Create Emotional Piano Music

Lisa Witt  /  Improvisation / May 22

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Some of our most popular lessons have been about playing and creating emotional piano music.

It’s no surprise. Emotional piano music is beautiful and fun to play.

But instead of just showing you another beautiful pattern, I want to give you the tools to start creating your own emotional music.

Think of it as stepping inside my brain for a little bit to see how I approach writing and playing emotional music.

Step 1 – The Minor Chord

If we’re going to play emotional music, we need an emotional chord. And everyone knows D minor is the saddest 😉

With our right hand, we’ll play a simple D minor chord in root position. But to make it sound more emotional we’ll play it as a broken chord. This simply means we’ll play each note of the chord separately, from bottom to top:

That’s the first big trick for creating emotional piano music. Play your chords as broken chords because they sound more beautiful.

With our left hand, we’ll just play the root note of the chord, which is a D.

Try that for a little bit and get comfortable with it. But it won’t take long to feel a little … bored. So we need to add something else.

Step 2 – Add Some Drama

If you don’t want to play the same thing for 5 minutes we’ll have to change something. I like to add in some drama, and I do this by moving my left hand up to the relative major.

Relative what?

Every minor scale on the piano has a relative major, and every major scale has a relative minor. This means they share the same notes and key signature, but they begin on a different starting note. And it’s that starting note that gives the scale its major or minor sound. We have more on major and minor scales here.

To find the relative major we have to count up 3 half-steps from our minor starting note. (In the same way, to find a relative minor key we just count down 3 half-steps from the major starting note.)

So let’s work this out.

If we count 3 half-steps up from D we get F. That means F major is the relative major of D minor. They have the same key signature and share all the same notes in the scale.

So to make this sound more dramatic we will keep playing the same broken chord in our right while playing an F note with our left.

It creates this amazing sound and feeling. We’re now playing a “slash chord” of Dm/F.

We have more on slash chords here.

Step 3 – Adding a Left-Hand Progression

Up until now, we have one minor chord in our right hand and 2 left-hand notes (D and F). It’s time to add some more notes for the left hand and turn it into a proper progression.

Again, we’ll keep our right-hand notes the same (although you may want to change the order around and play the chord from top to bottom instead), and we’ll add in two more notes for our left-hand.

Those notes are going to be C and Bb.

How do I know all these notes will sound good together?

It’s all thanks to the relative major I talked about earlier.

Remember the relative major is F major. In popular music, there are 4 chords that always sound good together: the 1-5-6-4.

In the key of F major, those chords are F – C – Dm – Bb.

Our emotional progression started on Dm and moved to F so that only leaves C and Bb. As long as you start and end on the Dm it will still have that emotional, moody, and dark sound.

Neat trick huh?

You can also use something called ”diatonic chords”. These are chords that naturally occur within a key signature, so they always sound good together. If you know what chords are in a key signature, you’ll know what chords you can use in your progression!

Step 4 – Expanding Your Right-Hand

Up until now, we’ve been playing the same 3 notes with our right hand. It’s time to expand and grow. After all, our emotions aren’t static, so our emotional piano music shouldn’t be either!

Instead of just using the 3 notes of the D minor chord, we are now going to explore the first 5 notes of the D minor scale.

D minor scale safe notes

I call these the “safe” notes because they will all sound good with any of the left-hand notes we’re playing in our progression.

And because these notes are “safe”, you can experiment with them. Try playing them going up, then going down. Try skipping some notes.

Just because you can use all 5 doesn’t mean you have to. (I prefer to skip the 4th note.)

Step 5 – Adding Dynamics

Emotional music does not stay the same volume. It gets louder and softer.

These are called dynamics and they are one of the best ways to improve your sound as a piano player.

Try adding in some dynamics and use volume to express yourself. Start soft and gradually increase the volume and intensity. Playing with dynamics can be tricky to get the hang of, but it’s so worth it.

Final Review

These are some wonderful tools you can use when creating emotional piano music.

  1. Start with a broken minor chord
  2. Create a progression using popular chords
  3. The 5 safe notes
  4. Adding dynamics and contrast

The moment you stop playing other people’s music and start creating your own is a big step in every piano player’s journey.

I’m so excited that you’re about to take that step for yourself.

Lisa Witt has been teaching piano for 19 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.

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