10 Piano Styles You Can Learn To Play

By: Duane Shinn

When studying the piano, a student encounters a myriad piano styles. To master the instrument, at least several of these styles must be learned, and all if at all possible. Knowledge of various playing styles enables a pianist to enjoy and play in any genre and to cross-polinate styles to create a fusion he or she can call their own.

Many modern piano styles are based on the blues. The blues involve an emphasis on the major and minor pentatonic scales, with an additional note included. The flatted fifth is added to the minor pentatonic to create the blues scale. Many blues songs are based on a simple chord progression, known as 12-bar blues. This uses the I, IV and V chords of a scale to create a foundation for melodies and solos.

For example, rock piano was born out of the blues and then took on a life of it's own in the stylings of Jerry Lee Lewis, Michael McDonald, Elton John, Billy Joel, and many others.

Cocktail piano is a style generally connected with Liberace, Eddy Duchin, Roger Williams, and others who play popular tunes with lots of great technique -- lots of notes, runs, flourishes, and so on. But I hate to catagorize and of these great pianists, as many of them play in other styles as well.

Boogie-woogie is a piano style based on the blues. It started as a solo piano style, but has expanded into other genres, such as county-western and gospel. It differs from the blues in that it is considered dance music, while blues music traditionally expresses sadness and frustration.

Rhythm and blues piano is based on blues, jazz, and gospel styles. As the name suggests, the emphasis is on the rhythm of the song. Most R&B has a particular swing to it, with a strong feel of syncopation in the rhythm. Syncopation involves placing the stress on a normally unstressed beat. This often results in an almost off-time feel to the untrained ear.

Ragtime piano also incorporates syncopation. Ragtime uses syncopation in its melodies by placing melodic notes between the stressed beats of the rhythm. Ragtime is often considered the first completely American genre, even predating jazz.

Jazz piano encompasses such a broad palate of styles that it is impossible to describe. Many piano styles incorporate ideas borrowed from jazz, such as improvisation. An emphasis on extended chord forms and chord re-harmonization also stems from jazz piano.

New age piano often involves less chord changes than other styles, instead relying on simpler progressions and polychords. It often imitates the sound of nature -babling brooks, wind, rain, and so on. A polychord occurs when two different chords are played at once. This technique is taken from earlier classical works by composers such as Stravinsky.

Gospel piano is often similar to the blues, jazz and R&B. It emphasizes certain extended chords, such as the 11th, and usually has the swinging feel associated with jazz and R&B. The apparent simplicity of gospel songs often hides the fact that they are, indeed, quite musically complex. Syncopation is highly stressed in gospel music, as it contributes to the overall spiritual feel of the music.

Country and western piano has similar roots as blues piano. Both styles stem from earlier folk styles, often developed by the less fortunate people of the era. Many early country songs stem from Appalachian folk songs. Country and western piano is highlighted by very bright playing, with simple chord progressions underneath the melody. One of the greats in this styles is Floyd Cramer.

Traditional sacred piano styles involve the playing of liturgical songs and hymns. These can range from the harmonically and rhythmically complex to simple two and three chord songs. Many hymns stem from folk songs of centuries past. The variety of sacred piano styles is as numerous as the liturgical songs themselves. These piano styles often involve a strict reading of notation, with less of an emphasis on personal interpretation than other styles.

The classical piano style is probably the most varied of all the styles. Classical music is older than other styles, and is considered to the proper grounds for musical instruction. Many elements of other piano styles come from classical music, and nearly all forms of musical theory are used in classical music. Andre Previn is the classic example of a well-trained classical pianist crossing over into the world of jazz, and with great success. Classical music usually requires intense training to master, though there many simpler pieces designed with the novice player in mind.

Though classical is often considered the high point of music, this "ain't necessarily so." For instance, many players who are "classically trained" have trouble adapting to the feel and sincerity of the blues. For this reason, a well-rounded player should be adaptable and learn as much about each of these piano styles as possible. In this way, a pianist is ready for any musical challenge. And besides, who knows where the future of music lies?

About the Author: Duane Shinn is the author of the popular online newsletter on piano chords, available free at "Exciting Piano Chords & Chord Progressions!"

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