29 November 2022
By John Geraghty
Songwriter, pianist and music producer John Geraghty presents Part 5 of his brand-new series: ‘How to Play’. In this lesson, he takes a look at ballad-style piano and gives a step-by-step guide on creating the perfect pop piano accompaniment.
This series will cover many piano genres including Contemporary Classical, Country, Latin, Rock & Roll, New Orleans, Jazz, Pop, Funk, Boogie Woogie, Ragtime, Blues, Rock and Gospel. Each article will demonstrate plenty of playing techniques and tips to help broaden your musical knowledge and repertoire of different genres.
Food for thought
Learning ballads or slow-tempo songs on the piano is, for the most part, easier than other styles of piano playing. The most important aspect of learning to play ballads is your ability to voice chords so that they connect smoothly between each other. Bear in mind that once you’ve learned how to voice chords correctly, this technique will work in all styles and in all tempos!
Ballads you may know...
Throughout the decades, ballads and slow songs have almost always featured the piano at the centre. The only thing that really changed was the sound. Richard Carpenter's piano playing on Close to You (1970) was easily discernible with little reverb. In the 80s, ballads relied heavily on electric piano; Whitney Houston’s 1987 hit Didn’t We Almost Have It All being a strong example. Adele’s Hello (2015) used more reverb to move the piano back in the mix so that it sounded more like it was being played ‘behind’ the singer. Here are some examples of piano-led ballads through the decades.
70s: Close to You – The Carpenters
80s: Didn’t We Almost Have It All – Whitney Houston
00s: You Raise Me Up – Josh Groban
10s: Hello – Adele
20s: Glimpse of Us – Joji
Step 1: Learning your basic diatonic chords
Before learning how to play in a ballad style, we have to understand which chords work in different keys. Below shows you all the diatonic chords in the key of C major. The Bdim is short for B diminished and sounds dissonant to the ear. Use this chord with discretion!
Step 2: Learning two-handed chord voicings
Hands together voicings
For all root position chords, just add the root and fifth note in the left hand.
Root, first and second inversion chord voicings
Below shows all three voicings for C major, in root, first and second inversions, with the appropriate fingerings. For the first inversion, use the octave in the left hand. For the second inversion, shape the left hand using the first and third notes in the scale.
Before moving on: Take time to learn ALL the diatonic chords in C major in root, first and second inversion, hands together.
Step 3: Learning Ballad-style chord progressions
Four-chord song progression
Using the following chord sequence of C-G-Am-F (featured in Don’t Stop Believing by Journey, and many others) in root, first and second inversion position, we can make the movement between each chord a smooth transition.
TIP: Don’t move the top note around too much as you transition; move up or down a semitone or tone as you transition between chords.
You can see below that the top note G stays the same for both the C and G chords before moving up a tone to note A for chords Am and F. Notice that the lower two notes in the right hand don’t move too much either, mostly moving up or down a tone.
Step 4: Learning four-note diatonic seventh chords
When playing ballads, songwriters tend to use seventh chords more than the three-note chords as they create a more melancholy sound, suitable for love songs.
Below shows the diatonic sevenths in C major. Again you can hear the seventh degree (Bm7b5) chord sounding dissonant. This chord is used a lot in jazz.
Step 5: Learning two-handed, four-note chord voicings
C major seventh chord voicings
Below shows some nice chord voicings for C major 7th using the root, third, fifth and seventh note from the chord as the highest note each time.
Before moving on: Practise these chord voicings over ALL the other four-note chord voicings that were learnt in step 4.
Now that we’ve covered three-note and four-note chord voicings, let’s create some movement within the chord progression C-G-Am-F.
First, start by adding in four crotchets to each bar.
Then add in quavers. Take the top two notes from each chord and alternate them using the lowest note.
Let’s do the same with the seventh chords in crotchets. Notice that G7 and Am7 are the same voicing, with each note moving up the C major scale in each hand.
…then add in quavers.
- Practise diatonic chords in new keys, using three-note chords. Start with one sharp (G major) or one flat (F major).
- Learn the root, first and second inversion chord shapes over the diatonic chords, hands together over three-note chords.
- Work out a new chord progression (pick four chords) and transition between each chord using root, first and second inversions.
- Add in an extra note to make them sevenths!
- Create movement by adding in quavers.
Next up in the How to Play series, we take a closer look at Boogie Woogie Piano.
You can learn more about playing in a Ballad style in John’s book: Playing By Ear – A Songwriter's Way.
About the author
John Geraghty is a songwriter, music producer, pianist, author, teacher and entrepreneur. Although John is a classically trained pianist, his passion lies in songwriting and music producing. He has studied most genres of music including pop, jazz, gospel, country, and blues piano.
He is the author of The Complete Classical Piano Course and Playing By Ear – A Songwriter's Way and has his own online music school. His teaching method is simple and direct: "Leave out everything that is not necessary and teach the student what they really want to know."