How to play songs on the piano. Adapting a song for the piano

Italian flag
Leggi in Italiano

How do you play a song on the piano? In this lesson we will see how to use the piano to accompany a singer, but also how to adapt a melody so that it can be played only with the piano, in an instrumental version.

Most songs are born to be sung, so the natural role of the piano is as an accompanying instrument. So let us first see how to use the piano to accompany a singer or solo instrument. Later we will see instead how to adapt a song to play it in an instrumental version.

How to accompany a singer with the piano

The main role of the piano in playing songs is definitely to accompany. The piano is the ideal instrument for accompanying a singer or solo instrument executing the melody of a song.

The guitar can also fill the role of accompanying instrument very well, but the piano has more rhythmic variety as it can play two totally independent lines: for example, a bass line on the left and chords on the right.

The guitar is a great accompanying instrument for playing pop, rock repertoire. But if the rhythm of music gets more complicated, the piano is definitely a more versatile accompanying instrument.

When the piano accompanies a singer or soloist, essentially the pianist is concerned with two aspects in particular:

  1. The harmony, or the chords of the song.
  2. The rhythm peculiar to the song.

The easiest and most effective way to play these two elements is to play the chords with the right hand, in the middle register, and the bass line with the left hand. The bass line is crucial, so much so that we use one hand only to take care of the bass line. Let’s see why playing the bass line is so important.

Playing songs on the piano: what should the left hand do?

There are at least three reasons for the left hand to devote itself entirely to the bass line:

1) Playing the root notes of the chords enhances and makes the harmony clearer. In some cases, chords can even be implied (and therefore not played) if we play a clear and precise bass line.

2) The bass line contributes greatly to the rhythm of the song. In fact, many rhythmic patterns are based precisely on the movement of the bass line

3) If the left hand plays in the lower register, the accompaniment has a greater range. The piano covers the lower-middle register, while the upper-middle register is covered by the instrument playing the melody, or by the singer.

canzoni al pianoforte mano sinistra
Playing songs on the piano: the left hand almost always plays the bass line

For these reasons, to accompany a singer with the piano, the most effective solution is almost always to play the bass with the left hand, while the right hand plays the chords. The most important part of the song, namely the melody, is not played at all by the piano. In fact, the melody is left to the singer or the instrument we are accompanying.

Learn more about my online piano lessons and I will help you improve your left hand on the piano.

But what if we want to play a complete song on the piano instead, that is, play melody and accompaniment on the piano at the same time?

How to adapt a song to play it with the piano

While being an excellent accompanying instrument, the piano can also be a solo instrument. When we want to play a complete song on the piano, and not just accompany a singer or another instrument, we need to play three elements, simultaneously.

  1. The melody of the song. Obviously, if there is no solo instrument or singer, then the piano must play the melody
  2. The chords of the song, or the harmony
  3. The bass line, which we have already mentioned is crucial to the rhythm of the song

Therefore, to play songs on the piano we have to play three distinct elements at the same time, and this creates quite a few problems. Playing two different parts with the two hands, for example, bass line on the left and chords on the right, is relatively easy. It becomes much more complicated when the elements become three. Unfortunately, the hands remain in fact only two, and we really feel that “we are one hand short” to be able to play everything.

Therefore, let us see how to cope with this difficulty by offering some solutions for playing songs on the piano.

A simple but ineffective solution: chords plus melody

To play a song or pop song on the piano, usually beginners tend to play the chords with the left hand and the melody with the right hand. This system is certainly the simplest, as each hand takes charge of one element only. However, this solution creates more problems than it solves. In particular, here are the main limitations of this method.

1) The bass line is missing

Abandoning the bass line entirely weakens the rhythm of the song. In fact, we have said that the bass line is essential to make the rhythm of the song sound better. Have you ever heard a band without a bass player? The bass is a fundamental instrument; we notice it when it is missing. The same happens if we play a song on the piano without performing a bass line, the piece is static and lacks rhythm almost completely.

Without a bass line, the harmony of the song also becomes less complete and less clear, as the root of the chord contributes greatly to the clearness of the harmony. Due to the phenomenon of harmonic sounds, a sound in the lower register of the piano is much fuller and richer than the same sound played in the higher register.

2) Harmony does not sound good

Without a bass line, the harmony is there but does not sound the best. If the left hand plays all the chords in root position, the chords are clear but sound clunky and blunt. The hand moves from chord to chord without tying them to each other. Here is an example: the melody of Io vagabondo by the Nomadi, with the left hand playing the chords in root position.

Io-vagabondo-esempio 1
The left hand plays the chords in root position

Another possibility is to play with the left hand the inversions, connecting the chords to each other using the voice leading principle. In this case, however, the lowest note of the chords creates an unintentional bass line, which is not formed of the root notes and thus makes the harmony unclear anyway. Let us see the same piece this time with the left hand playing the inversions.

Io-vagabondo-esempio 2
The left hand plays the inversions

In both cases, the bass line is missing and the harmony does not sound very good anyway. In addition, playing chords with the left hand also has other consequences.

3) Lack of space on the keyboard

When the left hand plays chords, it inevitably occupies the middle area of the instrument. In fact, the chords in the lower register of the piano sound poorly , and so we cannot go much lower with the left hand. Sometimes the melody also occupies the middle register, and so the two hands struggle to occupy the same space.

It seems almost unbelievable, but the piano with its 88 keys is still too small, due to the fact that the middle notes are not 88 but only about fifteen or so. Let us therefore see how to play songs on the piano more effectively.

How to play songs efficiently on the piano: adapting the song for the piano

Therefore, we have seen that dropping the bass line is not a good idea. To play a song effectively on the piano, we need to play all three main parts of the song: bass line, chords and melody.

To do this, we have to imagine our song as a house: the bass line is the floor, the melody is the roof, and the harmony is everything in between.

This metaphor helps us visualize a basic principle of voice arrangement: the melody should be the highest voice, the bass line should be the lowest part, and harmony can be anywhere, as long as it is in the middle between bass and melody.

melody harmony bass line

How can you achieve this by using the two hands? The starting point is to assign the bass line to the left and the melody to the right. The harmony must then be inserted in the middle, with one of these three solutions:

  1. The harmony is played by the left, together with the bass. This occurs, for example, when the left plays the chord arpeggio, while the right plays the theme. Be careful: the chords should always be above the bass line, and never below.
  2. Harmony is played by the right hand along with the melody. In this case we speak of melody harmonization because the chord is “hanging” immediately below the melody. Attention: the chords should always be below the melody, never above it.
  3. Harmony is divided between the two hands, that is, each hand plays one or two notes of the chord, which will thus be played in full only by the sum of the notes of the two hands. Again, the notes of the chord should never go below the bass line (left hand) or above the melody (right hand). Remember the metaphor of the roof and the floor? The harmony must always remain within the other two lines, bass and melody.

Let’s look at a third example of harmonization of Io vagabondo by the Italian group Nomadi. In this case the left hand plays the bass, while the right hand plays a harmonized melody. The result is much better than the previous two examples.

Io-vagabondo-esempio 3
The chords are played by the right hand, immediately below the main melody

Adapting a song for piano, some practical tips

In addition to complying with these rules related to melody, bass line and harmony, to play a song on the piano we can and should adapt the song to the instrument. In particular, here are some practical tips for making a song more suitable to be played on the piano.

Adapting the melody for the piano

Songs are designed to be sung, which is why the melody follows the lyrics of the song. Typically, each note corresponds to a syllable. For this reason, carrying the sung part to the piano often creates a melody full of repeated notes. Let’s take an example, Vasco Rossi’s song Albachiara.

albachiara melodia principale pianoforte

All these repeated notes are not unpleasant when sung, as the voice ties the various notes together, performing them with the same air emission, that is, all in one breath. The same notes do not sound as good when played with the piano.

For this reason, in some cases it is advisable to simplify the melody by dropping some repeated notes. The melody of Albachiara could therefore be adapted in this way.

Albachiara melodia pianoforte
The melody of Albachiara, adapted for the piano

Let us now look at a second example, with the harmonized melody. The right hand also plays portions of the chord, always lying under the melody.

Albachiara melodia pianoforte esempio 3
Albachiara, harmonization of the melody

Simplifying the melody is sometimes a necessity, to make a song more suitable for the piano. Let’s now look at other ways to adapt and simplify a song before playing it on the piano.

Adjusting the tonality

Each singer adapts the song to his or her vocal extension, and also an instrument must do the same. The piano can play a song in any key because it has no extension problems, unlike a singer who might “fall short” of singing notes that are too high or too low.

However, there are good reasons for choosing one key over another. The first is simplicity of performance: some tonalities have many alterations, sharp or flat notes, that require us to play on the black keys. Black keys are thinner and more slippery, and they certainly make playing more complicated.

For example, if a song in its original version is in the key of G flat major, it may be a good idea to play it in G or F, greatly reducing the number of alterations.

Depending on the melodic movement of the song, raising or lowering the key of a song also can help us play the melody in a better register. Note that even though the piano has 88 keys, the middle register is limited to a small portion of the keyboard.

Personally, when I play “solo piano” pieces, I prefer those in the key of F major, because I feel that the melody is often well positioned. For example, if I have to play John Lennon’s Imagine with solo piano, I hardly play it in C major, the original key, but I rather prefer the keys of F or even E flat, which have some alterations but are better centered on the instrument.

Playing a song on the piano: adapting the arrangement

We have already mentioned that sometimes the melody of a song must be adapted to be played on the piano. The same is true for the arrangement of the song. In adapting a song to the piano, we have to choose what to keep and what not to keep.

The main melody, typically consisting of verse and chorus, will almost always have to be respected. We can often abandon elements of the original arrangement if they are not essential to the song. Intros, instrumental parts, solos, are all auxiliary elements that we can often overlook without compromising the song’s discernibility.

Be careful though, some Intros or instrumental parts are as typical of a song as much or more than the melody itself. Let’s take a couple of examples: the introduction of Caruso by Lucio Dalla, and the instrumental part of La cura by Franco Battiato. Both elements are essential and must be maintained in solo piano performance.

Here is an example of harmonization of La cura. In this case the chords are divided between the two hands.

La cura Franco Battiato, esempio al pianoforte
Sheet music from the Modern Piano Course

In the Modern Piano Course found on this site you can find the complete sheet music for Imagine, Io vagabondo, La Cura, Caruso and many other songs.

Finally, in adapting a song to the piano we are allowed to eliminate some repetitions. Often a song repeats verse and chorus several times, also because the lyrics need more space to complete their content.

When we play a song on the piano, there are no words, and therefore the song can and should be shorter. It is not necessary to play all the strophes of the song, especially if there are more than two. Normally, playing the verse and chorus of the song a couple of times is more than enough.

Choosing the right songs for the piano

Playing songs on the piano is not always possible, that is, not all songs will be suitable to be played on the solo piano. Let’s take an example: Bob Dylan‘s Blowing in the Wind is a song that bases almost everything on the lyrics. The melody is simple and repetitive, with many repeated notes. Playing it on the piano is possible, but the piano is unlikely to make an interesting version of the song.

Songs best suited to be played on the piano are those that have a varied melody with few repeated notes. Slow pieces are definitely ideal because they give us time to complete the chords with both hands, while fast and highly rhythmic songs are the most difficult ones: if the hands are busy playing a complex rhythm, it is more difficult to play the melody along as well.

Conclusions: playing songs on the piano

Adapting a song to play it on the piano definitely requires experience, but also patience. Knowing the chords well is definitely a good place to start. If you haven’t read it already, you may be interested in the lesson how to read chord symbols.

If you want to understand more about how harmonic progressions and music in general work, the harmony course might be for you.

I hope this lesson will be a good starting point for you to try playing songs on the piano, either to accompany a singer or in a solo piano version. I will be very happy if you will write your questions or point of view in the “comments” section below. Thank you!

Do you want to receive my free lessons?

Sheet music, harmony lessons, music theory and musical analysis.