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Piano Fact

Lesson 33: Too Many Chords in a Measure, Part 2

In Lesson 32 we posed the problem of what to do when you encounter up to four chords in a measure. The strategies are different depending on your skill level. So here we repeat the advice we gave last time to the beginning and intermediate level player, and we’ll continue our discussion from there.

For the beginner to intermediate player: When you encounter a measure with three or four chords, 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 not likely to be essential to the integrity of the song. Plus these four-chord measures will tend to occur just once or twice in the song anyway.

The important thing is to keep the left hand playing in a steady fashion. Chords on beats two or four will force the left hand to break this steady rhythm pattern. So it’s best for beginners to resist the potential confusing by ignoring those extraneous chords.

For the advanced player: Continue to play the chords that fall on beats one and three with the left hand in the manner, style, and tempo you’ve chosen to use up to that point. Then for any chords that might fall on beats two and four, try to sneak them in somehow with the right hand.

The second and fourth beats of the measure are considered to be weak beats, and you don’t have to play these weak-beat chords literally. Sometimes just one or two notes from within these chords is all you have to play (especially effective if you experiment and choose the notes that yield the best effect).

Also, these chords don’t always need to fall exactly on the beat. Your left hand is responsible for keeping the beat going, and this is best accomplished by playing the chords with the left hand (in whatever style you choose) on beats one and three. The right hand is sometimes called upon to play ahead of or behind the primary beat. So the chords you see in the sheet music that appear to be over beats two and four don’t always fall exactly on two and four.

Sometimes, when reading a lead sheet or fake book (just treble clef melody and chords) it’s not always possible to deduce exactly what the composer wants. It’s often necessary to read between the lines and interpret this chord music by deduction. Your fall back position is to be familiar with the song already so you can use your ear (meaning your memory in this case) to recreate the song the way you heard it before.

Fortunately, if you’re playing standards or pop tunes from the charts, you’ve likely had the luxury of hearing the song the way it’s “supposed to sound” many times over. That in itself should be enough of a clue to help you interpret those measures in the written music that may be deemed ambiguous.

In any case remember the primary function of the left hand is to keep the rhythm. If you can keep rhythm AND play the correct chords too, that’s a bonus. But rhythm always supersedes harmony. So the main message is: whenever you have a measure of four different chords, whatever you do, don’t drop the beat.

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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