More and more producers these days are coming into the field without a background as a pianist. That’s not necessarily a bad thing - hearing music composed from all perspectives is giving us a diversity we didn’t have decades ago! Sooner or later, most producers start to pick up some piano chops to help along the way. Here are 4 key areas you should focus on right away if piano isn’t your main instrument, but you’re ‘leveling up’ as a keyboardist.
Sometimes you don’t always want to change harmonic content when you want a change in the vibe. If you’re looking to make a single chord last a bit longer, or you want to encourage eventual motion away from that chord, consider using an inversion. With an inversion, you make the bass note (or in many cases, bass instrument) play a different note that is a part of the chord you’re playing. So if you were playing a D chord and had a ‘D’ in the left hand, try playing a D chord with an ‘F#’ in the left hand. You’ll keep the harmonic content the same, but give a subtle shift that is good for moving things along.
A suspended chord is when you remove the third of the chord and replace it with either the 2nd or the 4th. This eliminates the major or minor aspect of the chord and keeps things a little more ambiguous. You can use a suspension in itself as the entire chord, or you can use it as a quick ‘fill’. Check these 2 audio examples.
In the first example, I’m holding a suspended chord for a long time. That means the underlying harmony would actually be a D suspended chord. For the second example, I’m mostly playing a D chord, but occasionally peppering in a D suspended 2nd or suspended 4th chord as a ‘fill’. It allows me to play the D a bit longer, but still keep it interesting.
By moving some of the chord tones chromatically, you can encourage motion and create some atmosphere that is outside the typical major/minor vibe. If you raise the top note of a simple major triad by a half step, you’ll get an augmented chord. This is great if you want to keep moving that half step up and resolve it to another chord.
You can also lower the top note of a minor triad and you’ll get a diminished chord. This chord feels very ‘compressed’ onto itself, and also provides a ‘desire’ to move along to a different harmony.
At the end of phrases or sections of music, there is usually a cadence of some kind. If you go from the 5th chord in a major key to the 1st chord, you’re playing an authentic cadence of some kind. That sound is timeless, and you’ll definitely recognize it in the audio example.
You don’t always have to give the people what they expect, though! Try going from the 5th chord in a major key to the 6th chord in the same key - which will be minor. This is called a deceptive cadence, and it’s good for when you want to make a phrase sound like it’s about to end, but then continue it on or take it elsewhere, like a bridge of a song.