Ribbon in the Sky – How to Solo on Piano
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In 1982, Stevie Wonder gave us an iconic love song with his classic ballad “Ribbon In the Sky.” Like many timeless piano ballads, “Ribbon In the Sky” is immediately recognizable from its first few notes. In fact, Essence magazine ranks “Ribbon In the Sky” at #7 in their list of “25 Best Slow Jams of All Time,” and remarks that “no 90’s dance or wedding was complete without this classic Stevie ballad.”¹ In today’s Quick Tip, Jonny May shares how to improvise a piano solo on “Ribbon In the Sky” for 4 playing levels, from beginners to advanced pianists. You’ll learn:
- Introduction: Ribbon in the Sky Song Facts
- Ribbon in the Sky Piano Chord Progression
- Left Hand Accompaniment
- Ribbon in the Sky Piano Solo Techniques
- Appendix: Functional Analysis of Ribbon in the Sky Piano Chords
If you’ve always wanted to learn to play “Ribbon in the Sky” by Stevie Wonder, this piano solo lesson “is not a coincidence, and far more than a lucky chance”—this lesson is for you!
“Ribbon in the Sky” was released in 1982 on Stevie Wonder’s greatest hits compilation album, Original Musiquarium I. The compilation featured twelve of Stevie’s biggest hits from 1972–1980 along with four new songs, one of which was “Ribbon in the Sky.” Original Musiquarium I peaked at #4 on Billboard 200² and #1 on Billboard’s Top R&B albums.³ As a single, “Ribbon in the Sky” peaked at #10 in the U.S. on the R&B charts.
“Ribbon In the Sky” (1982)
Ribbon in the Sky: Historic Performances, Covers & Samples
Since the release of “Ribbon In the Sky” in 1982, the song has held a significant place in American music culture and history as evidenced by its many historic performances, cover versions and sample appearances.
In 1983, Diana Ross performed “Ribbon in the Sky” live in Central Park in front of over 800,000 fans. The benefit concert, entitled For One and For All, was aired worldwide by Showtime to fund a children’s play area in Central Park, which was named Diana Ross Playground. In fact, this epic concert event is included in VH1’s 100 Greatest Moments on TV.
In 2012, Stevie Wonder helped the world bid farewell to Whitney Houston with a memorable performance of “Ribbon in the Sky” in which he replaced the song’s title with the phrase “that angel from God’s choir of love,” with reference to the beloved singer.
In 1993, the R&B vocal trio Intro recorded a cover version of “Ribbon in the Sky.” Intro’s version peaked at #11 on the R&B charts in 1994.⁵ Without a doubt, this rendition influenced gospel pianist and producer Ben Tankard, who recorded a smooth jazz instrumental cover of the tune for his 2001 album Song of Solomon. Later, Boyz II Men recorded an a cappella version in 2007, while modern R&B group AHMIR reintroduced the classic tune to another generation with their 2010 cover. The song has also been recorded in various other styles, including an acid jazz version by 2 Men 4 Soul (1998) and reggae versions by Dennis Brown (1993) and Jamelody (2008).
“Ribbon in the Sky” (1993)
Stevie Wonder’s “Ribbon in the Sky” has also been sampled by a number of hip-hop artists. Perhaps most notably, Will Smith sampled the famous piano intro riff on “Chasing Forever” (1997). Other cuts that have sampled the tune include “Keep It Real” (1995) by Philadelphia rapper Jamal, “Todos Kieran Mas” (1997) by Spanish rapper Nach Scratch and “TDG Crew” by Chilean Hip-Hop group Tiro de Garcia. In all, at least a dozen songs recorded between 1990–2013 feature samples of the classic hit. ⁶
“Chasing Forever” (1997)
The enduring attraction of Stevie’s smooth vocal melody and lush piano chords on “Ribbon in the Sky” make it perfect for solo piano repertoire and the study of progressive improvisational approaches.
Let’s turn our attention now to the popular R&B piano chord progression of “Ribbon in the Sky.” The tune begins in D♭ major and modulates twice, ascending a ½ step each time. Therefore, it is important to learn this R&B chord progression in D♭, D and E♭ major on piano. Today’s “Ribbon in the Sky” improv lesson will focus on the key of E♭, the key in which the piano solo occurs. However, you can use our Smart Sheet Music to easily transpose this chord progression to any key of your choice. You can also download the complete lesson sheet from the bottom of this page after logging in with your membership.
One aspect of “Ribbon in the Sky” that is particularly interesting from a harmonic perspective is that is scarcely includes the tonic chord. In fact, Stevie’s original 1982 recording only resolves to the tonic chord twice! The first occurrence of the tonic chord appears after the second verse, while the tune is still in D♭ major. After that, the 1-chord doesn’t appear again until the end of the song—which is in E♭ major at that point. Let’s examine the basic chord progression below in E♭ major.
Analysis of Ribbon in the Sky Piano Chords
The analysis above treats each chord at face value in the key of E♭. Note, in this example, ” V/VI” should be interpreted as a slash chord rather than a secondary dominant. For example, this is not implying “five of six.” Rather, this is the 5-chord (B♭) with the 6th of the key (C) as a bass note. You might think of this as “five over six.” This analysis is the most simple and straight forward way to interpret these chords for beginner piano students.
In this progression, the analysis for measure 7 may look a little intimidating. However, the key is to recognize that the bass line is walking up from the F to B♭ with a bit of chromaticism: F→G→A♭→A♮→B♭.
For a more thorough harmonic analysis and explanation of this chord progression, check out the appendix to today’s lesson: Appendix: Functional Analysis of Ribbon in the Sky Piano Chords.
Now, let’s learn a left hand accompaniment for these chords so that we can improvise over this progression.
In this section, we’ll work out a simple left hand accompaniment that will allow us to improvise a piano solo on “Ribbon in the Sky.” The voicings shown in the example below are chord shells. A chord shell is a minimalistic piano voicing that uses two or three notes to imply a given chord. For example, by playing either the Root+3rd or the Root+7th in our left hand, our ear is able to hear the harmonic outline of the chord progression. Chord shells are especially appropriate in cases in which playing all the chord tones in one hand would result in a sound that is too muddy.
Alright, now you’re ready to begin improvising a beautiful piano solo on “Ribbon in the Sky!”
Regardless of your playing level, you can enjoy exploring solo piano improvisation in the R&B style with the “Ribbon in the Sky” chord progression. This section organizes popular piano improv techniques in 4 progressive levels from beginner to advanced.
Beginner piano students can learn to improvise a piano a solo on Steve Wonder’s “Ribbon in the Sky” with just 1 scale. The E♭ major scale (E♭–F–G–A♭–B♭–C–D) will sound good throughout this chord progression (although you should avoid playing the D♮ over D♭△7 in measures 7–8).
E♭ Major Scale
If you are an early beginner, you may find measures 7–8 of the chord progression more challenging. However, there is nothing that says you can’t simply loop measures 1–2 to begin improvising. This will allow you to get started with just 1 scale and 3 chords! To get started, try playing your E♭ major scale in your right hand while playing the left-hand accompaniment from earlier in this lesson. Then, you’ll be ready to try the following improv techniques.
Here are a few ideas you can use to create interesting 8th note lines like the example above:
- Begin on different scale tones
- Begin on different beats
- Change directions with differing frequency
- Experiment with adding skips
- Use rests to add space
These methods will allow you to discover solo piano lines that sound much more original than merely ascending and descending scale on the E♭ scale.
Once you are comfortable with 8th note lines, you can try adding turns, as in the following example.
Similar to turns, slides are another melodic ornament that you can use to decorate 8th-note lines. A slide is like a grace note that approaches a target note from one scale tone below the target.
For more energy and excitement, try playing lines that include 16th notes, as in the following example.
To learn even more professional improv techniques with the major scale, check out How to Improvise a Solo with the Major Scale (Level 2, Levels 2–3).
More experienced players can use other types of scales on “Ribbon in the Sky” to create lines that sound more soulful or exotic. For example, late beginner students can use the Major Blues Scale and the Minor Blues Scale. Each of these scales contain six notes and are constructed by modifying the major scale according to a specific formula:
Major Blues Scale: 1–2–♯2–3–5–6
Minor Blues Scale: 1–♭3–4–♯4–5–♭7
When you apply these formulas to the E♭ major scale, you get the following blues scales.
E♭ Major and Minor Blues Scales
Here are some sample improv lines that draw on the sound of the major and minor blues scales.
Major Blues Improv Line
Minor Blues Improv Line
Be sure to check out the following courses for even more soloing techniques, riffs and licks with blues scales:
- The Major Blues Scale / Gospel Scale (Level 2, Levels 2–3)
- The 10-Lesson Blues Challenge (Level 2, Level 3)
Are you ready for the next level?
In this section, we’ll explore how to play a piano solo on “Ribbon in the Sky” that incorporates more jazzy and crunchy colors. To capture this sound, we’ll use an 8-note jazz scale called the Bebop Dorian Scale. To build a Bebop Dorian Scale, start with a major scale and modify it according to the following formula:
Bebop Dorian Scale: 1–2–♭3–4–5–6–♭7–♮7
(If you’re already familiar with the Dorian mode, you can think of the Bebop Dorian Scale as a Dorian scale with the addition of the ♮7th.)
Jazz pianists us the Bebop Dorian Scale to improvise on minor 7th chords. Therefore, we can use the F Bebop Dorian Scale and the G Bebop Dorian Scale on our Fm7 and Gm7 chords respectively. In addition, we can also apply a chord substitution to B♭/C, replacing it with Cm7. This will allow us to play the C Bebop Dorian Scale over Cm7.
Bebop Dorian Scales
For a deep dive on bebop scales, be sure to check out or full-length course on 2-5-1 Soloing with Bebop Scales (Level 3).
In the next section, we’ll explore additional scale constructions for advanced pianists.
In this section, we’ll break down how advanced pianists can play a highly engaging piano solo on “Ribbon in the Sky” that contains striking and exotic colors. To do this, we’ll examine three additional jazz scales formulas:
Chromatic Bebop Dorian Scale: 1–♯1–2–♭3–4–5–6–♭7–♮7
This 9-note scale is similar to the Bebop Dorian Scale from level 3 with an additional passing tone between scale degrees 1 and 2. We’ll using this scale on Fm7.
Aeolian Scale: 1–2–♭3–4–5–♭6–♭7
This scale is equivalent to a natural minor scale. We’ll use this sound on Gm7 to provide some contrast from the chromaticism of the previous chord.
Dominant Diminished Scale: 1–♭2–♭3–♮3–♯4–5–6–♭7
This jazzy 8-note scale is arranged in alternating ½ steps and whole steps, beginning with a ½ step. Jazz pianists often play this scale on dominant chords to create more interesting lines. Therefore, we’ll substitute C7 for the 3rd chord in our “Ribbon in the Sky” chord progression.
The following example shows each scale along with the appropriate left hand chord.
Multiple Jazz Scales Approach
To explore each of these sounds further, be sure to check out the following courses:
- Pro Piano Improv with the Chromatic Scale (Level 2)
- How to Improvise a Solo with the Aeolian Mode (Level 2, Level 3)
- Improvise Jazz Piano with the Dominant Diminished Scale (Level 2)
We’ll close today’s improv lesson with some clips of instrumental solos from two of Stevie Wonder’s legendary performances of “Ribbon in the Sky.” The first example is from Stevie’s 1995 live album, Natural Wonder. Many fans esteem this recording as the most unsurpassable version of the tune. The solo licks between harmonica and sax in this clip draw heavily on major and minor blues scales are perfect for beginner improvisors to imitate. The second example is from a 1984 performance and features more advanced improvisational lines. Each clip is cued to where the solo section begins.
Harmonica & Sax Improv
“Ribbon in the Sky”(Live, 1995)
Piano & Keyboard Improv
“Ribbon in the Sky”(Live, 1984)
In you enjoyed today’s lesson, you’ll love the following resources:
- Neo Soul Piano Improv with the Pentatonic Scale (Level 2)
- Play Contemporary Gospel and R&B Piano in 3 Steps (Levels 2–3)
- Scales for Improv on 7th Chords (Levels 2–3)
- Gospel Earth (Level 3)
- Gospel Soul (Level 3)
Thanks for learning with us today! We’ll see you next time.
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If you have a bit more experience analyzing harmonic function, there is another way to explain how the chords in “Ribbon in the Sky” behave. For example, you might be wondering, “What purpose does B♭/C serve in this progression? What about A♭/B♭?”
One of the problems with analyzing B♭/C as V/VI (“five over six”) is that is really doesn’t clarify whether this chord is behaving like a 5-chord or a 6-chord. For example, if this is truly a 5-chord (B♭) in E♭ major, what is C doing in the bass? On the other hand, if this is a 6-chord in E♭ major, what quality is it? The sound of B♭/C is actually a “suspended” sound, which is much more typical of dominant sus chords. In fact, there is a more accurate chord symbol for B♭/C . This chord can be analyzed instead as C9(sus4): C–F–G–B♭–D. However, the 5th (G) is omitted.
Understanding Dominant 9 Sus 4 Chords—V9(sus4)
The full name for the chord symbol C9(sus4) is “C Dominant Nine, Sus Four.” In common use, however, most musicians will call this “C nine, sus four.” As the name implies, this chord generally behaves like dominant chord…which means that it is a 5-chord. It’s just not the 5-chord of E♭ major. Instead, C9(sus4) is a secondary dominant that is behaving like the V9(sus4) of Fm7 in the next measure. With this understanding, we can actually interpret Gm7 as the 2-chord of F. Therefore, the chord progression Gm7→C9(sus4)→Fm7 is like a II→V→I progression in F.
In this case, it’s not necessary to be specific as to whether the secondary key is F major or F minor. In fact, if it were F major, we would expect to see F△7. Likewise, if it were F minor, we would expect to see Fm6 or perhaps Fm(maj7). Since the C9(sus4) resolves to Fm7, the tonicization is too brief to determine whether it is F major of F minor. It’s really an incomplete II→V→I of F, since the Fm7 places us squarely back in E♭ major. This analysis is reflected in the diagram below.
Did you notice that the analysis above also reinterprets A♭/B♭ as a dominant sus chord? By using the analysis V9(sus4), we are implying that the chord is properly understood as B♭9(sus4): B♭–E♭–F–A♭–C, albeit with the 5th omitted. This does not mean that the chord symbol A♭/B♭ is wrong. This symbol is appropriate because it represents the easiest way for the performer to construct this chord. On the other hand, B♭9(sus4) explains how the songwriter makes this chord work.
As we have seen, both occurrences the Dominant 9 sus 4 sound (that is B♭/C and A♭/B♭) in “Ribbon in the Sky” can be explained as having a dominant function.
Understanding the ♭VII△7 Substitution
Another particularly challenging chord to explain is the D♭△7 (“D♭ major 7”) at the end of measure 7. We call this the ♭VII△7 because the root of this chord is the lowered 7th scale tone in E♭ major (aka: “♭7”). The ♭7-chord is commonly used as a substitute for the 1-chord. This chord works as a tonic substitute because it supports a tonic melody note. In other words, if you place E♭ in the melody of D♭△7, you actually have a beautiful D♭△9 (“D♭ major 9”). Does this chord have any relationship to E♭ major? Yes! It is a borrowed chord from the E♭ Dorian. The E♭ Dorian scale is E♭–F–G♭–A♭–B♭–C–D♭. This scale produces the chord D♭–F–A♭–C. Examples of “borrowed chords” are also called modal mixture or modal interchange. This compositional technique allows songwriters and composers to create harmonic variety by using chords from any parallel mode.
For an overview on common chord substitution techniques, check out Piano Chord Substitution—The Complete Guide (Level 2). For a deep dive on this topic, check out our full-length courses: Passing Chords & Reharmonization (Level 2, Level 3).
¹ “25 Best Slow Jams of All Time.” Essence, Essence Communications Inc., 30 Oct. 2020.
² “Stevie Wonder: Billboard 200” Billboard, Penske Media Corporation.
³ “Stevie Wonder: Billboard Top R&B/Hip-Hop Albums” Billboard, Penske Media Corporation.
⁴ “July 1983: Diana Ross Performs in Central Park during Torrential Rainstorm.” Totally 80’s, Vintage Everyday.
⁵ “Artist Search for ‘Intro.’” AllMusic.com.
⁶ “Samples of Ribbon in the Sky by Stevie Wonder on WhoSampled.” WhoSampled, WhoSampled.com Limited, 1 Jan. 1982.
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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