One-man band wannabe!
July 19, 2011 7:56 PM   Subscribe

Help learning pop music arrangement for piano?

I have a decent, though dated classical piano background (~8 years as a child). I'd like to have some fun playing pop. Now, pretty much most of the pop sheet music I see looks like this: 3 staves (from top to bottom: 2 treble, 1 bass), with lyrics between the 2 treble staves and guitar chord tabs on top. How can I make this sound good, assuming I'm just playing solo piano and not singing along?

I'm guessing the intent is for the guitar to be playing the chords, the first treble staff is for the vocalist, and the piano plays the second treble + bass? If I just play the putative piano part, it sounds pretty empty. So I figure I need to do some kind of re-arrangement to make this sound good with just a piano and two hands -- somehow incorporate the vocal melody line and flesh it out with chords and fills. How can I learn to do this? Composition and arrangement is totally new to me, all my training was learning to play the notes on the page..

(I see folks putting recordings on youtube doing this sort of thing all the time and I am super jealous. Seems like they're usually figuring it out by ear too, which is a whole other skill I'm happy to work on later..)

I have a little bit of music theory training, but never got through harmony. I'm totally open to learning, but would appreciate specific guidance for what I'm trying to do here -- ie, learning to re-arrange relatively simple Western pop music.
posted by kanuck to Media & Arts (4 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
This is sort of how I learned, though it's been a while:

Pick a song you really like. Teach yourself to play the melody.

Then work out the chords. Actually you can probably find the chords somewhere online. Learn them. Learn to play the chords with the melody. It's going to sound a bit stark, still, but these are building blocks.

Then find a rhythmic way to play the chords that works for that song.

Then add some harmonies to the melody, where they seem to fit.

Good luck!
posted by bunderful at 8:25 PM on July 19, 2011 [2 favorites]

Google "piano fake book". Mel Bay is gonna be your best friend.
posted by sinnesloeschen at 8:43 PM on July 19, 2011

I'm not much of a pianist, but I am pretty ok at doing this sort of thing on the guitar, so grain of salt and all...

I think you're right about the melody. If you're not going to sing it you're going to have to play it, and that's going to take up a lot (but not all) of your right hand. I guess what I'd do (if I could) would be to start off with the sheet music just playing the piano accompaniment while humming the melody along to myself. Identify and make note of the key parts in the accompaniment that have to be there -- bass lines, "hooks", rhythmic elements, etc. Then forget about that for a little while and strip the song down to the bare bones. Melody on the right hand, chords on the left hand. Nothing fancy, just the elements. Quarter notes on your left hand. Make it boring as hell. Play it that way until you're able to get through all the chord changes without having to rely on the sheet music, then start to incorporate the essential accompaniment elements into the mix. Take some liberties with the melody if you need to. Artistic license. If it's a well known song, parts of the melody can be implied while you play through a difficult piece. People will hear the melody if they know it, even if you're not playing it note for note. Find the spots where you can play the melody within chords on your right hand, so you can get a little funky in the bass clef. There's always going to be a few measures where it's just harder than hell to get everything across that needs to be in there. Whistle if you need to. Or just make something up to get through those parts. It doesn't have to be perfect, you'll refine it later. In my experience, each time you do that you'll learn a little trick that will work on the next song, or the one after that, and before long you'll be faking it like a pro.

Also, keep listening to the original recording of the song while you're learning it. You'll hear things that may not be on the sheet music but can be emulated on the piano to get you through difficult parts, and the more you strip the song down to its basics, the more you'll be able to recognize "building blocks" in the full arrangement that you can work with.

Best of luck. It's really rewarding to be able to fake your way through a fully orchestrated arrangement solo, and you can totally do it if you have an ear for music.
posted by Balonious Assault at 9:05 PM on July 19, 2011

I usually start with the top and bottom staves - melody and bass. They're the fundamental building blocks of the whole piece. Your ear will tell you how much of the padding you're missing.

When it comes to adding the accompaniment, too, you need a bit of ingenuity. Fitting it in the right hand can work, but you need to be able to bring the tune out over the top, so it requires a bit of independence. It's also harder in songs where you need more of a sense of line - be prepared to do a few finger substitutions to maintain a good legato. It's much easier where the music is naturally detached. Get your left hand used to jumps from a bass note in a low register to a chord in the middle (the big trick is not to be still finding the chord shape at the point where your hand gets to the right place), and devise working accompaniments that let you do that.

If you want a convincing piano arrangement, don't be limited to the notated range of the melody. I might be more effective in the tenor range, with accompaniment figures above; it might be better at treble pitch; it might be better an octave above that; it might sound best doubled in octaves to thicken out the sound (you can fill in harmony between the doubled lines - i.e. with fingers 2, 3 & 4 - without losing the thickening effect). Be guided by the sense and overall musical feel of the piece. Similarly, make sure the bass works in your arrangement - bass is a transposing instrument (sounds down an octave from written) and often feels too high in these simplified PVG arrangements. Again, try doubling octaves if it sounds too thin.
posted by monkey closet at 1:15 AM on July 20, 2011

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