How To Improve Your Piano Playing

How To Improve Your Piano Playing l Piano Diana

Dear Musicians,

I think if you're like most musicians, you're probably struggling to learn music theory. I'm talking about how melodies, songs, and chords are formed. Especially, how to use music theory to your advantage when it comes to playing piano by ear. Maybe you've wrestled with self-help books, "how-to" videos, and music training manuals - or you are taking piano lessons and getting a little stuck.

Having taught over 200+ students, I know learning the piano is not an easy task. It requires a great level of understanding, application, and commitment. I believe a musician can always seek to learn new things, like an unused chord progression and explore different genres of music.

With over 20+ years of teaching piano, I have helped students with sight reading. It means having the ability to read songs from sheet music. This is a wonderful skill to have and more importantly is knowing the theory behind what you are playing. When you improvise, you'll be adding style with chords.

My sight readers love to memorize songs, and that's a good thing. Another approach is simply recognizing why chords are played at certain points in a song. It's so important to play what you feel.

Advantages To Playing Piano By Ear l Piano Diana

Playing Piano By Ear (Advantages)

  • Being able to instantly recognize chords that are played in songs even without being at a piano.
  • Not required to memorize chord progressions (pattern of chords played one after the other) because understanding them will automatically incline you to know what chord to play next.
  • Will allow you to use the same methods to play virtually any song you want.
How Does This Help You?

  • You are able to learn songs faster and easier because you understand why chords are played at certain points in a song.
  • Allows you to improvise and add your own "flavor" to the song. This is especially advantageous when playing in a church as you can never predict how long a song will be sung or what key the singer might resolve to. In a band, this might be helpful if the leader simply instructs everyone to surprisingly repeat a part of the song or change the key in which the song is currently being played in. 
  • Saves you the money and time of having to go out and buy the sheet music to a song that you've already learned how to play by using the ability of your ear to recognize melodies, chords, and progressions. However, buying the sheet music isn't a bad idea if you want to learn specific parts to songs that have high levels of complexity. 
Here are some simple, easy-to-understand principles that every musician should know and utilize.

Learning How Melodies Are Constructed

It's important to understand how melodies are created. Because if you understand where melodies come from, you will be more apt to predict where the notes of the melody are going.

  • If you knew that a melody was being played in the Key of C, you would first assess whether this melody sounds like it is created from a major, natural minor, melodic minor, harmonic minor, blues or any other scale.
  • By knowing all of these scales and being able to recognize them with your ear, you can then eliminate notes that are less likely to be a part of the melody (unless they are used for other purposes, "accidental notes, leading notes.")
Here's An Example:

  1. Know the notes of the C Major Scale
  2. Know what notes are most likely to be played.
  3. Know what notes are not likely to be played. You should be able to predict what notes will be played (or for that matter, what notes have already been played.)
The notes of the C Major Scale is the easiest to memorize because it's all the white notes.

C - D - E - F - G - A - B - C

You'll start seeing what notes are immediately eliminated or less likely to occur throughout the sequence of the melody and what notes are most likely to be repeated.

Major, Minor and Modal Scales l Piano Diana

1. Major, Minor, and Modal Scales

Major scales make up melodies and chords. With the knowledge of scales, one can use a simple technique to locate any chord. For example, If you know that a C Major Scale consists of eight notes, C - D - E - F - G - A - B - C, and that three of its notes make up a major chord, all you would have to know is which three notes out of the scale make up the chord.

2. Major, Minor, Dominant, Diminished Chords

Do you know how to form the major, minor, diminished, and augmented chords? How about sixth, ninth, eleventh or thirteenth chords? For sure, chords come from scales. There are various ways of constructing chords. The Secrets to Playing Piano by Ear course covers lessons on half step, whole step and interval relationships. Plus, Scale degree studies on "subtonic," " the subdominant," "mediant," and "dominant" scale tones.

Here are some examples:

  • Major Triads = Major Third + Perfect Fifth
  • Minor Triads = Select the 1st, 3rd, and 5th notes of the minor scale. Add the interval of a major third on top of a minor 3rd. Lower the major third of a major chord a half step.
  • Major Seventh = Major Third + Minor Third + Major Third
  • Minor Seventh = Minor Third + Major Third + Minor Third
  • Dominant Seventh = Major Third + Minor Third + Minor Third 
The Secrets to Playing Piano by Ear

I'm excited to introduce you to the best theory book I personally have in my library, the Secrets to Playing Piano by Ear. Next time, let's explore some altered chords and more music theory.


"Jazz washes away the dust of everyday life." -- Art Blakey
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