Transform Your Piano Chords with the Shape Shifter
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Sometimes as pianists, we find ourselves searching for new chord sounds, or a fresh approach to familiar chord sounds. In today’s Quick Tip, Jonny May shares his Shape Shifting technique to transform ordinary piano chords into intriguing piano soundscapes. This technique is perfect for playing situations that call for a more modern piano accompaniment texture. In today’s lesson, you’ll learn:
- Introduction: Why Transform Piano Chords?
- How to Transform Piano Chords with the Shape Shifter
This lesson is perfect for intermediate level singer/songwriters and pianists who perform in contemporary ensembles.
The modern music scene is quite crowded. Therefore, finding an original sound is important to many bands and artists. For songwriters, one solution is to draw on less commonly used chord progressions. However, sometimes you may simply want to play familiar progressions in an innovative way. For example, maybe you want to play cover songs with your own unique sound. In this case, transforming your piano chords allows you to reach mainstream audiences while maintaining an original sound.
So, what does the Shape Shifter technique sound like? The example below shows a 1→5→6→4 chord progression in F major. In the first video, the chords are played “as written” with the addition of the root in the left hand. The second video example demonstrates the same chord progression performed with Shape Shifter piano chords.
Pretty cool, huh? As you can hear, learning to transform your piano chords with the Shape Shifter technique allows you to play a familiar chord progression with a personal touch.
Let’s listen to another progression that has been transformed with the Shape Shifter technique. Here is a 2→3→4→5 progression in F major. Once again, the first video utilizes basic triads with the root in the left hand (Note: right hand is performed an octave lower than written). The second video example demonstrates the same 2→3→4→5 progression performed with Shape Shifter piano chords.
Now that you have an idea of what the Shape Shift technique sounds like, let’s learn how these modern piano chords are constructed. Today’s lesson sheet demonstrates how to transform any pop progression with Shape Shifter chords in 4 simple steps. The lesson sheet PDF and backing track are downloadable from the bottom of this page after logging in with your membership. You can also easily transpose this lesson to any key using our Smart Sheet Music.
You can use to the Shape Shifter technique to transform any diatonic chord progression in 4 simple steps. Then, simply substitute these chords in your playing whenever you want to a more modern accompaniment sound.
The first step to transform your piano chords with the Shape Sifter technique is to play 2nd inversion triad shapes in your right hand. The following diagram illustrates the difference between root position, 1st inversion and 2nd inversion chord shapes. Notice that 2nd inversion triads are built up from the bottom using the formation 5th–Root–3rd.
Try playing the example below which contains all of the diatonic chords in F major with a 2nd inversion shape in the right hand.
If you need a refresher on how to play major and minor triads in inversions, be sure to check out the following Smartsheet resources:
Next, we need to shift one note downward in our right hand. In order to shift the correct note, let’s think of the previous example as having been written in SATB choral texture. Therefore, the top note would be the soprano voice, the 2nd note from the top would be the alto and the the 3rd note from the top would be the tenor. Naturally, the left hand represents the bass voice.
In Step 2, we want to shift the 2nd voice (the alto) downward by a diatonic 3rd interval. When we say a “diatonic 3rd,” we mean that we are going to stay in the key signature of F major. Therefore, in the following example, the alto voice in the F chord moved down a minor 3rd, from F to D. By contrast, the alto voice in the Am chord moved down a major 3rd, from A to F.
You may have noticed that the note we shifted in each chord was the root. Therefore, by moving the root down a 3rd, we now have 4-note chords that sound very cool. The chord symbols in the example above reflect these new 4-note chords, which in some cases require slash chord notation.
Quick Formula to Find Shapes for Step 2
These shape-shifted chords are rather unfamiliar for many players. Therefore, Jonny provides a helpful trick to build any shape-shifted chord:
- Start on the bass note and go up a diatonic 5th to get the tenor note.
- G0 up a diatonic step from the tenor note to get the alto note. (Could be a ½ step or whole step depending which chord…just stay in the key signature.)
- Go up diatonic 5th from the alto note to get the soprano note.
What Makes These Chords Sound So Cool?
What makes these chords sound so cool? Well, each of these chords contain a cluster in the middle of the voicing. A cluster is two notes that are either a ½ step or a whole step apart. These clusters give Shape Shifter chords more interesting tone colors in comparison to ordinary triads.
Another reason that Shape Shifter chords sound so cool is because they contain two 6th intervals that overlap in the middle. For example, the F6 chord above has a major 6th interval between the bass and alto voices (F→D) and another major 6th interval between the tenor and soprano voices (C→A). Let’s look at another example. The Fmaj7/A chord has a minor 6th interval between the bass and alto voices (A→F) and another minor 6th interval between the tenor and soprano voices (E→C).
There are two chords in Step 2 that contain a tritone. A tritone is a dissonant interval that spans three whole steps. For example, take a look at the second chord: Eø/G. This chord contains a tritone between the alto and soprano voices…the notes E→B♭. We find the same two notes in the seventh chord: C7/E. In C7/E, the tritone E→B♭ is found between the bass and tenor voices. As a result, the sound of the shape-shifted chords built on scale degrees 2 and 7 are a bit too jarring when compared to the others. In the next step, we’ll modify these two chords in particular to remove the tritone.
In the previous step, we identified that the shape-shifted chords built on scales degrees 2 and 7 were a bit out of character when compared with the others. Therefore, we will modify those two chords in this step.
For the shape-shifted chord on scale degree 2, we’ll use a Gm7 sound. This 4-note chord (G–B♭–D–F) provides the smoothest transition when moving to or from other shape-shifted chords. For scale degree 7, we’ll use C(add2)/E. This chord has a comparable clustery sound in the middle voices that works well with the other shape-shifted chords.
Next, try repeating the chords from Step 2 in succession while substituting the modified chords above on scale degrees 2 and 7. Afterward, you are ready to move on to the next step.
Now that you have learned how transform your piano chords with the Shape Shifter technique, you are ready for the final step. Step 4 is to play common chord progressions entirely with shape-shifted chords.
Progression 1 is a 4→5→3→4 progression. The first example below shows this progression notated with traditional triads. The second example notates the same progression with shape-shifted chords.
Progression 1 – Standard
Progression 1 – With Shape Shifters
Great job! Let’s try another example.
Progression 2 contains twice as many chords and utilizes a sequence in which the chords move up a 3rd and then a down step. The last chord of the second measure breaks this sequence, but also sets up the progression to be repeated. For this reason, the demonstrations below come to rest on a final IV chord.
Progression 2 – Standard
Progression 2 – With Shape Shifters
Nicely done. Now, it’s time for some real fun! Try playing Progression 2 along with the backing track that is included with today’s lesson. The backing track features more syncopated rhythms than shown above. To capture the correct feel, be sure to watch Jonny’s demonstration at the end of today’s Quick Tip lesson.
Congratulations, you’ve completed today’s lesson on how to Transform Your Piano Chords with the Shape Shifter. If you liked today’s lesson, then you’ll love the following related resources:
- Pop Piano Accompaniment: The One Chord Wonder (Intermediate)
- 3 Incredible Techniques with Piano Sus Chords (Intermediate)
- 3 Steps to Play Piano Chord Clusters (Intermediate)
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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