The Happy Chord Progression on Piano
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Have you ever noticed that some emotions are easier to depict on the piano than others? For example, emotions such as frustration, sadness, or sorrow are more easily personified. On the other hand, how would you exemplify happiness or joy? Not so easy, right? One reason why “happy piano” is so challenging is because happiness and joy are upbeat feelings. Therefore, happiness lends itself to a groove-based playing approach, and that’s where many piano students struggle to get started. Until now! In today’s Quick Tip, Jonny May shows you how to play an upbeat, toe-tapping piano groove that represents the epitome of joy! You’ll learn:
- The Happy Piano Chord Progression
- 3 Groovin’ Happy Piano Bass Lines
- The Major Blues Scale
- 3 Piano Improv Techniques
- Additional Happy Piano Lessons
Today’s lesson is like a piano party, and students of all levels will find plenty to learn and apply.
Today’s lesson begins with the “Happy Chord Progression.” This light-hearted chord progression provides the backdrop to many popular songs, including Disney’s megahit single, “Love is an Open Door,” from the Frozen Original Motion Picture Soundtrack. Our lesson sheet is C major, however, you can easily transpose the lesson material to any key of your choice using our Smart Sheet Music. The downloadable lesson sheet PDF appears at the bottom of this page after logging in with your membership. You’ll also find a backing track to play along with while practicing.
Frozen Original Motion Picture Soundtrack
“Love Is an Open Door”
The Happy Chord Progression uses the following four chords.
A Note About Slash Chords
Perhaps you are unfamiliar with a chord symbol such as C/E? This is an example of a slash chord. In slash chord notation, the letter in front of the slash represents the primary chord and the letter after the slash indicates the bass note. Therefore, a hypothetical chord symbol of x/y indicates a chord of x with a bass note of y.
In the next section, we’ll groove on the happy piano chord progression by exploring 3 bass line options.
There are 3 bass line options for the Happy Piano Chord Progression on today’s lesson sheet. You can choose the bass line that best fits your playing level, or learn all three!
The beginner bass line features a dotted-quarter/eighth note rhythm that punctuates the essential chord movement in our progression: I→I/III→IV→V. Take a listen below:
The intermediate level bass line includes the same essential macro rhythm as the beginner bass line. However, this bass line provides additional momentum by filling-in counts 2 and 4 with 8th notes. In fact, the additional notes in the intermediate bass line are all the same note—the note C. Jonny describes this note as a “pivot” note because the thumb pivots off this note in a higher register before resuming the macro groove in the lower register.
Great job! Now, let’s check out the advanced bass line option.
The final bass line we’ll examine below is certainly the more animated the the previous examples. However, don’t let the word “advanced” keep you from giving this bass line a test run. Many players will find that they are able to keep this groove with just a little practice. Let’s check it out:
Did you notice that this bass line includes some chromaticism? In particular, the D♯ is a chromatic lower neighbor to E and the F♯ is a chromatic lower neighbor to G. In addition, this bass line also divides the pulse into continuous 8th-note subdivisions.
Keep in mind that these bass lines can be used interchangeably. For example, in an actual performance situation, you might combine elements of the intermediate and advanced bass lines so as to use chromaticism more sparingly.
In the next section, we’ll explore improv techniques for the right hand that sound fantastic.
Jonny’s “go to” scale for The Happy Piano Chord Progression is the versatile sound of the Major Blues Scale. This six-note scale, also called The Gospel Scale, uses the notes 1–2–♯2–3–5–6 from a major scale. For example, the C Major Blues Scale contains the notes C–D–D♯–E–G–A.
C Major Blues Scale / Gospel Scale
Next, we’ll explore 3 different piano improv techniques using the notes of the C Major Blues Scale.
Now that you have learned the C Major Blues scale, let’s approach these notes through the lens of 3 different improv techniques. By applying each of these methods, your improv lines will sound original and interesting.
The first improv technique we’ll explore is 8th note lines. With this technique, our goal is to try to play deliberate sounding phrases that have a definite start and finish. In this section, we will explore improve phrases based on the following 8th note motifs.
8th Note Lines—Motif #1
A particularly helpful practice method for developing more intuitive improvisational phrasing is to try to come up with multiple lines that use the same rhythm. Motif #1 (below) is abstracted from the first example on today’s lesson sheet.
8th Note Motif #1
Now let’s examine Jonny’s sample phrase from today’s lesson sheet that uses this rhythmic motif.
8th Note Motif #1: Example A
Sounds pretty cool, huh? Next, we’ll explore two additional phrases that use Motif #1 and the C Major Blues Scale. Notice that each example begins on a different note and has a unique contour.
8th Note Motif #1: Example B
Example A and Example B represent completely different creative possibilities that draw on the same essential material. If fact, the possibilities are inexhaustible.
One particular improvisational approach that many students neglect to explore is use of repeated notes. Therefore, Example C uses Motif #1 and the C Major Blues Scale while exploring the deliberate use of repeated notes. This is a great way to generate completely new ideas.
8th Note Motif #1: Example C
Wow, that sounds pretty cool! The next step is to come up with additional phrases of your own using Motif #1. Afterward, move on to Motif #2 below.
8th Note Lines—Motif #2
Motif #2 is in many ways similar to Motif #1, but with one significant distinction. This motif begins on beat 2 instead of beat 1. In fact, consciously starting on different beats is a great way to keep your lines from becoming stagnant and predictable.
8th Note Motif #2
Now, let’s examine and play 3 distinct lines that utilize Motif #2.
8th Note Motif #2: Example A
This line has an ascending contour overall. We call these lines up lines. Example B (below), on the other hand, presents a down line.
8th Note Motif #2: Example B
Next, let’s try Example C which uses repeated notes and a descending octave leap across the bar line. In fact, the 2nd measure of Example C is nearly identical to the parallel measure in Example B, except that the note C has been treated with “octave displacement”…yet another exciting way to generate new improv ideas.
8th Note Motif #2: Example C
Great job! Once again, try to create additional lines of your own using 8th Note Motif #2.
Now, let’s examine one more set of phrases using another 8th note rhythmic motif.
8th Note Lines—Motif #3
The third 8th note motif we’ll examine begins on an “off beat.” In this case, our rhythmic phrase enters on the “and of 2.”
8th Note Motif #3
8th Note Motif #3: Example A
Example A is a purely pentatonic phrase. In other words, without an appearance of “the blue note” (♯2/♭3→D♯/E♭), the Major Blues Scale is equivalent to a major pentatonic scale. This is still a hip sound, and a reminder that it is not necessary to use every scale tone in every phrase.
It’s also worthy of mention that Example A does not begin on a chord tone of C major. Instead, the note D is the 9th, an upper extension of C major. The combination of entering on an “off beat” with an upper extension creates energy and anticipation for the listener.
8th Note Motif #3: Example B
Example B begins on the 6th of C major and presents a down line that descends well into the meaty tenor register of the piano. This brings up another important topic for improvisational exploration…range and/or register.
8th Note Motif #3: Example C
Example C is rather straightforward. However, some students may wonder, “How come the notes C and A work over G major?” That is a good question. The answer is that when we play a Major Pentatonic Scale or the Major Blues Scale over the 5-chord, we are essentially implying a “dominant sus” sound, such as G7(sus4), G9(sus4) or even G13(sus4).
Let’s consider G9(sus4). The “sus4” indicates that that 3rd of the chord has been replaced by the 4th. Therefore, instead of G9 (G–B–D–F–A), we have G9(sus4) which contains the following notes: G–C–D–F–A. As you can see, this chord accounts for the final two notes of Example C.
Don’t forget to try some of your own original phrases on Motif #3. Then, continue on to the following sections which cover two hip ornamentation techniques—slides and top harmony.
The next improv technique on today’s lesson sheet is slides (aka: “finger slides” or “blues slides”). A slide is written like a grace note and is played on the beat. However, shhh…don’t tell your classical piano teacher…we are actually going to play the slide and the main note with the same finger! That’s right, we are literally sliding off a black key onto a white key. The example below shows three common slides on the C Major Blues Scale that sound great.
We can play an “up slide” from D♯ to E by sliding off of the D♯ with our 3rd finger and onto the E♮ with the same finger. We can also play a “down slide” by sliding from E♭ to D♮ with the 3rd finger. In addition, we can play an up slide from G♯ to A with the 2nd finger.
The following slide exercise superimposes each slide described above over our intermediated level happy piano bass line.
Happy Piano Slide Exercise
In addition to single note slides, you can also play double slides. A double slide is an ascending ornament which uses two fingers to play a total of three notes. On the Major Blues Scale, we can play two double slides: 2–♯2–3 and 5–♯5–6. In the context of the C Major Blues Scale, the double slides are D–D♯–E and G–G♯–A. In each case, we’ll use the 2nd finger for the first note and the 3rd finger for the final two notes.
Want to get these double slides under your fingers? Try playing the previous Slide Exercise, but replace the up slides with double slides instead.
For ever more pro tips with the Major Blue Scale, be sure to check out our full-length course on The Major Blues Scale / Gospel Scale (Level 2, Level 3) where you’ll learn to play turns, rolls, harmonized slides and more!
The final improv technique we’ll explore in today’s lesson is called top harmony or harmonized lines. This technique produces high-energy piano lines that sound bright and cheerful.
Top harmony can be added to any line derived from the Major Blues Scale by placing one of two notes on top—either the tonic or the 5th. Therefore, in the key of C major, your top harmony notes are C and G.
A popular way to use top harmony is to retain the top harmony note while moving through two or more scale tones below it. The following example illustrates this common practice.
Wow, that sounds great! As you can hear and see from this example, top harmony can be combined with slides and double slides for a truly professional piano improv sound.
For even more professional piano improv techniques on the Happy Piano Chord Progression, be sure to check out our full-length course on Pop Piano Improv Happy Monday (Levels 2–3). This course covers exciting piano sounds including sus chords, chordal melodies, and 13 riffs and licks.
Congratulations on completing this Quick Tip on The Happy Piano Chord Progression. In this lesson, you learned how to spread joy and happiness using a contemporary pop piano groove. Of course, an emotion as sublime as joy cannot be limited to a single stylistic expression. In fact, each of the following PWJ resources contain additional happy piano grooves in various styles that are overflowing with contagious joy.
- Pop Piano Improv Happy Monday (Levels 2–3)
- The Major Blues Scale / Gospel Scale (Level 2, Level 3)
- New Orleans Blues Piano—The Complete Guide (Level 2)
- Gospel Groove Series (Levels 2–3)
- Extended Turnaround Improv (Level 2, Level 3)
- Play Bebop Blues Piano in 3 Steps (Level 2)
- The Bare Necessities (Level 2, Level 3)
Thanks for learning with us today! We’ll see you next time.
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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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