Jonny May
Quick Tip

Learning Focus
  • Groove
  • Improvisation
  • Technique
Music Style
  • Latin Jazz
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Imagine that you’ve been hired to perform solo piano music at a hotel or banquet hall. What should you play? Even though your stipend is likely earmarked under the “entertainment” budget, it’s not likely that you’ll be the main attraction, nor should you to try to be. In today’s Quick Tip, Play Elevator Music on Piano–Ultimate Guide, Jonny May shows you how contribute ambient piano music in a manner that suits the occasion and gets you invited back! You’ll learn:

If you initially got into music to express yourself or become famous, then “play elevator music” is probably not on your bucket list. However, you might as well embrace it because, as you may know, one opportunity often begets another.

Intro to Piano Elevator Music

One of the most common musical genres found in elevator music playlists is bossa nova. In fact, there’s a good reason for this. It’s because elevator music is specifically designed to create a pleasant atmosphere or relaxing effect—musical qualities that are also intrinsic to the Brazilian bossa nova style.

Musically speaking, bossa nova blends Brazilian samba with American jazz. The style originated in Brazil in the late 1950s and became an international music sensation in the early 1960s when American saxophonist Stan Getz teamed up with Brazilian composer Antonio Carlos Jobim and Brazilian guitarist João Gilberto to record hits such as “Desafinado” and “The Girl from Ipanema.”

Another name for bossa nova music is Brazilian jazz. In addition, the term Latin jazz is also used more broadly to refer to any music with characteristics originating from Cuba or Brazil.¹ In fact, you can study these styles in depth in our Latin Jazz Piano Learning Tracks (Level 1, Level 2).

For PWJ members, today’s lesson includes the complete lesson sheet PDF and 3 audio backing tracks. These downloadable resources appear at the bottom of this page after logging in with your membership. In addition, members can easily transpose the lesson sheet examples to any key using our Smart Sheet Music. You’ll find the Smart Sheet link in the blue bar that appears at the top of this page when you are logged in.

Alright let’s get you ready for the gig!

3 Steps to Play Elevator Music on Piano

With the 3 steps in this section, we’ll get you playing some nice, relaxing elevator music on piano. First, we’ll teach you a basic bossa nova piano groove for two hands. Then, we’ll teach you how to essentialize this groove with the left hand only so that you can free up your right hand. Finally, we’ll explore various improv scales that you can use to play a solo with the right hand.

Step 1: Play an Elevator Piano Groove

The first step to play elevator music on piano is to learn a basic bossa nova piano groove. This groove consists of two different rhythmic patterns—one in each hand. The left-hand pattern rhythmic pattern is one measure long while the right-hand pattern is two measures long. The example that we’ll explore here uses a total of 4 piano chords: Dm9, G13, Cmaj9 and A7(♭13). Even though some students may not have the theoretical background to understand these chord symbols in detail, the chords themselves can be played with just 3 notes in the right hand and are easy enough to learn by rote. Check it out…

Bossa Nova Piano Groove

Play Elevator Music Piano Groove

Let’s start by analyzing the bass line in the left hand. To construct this bass line, you must first identify the root and the 5th in each chord. For example, for Dm9 (D–F–A–C–E), the root is the note D and the 5th is the note A. Therefore, our bass line for Dm9 will begin on a D and move to an A in the 2nd half of the measure. A typical bossa nova bass line uses a dotted-quarter note and an 8th note on each pitch. Then, we’ll apply the same formula for each chord in the subsequent measures. An important consideration for bossa nova bass lines it to realize that for the 5th of the chord, you can play the 5th above the root or the 5th below the root. Often times, it sounds best to mix it up a bit as in the example above.

In the right hand, we’re playing some jazzy chord voicings that include the 3rd, the 7th and one additional color note, which will either be a chord extension (9th, 11th or 13th) or chord alteration (♭9, ♯9, ♯11, or ♭13). These 3-note voicings are based on the standard system of rootless voicings that all jazz pianists study. Typically, these rootless voicings are taught as 4-note voicings. However, any 4-note rootless voicings can be converted into a 3-note voicing for a more open sound by omitted the 2nd note from the bottom.

🔎 You can master jazz piano rootless voicings for all chord types in our Late Intermediate Piano Foundations—Level 6 Learning Track.

Step 2: Play an Elevator Piano Accompaniment

While the bossa nova groove in Step 1 sounds great, you’ll eventually want to change it up a bit by adding a melody or solo line. Therefore, it’s important to be able to essentialize this groove with just the left hand. Therefore, in this section, you’ll learn two left-hand bossa nova accompaniments—one for beginner/early-intermediate pianists and another for late-intermediate/advanced pianists.

Let’s start by listening to the beginner/early-intermediate accompaniment…

Bossa Nova Accompaniment 1 (Beg/Int)

Play Elevator Music Left Hand Accompaniment Beginner

As you can see, this accompaniment is based on same bossa nova bass line rhythm that you learned in Step 1. However, instead of playing a single-note bass line, we are able to get a fuller accompaniment texture by playing chord shells. In the study of jazz piano, the term chord shell describes a 2-note or 3-note chord voicing that contains the essential tones necessary for conveying the overall harmonic movement in a passage of music. In this case, our chord shells are comprised of either the root + 3rd or the root + 7th.

If you are a more experienced player, then this next accompaniment pattern is for you. This pattern will enable you to create an even richer accompaniment texture by including more harmonic colors.  To play this pattern, the left hand must move laterally across the keyboard from the root of the chord up to a rootless chord voicing. However, instead of playing all of the notes of rootless voicing at the same time, we’ll detach the lowest note of the voicing so that we can maintain a bossa nova rhythmic pattern. Notice, the final 8th note in each measure is the 5th of the next chord, which we often describe as a “falling 5th.”  Check it out…

Bossa Nova Accompaniment 2 (Int/Adv)

Play Elevator Music Left-Hand Accompaniment (Intermediate-Advanced)

You may have noticed that the last chord in this example is slightly different. Here we have A13 where we previously had A7(♭13). The reason that we’ve changed the voicing here is because A13 is a better match for the improv scale that we’ll be using to solo over this chord in the next section.

Step 3: Improv Scales for Soloing

Now that you’ve got your left-hand down, let’s explore some improv scales for your right hand. Once again, we’ll provide a simple approach and a more advanced approach to accommodate players of all levels. In this section, you’ll find that playing elevator music on piano is much more exciting than you probably thought!

Beginner Soloing

If you are a beginner piano student, then the best scale to use when exploring improvisation is the major blues scale. This 6-note scale is easy to use and sounds great. To construct a major blues scale, simply modify a major scale according to the following formula: 1–2–♯2–3–5–6. Therefore, the C major blues scale contains the notes C–D–D♯–E–G–A.

C Major Blues Scale

C Major Blues Scale

Now, let’s listen to a beginner bossa nova sample solo that uses the C major blues scale over the beginner left-hand pattern from Step 2. In the following example, notice the improv techniques that are labeled in the notation: slides, turns and harmonized slides. Learning to tastefully apply these simple techniques will give your solo lines a more advanced sound.

Beginner Bossa Nova Solo with Major Blues Scale

Beginner Bossa Nova Improv with The Major Blues Scale - Elevator Music Example

🔎 For more even more tips and trick on how improvise with the major blues scale, visit our full-length courses on The Major Blues Scale (Gospel Scale) (Int, Adv).

Intermediate & Advanced Soloing

If you are an intermediate or advanced player, then another improvisational approach to consider is using a different scale for each chord of the chord progression. The benefit of this approach is that this your solo lines will include melodic characteristics that more clearly convey the harmony.

The first improv scale we’ll use is the C major scale. In fact, this scale works over two different chords in our bossa nova progression: Dm9 and Cmaj9.

C Major Scale

C Major Improv Scale for Dm9 & Cmaj9

Next, for the G13 chord, we’ll use a G dominant diminished scale. Another name for this scale is the half-whole diminished scale. This 8-note scale alternates between half steps and whole steps, beginning with a half step. Therefore, a G dominant diminished scale contains the notes G–A♭–B♭–B♮–C♯–D–E–F.

G Dominant Diminished Scale

G Dominant Diminished Improv Scale Over G13

Lastly, for the A13 chord, we’ll use the A dominant diminished scale, which contains the notes A–B♭–C–C♯–E♭–E–F♯–G.

A Dominant Diminished Scale

A Dominant Diminished Improv Scale Over A13

🔎 You can learn more theory and application about dominant diminished scales in our Quick Tip on The Diminished Scale Demystified (Int).

Now that we’ve identified an improv scale for each chord in our progression, it’s time to put all the pieces together. However, it can be quite challenging to keep all of these scales in your mind while trying to solo. Therefore, the following “Connecting Scales Exercise” is a tool that Jonny recommends to help students familiarize their mind, ears and fingers with each scale in its proper place. Furthermore, this exercise will enable you to change scales seamlessly without missing a beat…literally!  Check it out…

Connecting Scales Exercise

Connecting Scales Exercise for Turnaround Progression on Piano

Be sure to try to practice this exercise with one or more of the 3 backing tracks that are included with this lesson. The 3 backing tracks are recorded at various speeds (60 BPM, 100 BPM and 140 BPM).

5 Sample Solo Piano Lines for Elevator Music

Once you feel comfortable with the Connecting Scales Exercise, you’re ready to start coming up with your own improv lines. In this section, we’ll examine 5 of Jonny’s sample lines that use the intermediate/advanced scales from Step 3.

Solo Line 1 below is similar in many ways to the Connecting Scales Exercise. However, this line has a more spontaneous contour (measures 1 & 3), introduces different note lengths (measures 3 & 4) and includes a turn ornament (measure 4). As such, this line represents how students can begin to transition from the Connecting Scales Exercise into improvisation.

Solo Line 1

Turnaround Progression Sample Solo Line 1 - Elevator Piano Music Example

Solo Line 2 below introduces more melodic variety. For example, the first three notes in measure 2 (C♯–E–D) are an example of a improv technique known as enclosure (also called encircling tones, rotationor surround notes). This melodic device approaches a target chord tone—in this case, the note D—using the neighbor notes below and above it (or vice versa).

Solo Line 2

Turnaround Progression Sample Solo Line 2 - Elevator Piano Music Example

🔎 For a deep dive on how jazz musicians use enclosures in their playing, check out our full-length course on 2-5-1 Soloing with Enclosures (Adv).

Solo Line 3 below explores an improv technique known as outlining chords. For example, measure 1 features a descending F▵7 chord outline followed by a descending Dm7 chord outline. In this case, the F▵7 chord outline does not represent a chord substitution. Instead, this melodic figure highlights the 3rd, 5th, 7th and 9th of Dm9 (D–F–A–C–E). Similarly, measure 3 colors the sound of Cmaj9 with a descending Am7 chord outline followed by an Em7 chord outline.

Solo Line 3

Turnaround Progression Sample Solo Line 3 - Elevator Piano Music Example

🔎 To see more examples of how jazz musicians use chord outlines in their playing, check out our full-length course on 2-5-1 Soloing with Outlining Chords (Int).

Solo Line 4 includes an exciting mix of advanced improv techniques. In measure 1, we have an enclosure on beats 2 and 3 with the notes C–E–D. Then, measure 2 features a technique known as triad pairs. Notice the first six notes of measure 2 are comprised of two descending triad shapes: D♭ major (D♭–F–A♭) and E minor (E–G–B). Since these triads are both contained within the G dominant diminished scale, you can alternate between them to construct a melodic line with a more angular shape. This is the essence of the triad pairs technique. Finally, in measure 4, Jonny uses a triplet run over the A dominant diminished scale to build energy and excitement.

Solo Line 4

Turnaround Progression Sample Solo Line 4 - Elevator Piano Music Example

🔎 Discover how to incorporate the triad pairs technique in your playing with our full-length course on 2-5-1 Soloing with Diatonic Triads (Int).

In Solo Line 5, Jonny demonstrates yet another improv technique by using an upper structure in a melodic fashion. For example, over G13, Jonny arpeggiates an ascending E major triad shape with the notes B–E–G♯–B. Jazz musicians typically choose upper structure triads that contain two or more chord extensions or alterations as a means of highlighting expressive harmonic colors. In this case, E major contains the ♭9 and the 13th of G13 (the notes G♯/A♭ and E).

Solo Line 5

Turnaround Progression Sample Solo Line 5 - Elevator Piano Music Example

🔎 For more examples on how to use upper structures when improvising, check out our Quick Tip on Improvise Jazz Piano with Upper Structure Triads (Int/Adv).


Congratulations, you’ve completed today’s lesson on Play Elevator Music on Piano–Ultimate Guide. Even though the term “elevator music” often gets a bad rap among highbrow musicians, learning to fill a crowded room with chill piano vibes can put you in good company.

As the perfect follow-up for today’s lesson, be sure to check out our Bossa Nova Soloing Challenge (Beg–Adv) course.

If you enjoyed today’s lesson, then you’ll also love the following related PWJ resources:


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



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¹ Valerio, John. Latin Jazz Piano: The Complete Guide with Audio! Hal Leonard Corporation, 2010.

Michael LaDisa

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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