Using chords for learning a piece of sheet music

Hey guys, hope you're enjoying your piano practice sessions and are feeling the benefit! 🙂


Chords play a huge part in the architecture of music. Here's a tip about learning new music that I've been teaching my students for years. It helps you to dive deeper into the music you're currently learning. While reading is an essential part of learning the classical piano repertoire, I feel that it's important to know what is happening musically too. As part of my holistic method of teaching music, I work from the get-go on people's understanding of what is happening in the music they're playing. This prepares them with a solid grounding later on if they want to memorise a piece or get into improvising, whether the music is classical, jazz or pop.


When my students decide on a new piece, we look through it first as a sight-reading exercise. After the first run-through we'll scan it for any 'pay attention' or challenging sections. Then we'll work on fingering and generally eliminate anything that might stand in the way of trouble-free learning. Once we've had a few sessions on the new music, students sometimes want to learn the piece 'by heart' (ie - without reading it). A really helpful way of committing music to memory is to get an idea of what the composer is doing harmonically and the stylistic techniques they're using. These techniques often include the use of broken chords and arpeggiation as a left hand accompaniment (in piano music) and many melodies are also based around chordal patterns and scales. Spending some time working out the chords being used, their relationship to each other and finding out how they add momentum and emotional content all inform the player and help them to form a connection to the music.


I recently worked on chords for two pieces of Chopin - one with a current student and one from an album of improvisation by a master pianist that I was reviewing for a publication. The first was from the Waltz in A minor (opus 34 no. 2) and the other was Prelude 20 (from opus 28). Below are a couple of excerpts from the chordal break-downs of both pieces. The chords are written in standard 'real book' style, as used in jazz lead sheets.

You might find it helpful to play these chords only - not the actual pieces - and explore the voicings/inversions/alterations etc that are used in these iconic and greatly-loved piano pieces. Once you come back to playing what is written down, ask yourself if this study has helped you understand and play the pieces any better. Does this knowledge help you memorise them? Drop me a line and let me know 😉

Chopin Prelude 20 (opus 28 - first 4 bars): || Cm Fm G+5 Cm | Ab Db Eb7/Db Ab | G7 C7 Fm Cm | Dsus G7 D13-11 G ||

Chopin Am Waltz (opus 34, no. 2 - first 8 bars): || Am | Bdim | Am | Bdim | Am | C#dim | E7/B | E7 ||

If you're interested in finding about more about working out chords, how music is constructed etc, feel free to get in touch 😉