Teaching Popular Music

My very first piano teacher Mr. Herbert Sweet taught me to play popular music from the very beginning. I remember he would write out the melody and the chords to songs in a manuscript book and teach me to play my favorite pop tunes.

I think teaching popular music is super valuable. It is great for developing the ability to play by ear. It helps with music theory by teaching students about chords. Learning to play popular music includes a level of creativity and improvisation that helps people to become comfortable at the keyboard.

“Fake it till you make it” and “Close enough for rock and roll” are expressions we’ve all heard. Basically, they mean, keep going, don’t stop playing. This can be very helpful in quelling performance anxiety and making playing the piano a lot more enjoyable.

Plus, Popular music easily builds a student’s repertoire. It can also be motivating because in the long run, popular music is much easier to learn and memorize than most classical music. Lastly, popular music also opens the door to the study of blues and jazz.

Getting Started

I start popular music with early-intermediate students I want them to have a firm foundation. Which means good technique and the ability to read music.

I sometimes make exceptions with the ability to read music. Some students have such “great ears” that learning this way is their strong suit. If they are struggling with reading, we focus on playing by ear alongside working from a method book.

I teach my students popular music without using books or music notation. I want them to learn to play their favorite songs by ear. Here are the steps I follow.

1 – Choose a song. This is not always as easy as it should be. A lot of children today don’t listen to much music at all. In the old days, the radio played chose the playlist and we all knew songs like “Piano Man” and “Tiny Dancer”. I find myself having to do a little digging to help my students choose a song to learn. Popular movie music usually is a good place to find music the kids like.

2 – Check it out. In the beginning I want the songs to be easy. Not too many chord changes and recorded in an easy key. C, G, D, F, or Bb (or their relative minors). I do not want my students to have to transpose the songs. We rely heavily on listening so having to change keys would be confusing. (I will have a list of some of the songs we start with below)

3 – Listen to it. I listen with my students at the lesson and have them listen multiple times throughout the week. I also like to have them listen to piano “covers”. A cover is just a musician’s personal rendition of any song. I go to YouTube and type in the name of the song followed by “piano Cover” This is great for giving me and my students an idea of how the song might be played by a pianist.

4 –Sing it. I know my students are ready to begin learning the song when they can sing the song confidently. If they are hesitant to sing, I’ll have them try to pick out the notes by ear. Some students know the song but are embarrassed to sing. If their singing is a little “pitchy” we work on this sometimes it is due to poor vocal control and sometimes they just don’t know the tune that well. If they know the song, they should be able to begin working out the melody by ear using the right hand. I usually give them the first few notes.

5 – The Left Hand. I begin by teaching major and minor triads in root position. No inversions or extensions. I want my students to understand how the chords are built. Later on, down the road, we will work with inversions, left-hand patterns, and seventh chords, and beyond. But in the beginning, I want to keep things as straightforward as possible.

6 – Put it together. When they know the right hand and the left-hand chords, we start putting the song together. I’ll play it for them and then have them use their ears to determine the chord changes. Most students do this fairly easily some need a little help.

Once they can play a few songs and know a bunch of triads we start varying the left-hand using inversions and sone different left-hand patterns. Then it’s time to add sixth and seventh chords and ultimately include some of the chord tones in the right hand to achieve a fuller sound.

Be patient.

It’s not an exact science. There is some room for interpretation with popular music. In the beginning, your students may find it frustrating to try to play by ear. But just like anything else the more they practice this skill the better they will become at doing it.

Keep your eyes on the prize.

My ultimate goal is to have my students become life-long piano players. I want them to be able to sit down and enjoy playing music for the joy of it. To be able to entertain their friends and family at parties and holidays if they so desire.

Because popular music is so very accessible and so well-loved by so many people. I know that learning to play it will help ensure that they will continue playing for years to come.

Here are some of the easier pop songs my students are working on;

Piano Man (Billy Joel)

True Colors (Cindy Lauper)

Memories (Maroon 5)

Yellow Submarine (Beatles)

Can’t Stop the Feeling (Justin Timberlake)

High Hopes (Panic at the Disco)

Sunday Best (Surfaces)

Rainbow Connection (Muppets)

Let it Be (Beatles)

Imagine (John Lennon)

Champaign Problems (Taylor Swift)

Your Song (Elton John)

There are many more but these songs are in easy keys and only involve a few chord changes,

 

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