The Secret To Playing Background Music On The Piano

Lisa Witt  /  Improvisation  /  UPDATED Jun 15, 2023

If you’ve ever played at church, a wedding, a private function, or in a band, you’ll have likely been in a position where you had to play background music on the piano.

I call this noodling, which is a term I got from a pastor when he wanted me to play something atmospheric while he wrapped up the service. I’ve also done this at weddings, funerals, and private functions where I’ve been paid to simply “waste time” at the piano. How awesome is that?

Whatever the gig, having some tools for wasting time at the piano can save the day and at the same time provide a wonderful avenue for stress relief.

The Sus Chord

The first tool in creating background music is the sus chord, which will enable you to play one chord for a very long time and still sound interesting.

To play a sus chord, simply take a chord and swap the 3rd note for the 2nd or 4th. This creates either a sus2 or sus4. You can play these back and forth, resolving back to the 3 every so often. You’d be surprised at how much time you can spend simply moving between sus chords. You can also break up the chord’s notes and play them one at a time which gives a more flowing feeling. You can play a simple root note or 5th in your left hand, or even octaves to add drama!

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Alternate Bass Notes

Another trick to creating beautiful background music is to stay on the same chord and alternate the bass notes. Keep playing a sus chord pattern in your right hand. This keeps the theme and allows you to stay on one chord while creating a variety of tones beneath it. Let’s say D is our 1 chord. If we use the rules for the 1-4-6-5  progression, we know the chords that will sound great in the key of D are D-G-BM-A. So stay on D and try playing these other chords as the bass notes. Sounds great, right?

Now let’s take a look at a little trick you can use with your right hand to create some atmosphere. I like to take a 2nd inversion chord and play the bottom two notes back and forth – it sounds really good overtop the alternate bass notes.

And finally, if you’re bored of playing the same chord, you can move through the progression using all of these tricks. You’ll be amazed at just how much you can do with so little!

Lisa Witt has been teaching piano for more than 20 years and in that time has helped hundreds of students learn to play the songs they love. Lisa received classical piano training through the Royal Conservatory of Music, but she has since embraced popular music and playing by ear in order to accompany herself and others. Learn more about Lisa.

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The easiest way to learn beautiful piano chords.
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