Friday, April 08, 2016

2 Things Classical Pianists Need to Know About Learning Pop and Jazz Chords

Classical pianists often have a lot of difficulty playing the chordal style of jazz and pop music. Perhaps it's because classical piano emphasizes technical passages that value scales, arpeggios, and counterpoint above straight chords. Or perhaps classical piano's emphasis on reading skills de-emphasizes the deep listening and kinaesthetic experience of playing chords (often from chord symbols) that jazz/pop pianists are so familiar with.

At any rate, most intermediate classical pianists have some catching up to do, and their affinity for playing some sort of popular music is tempered by the difficulty of working through a lot more chords than they are used to reading in a piece.

Here are two steps for getting the chords right:
  1. Read the correct notes for each chord from bottom to top. Don't just get a general sense of the chord or guess at it. Read every single note from bottom to top to ensure full accuracy. Yes, that includes accidentals too. 
  2. Remember the sound and feeling of where your fingers go. This is the area where non-classical pianists really shine. If you're developing these skills as a classical pianist, focus on the particular sound quality of the chord, as well as the distances between fingers and relationship of white to black notes.
Transferring to kinaesthetic and auditory memory as soon as possible is very important for classical pianists learning jazz and pop music. If this doesn't happen, you might find yourself in the unenviable position of having to re-learn the notes every single time you play.

Once you're comfortable with the style, next steps include learning how to play from chord symbols alone and discovering the improvisational art of jazz.


  1. My piano professor used to tell me, "If in doubt, play diminished." In classical music, it often works -- several accidentals in a chord often spells diminished. But in jazz, it doesn't work. The harmonies seem quite unconventional to us; it's difficult to hear in advance, and the chords don't fit the inversions and arpeggios we've worked so diligently to make natural responses. Thank you for this post. I think I have a new approach to some jazz pieces our community orchestra is preparing for our next concert.

  2. As a classical piano teacher, I think your tips are very valuable! After playing for so many years, I have internalized a lot of the sounds and feelings of where my fingers go, and have been wondering how to encourage this in my students from the beginning of their education. Thank you!

  3. Great guide Chris! In Singapore, piano students always start out with classical and only branch to pop or jazz based on their own interest. We have a really strong emphasis on classical as parents are very much academic driven.