Jonny May
Quick Tip

Learning Focus
  • Accompanying
  • Chords
  • Rhythm
Music Style
  • Contemporary
Free Lessons

Get free weekly lessons, practice tips, and downloadable resources to your inbox!

Have you ever noticed how many accessories are for sale at shopping malls? If you’re looking to add a bit of style, the mall is the place to go for hats, sunglasses, shoes, purses, jewelry and more. Accessories are small touches, yet they go a long way in allowing individuals to stand out and display their personal style. Well, how about accessorizing your piano sound? In today’s Quick Tip, we’re going to teach you how to stylize your piano accompaniment with pro tips that function like accessories to make your playing stand out in a crowd. You’ll learn:

    • Inversions
    • Substitutions
    • Chord Voicings
    • Extensions
    • Syncopation

In fact, today’s Quick Tip is designed to take your pop piano accompaniment playing from beginner to pro in just 6 steps!

Let’s try a few things, shall we?

The 1-4 Pop Progression

The basic progression we’ll be ornamenting today to build a  pro piano accompaniment moves from the 4 chord to the 1 chord in F major. Firstly, let’s identify the root position chords in this key. For example, the 4 chord is B♭ major and the 1 chord of course is F major.

The 1-4 Chord Progression Contemporary Pop Music

If you need help understanding these chords, you can certainly review our Key of F Major course from our Beginner Piano Foundations learning track.

In the next section, we’ll look at how an amateur pianist might approach a pop accompaniment pattern with these chords.

Amateur Piano Accompaniment Approach

One of the main components that distinguishes a chord progression from an accompaniment pattern is a sense of groove. In the example below for instance, a simple groove has been added to begin to build out an accompaniment. In addition, open 5ths have been added in the left hand for a fuller sound.

The Amateur Approach to Pop Piano Accomp

This approach is the perfect first step for an amateur player. However, if you are looking for a pro piano accompaniment sound, you’ll likely find this accompaniment comparable to a mannequin on display in a T-shirt only. It lacks style and individuality. Frankly, it’s practically naked! Fortunately, in the next six steps we’ll teach you how to dress up this groove to sound amazing!

Pro Piano Accompaniment Techniques

Step 1: Use Inversions

The first step to makeover this accompaniment pattern is to add inversions. Specifically, we’ll invert the 1 chord in both hands to create smoother voice leading. The easiest way to find the inversion that works best is to look for common tones within the chord progression. In this progression for example, the note F is in both chords. However, did you notice in the previous example that the common tone F was not played in the same octave? By contrast, the example below places the right hand in a first inversion shape which keeps the common tone F in the same octave. As a result, the other chord tones resolve with stepwise motion. Similarly, the bass line now features stepwise motion instead of a leap.

Step 1 Pro Piano Accompaniment Use Chord Inversions I6 First Inversion I63 Tonic6 Tonic63

Did you notice how the simple addition of chord inversions significantly improves of overall sound? You can download the complete lesson sheet for this Quick Tip at the bottom of this page after logging in with your membership. Your membership also gives you access to the backing tracks that accompany this lesson as well as the Smart Sheet Music which allows you to easily transpose this material into any key.

In the next section, we’ll show you how you can mix-and-match chords using substitution to further stylize your accompaniment.

Step 2: Add Chord Substitute

Another pro trick you can use to enhance your piano accompaniment is chord substitution. One very common substitution that can be used on this progression is a subdominant substitution in which the 2 chord replaces the 4 chord (“subdominant” is the theoretical term for the 4 chord). Basically, we simply replace one of the  B♭ chords with a Gm chord. While you could use a Gm triad, it is common in pop music to add the 7th to the 2 chord making the substitute chord a Gm7. Notice below that these chords are quite similar. In fact, in order to apply this substitution, you only have to change the bass note to G! (Your right hand will still be playing a B♭ triad.)

4 Chord: B♭DF   ⇒⇒⇒   2 Chord with 7th: G-B♭DF

Step 2 Add Chord Substitute iim7 2m7 subdominant walkdown plagal walkdown

As you can hear, this accompaniment is now beginning to sound more stylized to the pop genre. You can explore even more incredible-sounding substitutions in our full-length courses on Passing Chords & Reharmonization (Level 2, Level 3).

In the next step, we’ll further stylize this accompaniment with chord voicings specific to the contemporary pop sound.

Step 3: Use Sus 2 Chords

If you want to replicate an authentic pop piano sound, then you’ll need to dress up your chords a bit as well. Major chords in pop music frequently use sus2 voicings for a warmer sound. To create a sus2 voicing for a major chord, simply replace the 3rd of the chord with the 2nd of the chord instead. For example, B♭major is played B♭-D-F whereas B♭(sus2) uses B♭-C-F. Similarly, F major contains F-A-C compared to F(sus2) which contains F-G-C. However, regarding our specific progression, we still want to keep that F/A sound from step 1. Although the F(sus2) voicing replaces the A in the right hand with a G, the bass note will retain the note A. As a result, this chord is more appropriately called an F(add2) because the 3rd is still present in the bass.

What about the minor 2 chord? Take a look below at how the Gm7 is now a super-rich Gm11 simply by playing the B♭(sus2) in the right hand over a G in the bass.

Step 3 Pro Piano Accompaniment Use Sus2 Chords

This accompaniment sounds excellent “as is” and would be appropriate for several occasions, especially a pop ballad intro or piano/vocal duo. In the next section, we’ll explore how to adapt this accompaniment for more of an ensemble setting. However, you can take a deep dive into other chord coloring options in our Piano Chord Extensions course.

Step 4: Increase Right Hand Rhythmic Frequency

As a song progresses, you’ll want to have a few options to develop your accompaniment as well. This is especially important once the bass and drums enter the soundscape. The example below features increased right hand syncopation that mimics a drum groove helping to propel the accompaniment forward.

Step 4 Increase RH Rhythmic Frequency

What a great feel! This accompaniment packs a pro sound at an intermediate playing level! In the next section, we’ll add more rhythm activity in the left hand for when you need to take the energy level even higher!

Step 5: Add the Single-Note Driver

There are times when you will need a fuller piano texture, especially as additional instruments enter the groove, such as an acoustic or electric guitar. You can add further momentum to your piano accompaniment with a single-note driver in the left hand. This technique uses a repeated common tone to fill in ghost notes on a micro level that work in conjunction with the macro rhythm established in step 4. For example, it may be helpful to think of the single-note driver as fulfilling a similar function in a pop piano groove as the hi hat fulfills in a pop drum groove. In other words, the heart of a drum groove comes from the kick drum and snare. However, the hi hat plays a critical role in filling in the subdivisions to keep the groove moving. Take a listen here:

Step 5 Add the Single-Note Driver

Did you hear both the micro and macro rhythms? The overall sound is remarkably similar in effect to an acoustic guitar strumming pattern. You can learn dozens of additional professional intermediate and advanced accompaniment patterns in our Pop & Contemporary Piano Accompaniment Patterns (Level 2, Level 3) courses.

In the next and final section, we’ll show you how to play the right hand chords in an upper position.

Step 6: Upper Position

In our final section we’ll explore how to play the right hand in an upper position. This is especially useful for adding variety to the lower position pattern or when you want to break out of the groove with a melodic fill. The left hand will remain exactly the same for this section. The right hand, however, is voiced with a C on top which helps drive the pattern. Did you notice that the symbol for the B♭ chord is different in this step? This is not a continuity error. This upper position chord voicing features both the 2nd (C) and 3rd (D) so the chord symbol is expressed as B♭(add2) rather than B♭(sus2). It is also important to note that for the B♭(add2) and Gm11 chords, your right thumb is covering both middle C and D, a technique some players call “fat fingering” those particular notes.

Step 6 Pro Piano Accompaniment Upper Position

Congratulations! You’ve made it to the end of today’s lesson and have tried on over a handful of amazing pro furnishings to take your piano accompaniment to the next level. By stepping out with these adornments, you are sure to be recognized for having a professional piano sound.

Thanks for learning with us! We’ll see you next time!


Blog written by Michael LaDisa / Quick Tip by Jonny May

More Free Lessons

Learn how to play Gershwin's "Summertime" for solo jazz piano. Go beyond the lead sheet with pro insights on the chords and harmonic structure.

Explore the harmonic genius behind 5 of Stevie Wonder's biggest hits! Discover what makes these chord progressions sound so good and unique.

There's more to playing standards on piano than single-note melodies. Discover 6 ways to add harmony notes to jazz melodies for a fuller sound.

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

Get instant access to this Quick Tip and other member features with a PWJ 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!

Get Started