Tutorial: Piano accompaniment and harmony techniques for chord progressions


Chords are an integral part of many musical styles, providing harmony to a melody and adding fullness to accompaniments. In their simplest form, chords are simply two or more notes of a scale played at the same time, creating a rich sound over which a tune can be played or a lyric sung.

Unsurprisingly, there are a myriad of ways for a musician to add this level of richness to a performance, and how the same chord or harmony notes are played varies significantly based on the style of music, the skill of the player, whether other musicians are playing, the level of rigidity expected or improvisation allowed, and so on.

This tutorial offers some basic ideas for a pianist or keyboard player to experiment with and practice, in a bid to increase their musical ear and repertoire of playing techniques.

It’s not exhaustive by any means, and is aimed at more novice and intermediate players. Use it as a springboard for creativity. Mix and match the styling and create your own ideas.

Chords are an integral part of many musical styles, providing harmony to a melody and adding fullness to accompaniments. In their simplest form, chords are simply two or more notes of a scale played at the same time, creating a rich sound over which a tune can be played or a lyric sung.

Unsurprisingly, there are a myriad of ways for a musician to add this level of richness to a performance, and how the same chord or harmony notes are played varies significantly based on the style of music, the skill of the player, whether other musicians are playing, the level of rigidity expected or improvisation allowed, and so on.

This tutorial offers some basic ideas for a pianist or keyboard player to experiment with and practice, in a bid to increase their musical ear and repertoire of playing techniques.

Jump to section:

  1. Bass Notes
  2. Two Notes (Interval)
  3. Chord Inversions
  4. Right Hand Chords
  5. Split Hand Chords
  6. Walking Bass
  7. Syncopation
  8. Arpeggios / Broken Chords
  9. Moving / Transition Chords
  10. Seventh and Added Note Chords
  11. Dynamics
  12. Legato and Staccato

The Basic Chords

To help compare and contrast different styles we’ll use the same chord progression throughout this article. It’s shown below. You can click/tap on any of the ‘play’ buttons to hear the written music. Above each chord on the staff is the name of the chord.

Parts of this tutorial will also use a simple melody line, written below and playable, which will help to show off some of the harmony and accompaniment ideas. The chords have been transposed down one octave and are playable in the bass clef by the left hand.

In this case, every melody note fits harmoniously with the chord. Many musical styles and genres make extensive use of disharmony, at least in fleeting moments, and that is something else which can be experimented with. However, we will generally stick with basic harmonies, at least for most examples, to make cementing the musical ideas easier.

That said, don’t be afraid to try out your own ideas as we go along.

1. Bass Notes

One of the simplest ways of adding a harmony to a piece of music is to simply play the root note of each chord in the bass clef. Generally this would be between the two Cs below Middle C—although it doesn’t have to be—and would be played out as such:

The root of each chord is very easy to find, of course, as it’s the lowest note in any root position chord, and is the note the chord is named after.

Here’s what the above bass line is like with our little melody.

The first two bars the accompaniment is in unison with the melody, which can work. After that, there is a very basic harmonic difference, but of course with only two notes sounding at any one time, the possibilities are limited.

This style can be useful for beginners, of course, as it is fairly simple to play. You are not having to worry about forming chords. It’s also a reasonable technique for a simple accompaniment to singers, particularly a choir singing multiple harmonies of their own. It won’t interfere but it does provide a basic foundation. Definitely one for when the piano part is not the main attraction. Can also be used when other musicians are involved, perhaps an acoustic guitarist playing the chords and providing more rhythm.

An extension of this technique is to play other notes from the chord, other than just the root. You could either always play the major/minor 3rd or the perfect 5th instead, or mix and match which can provide a smoother transition between notes.

Here are some examples so you can hear how this might work.

Bass Notes (Major/Minor 3rd)

There are still some nice harmonic pairings here, some interesting ones, and some which perhaps don’t sound quite right, but the major or minor third interval in a scale is definitely worth using from time to time.

Bass Notes (Perfect 5th)

It’s fair to say many of these harmonies are a little strange, at least on their own, however the perfect fifth is a natural pairing with the root note in an interval, as we’ll discover later on.

You’d be unlikely to use the fifth note all the time as the sole harmony accompaniment in this way, but it’s good to have it available when you’re mixing different notes in a bass line.

Bass Notes (mixed)

The bass notes used are a mix of roots, thirds and fifths, as follows:

ChordNotePosition
CCRoot
GBMajor 3rd
DmDRoot
AmARoot
FFRoot
GGRoot
DAFifth
GBMajor 3rd

While the majority are still in root position, you can give harmonies a different feel by mixing in other notes of a chord. Some sound better than others, of course.

2. Two Notes (Interval)

A single bass note might suffice in some cases, but many more musical ideas can be expressed by adding a second note. A two-note chord—an interval—allows you to play two different notes from the named chord or (as we’ll see) even complimentary notes not in the basic chord.

Root and Third Interval

Here’s how it looks and sounds by playing a third interval (major or minor depending on the basic chord) in the left hand.

This type of accompaniment is simple but adds a satisfying new depth. Also, because you are maintaining roughly the same interval between changes, the finger position does not have to change much. You simply have to know what the root and third of any given major or minor scale is in order to be able to play it.

Root and Fifth Interval

The perfect fifth effectively reduces the ability to tell if a piece of music is major or minor, because the third (and sixth) notes are not played in the harmonies. It can create quite an ‘open’ feel to the music.

Here’s how it looks and sounds:

3. Chord Inversions

Chord inversions not only provide a way to alter how the harmonies sound, but they can also make it easier to play a run of chords.

If you take a look at the original chords played by the left hand, you’ll see quite a jump in between several of them, particularly C to G to Dm to Am to F.

Using an inversion allows you to place the notes of the chord in a different order.

In simple terms, a three note chord can have two inversions as well as the root position.

Look at the root, first inversion and second inversion of a C major chord:

  • C major root position — notes ascending C E & G
  • C major first inversion — notes ascending E, G & C
  • C major second inversion — notes ascending G, C & E

This is the same patterning for every three note chord.

Chord Inversions 1

Here is the same chord and melody line played again but with alternative inversions for some of the chords:

Take note of how this affects several things:

  • It reduces the need for moving the left hand around large distances because the chord transitions are much closer together.
  • It introduces a new bass line which transitions in smaller steps between chords.
  • It changes the feel of the piece — although it contains all the same notes their chord ordering gives a new ‘colour’ to the piece.

In chord notation, a first or second inversion can be written by simply adding what the bass note is after the chord name and a forward slash.

The chords used above are C (root), G/B (1st), Dm/A (2nd), Am (root), F/A (1st), G (root), D/F# (1st), G (root).

Chord Inversions 2

Here is an alternative example to give you more ideas on how using chord inversions can add alternative feeling to a piece of music.

It may sound a little ‘muddy’ because the bass chords are played quite low in the bass clef so as not to interfere with the melody line in the right hand. However, you can hear, see and feel how the transitions are much smoother and there’s less hand and finger movement to get from one to the next.

Of course there are plenty of other combinations even from just three possible chord inversions, but some will sound better than others. As always, experiment on your own for each piece of music you want to play and see what works. You might even find some surprising new ‘feels’ for music you thought you already knew well.

4. Right Hand Chords

It can be quite common to play all or some of the notes of a particular chord in the right hand, generally in the treble clef range. There are many reasons for doing this. It can make some pieces easier to play. It reduces the “muddiness” of playing chords (where several notes are quite close together) in the lower registers of the keyboard. It allows the left hand to play simple bass notes, possibly even a walking bass line or countermelody.

Right hand chords can be played with or without additional melody notes. It’s common when accompanying singers not to play the melody line, although the chord itself may well have its highest note as that of the current melody note.

Disadvantages of playing chords in the right hand can be more awkward fingering and varying note lengths if trying also to play a melody line.

Sometimes the right and left hand may share out the notes of the chord and play them split over a larger area. This can be useful in providing a wider range of sound.

For now we’ll take a look at playing the basic root chords (or parts) along with our melody line, with the left hand playing a simple bass note. Practice the right hand separately to begin with and then add in the left hand notes when you are confident.

We’ve used a combination of three note chords in first inversion in the right hand, plus two note intervals. The intervals were put in place, omitting the lowest note of the chord, to make the melody easier to play over the top, with shorter hand stretches.

5. Split Hand Chords

Sometimes the music calls for splitting the basic chord across two hands, to provide a wider range of notes. This can be done by sharing out the notes of each chord across two hands.

Split Hand Chords 1

In our first example, right and left hands play two note intervals. It isn’t necessary to only play one of each named note in total, otherwise only three notes could be played.

Looking at the notes below you’ll see that each basic chord is represented by combining the notes played by both hands together. For example, the first C major chord has bass notes C and G and treble notes E and G.

Basic ChordLeft Hand (Bass) NotesRight Hand (Treble) Notes
CC,GG,E
GB,GG,D
DmD,FA,F
AmC,EA,C
FF,CF,A
GG,DG,B
DA,DF#,A
GG,DG,B

Split Hand Chords 2

Our second example shows a different arrangement where the left hand plays primarily the root note twice an octave apart, giving a solid bass line, while the right hand plays two note intervals composed of notes from the base chord.

This does require more jumping around in the bass clef but the left hand can remain evenly outstretched for the duration, as all intervals are octaves.

We’re not trying to play the melody notes here but they could well be voiced by another instrument or sung.

Basic ChordLeft Hand (Bass) NotesRight Hand (Treble) Notes
CC,C octaveG,C
GG,G octaveG,B
DmD,D octaveF,A
AmA,A octaveE,A
FF,F octaveC,F
GG,G octaveB,D
DD,D octaveF#,A
GG,G octaveG,D

As I am sure you can imagine, there are a myriad ways of creating interesting harmonies even just with chord inversions and splitting.

Not only does this produce some great harmonies (and some quirky ones, too) but it’s also really good for cementing your knowledge of chords and their inversions. It’s worth playing the basic root and two inversions of a chord in both hands ascending and descending the keyboard, for a couple of octaves, to see and feel how the intervals between notes change, and hear the changing harmonies.

6. Walking Bass

So far, apart from the melody line itself, our accompaniments have been fairly static. That is, we simply play intervals or chords each time the base chord changes, with no real movement or rhythm elsewhere.

We will now look at imparting some rhythm with additional notes, intervals and chords. Again, we’ll only be scratching the surface of what’s possible, but hopefully it will give you some ideas to develop and take into your own musical performances.

Beginning with a ‘walking bass’ in the left hand to add some movement between each chord change.

With the chords changing twice per measure, as half notes, the walking bass line is made up from eighth notes, with four per chord change.

This kind of bass line might be too ‘busy’ to use as an accompaniment, particularly if there is a lot of other instrumentation going on. You also need to be careful that this kind of bass line, which has become a form of countermelody, does not unintentionally clash with the main melody.

A simpler alternative, leaving a more open feel but still with a little feeling of movement, is to have some transition notes between chords.

Suppose we keep the same chords in the right hand, and revert to an octave interval of the chord’s root note in the left hand, but add transition eighth notes right before each chord change.

Take a look and listen to the example below.

It can be a little tricky to play octaves and then jump to a single note before jumping to a new octave interval. An alternative is to play just a single bass note instead of the octave, making it more like a walking bass line but with far less movement.

Note that the left hand intervals before each transition are now dotted quarter notes — that is, they are the equivalent of three eighth notes — before the transitioning eighth note and the next chord.

Another technique is to simply have a transitioning note at the end of each measure/bar, rather than before each chord change. This reduces the feeling of movement yet again but still adds a little interest.

7. Syncopation

Syncopation, which really means messing with the expected standard beats of a time signature, is a huge subject and we can only touch on it briefly here, but it can add some real rhythm variations to accompaniments, if they fit in with the rest of the piece. Not an issue if you are playing solo but something which generally would need to be agreed upon if playing with a band.

Syncopation Example 1

Take a look and listen to this example, which pushes the second chord of each bar ahead of the main third beat.

For easier writing, we’ve used a 12/8 time signature instead of the 4/4, to avoid having to put in lots of triplet notation.

Playing this is as much about a ‘feel’ as sticking religiously to the timing (which, for reference, makes the first chord 5/8ths and the second chord 7/8ths of an entire bar.

We’ve speeded up the tempo as well to make it easier to hear how this works. The ‘push’, while keeping a fixed steady bass line, drives the music along.

It may also be desirable not to play the second and fourth chords, in which case they can be tied as follows:

Syncopation Example 2

In this example the first chord of each bar is replaced with three chords in a triplet pattern. This rides against the quarter notes in the left hand.

Pianists often struggle with keeping the accuracy of the timings in both hands, as you are putting three same duration notes against two. To practice, try tapping out a regular two beats in your left hand while adding the three regular beats with your right hand. You will find that the first note in the left and right hands come together, while the second note in the left hand falls exactly half way between the second and third chords of the right hand. Generally it becomes quite an easy pattern to recognise and play once you’ve done it a few times.

Syncopation Example 3

In this example we’ve put the regular two-per-measure chords back in the treble clef and we’re now using a triplet-based bass line to drive a rhythm. This should be quite easy to play, you simply need to divide each half of the bar into three even duration notes. As it’s an ongoing rhythm you will get used to it very quickly.

8. Arpeggios / Broken Chords

A popular accompaniment style is the use of arpeggios (also known as broken chords). In their simplest form, arpeggios are simply the notes of a chord played singly in succession, either ascending, descending, or in some other order, in either a uniform or alternative rhythm pattern.

Anyone familiar with synthesisers and home keyboards will likely be aware of the ‘arpeggiator’ function which does exactly this. It automates the playing of arpeggios based on the supplied chords and certain rules to follow.

Presuming you are playing on a piano or keyboard without such a function, you will be playing these arpeggios manually. Of course, quite apart from their accompaniment value, they are another excellent way of improving your playing strength and dexterity, and learning scales and chord structures.

So, onto an example.

Here we have the left hand playing single bass notes in the bass clef. They are not always the root note of the chord, but vary to give a smoother ‘walking’ feel.

The right hand plays treble clef notes which you will see are eighth notes, four per chord change, that are formed from notes of the chord.

Just as when we looked at chord inversions, arpeggios can start on any note of the chord and ascend and descend at will. In fact, although arpeggios are strictly speaking the root or inverted chord notes played in an ascending or descending sequence, there is nothing to stop you playing the notes in any order, repeating them, and so on.

Basic ChordRight Hand Arpeggio Notes played (^ = up v = down)
CC ^ E ^ G v C
GB ^ D ^ G v D
DmA ^ D ^ F v D
AmA ^ C ^ E v C
FF ^ A ^ C v A
GG ^ B ^ D v B
DF# ^ A ^ D v A
GG ^ B ^ D ^ G

The following example demonstrates this. Perhaps ‘broken chords’ is a better name for this.

As you can see, there are many possibilities. Using all eighth notes might make an accompaniment seem rather ‘busy’, although the feel is lighter than block chords. An alternative is to use some other rhythm and/or longer note values.

And here’s another example with a different rhythm.

9. Moving / Transition Chords

Building on from arpeggios is the concept of moving or transitioning chords. We’ve looked at inversions and this technique plays up and down the root and inversions within a single chord section.

It gives a similar but fuller feel to playing arpeggios.

The example below shows how it can work:

And the example below shows a combination of a chord and two follow on notes from it. Note that the right hand is playing triplets within the duration of a half note.

The following example combines an initial chord with a following arpeggio. Throughout the piece the same rhythm is used. This could be altered to suit the rest of the music. This is in 6/8 time to demonstrate how this can work in other time signatures.

10. Seventh and Added Note Chords

Playing triad chords in a major or minor key, in root or inverted form, is a simple way to ensure you are playing notes which ‘fit’ into that particular scale. However, we’re not limited to using a 1-3-5 style chord, but in fact can add or replace notes in any chord to produce additional harmonies and feelings.

Beware, though, that this can produce undesired effects if used without forethought and a good theoretical knowledge as well as understanding the piece of music you’re playing and what any other instruments might be doing.

Seventh Chord

One of the easiest additions to a chord is to add the seventh note. There are two distinct seventh chord variants which can be formed from a simple major chord, and two from a minor chord.

They are shown below. When all notes are played, this creates a four note chord.

Listening to them you can hear they impart a ‘jazz’ feel to a chord. Some styles of music benefit more from seventh chords than others, though even the odd one or two can add a certain something which is missing from the basic chords.

Knowing which to play may well be dictated by the music itself, and particularly if there are chord sheets. Alternatively, they can be added in when it feels right. They will tend not to interfere with anyone else playing basic chords. The seventh note is also quite nice as a single transition note into a new chord, after playing an ordinary triad.

Here’s an example of sevenths in use to add colour and movement to the standard chords.

See the / notation which tells the musician which note of the chord should be the bass note. Assuming that this note is part of the chord, this also determines what chord inversion should be played.

With chords containing four notes, it’s now possible to play them in root position or one of three inversions. The concept is exactly the same as for three-note chords. The third inversion simply puts the highest note of the chord (in this case, one of the sevenths) as the root and then the other notes move up from there.

So, a Cmaj7 in root position is the low C, followed by E, G and B. A Cmaj7 in third inversion would be B in the root followed by C, E and G.

Second, Fourth, Sixth Chords

As well as seventh chords, adding the second, fourth or sixth notes of the scale to a chord can also produce interesting harmony variations. And again, the notes can also be used on their own as transitions into the next chord.

Sometimes it can sound muddy or crowded if you play all three notes of the original triad and the additional note, which is why one of the original notes is often dropped when a second, fourth or sixth note is added. It really depends on the style of music and the particular situation. Sometimes there is a place for the dissonance caused by notes played closely together, at least in passing.

Here’s the same example as above but with a note of the original triad removed. Notice that for some ‘sixth’ chords with a note removed, you’re now playing a different chord in inversion.

Of course there are a huge number of chord variations which could be used.

In the following example we use triad chords in various inversions plus the sixth as a transitioning single note between chords:

11. Dynamics

In simple t arms dynamics (and articulations) determine how loudly or softly notes are played. In accompaniments, it can be useful to vary the volume of individual notes and chords to provide more interest and also to direct attention to major beats, and so on.

The example below shows the first chord in a triplets being accented more than the other two. In other words, play any chord immediately after a change a bit louder than the other two.

In fact this technique can be used with any of the examples already given above.

12. Legato and Staccato

Together with dynamics, the style of playing notes can be varied from legato (smooth transitions) to staccato (short, sharp notes), and mixed as appropriate.

The example below demonstrates a staccato first note followed by two legato single notes.

Conclusion

That concludes our tutorial and examples for now. As you can imagine, there are many alternative ways to accompany and provide harmony, and we’ve only just scratched the surface. We hope we have given you some new ideas to try out, experiment, and build on your own repertoire. Keep playing, learning, and having fun.