In recent years, I’ve welcomed a few teenage students who have never played the piano before or who had a few years of lessons but had given up when they started playing with both hands. Teenagers making their own decision to start piano lessons while leading a busy school life working towards GCSEs, deserves a pat on their back. They’re often looking for something to enjoy, enriching their life outside the school. Consequently, I feel all the more responsible to make sure that they achieve what they’re hoping to get out of piano lessons. Learning to read musical notation is not necessarily their first priority, although they may have had some experience of reading musical notation during the music classes they received in the past. And indeed, a little reading skill is useful. As you can guess, their choice of music usually revolves around the pop songs they listen to. It’s certainly a challenge for piano teachers who are not into pop music or who, like myself, went through the phase of listening to pop songs a long time ago, like myself. Finding out what’s current and popular amongst teenagers is not difficult because students will usually short-list them for you. The true challenge lies in how teachers can make learning pop songs as musically educational as possible as one does with more classically orientated repertoires. What I usually do first is to ask my students to write down a list of songs that they enjoy listening to so that I can listen to them via he internet. I then decide whether any are suitable for piano, either in a piano solo style or self-accompanying style. Here are some criteria that I consider when choosing pop songs for piano lessons:
Ideal songs for piano solo arrangement contain (a little reading skill may be useful):
- Melodic interest (enough shapes in the melodic line; not too many repeated notes – what sounds good as a vocal doesn’t necessarily mean that it works for a piano solo arrangement)
- Rhythmic interest (syncopated rhythm either in the melody line or in the bass but not both)
- Harmonic interest (at least 4 chords)
- Tonal interest (ideally a simple modulation)
Ideal songs for self-accompanying style arrangement contain:
- Simple chordal patterns repeated in the background (blocked and/or broken forms without syncopated rhythms), usually best played by the right hand
- Simple bass patterns, which carry potential for exploring syncopated rhythms to mimic the drum beats, usually best played by the left hand
- Words in the lyric that have ample syncopated rhythm
Those who aren’t keen on reading musical notation are often willing to learn about patterns based on chord structure. For that reason, it’s usually easier for the first timer to learn songs in a self-accompanying style. Giving a single letter as a root note of a chord and other chord notes by intervals is often enough; the concept of inversions can be explained at a suitable point.
Chords can be written out in letters or keyboard patterns drawn showing which keys to press for certain chords or explained in chord symbols as a shorthand reminder (the bass note in the left hand is almost always the root note of the chord in pop songs). Anything that helps the students internalise the shape of each chord! Some chords may need simplification depending on the student’s capabilities. For example, 2-note chord instead of 3; 1st inversion instead of 2nd, blocked form instead of broken or vice versa, as long as they sound harmonically balanced.
Another issue may be choice of key; C major is not necessarily the easiest. To visually recognise chord patterns, it often seems easier for students to have a black key or two in the chord. Also, when the 2nd or 3rd finger can stay on the black key, chord-playing seems a little easier due to the natural shape of the hand (as Chopin would advocate). This means that transposition may also be necessary depending on the choice of pop song. It may seem more work on the teacher’s part, but as students need a regular dose of challenges to keep motivation going, so do teachers!
By the time they have learned to play an entire song, they will have a very good grasp of chord playing in the right hand because of the repetitive nature of pop songs. They get to practise the same chord patterns over and over especially if they sing all the verses and choruses. Playing a long song also helps them learn about the structure of music, even if simple as verse / pre-chorus / chorus / bridge / chorus. As pieces with chords in the right hand start appearing at the grade 3 level in piano exams, learning to play chord-based pop songs can be usefully integrated into the lessons for those who are preparing for an exam to explore more possibilities. You never know, it may lead to more creative activities as they explore.
The fun part of learning self-accompanying style is that students get to sing along to their own playing. Having said that, some students, especially boys are often reluctant to sing during the lessons. I gently encourage them by asking if they’d try at least to speak the words so that they learn how the words fit to the piano part. If they still refuse, that’s OK too. The teacher can sing for them and let them listen carefully to how the words fit whilst they try keeping a steady pulse in their playing. Students have a tendency of missing out a beat or adding an extra beat when the words fit between beats.
Here, I’d like to make a list of elements in pop songs that can be considered educationally beneficial:
- repetitive nature (useful for developing various muscles, small and large)
- simple structure (good for form analysis, pattern analysis; it may lead to creative activities)
- self-accompanying a song opens their ears to listen to themselves naturally and also lays a good foundation for ensemble playing
- syncopated nature of pop songs in a solo style can further develop coordination between the hands in particular (some students prefer playing the melody than singing it)
- looking at the hands while playing helps the students observe how their arms/hands/fingers are manipulated, hence they’ll be more aware of how to control various movements of parts of the body, such as the arm, wrist rotation (circular, axial, lateral, etc.), hand/finger shapes, etc.
So far, I have mostly focused on teaching pop songs by rote. Those who can read music (say grade 1 standard or better) can usually get around skimming through the notations in the music to be able to use them as a visual guide. This skill is somewhat necessary when the player wishes to play a solo arrangement of a pop song, especially when they put both hands together. It is often true that seeing how the each part comes together between the hands in a notated form makes it easier to ‘get it’.
My top choices amongst those that my students happily and successfully learned so far are as follows:
For those whose reading skill is not there yet:
- Imagine by John Lennon (self-acc) – C major (mainly primary chords with a few borrowed/ altered chords which give a lift to the song)
- Someone Like You by Adele (self-acc) – A major (ideal for wrist rotation; middle fingers can stay mostly on the black keys as the chord shape changes
- The Power of Love by Frankie Goes to Hollywood [Gabrielle Aplin cover]) (self-acc) – B minor (4 chords throughout but the order of them changes in some parts of the song; broken chords shared between the hands)
- Mad World by Tears for Tears [Gary Jules cover] (piano solo) – E minor (4 chords throughout; melodies explored in simple scale and chord patterns)
- Only Love Can Hurt Like This by Paloma Faith (self-acc) – C major (3 chords throughout; ample syncopated rhythms in the lyrics supported by simple blocked chord on every beat)
- Like I’m Gonna Loose You by Meghan Trainor (self-acc) – C major (4-chord strcutre with triplet feel throughout; ideal for developing ear, hand and voice coordination) –> available from SheetMusicPlus.com.
For those with some reading skill:
- Jar of Hearts by Christina Perri (self-acc) – E flat major (starts in C minor, then modulates to E flat major; contrapuntal passage in the Bridge section)
- Your Song by Elton John (Ellie Goulding cover) (self-acc) – B flat major (the right hand chords may be simplified sensibly; ample syncopated rhythm in the lyrics)
- Century by Fall Out Boys – E minor (some intricate drum beats in the left hand can be explored with a simple right hand melody (piano solo)
- Sail by AWOLNATION – pentatonic melody! (piano solo) – G flat major (pentatonic-based melody, which means most notes are the black keys)
- Let It Go by Anderson-Lopez & R. Lopez (self-acc) – G major (simpler than the original A flat major, especially when it modulates to the subdominant key in the middle section and it’s still singable, not too high or too low) –> available from SheetMusicPlus.com.
To help those who are not reading notation just yet or are reluctant to read, a teacher can introduce a few notes that appear frequently in the music as guide notes, and find the notes around them. A good old mnemonic device could be used here. I’m sure many teachers have their own versions. Here’re some of mine that prove to be successful with my beginner students:
Middle C (middle of the great stave is where Middle C is)
ACE chord (on the while keys, skip a note to the left from the Middle C is A & skip a note to the right, E)
G [=treble] clef G (the eye of the swirl of the treble clef is where the G above Middle C is)
F [= bass] clef F (between the two dots of the bass clef is where the F below Middle C is)
Birth Day (mnemonics for the notes located on the middle line of the stave; B [= b’] in the upper stave & D [= d] in the bottom stave)
Ground (the lowest line note in the standard piano score = G)
Fly away (the highest line note in standard piano score = f’’)
It may seem obvious but guide notes should always be introduced in association with their positions on the keyboard. Reading other notes can be encouraged by learning to recognise intervals (step = 2nd, skip = 3rd) and the direction of the notes (up = to the right on the keyboard or down = to the left). This method can help the learners concentrate on reading intervals rather than individual notes.
Young adults are capable of picking up useful information and internalising it in their own way. A few pointers are usually enough for them to get going as long as the music really interests them. When students develop some playing skill and memorise a few guide notes, simple tunes, both well known and unfamiliar, can be gradually introduced.
Pop songs, particularly in a self-accompanying style, can also be successfully used with those who have been playing the piano for a few years. Young players around 11-13 years of age seem to show the change of interest in music as they go through emotional changes, especially girls. Pop songs seem to be able to reach young people in a way that the classical music repertoire can’t, but that doesn’t mean they can’t be encouraged to play classical music. They can always apply a few new skills that they have acquired from playing/singing pop songs, during which they had no pressure mastering tricky passages to be able to play for concerts, competitions, exams, etc. Nothing in musical endeavours, however trivial it seems, goes to waste, as long as teachers can find the educational contents in it to elaborate.
Recently, one of my 10 years old students played for me an accompaniment of a certain pop song that all year 9 classes sang together at the school assembly. He picked up a few chords, so I made a simpler arrangement to teach about the chord patterns, and so that he can easily memorise the whole song. Here’s what comes out:
This pop song seemed very popular amongst young children for a while. I’d be curious see if teachers can play this accompaniment to their students and have them guess which pop song it is. I have managed to teach this simple chord progression to my youngest students (5 years olds) successfully. It’s turning out to be a very effective tool to teach how to play the notes lightly and bouncily, i.e. how to release the tension after playing each note or chord. It’s also a good counting exercise; up tempo with lots of words to sing along! For young children, it’d be best if the teacher sings the lyrics so that the student can focus on the timing of when to change a chord to another.
Pop songs won’t teach students about the agogique required for playing Chopin but it helps them cultivate a steady inner pulse; listening ear; coordination between the hands; healthy use of upper body, arms and wrists; basic finger and tonal control; articulation technique; understanding of keyboard orientation; basic understanding of harmonic and musical structure, etc., and most importantly, it gives them a personal enjoyment that is theirs and no one else’s.
For those who are looking for pop song arrangements of intermediate level, here are some of mine recently published from SheetMusicPlus.com: