a lead sheet that will sound good in this style.  Now, you can play just about any song from a fake book in the Bossa Nova style.  However, if you are just starting off with Bossa Nova, then it’s best to choose a song that is written for this genre.

My recommendation is to choose a song written by the great Brazilian Bossa Nova composer, Antonio Carlos Jobim.  He wrote many classic Bossa Nova tunes, including Girl From Ipanema, Desafinado, Quiet Nights, and Wave just to name a few. Arguably the most popular of these songs is Girl From Ipanema. This jazz standard not only works very well in the Bossa Nova style, but it is also a favorite among audiences, so I recommend that you start with this song.

Due to copyright restrictions, we will use an original melody that follows the same chord progression as Girl From Ipanema:

In Your Eyes lead sheet (based on Girl From Ipanema) for jazz piano
In Your Eyes lead sheet (based on Girl From Ipanema) for jazz piano

As you can see, it is important to start off with the basic melody and chords before you “stylize” this song in the Bossa Nova piano style. At this point, I recommend that you memorize the melody for In Your Eyes. You can also learn this melody with our Smart Sheet Music, which allows you to slow down the sheet music, loop sections, and change the key with the click of one button.

I also would recommend that you learn the lead sheet for Girl From Ipanema because it follows the same chord progression. You can find the tune in just about any fake book or real book.

Now that you have the melody, it’s time to add the basic chords.

Step 2: Root Position Chords

If there is one mistake I see jazz piano students make, it’s not spending the time to actually learn all of the basic chords in a lead sheet before they try to put together a jazz arrangement. You must know the basic chords of a song before you start adding additional harmony notes and fills.

Here are the basic 7th chords in root position for this song:

In Your Eyes lead sheet with left hand root position 7th chords for jazz piano
In Your Eyes lead sheet with left hand root position 7th chords for jazz piano

As you can see, this song is full of Major 7, Minor 7, and Dominant 7 chords. If you don’t know these chords like the back of your hand, then you will greatly struggle to play jazz.  You can learn these chords in all 12 keys, how to apply them to songs, and exercises in the courses below:

Now that you can play the basic left hand chords and melody, it’s time to start the Bossa Nova transformation. First, we need to simplify the chords into chord shells.

Step 3: Chord Shells

Once you have your basic chords, it is time to simplify them! These big 4-note chords are a little bit  bulky and hard to maneuver around the keyboard.  When playing jazz piano, it is very common to omit, or “remove” the 5th of the chord.  When you do this, you end up with a 3-note chord, or what we call a “chord shell”.  For example, here is an F Major 7 chord shell:

F Major 7 chord shell for jazz piano
F Major 7 chord shell for jazz piano

As you can see, we have removed the 5th, the C from the chord, leaving the shell of the chord.  Now, you can play this chord shell like the sheet music shows above, or you can invert the chord shell like this:

F Major 7 chord shell in open position for jazz piano
F Major 7 chord shell in open position for jazz piano

I call this inverted chord shell an “open position” chord shell because the top note is more than one octave away from the bottom note.

Now, the next step is to practice the entire chord progression using chord shells:

Chord shells over the Girl From Ipanema chord progression
Chord shells over the Girl From Ipanema chord progression

As you can see, most of these chord shells are played as inverted chord shells, or “open” chord shells.  With this technique, you get a much more open sound. (You can learn more about the open and closed position accompaniment technique in the Girl from Foreign Lands Bossa Nova course.)

Now that you have chord shells, it’s time to apply the Bossa Nova groove to the left hand.

Step 4: Bossa Nova Accompaniment

Whenever you play any style of jazz, whether it’s jazz swing, latin jazz, or a jazz ballad, the primary “driver” of the style comes from the left hand. If it’s swing, it might be a 4-on-the-floor left hand or walking bass, if it’s blues, it might be a blues shuffle, and if it’s a ballad, it might be the stride-ballad left hand. For Bossa Nova piano accompaniment, there is a very specific left hand rhythm that you’ll want to apply to your chord shells, and it goes like this:

Bossa nova open position left hand accompaniment on an F major 7 chord for jazz piano
Bossa nova open position left hand accompaniment on an F major 7 chord for jazz piano

As you can see, we are breaking up the chord now, putting the root on beat 1, the bottom note of the chord on the “and of 2”, the top note on beat 3, and a pickup note on the “and of beat 4”.  Here’s an important note to remember: the pickup note is always going to be the 5th of whatever chord is coming next.

Now that you understand the basic style formula, let’s apply this to the whole chord progression:

In Your Eyes with Bossa Nova left hand open position accompaniment
In Your Eyes with Bossa Nova left hand open position accompaniment

Now, try playing this with the melody… it’s starting to sound like Bossa Nova now! Do you see why the left hand is so important in creating the Bossa Nova piano sound? It sounds so good that you almost don’t need any right hand harmony.

Before moving on to the final step, I encourage you to practice this with the backing track. You can download the backing track on this page by logging into your membership.

Now, let’s put the final touches on this arrangement with right hand harmony and fills.

Step 5: Right Hand Harmony & Fills

The final step in learning how to play Bossa Nova jazz piano is to color your right hand melody with harmonies and fills.  How do you add harmonies? Well, the best approach is to use chord tones that come from the root position chords as outlined in Step 2 above. You can choose any harmony notes you want!  I also encourage you to try using chord extensions like the 9th and 13th to harmonize your chords (for more on chord extensions, click here). Here is the full right hand with harmony notes added:

In Your Eyes full arrangement with harmonies and fills in the Bossa Nova jazz piano style
In Your Eyes full arrangement with harmonies and fills in the Bossa Nova jazz piano style

Sounding pretty cool, right? You can also add a little fill at the end on the Gb7 chord.  The way I like to do this is by playing a rootless voicing on the Gb7 chord (for more on rootless voicings, click here). In fact, rootless voicings are one the best techniques for adding fills in the right hand.

Putting It All Together

Now that you have learned how to play Bossa Nova piano, it’s time to try playing other songs in the Bossa Nova style. I would encourage you to go through the songs listed at the beginning of this lesson.

If you want to do an even deeper dive of the Bossa Nova style, including more left hand accompaniment techniques, more right hand harmonization techniques and fills, and how to develop and build an arrangement, checkout the Girl From Foreign Lands Bossa Nova courses (Beginner/Intermediate & Intermediate/Advanced).

And if you want to learn other Latin-jazz piano styles and improv, checkout the courses below:

Cuban Latin Jazz
Latin Jazz Soloing
Silent Night Bossa Nova Accompaniment (Beginner/Intermediate, Intermediate/Advanced)
Bossa Nova Soloing Challenge

Lastly, if you want to watch an inspiring Latin piano, checkout my arrangement of Sway.

Thanks for learning, and see you in the next Quick Tip!

Your teacher,

Jonny May

Due to publisher restrictions, we cannot offer the sheet music for Girl From Ipanema. However, if you are a member here at Piano With Jonny, you can download the sheet music & backing track for In Your Eyes.

Free Lessons

Get free weekly lessons to your inbox!

More Free Lessons

Learn how to play jazz piano like Herbie Hancock. Learn the Signature Herbie groove used on tunes like Watermelon Man, Cantaloupe Island, & Chameleon.

Learn how to play stride piano in the style of Fats Waller. Building from a lead sheet, you'll learn the stride left hand and right hand embellishments.

Learn how to play jazz piano if you are a complete beginner. In this lesson, you'll learn 4 essential jazz chords, 1 scale, and 3 improvisation exercises.

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!

Start Your Free Trial