Music Theory: Two-Handed Piano Chord Progression Variations

Take your music theory (and keyboard skills) to the next level as Lynda Arnold shows some useful ways to play a simple chord progression with two hands, with varying voicings, rhythms and patterns.  

When I coach up-and-coming producers in piano technique, they often want to explore ways to play through chord progressions with two hands. It's important for producers to have some basic piano skills, not only for understanding music theory, but also to perform or record their ideas with greater ease. Playing with two hands takes practice, and it's often easier to get started by taking lessons for a while privately or in a group. 

In this article, I will explore some ways to play a simple chord progression with two hands, with varying voicings, rhythms and patterns. Hopefully these examples will inspire you to explore other ideas as well as study some of the other piano accompaniments prevalent in modern piano driven songwriting. I learn something from every song that comes my way, no matter how simple. It's fun to have my teen students bring me songs they discover on the radio or online to study and it's fulfilling for me as their teacher to see them connecting to the piano with music that excites them. The key is to start simple and work your way up.

Let's start with a simple chord progression in A minor:

Figure 1 – Chord Progression played in both hands with voice leading.

Figure 1 – Chord Progression played in both hands with voice leading.

First, concentrate on playing all six notes (3 in each hand) together. Make sure that each note is represented at equal volume or velocity. It may take some time to develop the left hand and especially the outer fingers of each hand as they tend to be a bit weaker. The notes should make one complete sound. Keep your hands in a round shape as you play (no flat fingers!) to provide extra support and help with finger control.

Figure 2 – Chord Progression with Octave Chord Root in Left Hand

Figure 2 – Chord Progression with Octave Chord Root in Left Hand.

It's very common for the left hand to play an octave in the left hand while playing the full chord, partial chord or melody in the right hand. The octave adds more bass and strength to the chord. The octave in the left hand can be the root of the chord or another designated note in the chord. In the example above, I keep the chord voicings/inversions the same in the right hand and have the left hand play the root notes. Learning to play octaves comfortably is another piano challenge. After some practice, your hand will memorize the distance between the notes so you can move around to other octaves easier. The use of the octave as well as the addition of the fifth of the chord in the middle of the octave is a very common left hand part in songwriting.

Creating Forward Motion Through Rhythm

The above examples are quite static in nature. That may be all that's required in some musical contexts, but most of the time, more forward motion is needed to support the melody. The rhythm doesn't have to be complicated. Below, I play eighth note octaves in the left hand and alternate my right between quarter notes and eighth notes to make things more interesting. Keep things simple in the beginning of your practice on this concept and stick to quarter note chords in the right hand or even half note chords if that helps you put the hands together. In fact, I would suggest practicing the left and right hand separately until you can do both parts comfortably before trying them together.

Figure 3 – Creating More Forward Motion with Simple Rhythm Changes.

Figure 3 – Creating More Forward Motion with Simple Rhythm Changes.

Video 1 – A Demo of Examples 1 – 3

Adding Syncopation

One very common piano technique is the use of syncopation. Syncopation refers to rhythmic playing that stresses the weak or upbeats instead of the downbeats. Often, a tied note is involved that is held over the downbeat and then the next note is played on the upbeat giving the rhythmic phrase a different feel. In terms of piano playing, infinite variations can be achieved by using syncopation to play alternating hand patterns. In other words, you'll have the right and left hand trade off more instead of playing at the same time. A recent pop song a student brought me inspired the syncopated piano example below.

Figure 4 – Syncopated Piano Accompaniment Pattern

In the short video below, I demonstrate how to work up to the full pattern notated above by building up the pattern piece by piece through the progression. The last measure remains the same throughout.

Video 2 – Playing the Syncopated Chord Pattern

Make Your Own Arpeggios

Another way to create motion and interest is by arpeggiating the chords. Piano educators also use the term 'broken chords' to describe harmony that is played this way. Arpeggios are essentially the notes of the chord played one at a time instead of together. There is stilI the feeling of harmonic support with this technique even though the notes are played one at a time. I know there is a myriad of ways to get arpeggiated chord patterns in our DAW of choice by pressing one key in an Arp plug-in or software instrument. With that said, I always encourage musicians and producers to use arpeggiated lines as another piano practice challenge and arrangement opportunity. Plus, as a live player, you can change the direction you are playing the arpeggio from chord to chord so it doesn't sound the same or too robotic. Remember to put some emotion into what you are playing. Feel it and your audience will feel it too!

In the example below, the arpeggio starts in the left hand and ascends to the right hand. Also, in the corresponding video, I play the pattern below and then offer a few variations on this theme.

Figure 5 – Arpeggiated Chord Pattern

Figure 5 – Arpeggiated Chord Pattern

Video 3 – Arpeggiated Chord Pattern with Variations

Mix it up!

These are just a few ways to approach playing chord progressions on the piano with two hands.

After you feel like you have mastered some of the above examples by putting in those required daily practice sessions, try mixing up these concepts for even more interesting and unique results. You will soon find your own way of playing chord progressions on the keyboard as you develop your signature sound. I'd love to hear from you on how this works for you. Also, if you find this article helpful and would like more coaching on piano technique and keyboard theory, let me know what you would like me cover in future articles.

Lynda Arnold is a singer/songwriter, multi-instrumentalist (voice, flute, piano, and guitar), and electronic musician/sound artist who has been producing, performing, and developing her own sound for over 12 years as ‘Divasonic;’ an ethereal, song driven electronic music project with multiple album and single releases on labels EMI... Read More


Great exercise! I was looking for something exactly like this.

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