Unleash Creativity with “The Pretty Pop Piano Thingy”

Guest Writer: James Dering

James6I’m delighted to share with you an adaptation of an article I wrote on my website, BetterPiano.com. It was originally written for a “self-taught” audience, as you’ll be able to tell from my wording. However, I have also had lots of success with this technique in a private lesson environment, and I believe you can, too. Feel free to use my “delivery” here as an example of how you could present this material, but know that you can also make your own adjustments, to suit the needs of your students.

The pop pianist often thinks in terms of patterns and musical “data.” Sounds dull, doesn’t it? And it’s very different from more traditional ways of playing. But still, you’ll want to pay attention to this lesson- some amazing things are about to happen.

I want to show you a small “trick” that will give you a surprisingly authentic and flexible pop piano sound in a matter of minutes. It works as a solo piano texture, or as a great background texture for accompanying someone else, say, a singer. It’s one of my favorites. In fact, one student told me that out of all of our lessons (it had been about two years) she had gotten the most out of this one thing. Sound interesting now?

What to do – the setup

We’re going to set up a small “structure.” It’s played with both hands. The left hand plays first, and then the right hand “answers” afterward. The left hand plays C, G, and C, like this:





The right hand plays D, E, and G, like this:

Now, you put them together, like so:

Not bad, right? You’re playing the Pretty Pop Piano Thingy! (Let’s call it the PPPT, shall we?) Notice that it has a pretty, happy sound. The happy quality comes from the fact that the pattern is sitting on top of a major chord. (Remember that, it’ll come back later). Now, try repeating it a few times. If you’ve got some pedal skills, try holding the pedal each measure for a really nice sound:

Even better! But hang on- we’re just getting started.

Moving around

To take this next step, we’re going to do something a little strange: we’re going to “convert” the PPPT into numbers. this is where we’ll start to look at the music as being more like “data.” We’ll call the lowest C “1,” and simply number everything else by counting up white notes from there. The numbers will repeat every octave, so that, for the moment, all C’s are “1” and all D’s are “2” and so on:







Really take that in until you fully understand the numbers.

[NOTE: these are NOT finger numbers. Also, if you’re familiar with scale degrees, these numbers only happen to resemble those, for the moment. If you don’t know what scale degrees are, no worries! Moving on..]

Now that we know that the PPPT structure is 151(235), we’re going to do something really cool: move it. Here’s where we manipulate our data. Let’s go up one, so that the PPPT starts on D. In other words, now the note D will be “1,” E will be “2” and so on. Then, you follow the directions as before: count up the white notes (from D) to build the same kind of structure as before. Also, now that you’ve got the hang of it, let’s play this one at a faster tempo:







Isn’t that a gorgeous, rich sound? It’s darker this time, though, isn’t it? That’s because we’re now playing the pattern over a minor chord (D minor) instead of the major chord (C major) that we used before. Notice also that the numbers are all the same, as long as you think of the D as “1” instead of C. Got it?

Let’s try one more. Move the pattern to G. That is, call G “1” and then follow the same steps as before:







Another happy sound- but still different from the one built on C. NOTE: from where I was, I chose to move down to G. I (and you) could also choose to move up to the next highest G, instead.

Now, we’ve got some isolated pretty sounds. What do we do with them?

Go exploring!

This is where the PPPT really starts to come to life. All you do is: go anywhere you want, for as many measures as you want! You can play the PPPT off of A for two measures, then a measure off of G, and so on. Try it! However, if you try them all, you’ll soon discover that two locations, E and B, sound weird. We’ll fix this by adjusting the pattern off of E, and by avoiding the pattern on B altogether. To adjust the PPPT on E, you’ll change what would have been an F note to an F sharp. In other words, you’ll change this:







…ew… to this:







…ahh… And as I said, you’ll avoid the PPPT on B altogether. The exception on E above marks the only time that you’ll play a black note in this exercise.

So, let’s lay out the official rules for the Pretty Pop Piano Thingy:

The rules for the PPPT

  • Play the pattern wherever you choose, for however long you choose
  • When building the pattern on E, change the F to an F sharp
  • Avoid building the pattern on B

That’s it! And now it’s time to take it for a spin. Explore the pattern, trying different locations, different ranges on the keyboard, even different tempos! (Or tempi, if you prefer). You could easily entertain yourself (and others) for a while just exploring this pattern. For a little inspiration, here’s a clip of me playing around with the PPPT:

For even more

1. Expanding:

For the right student, the PPPT can be just the beginning. A bit of arpeggiating and some rhythmic variation can absolutely bring this technique to life. I’m working on more materials about this now, but in the mean time, this clip will give you an example. Use this approach to take that special student to the next level!

 2. Listening

If you’re more of an aural learner, I’ve got two suggestions. First, you can check outthe original article, which includes sound clips demonstrating this technique (including a demonstration of “expanding,” above). Second, I covered the PPPT on an episode of my podcast, The Better Piano Podcast. You can download the .mp3 file here, or stream the episode online here.

3. Watching

you’re more of a visual learner and/or you’d like to see how my hands move as I’m playing: I recorded this video demonstration of the PPPT on YouTube. The video is about 15 minutes long, as I took my time, trying to make the PPPT accessible to beginners. However, depending on the student, the entire thing could be presented in only a few minutes, too.

I hope you’ve enjoyed getting to know the Pretty Pop Piano Thingy! My best wishes for your success in your piano studio. – James Dering

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