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Piano Fact

Lesson 32: Too Many Chords in a Measure, Part 1

As a novice piano player, you eventually discover there is no convention that governs how many chords should be in a measure or how often chords change. Those decisions are left entirely to the composer.

Beginning method books offer song examples in which chords change very infrequently. Often you’ll find several consecutive measures lingering on the same chord. Later the student may find songs whose chords change every measure. Then they come across songs with two chords per measure (as seen in The Entertainer in our Popular Chord Style Piano course).

Of course this gradual introduction of complexity is designed to let the student play songs that are not too overwhelming at first; then the songs become increasingly more demanding as the student’s left hand skills improve.

Later the student sees examples that demand he play four chords in a measure. How does one play that? Let’s look at this situation in a little more depth.

There is a common, yet mistaken, belief that a musician must be completely accurate and literal in order to be correct. Nothing is further from the truth.

Take the following multiple choice quiz.

1) Music is correct when:

a) it’s played precisely
b) it sounds good

2) The most important function of the piano player’s left hand is to:

a) play each and every chord that is written
b) help maintain a steady rhythm

Although this may not be true of classical music, in the world of popular music the answer to both questions is (b). In addition to playing chords the left hand is in charge of maintaining a steady, reliable rhythm. Thus, if you start out playing one chord per measure, you should play the entire tune in the one-chord-per-measure mode. Alternatively, if there are significant sections of the song that call for two chords per measure, you should strum two chords per measure all the way through, even if it means repeating chords in those measures that only call for one chord.

What about four chords per measure? Fortunately, there are few songs, if any, that demand you play four different chords every single measure. In fact, I have never seen even one. What you do find from time to time, however, is a song that calls for a four chord measure once or twice in the song. So here are two strategies for the occasional four chord measure, depending on the level of expertise of the player.

For the beginner to intermediate player: Play only the chords that fall on beats one and three. Ignore the chords that fall on beats two and four. That’s right, ignore them. Those chords fall on the weak beats of the measure, and are likely not absolutely essential to the integrity of the song. Plus these four-chord measures will tend to occur just once or twice in the song anyway.

For the advanced player: We’ll continue this discussion in our next installment (Lesson 33).

In the meantime, for information on simple songs (one or two chords per measure) see Popular Chord Style Piano.

For more information on how to play left hand chords, refer to the cassette “Simple Left Hand Variations” found in our program Continuing Chord Piano.

And finally for some guidance in playing by ear, see How to Play Piano by Ear.

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