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How to Play ANY Pop Song on Piano

Lisa Witt  /  Song Tutorials / Aug 21

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Guess what? You can learn how to play any pop song on the piano with just three things.

1. Chords
2. Chord Charts
3. Playing By Ear

In this article, we’ll run through these three things. Then we’ll connect you to more resources to fill in the gaps. 

The awesome thing about pop songs is that you can play them as simply or as complex as you like. One song can sound stunning played in five different ways, from the bare basics to Elton John level virtuosity.

Table of Contents

🎹 Play REAL Songs…The Ones You Love 🎵

The best way to learn music is by playing, not reading. Start off on a good note with our 500 Songs in 5 Days course pack. Free with your Pianote membership.


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TOOL #1: CHORDS

How to play any on the piano. Young man in black shirt and necklace playing red keyboard.

1.1 Why Chords?

To learn how to play any pop song on the piano, you need to understand chords.

Why? Aren’t songs made of melodies and harmonies?

Well, yes, but if we break them down to their most basic components, all songs are built from chords. If you take sheet music — for example, “Someone You Loved” by Lewis Capaldi — you’ll discover that everything is built up of recognizable chords like D, A, and Bm.

Lead sheet markup of "Someone You Loved" by Lewis Capaldi showing notes that belong to chords.

After all, a guitar player who sings and plays can recreate an entire song by singing the melody over a small handful of chords.

And you can do the same thing with piano!

Now, some of you will want to play the melody of a song on your right hand and the chords on your left hand. Don’t worry — we’ll get to that soon 😉

1.2 So…How Much Do I Need to Know About Chords?

You don’t need to know an awful lot about chords to get started. If you’re a total beginner, start by memorizing these four chords: C, G, Am, and F.

Keyboard diagram of C Major chord with keys C, E, G colored red and labelled.
Keyboard diagram of G Major chord with keys G, B, D colored red and labelled.
Keyboard diagram of Am chord with keys A, C, E colored red and labelled.
Keyboard diagram of F Major chord with keys F, A, C colored red and labelled.

With just these chords, you can play basic versions of these songs:

Check out the tutorials linked above to get started and you’ll see what we mean when we say anyone can play songs on day 1.

🎹 Hack Into Chords 👊

Understanding how chords work will give you a BIG leg up in learning how to play the piano. Knowing just a handful of chords will unlock hundreds, if not thousands of pop songs. To get started today, check out our free Chord Hacks course, or read How to Play Piano Chords.

CHECK IT OUT

1.3 Endless Possibilities…With Just Chords

You can play a lot of music with just the root position triads of basic chords. But to get the most of them, learn chord variations once you’re comfortable with chord basics.

Ways to add variation to your chords include the following:

Chord inversions.Inversion” is a fancy word for playing the notes of a chord in a different order. This will vary the sound a bit without changing the fundamental nature of the chord. You can find a chart of all inversions here.

Seventh chords. Seventh chords are responsible for that dreamy, jazzy sound you hear in piano music. In chord charts, they’re represented like “Cmaj7” and “Cm7.” Learn what these all mean here.

Man with glasses in black collared shirt pointing one finger while other hand is on grand piano with sign "A BAJILLION HARMONIES" on piano.
See how you can make a gazillion harmonies with just ONE slash chord in Sam’s lesson here.

Sus chords and slash chords. If you want to learn what “Dsus4” and “G/B” on a chord chart means, learn about sus chords and slash chords. They’re easier than they look and they add more personality to your arrangements!

TOOL #2: CHORD CHARTS

How to play any song on the piano. Woman with short hair and blue shirt holding up chord chart next to grand piano.

2.1 Find Chord Charts on Ultimate-Guitar.com

Okay, so you know how to play chords. But how do you know what chords to play if, say, you want to play “Falling” by Harry Styles?

Easy: use the internet!

We’re living in a wonderful time because we can find resources, with the click of a button, on how to play almost any pop song on the piano. You can find the chord charts (instructions on what chords a song has and when to play them) to most popular songs on Ultimate-Guitar.com

Over the shoulder shot of man with tattooed arm clicking on macbook above drums, guitar, and piano workstation.

Nope, this website isn’t just for guitarists. You can toggle the chord diagrams at the top of the page to “piano” and it’ll tell you exactly what keys to play for certain chords.

Screenshot from Ultimate-Guitar.com (source)

If you’re new to chord charts, they’re pretty easy to decipher. The chord symbols are placed above the lyrics of a song, which means you change chords whenever a new chord appears above a lyric.

Screenshot from Ultimate-Guitar.com (source)

Now, not all chord charts are accurate. Many free chord charts you’ll find on the internet are created by amateur musicians who share and upload their transcriptions for free. Sheet music and chord charts by the original musicians often cost money or are copyrighted.

So if something sounds wrong to you, you may be right. This is why knowing how to play by ear is such an important skill even when you have tools like chord charts. We’ll explore this in a bit!

2.2 Find Lead Sheets

You can also find lead sheets on the internet. Lead sheets are somewhere between chord charts and full-on sheet music. They include the notes for the melody of a song along with chord symbols and they’re ideal for beginner sight-readers because they’re less intimidating to read than a grand staff.

Up close: Holding up lead sheet to Stairway to Heaven.

Learn more about lead sheets here. And if you’re new to reading music, make sure to check out our most popular tutorial on YouTube, “How to Read Notes.”

Lead sheets can be found online on sites like 8notes or Musescore. We also offer free lead sheets with many of our song tutorials on the Pianote blog.

🎹 Sight Reading Made Simple 👓

Learning how to read music is like learning a new language. It can feel intimidating and frustrating, but it doesn’t have to be. With proper training, you can quickly and easily read music and unlock the songs you know and love. Take a look at Sight Reading Made Simple, our 100% FREE course on how to painlessly read notes.

START READING TODAY

TOOL #3: PLAYING BY EAR

Lisa (woman with short platinum hair in blue blouse) pointing to ear with both hands.

3.1 Why Play By Ear?

Understanding chords gives you the foundation to start learning songs. But if you prefer playing your melody instead of singing it, or if you can’t find chord charts to your song, you’ll need to know how to play by ear.

Being able to hear something and then play it on an instrument is a fantastic skill. Indeed, some of the world’s most famous musicians didn’t use sheet music. The Beatles couldn’t read sheet music and Mozart was rumored to recreate pieces by ear after listening to them once.

Playing by ear seems like a magical talent that only the best musicians have. But it’s a skill like any other. It can be learned and practiced.

3.2 How to Play By Ear: Figuring Out the Key

A basic understanding of key will help you play songs by ear faster. The key can help you figure out the chord progression of a song. 

In many pop songs, the key is the last note of the chorus. So if your song ends on E, it’s very likely that it’s in E Major.

Figuring this out is just trial and error. Here’s a demonstration in the beginning of this video:

Why is knowing the key useful? Well, if we know that a song is in E Major…

  1. We’ll know what sharps and flats to watch out for. E Major has four sharps (F#, C#, G# and D#). You can find the number of sharps and flats in a key by referring to the Circle of Fifths.
  2. We’ll also know what chords might show up in the song. Diatonic chords are chords that occur on a scale. The most common chords used in pop songs are the I, the V, the IV, and the vi chords. In E Major, this is the E chord, B chord, A chord, and C#m chord.
🎹 WHAT THE HECK ARE DIATONIC CHORDS? “Diatonic” just means chords built on the degrees of a scale. For example, the I chord of C Major is the chord built on the first note of C Major. Since the first note of C Major is C, the I chord is C-E-G. We explain diatonic chords in detail in this lesson.

3.3 How to Play By Ear: Intervals

Understanding intervals will also help you play by ear.

Step 1: Learn what intervals are

The first step is to know how to recognize intervals. An interval is the space between two notes. If you can identify the intervals between notes, you can identify a melody.

Diagram of keyboard with C and G colored in red and labelled as a perfect 5th.

Each interval has a name and a distinct sound. You can recognize intervals by associating them with a song, such as:

Interval: Major 2nd (in C major: C to D)
Song: Happy Birthday

Interval: Major 3rd (C to E)
Songs: When the Saints Go Marching In, “Summertime” by George Gershwin

Interval: Perfect 4th (C to F)
Songs: Wedding March, We Wish You a Merry Christmas

Interval: Perfect 5th (C to G)
Songs: Twinkle Twinkle, Scarborough Fair

Interval: Major 6th (C to A)
Songs: My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean, It Came Upon a Midnight Clear

Interval: Major 7th (C to B)
Song: “Don’t Know Why” by Norah Jones

Interval: Perfect Octave (C to C)
Song: “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” from The Wizard of Oz

Find more interval song shortcuts here.

Step 2: Practice recognizing intervals by ear

While it may feel overwhelming at first, there are several ways you can practice recognizing intervals by ear:

  1. Pick a random note and practice singing an interval above or below it.
  2. Play intervals on the piano while saying the name of the interval.
  3. Connect your favorite songs to intervals.
Sam and Lisa do piano improvisation exercises on the piano. Sam (brown hair, glasses) sits at piano playing on the right. Lisa (platinum short hair) holds her face tilted sideways in a 'wow' expression.

Step 3: Apply your knowledge to melodies and chord progressions

Intervals can be used to figure out chord progressions too. When one chord moves to another, there’s a discernible interval between the sounds.

Learning to play by ear can be frustrating at first. It’s a trial and error process. But as we’ve mentioned before, it’s a skill like any other. It just takes practice!

Before long, you’ll be playing chords and melodies with ease.

🎹🧠 FOOD FOR THOUGHT: Many pop songs follow the same few chord progressions, such as the 1-5-6-4 chord progression. If you’re figuring out a song, see if it fits one of these progressions first.

How to Play Almost Any Song on the Piano: Get a Head Start

Billy Joel playing piano outdoors.
Billy Joel (photo source)

You have learned that with three tools, you can play practically any pop song on the piano. Here’s a recap:

  1. Understand how to play chords.
  2. Find chord charts that will tell you what chords to play.
  3. Use your ear to fill in the gaps, figure out melody, and confirm chord progressions.

But! For an even bigger advantage, we have free, step-by-step and easy-to-follow tutorials right here on the Pianote blog. Beloved songs like:

“Drivers License” by Olivia Rodrigo

Free sheet music and lead sheet >>

“Imagine” by John Lennon

Free sheet music >>

“Someone You Loved” by Lewis Capaldi

Free lead sheet >>

These tutorials will give you an unfair head start in playing these songs!

And if you want to go even further, try 500 Songs in 5 Days. This pack includes bangers like:

Rocket Man
Elton John

No One
Alice Keys

Piano Man
Billy Joel

Photograph
Ed Sheeran

My Immortal
Evanescence

Hit the Road Jack
Ray Charles

LEARN 500 SONGS IN 5 DAYS

Have fun learning songs and happy practicing!


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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