Jonny May
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The contemporary piano sound often elicits emotions of joy, peace, introspection and tranquility. At its core, the contemporary piano style is about transformation. Not only does this style transform melodic, rhythmic and harmonic components; it also transforms atmospheres, moods and listeners. But what is at the core of this style, and how can a tune be adapted into this style? In today’s Quick Tip, you’ll learn contemporary piano essential techniques and how to transform the Louis Armstrong classic “What a Wonderful World” into an uplifting contemporary piano metamorphosis. We’ll cover…

    • Time Signature Transformation
    • Chord Transformation
    • Groove Transformation
    • Additional Stylization

Today’s lesson covers intermediate level playing concepts. However, if you are a beginner pianist,  you will gain a much better understanding of how to approach this style (with lots of links for further exploration). Advanced pianists will appreciate the rich potential for expression and audience engagement that this style offers.

Let’s take a closer look.

Time Signature Transformation

Most popular renditions of “What a Wonderful World,” such as this 1967 Louis Armstrong performance, feature a 12/8 feel in the piano and rhythm section. However, that does not necessarily mean that the tune is always notated in a 12/8 time signature. In fact, this feel is often expressed in 4/4 using triplet notation. The technical name for the meter on the linked Armstrong recording is quadruple compound meter. That means there are 4 pulses (quadruple) in each measure and each pulse has a compound (as opposed to simple) subdivision.  The chart below illustrates this concept in both 12/8 and 4/4 time signatures.

Simple vs Compound Subdivision Time Signature 12/8 4/4 Quadruple Meter

The first step to arranging “What a Wonderful World” in a contemporary piano style is to change the meter from a compound subdivision to a simple subdivision. Some students are able to make this change quite naturally, while others may find this difficult. The lyrics are often a very helpful guide in making this transition.

Text Setting Considerations

The creative process of combining lyrics with melody is called text setting. There are general principals of strong text setting which are helpful to know. One major principle is that accented syllables are generally placed on strong beats of the meter. Similarly, unaccented syllables fit best on weak beats. A second principle of text setting is that the most communicative parts of speech (nouns, pronouns, verbs, adjectives) are placed on strong beats whereas subordinate parts of speech (prepositions, articles, conjunctions) are place on weaker beats.

Parts of Speech for Text Setting Noun Verb Adjective Preposition Conjunction Article

In a quadruple meter (4/4), the strong beats are 1 and 3 and the weak beats are 2 and 4. Now, let’s use principles of good text setting to set the lyrics of “What a Wonderful World” to quadruple simple meter. (Note: lyrics have been changed due to publisher’s restrictions).


What a Wonderful World Text Setting Contemporary Piano

In the example above, the most communicative parts of speech have been retained on strong beats during the metric transformation from 12/8 to simple 4/4. Note, the lyrics “I see leaves” contain a pronoun, verb and noun in succession. Based on text setting principles, each of those words could be candidates for a strong beat. However, it is also important to consider the subject matter. In this case, the narrator is describing “leaves.” Therefore, “leaves” is placed on the strong beat.

Now, let’s look at some harmonic characteristics of the contemporary piano style.

Chord Transformation

Perhaps the most fundamental characteristic of contemporary piano music is its colorful tonal character. Arrangers of contemporary piano music use added chord tones called extensions to create lush harmonies that are rich, warm and bright, but rarely dissonant. At the heart of this sound is chords containing clusters that are a whole step apart. The added notes will vary depending on the chord quality.

Transforming Major Chords

The most common technique for enhancing major chords in contemporary piano is an “Add 2” voicing which includes the 2nd of the chord. This note is also a whole step above the root and also a whole step below the 3rd off the chord. This creates a rich and full spectrum of overtones that stops short of sounding dissonant. This voicing most often occurs on the 1 chord and the 4 chord in a major key. Let’s consider the key of F Major. The 1 chord (F) and 4 chord (B♭) can be transformed like this:

F Major Contemporary Piano Chord Transformation

Bb Major Contemporary Piano Chord Transformation

Since the harmonic structure of “What a Wonderful World” contains elements of both pop and jazz, it is appropriate at times to use additional chord extensions, especially in instances in which the jazz influence is most prominent. This is particularly true of the D♭ Major chord which is the ♭6 chord in F Major. To transform this chord, we can add the 7th and 13th of the chord to create rich harmonic colors. (The 13th is a compound interval that is equivalent to the 6th.)

Db Major Contemporary Piano Chord Transformation for "What a Wonderful World"

Transforming Minor Chords

Minor triads can also be transformed to create the rich harmonic colors . To do this, try adding the 7th and 11th to your minor chords. (The 11th is the compound interval equivalent of the 4th.) This will most often apply to the 2 chord and the 6 chord. In F Major, the 2 chord is G minor. By adding the the 7th (F) and the 11th (C) you create the following transformation.

G minor Contemporary Piano Chord Transformation

Great job! Now, let’s try enhancing the 6 chord in F Major, which is D minor. The 7th of D minor is C and the 11th is G. Try playing these voicings.

D minor Contemporary Piano Chord Transformation

The 9th also sounds great on minor chords, although you should be aware that adding the 9th on a minor chord creates more dissonance than it does on major chords because there is only a ½ step distance between the 9th and the 3rd of a minor chord. The images included in this section do not include the 9th.

Transforming Dominant Chords

Contemporary piano often prefers Dominant 7 chords with a suspended 4th in place of regular Dominant 7 chords. For example, in F Major the V7 is C7, which is spelled C-E-G-B♭. Note that the interval between the 3rd of the chord (E) and the 7th of the chord (B♭) is a diminished 5th, which is also known as a tritone. The tritone is the most dissonant interval available in western harmony. Remember, contemporary piano makes very controlled use of dissonance. The V7sus4 allows pianists to delay or avoid the natural dissonance of the V7 chord. For example, C7sus4 is spelled C-F-G-B♭. In this chord, the tritone is temporarily replaced with a perfect 4th instead (F to B♭). The suspended 4th (F) will often resolve to the 3rd of the chord (E) on a weak beat to further deemphasize the tritone dissonance. Sometimes, the resolution note (E) is omitted altogether.

C7 Contemporary Piano Chord Transformation for "What a Wonderful World"

When performing “What a Wonderful World” on piano you also will want to apply this concept to secondary dominant chords. Simply put, a secondary dominant is a Dominant 7 chord other than the 5 chord in the key. In our example, “What a Wonderful World” features an A7 chord that resolves to D minor. The A7 is not the primary dominant. Since D minor is the 6 chord in F, the A7 is functioning as a secondary dominant—the V7 of the 6 chord. You should familiarize yourself with this sound as it is arguably the most commonly occuring secondary dominant in pop music. Can you transform an A7 into an A7sus4?

A7 Contemporary Piano Chord Transformation

Excellent job! If you need more practice with secondary dominants, check out our full courses on Passings Chords & Reharmonization (Level 2, Level 3).

Next we’ll look at yet another distinctive element of this piano style.

Groove Transformation

In this section, we want to break down a common groove found in contemporary piano music. The heart of this groove is found in the following rhythm pattern which we’ll play with the right hand.

Contemporary Piano Rhythm Pattern

To play this groove with two hands, you’ll select mainly block chords in the right hand that support the melody. Then, add an arpeggiated 8th note pattern in the left hand that supports and accentuates the syncopation of this underlying rhythm.

Contemporary Piano Groove—Hands Together

Wow! What a great sound! To learn additional progressions and grooves that sound great in pop and contemporary piano styles, check out Contemporary Progressions & Improv (Beginner/Intermediate, Intermediate/Advanced).

So far you’ve adapted the meter, enhanced your chords and solidified your groove—what else is there?

Additional Stylization

Finally, let’s look at some finer nuances of the contemporary style. In this section will look and subtle embellishments that add to the overall calming effect of this style.

Diatonic Slides

First, let’s explore adding diatonic slides to the accompaniment pattern. You can apply this technique by follow two simple steps:

      1. Identifying whole tone clusters within a chord voicing
      2. Transforming the bottom tone of the whole tone cluster into a grace note

Let’s now apply these two simple steps to our F(add9)/A voicing which features a whole tone cluster between F and G in the right hand.

Creating Diatonic Slides for Contemporary Piano Slip Notes Country Western Piano

Very sweet! You may also hear this technique referred to as “slip notes.” Now, let’s see how this tool is applied within the contemporary groove.

Example of Slip Note in "What a Wonderful World" Contemporary Piano Groove

Doesn’t that sound amazing? Small details like this make a big impact on your overall sound. Let’s look at another stylization technique.

Filler Lines

You can also add filler lines to your contemporary piano arrangements when the melody is sustaining a whole note. This doesn’t need to be a virtuosic display of lightening piano technique. The example below uses a simple upper neighbor gesture (A-B♭-A) harmonized in 6ths for a soothing melodic effect.

Melodic Filler Line Harmonized in 6ths

Notice how this technique is simple yet effective. If you enjoyed today’s Quick Tip, you will also love digging into Pop & Contemporary Piano Accompaniment: The One Chord Wonder to further transform your piano sound.

Thanks for learning with us—happy practicing!


Blog written by Michael LaDisa / Quick Tip by Jonny May

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