Jonny May
Quick Tip

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For many piano students, improvisation is primarily viewed through the lens of scales. While it’s true that scales provide the fundamental building blocks for melody and harmony, approaching improvisation through the lens of scales alone frequently stifles creativity. Consider for a moment that the fundamental material in ceramics is clay. Tile shops, however, do not sell clay. Instead, they have luxurious showrooms filled with tiles in various shapes, colors and sizes to inspire creative designs for your home. Did you know that you can take a similar approach to piano improvisation? That’s right, in today’s Quick Tip, you’ll learn to use piano chord shapes to create beautiful improv lines that sound fresh and organic. You’ll learn:

  • 2 Cluster Chord Shapes for Beautiful Piano Improv
  • 3 Piano Exercises to Master Cluster Chord Shapes
  • Professional Ornamentation Techniques with Piano Chord Shapes

As you browse through the showroom of piano chord shapes in today’s lesson, we’re certain you’ll discover brand new possibilities for your improvisation too!


Students of all levels will find today’s lesson on improvising with piano chord shapes to be inspiring and accessible. Since the material draws on just two chords drawn from the C Major, beginners can feel comfortable and confident. On the other hand, intermediate and advanced students will find opportunities to adapt the core material to contexts involving additional accompaniment patterns and chord progressions.

Before we get started, be sure to download today’s lesson sheet. The lesson sheet and backing track appears at the bottom of this page after logging in with your membership. You can also change the key with a single click using our Smart Sheet Music.

To begin, let’s review the parent scale and chords for todays lesson. The example below shows the C major scale with each scale degree labeled in relation to C.

C Major Scale

C Major Scale with Scale Degrees
C major scale with scale degree labels.

The next example shows how the left hand accompaniment is drawn from chords built on the 1st and 4th degrees of the scale (C major and F major). We call these the 1-chord and the 4-chord respectively. However, in harmonic analysis, it is common to use Roman numerals to indicate chord function as in the example. Notice that throughout the remainder of the lesson, we’ll be using the 1-chord in 1st inversion.

The I and IV Chords in C Major

Left Hand Chords for Piano Accompaniment
The left hand accompaniment uses just two chords—IV and I.

Perhaps you assumed that F was the 1-chord because it comes first in the chord progression on today’s lesson sheet? After all, a C major chord can also be found in the key of F major too, right? This is a common point of confusion for beginners. It’s important to note that a piece of music does not always begin on the 1-chord. In fact, it is quite common for a piece to not begin on the 1-chord. The biggest clue that we are in C major as opposed to F major is the absence of the note B♭ throughout the entire lesson.

Piano Accompaniment for Left Hand

Now, let’s examine the accompaniment pattern we’ll be using to support our improv. For the F major chord, we’ll play the root and 5th only (the notes F and C). Similarly, for the C major chord, we’ll play the 3rd and root of the chord (the notes E and C).

The first example below features whole notes as shown on the lesson sheet in measure 1 and 2. The second example features a variation that Jonny plays in the opening segment of today’s Quick Tip video. This variation utilizes a quarter-note pulsation to mark the tempo as is especially appropriate when playing in a solo piano setting. When playing this type of accompaniment pattern, be careful not to play the quarter notes too loud with your left thumb.

Whole Note Accompaniment

Left Hand Accompaniment–Whole Notes
Whole note accompaniment for improv with piano chords shapes.
Quarter Note Accompaniment

Left Hand Accompaniment–Quarter Note Pulse
Quarter note accompaniment for improv with piano chords shapes.

You can learn 12 additional left hand accompaniment patterns in our full-length courses on Pop & Contemporary Accompaniment Patterns (Beg/Int, Int/Adv).

Now that you’ve learned the left hand, you’re ready to learn to use piano chord shapes in your right hand to create beautiful improv lines.

Improvising with Piano Chord Shapes

Professional pianists performing in pop and contemporary styles frequently improvise lines and add fills using chord shapes that sound especially interesting and beautiful. At the heart of this sound are often melodic lines that utilize tone clusters. A cluster is two or more adjacent tones in a chord shape that are either a ½ step or a whole step apart. In today’s lesson, we’ll explore two piano chord shapes containing clusters for each major chord in our chord progression.

2 Cluster Chord Shapes for F Major

The clusters we will use for our right hand shapes outline a major 9th chord. By improvising melodic material containing the 7th and the 9th, our playing will take on a fresh, contemporary sound that is often characterized as peaceful or inspirational. We will refer to each cluster shape by its lowest chord tone. For example, we’ll call the first shape a 7 shape because it orders the tones in the sequence 7–1–2–5. Similarly, we’ll call the second shape a 2 shape since it reorders the tones in the sequence 2–5–7–1.

Now, let’s look at the notation for each piano chord shape we’ll use to improv over F major and listen to their sounds.

7 Shape for F Major 9

F Major 9 Piano Chord Shapes—7 Shape
Improv inspired by piano chord shapes containing tone clusters produce lines that sound interesting and organic, such as this 7 shape for F Major 9 which is constructed with the tones 7–1–2–5.

2 Shape for F Major 9

F Major 9 Piano Chord Shapes—2 Shape
The 2 shape for F Major 9 uses the tones 2–5–7–1. This shape contains a quartal construction between the tones 2–5–1 with a cluster on top between the tones 7 and 1.

In preparing to improvise with piano chord shapes, it’s a good idea to practice playing each chord shape up and down the keyboard in each register. Also, try alternating between the 7 shape and 2 shape shape as you ascend and descend. Afterward, you will be ready to play the F major chord shape exercise below.

Piano Chord Shapes Exercise for F Major

F Major Piano Chord Shapes Exercise
Practice ascending and descending melodically with alternating piano chord shapes over an F major chord.

What a cool and interesting sound! Next, we’ll explore the same piano chords shapes over our 1-chord—C major.

2 Cluster Chord Shapes for C Major

7 Shape for C Major 9

C Major Piano Chord Shapes–7 Shape
7 shape for improv over C major.

2 Shape for C Major 9

C Major Piano Chord Shapes–2 Shape
2 shape for improv over C major.

Piano Chord Shapes Exercise for C Major

C Major Piano Chord Shapes Exercise
Use this exercise to practice ascending and descending with alternating piano chord shapes over a C major chord.

Great job! Now you’re ready to play an exercise combining all of the chord shapes you’ve learned into a chord progression.

Mix All Piano Chord Shapes in a Progression

The following exercise features the same chord progression from the introduction which moves from the 4-chord to the 1-chord. Remember, as the chord changes, we must adjust our piano chord shapes as well.

Mixed Shapes Exercise
This exercise mixes 7 shapes and 2 shapes in a chord progression alternating between F major and C major.

Nice work! Now you are really ready to start improvising with chord shapes. Begin by playing the exercise above with the included backing track. Then, try exploring new ideas with each shape as the track continues to play.

In the final section, you’ll learn a few ornaments that you can add to give your improv a polished and professional sound.

Professional Ornaments with Piano Chord Shapes

Throughout the performance demonstrations in today’s Quick Tip video, Jonny plays a few ornaments that sound especially tasteful. In this section, we’ll break down how you can add these professional ornaments your playing as well.

To get started, click the play button below to see and hear a transcription of Jonny’s opening lines from today’s Quick Tip video.

Sample Chord Shapes Improv with Pro Ornamentation

Piano Chord Shapes Improv Transcription
Transcription of Jonny’s opening lines from today’s Quick Tip video featuring professional ornaments such as rolls and slip notes.

Would you like to improvise beautiful lines like this? You can…these lines simply apply the 7 shapes and 2 shapes in creative ways! For example, each line starts with a descending roll through the notes of the 7 shape. Try practicing descending 7 shape rolls over each chord as shown below. Notice that the roll does not have to target a down beat.

Rolls with Piano Chord Shapes

Rolls with Piano Chord Shapes
You can create a professional sounding ornament by converting the first three notes of the 7 shape into an ornament that rolls downward into the final note.

The next example contains the same meta-structure as the previous example. However, now we’ll follow each roll with various 16th-note gestures instead.

Lines beginning with Rolls
Example incorporating rolls into various 16th-note lines using piano chord shapes.

Each of the examples above use 7 shapes. However, you can also play rolls with 2 shapes in a similar manner.

Next, let’s consider another type of ornament.

Slip Notes with Piano Chord Shapes

Slip notes are ornaments that brighten the melody, giving it an effect often described as a “sparkle” or “twang.” The majority of slip note applications approach a melody note from a whole step below. In fact, pianist Floyd Cramer referred this technique as a whole-tone slur. Since the 7 shape (7–1–2–5) contains a whole step between tones 1 and 2, the slip note technique is especially well-suited to this shape.

Slip notes commonly feature a harmony note on top. In notation form, the slip note appears as a grace note, but it should be played simultaneously with the upper note when harmonized as in the following example.

Slip Notes with Piano Chord Shapes Flyod Cramer whole-tone slur diatonic slide
Example of slip note ornaments using the tones 1–2–5 of the 7 shape (7–1–2–5).

Next, let’s look another ornament you can use to easily add a professional touch to your improv.

Turns with Piano Chord Shapes

The first two measures of the following exercise feature an ascending line comprised of downward 16th-note gestures that alternate between 7 shapes and 2 shapes. In measure 3 and 4, this structure is ornamented by adding turns between the 3rd and 4th tones of each chord shape. As you practice this exercise, you may be pleasantly surprised at just how accessible it is to insert these turns.

Turns with Piano Chord Shapes

As you can see, with just a little practice you’ll be on your way to improvising interesting and beautiful lines with a professional piano sound.


Congratulations, you’ve come to the end of today’s lesson on improvising with piano chord shapes. If you enjoyed this lesson, then you’ll love the following resources in our course library.

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


Blog written by Michael LaDisa / Quick Tip by Jonny May

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