Repertoire Rap #1: Cool pop music arrangements that actually sound good!

By Tim Topham | Repertoire

Feb 09
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Repertoire Rap #1. Watch and listen as I show you some cool pop music finds. For links to download the sheet music and more info head to

All right, hi everyone, Tim Topham here, and I’m starting these little, what I’m calling, a repertoire rap, R-A-P. The whole goal of them is to give you some ideas about some music, that I’ve been finding recently, that you can use in your studio. I thought I’ll demonstrate some ideas, and give you links to them, and you can let me know what you think, I guess.

This is something that I want to do, perhaps, every couple of weeks, and I’m really interested to hear what you think of these too. If you really think it’s a bit of a waste of time, and my playing is so bad it’s not worth listening to, then let me know in the comments. But look, I hope you do find them valuable.

Today’s topic is going to be about pop music. It’s an area that, obviously, I’m quite interested in, but what I also find is that pop music is … Look, it’s not designed to be played on piano, right? Pop music’s designed to be sung. Part of the big issue we have as teachers, working with pop music, is that it’s too difficult to play, and so what I’ve done today is I’ve found some arrangements of music that, one, the music choice itself suits playing on the piano, and two, the simplification of rhythm still makes it sound good. They’re kind of the two factors I look for in a good pop music arrangement.

All of that said, there’s no doubt that the best way for students to be approaching pop music is to actually sing it, so to accompany themselves, playing some chords, and singing over the [inaudible [00:01:35] as they play it, because ultimately, that’s what a pianists job in a pop band of some sort’s all about, right?

I know that encouraging your students to sing out loud can be difficult, and I’ve actually, through encouragement from a number of my colleagues and people in my community, I’ve really moved more down this path, and I’ve had great success with it. Even with … And I teach a lot of boys, and teenage ones in particular. It’s amazing how much they’ve come out of their shells and they’ve just given it a shot.

Had one kid who was really happy to … He really wanted to play Piano Man by Billy Joel, and he actually sang it for the first time live at a concert that we did. We did a pop showcase concert, and it was brilliant. It’s so much easier to do when you’re just playing … rather than … kind of thing.

I’d really encourage you to do that. If your student wants to play pop, then encourage them to sing and play live.

All right, for the arrangements, what I’ve got … What I’ll show you first is this book. It’s Faber Music, Essential Pop Collection. It looks like this.

I’ve got, by the way, all links to these, the music that I’m going to show you, at That’s just R-A-P, R-A-P, if you’re in the States and my accent sounds a bit weird.

The thing I like about this … This is kind of intermediate, lower intermediate, level music. Depending on where you are in the world will depend on how you would describe this, but I think the arrangements are good, and they sound right, and they’re quite playable.

Let me show you a few examples from the book. The first one’s Everybody Hurts by REM. It sounds like this.

You get the idea. It’s very flowing. It’s a great piece that you could teach with chords alone really. For them to sing over the top (sings). It’s just arpeggio chords (sings). Excuse my singing voice. It’s not in the right register for me. That would be a great way to play this if you’ve got a student that’s confident.

As you hear, it’s good. It’s a playable arrangement. As long as a student can decipher between the melody and the accompaniment. Now that’s hard, so that makes this a relatively hard arrangement, because you’ve got to keep this going while you hear … That could be the cause for some difficulties but I think it’s an arrangement worth checking out.

I came across this, Do They Know It’s Christmas? I thought, “Oh yeah, that was fun.” I quite like playing these old 80s tunes and stuff. I’m sure you would probably feel the same.

This one is just … Got a nice simple left hand, just octaves or single notes, and later on …

I’m trying to play these as true to the score as I can, by the way. If they sound a little bit wooden and simplified, that’s because I’m trying to play what the arrangement actually has.

The next one I’ll show you is Karma Police by Radiohead. Have a listen to this. It’ll skip [inaudible [00:06:02]. You’ve got some offbeat work. Left hand’s steady. If you’ve got students that like that Radiohead sound, they’re going to love that piece. It’s good. It’s approachable. It’s chordal. It sounds kind of thick. It’ll take a little bit of work just to get the offbeat patterning happening between the two hands, but totally doable.

What else have I marked in here that I like? House of the Rising Sun, classic piece. I could keep on playing that because that’s a hell of a lot of fun, right? That’s House of the Rising Sun. That’s a really approachable arrangement.

I should say, as well as the fact that I’m playing these, more or less, as much as I can without embellishment, I’m trying to play them as … I also haven’t practiced these. This is, by no means, meant to be a concert. This is me doing a whole lot of sight reading just to give you some ideas, okay? Please bear with the wrong notes.

We are the Champions, this is a pretty cool song. We’re now in 6/8, so we got a different feel. Kids have been enjoying this one too. That’s actually really approachable, very playable, and that’s one that I think a lot of students would really, really enjoy.

If you’re watching this, and you’ve been tuned in for a little while — We’ve got a few people live on the call — please feel free to make a comment, if you’ve got a comment, or a question, or anything like that, please pop it in the box there. Even if you’re watching the replay of this, that’s totally cool as well, love to hear from you. Again, as I say, if you’re finding … If you think this is a useful thing for me to be spending my time doing, then please note that down so I do know. Also, there’s a share button. If you can share this, so that other teachers know about it, that would be really, really useful too.

I Heard it Through the Grapevine was another one in this book which I thought would be kind of fun. Just teaching that alone, with the groovy feeling it’s got, I think, you know, that’s a sure-fire winner, right? Then the melody comes in. All right, so you get the idea of that piece as well. I thought that was kind of cool.

There’s Sitting on the Dock of the Bay. It’s got a great [inaudible [00:09:46]. That was a good one as well.

What else did I mark in here? Oh, Dancing Queen, ABBA. Actually, I think, I choose this because it’s … Well, I’ve seen a few arrangements of this in the past, and this one I really quite liked … Et cetera, you get the idea. A very simple, left hand [inaudible [00:10:58] octaves, broken octaves.

Some tricks with the rhythm … For teaching rhythmic aspects like this, students are likely to need to do, either some vocalizing … So, “Bum, bum, bum, bum, bum, bum, bum, bum, bum, badum, bum, bum, bum,” while keeping a steady beat with the left hand, which is what it’s got to do. You can explore with them, vocalizing the right hand melody in sound.

I found, that if sound is difficult … I’m sorry. If rhythm is difficult, then getting students to vocalize it can be a massive help. If you haven’t tried that tactic before, try it with your next student today, or tomorrow. Who’s having difficulty with a rhythm, in any genre of music at all, just get them to vocalize it, make some weird sounds and have a laugh about it. I do. Just go, “dah, dah, dah,” and if you do it with them, they don’t find it’s all that weird really, and it’s incredibly useful, particularly if they then, “Dah, ba, ba, dum, badum, bum.” You can vocalize very complex rhythms, of course. They can just copy you doing it if you want, and then they can try and … Just on a couple of notes on the piano, try playing that rhythm.

[inaudible [00:12:14] last one I marked here. Oh, see, there’s a version of Billy Jean and I actually marked this because it’s not a good arrangement. It’s got the … The chord riff in the left hand, right? Then it kind of stops. For a piece of music like that, it doesn’t sound quite right. Always play through music before you teach it — won’t you, of course — to your students. I didn’t think it had the right vibe. I did like playing this. I thought, “Oh, that would be a fun thing to teach to a student, even if they don’t learn the actual song.”

That’s the Essential Pop Music Collection by Faber. Distributed, I think, by Hal Leonard, if you’re in Australia. I’m not sure about overseas. That’s tip number one, or suggestion number one.

Number two is this series here. It’s called the Pop Piano Hits series. It’s published by Hal Leonard. They come out quite regularly and they’re not very thick. There’s only, maybe, five songs in each. That’s because, of course, pop music goes in and out of fashion so quickly, so they bring out new ones.

The thing I like about these is, while the arrangements are quite simple … I don’t know if you can see. There’s an example of Stay With Me, so I’ll play through that one. These are kind of grade, in Australia, grade one/two level. It’s pretty hard to find pop music that’s playable at that kind of level and actually sounds good.

Here’s Stay With Me by Sam Smith. This is from the book that’s the first title is Stay With Me, Sing, and More Hot Singles. The great thing about a lot of these arrangements is that the hand [chokes [00:14:49] are small so there’s not a lot of octaves. In fact, if I look through this whole piece, fifths, sixths, is about as wide as the hand movement gets. How good’s that? For your younger students, or students with smaller hands, brilliant series. That was Stay With Me.

Let me show you … I’ve marked a few others. What’s this one? Oh, A Sky Full of Stars. This is by Coldplay and this piece is originally in G-flat major and incredibly complex. In fact, its one I use in my presentations about pop music, about how to simplify things. This is what they’ve turned this into.

Even if you do know the title of that by name when I first said it, I know that you’ll recognize it if you listen to the radio or have children of your own. I also found Take Me To Church. This came out a year, last year? Maybe the year before even. Cool track, and it’s quite pianistic as well.

Nice. I mean really simple chord structures, D-minor, A-minor, the odd G chord, and it does change later on. That’s a really appealing tune, particularly for students who know of it. That’s in this version of the book. It’s called … The title is Shake it Off, All About That Bass, and More Hot Singles. That’s that one.

A couple from this one, this is the [greeny [00:16:53] covered book. See You Again, Flashlight, and More Hot Singles, this one’s called. I marked Budapest. I thought that was quite a good arrangement. It all fits under one hand shape and they’ve simplified the rhythm back to … I mean it’s [quite as [00:17:30] … There’s a dotted quaver, semiquaver, like a dotted, sort of pair. That’s about as complex as the rhythm gets.

You’ve got real potential in these books and I give huge credit to Hal Leonard for putting these together because I think they really work really, really well.

This one’s called See You Again from Fast and the Furious, I think it was called, movie. It’s a soulful ballad according to the title. Let’s see if I can remember this one.

All right, great. I mean how good is that? I mean it’s a beautiful little tune. This is where, I think, we’ve got a lot of potential with pop music to … When it’s as approachable as that, to use in our lessons, and you don’t have any particularly new skills. You can teach this as you would teach any other repertoire.

G’day [Hedda [00:18:40]. I can see you’ve joined in the conversation as well. Welcome.

[inaudible [00:18:43] I have, I marked one more from this series. Oh, Wake Me Up. a lot of you will know I quite like Avicii. This is from this book, the greeny one, which is called Roar, Royals and More Hot Singles. Wake Me Up.

That’s pretty true to the original, I think. I think that’s really great.

Look, if you’re live on the call now, please just pop your name in the box and just say hi. We’d love to be able to give you a shout out and see who’s actually on the call. I can see quite a few people are there. Please, there’s a share button, would love for you to share or like what I’m doing.

Thank you! Someone’s giving me a thumbs up. That’s awesome.

That was the Pop Piano Hits Series. Real big fan of that one. You can find that. It’s just in … It’s online and in music stores. Remember too, there’s a link to where to buy this stuff on my website. You can just head to, R-A-P.

[Caroline [00:20:05], hello. Good to see you Caroline. That’s a name that I’m very familiar with. I’ve seen you around online and on the website. Thank you for joining in today.

The last batch of pop music, or arrangements, that I want to show you is from a group called Noviscore, N-O-V-I-S-C-O-R-E.

Thanks [Henny [00:20:29], Heather.

These are great accessible arrangements here. I think it’s the hardest thing to find in piano teaching today. If you’re going to be open to teaching pop music, finding accessible arrangements is tough. That’s exactly why I wanted to do this.

And Wendy from Salt Spring. Is that where you live? I think it might be. It sounds nice.

The music I’m going to show you today is from a website called Noviscore, N-O-V-I-S-C-O-R-E. I have talked about this before. If you haven’t checked it out yet, I’m going to actually show you how it actually works, right? I asked the guys at Noviscore to send me some of their top-rated arrangements.

The thing that Noviscore does that I love, is that they have a team of pianists and teachers who actually create arrangements for each piece at different levels. For the first one, I’m going to show you River Flows in You. I think, pretty much, everyone’s going to know this. I’ll play the full version and I’m sure you’ll recognize it.

Real crowd pleaser right? Every student loves playing this. I’m sure many of you have taught it before. In fact, give me a thumbs up if you’ve taught this piece before. That’d be really cool to know.

Wendy, glad you like Noviscore as well. I think it’s really, really good.

That’s the actual, complete version of River Flows in You. What I’m going to do now is go back to, what they call, their level one version of this same piece of music so you can hear the difference in how they’ve been simplified. This is the level one Noviscore arrangement which you can download at any time.

We’ve taken out any kind of chords in the right hand. We’ve removed any octave movement in the left hand, so it’s great for smaller hands. We’ve simplified the left hand significantly, just to fifths, pretty much, arpeggio fifths, and the right hand is just … It just sinks in.

The thing I love about this … I mean, it’s all very well coming up with an easy arrangement of something, right? The thing I love about this, is that it still sounds good. That’s what we want, right, when we give a student an easy arrangement of something.

That was level one, and the other thing they do … I should show you the music. This is on my iPad. I’ll see if it’s actually going to work. There you go. That’s what the score looks like. What I want to show you is, they also have versions with note — sorry, let me show you — note names. Here’s an example of this piece with note names only. See if I can get this. You can see that there’s no music but note names are written where the notes should come.

This isn’t, of course, what I would teach. I wouldn’t teach from this, but this can be a really handy reference for students. It can be one of those intermediaries, if you’ve got students who love going away and learning a hundred things on YouTube without you. This is like a teach-yourself, easy way of reading, that introduces reading at the same time, but isn’t just a straight “copy me” on YouTube. I would explore this. This is their note names version of the score.

Now I showed you the level one. Let me show you the level two. See if you can pick out what has changed in the level two arrangement.

Oh, sorry.

Could you tell what’s changed? The left hand, we’ve now got the standard pop accompaniment style, and we’ve got a little grace note in the right hand, but it’s still not the full version which had more chords in the right hand and had bigger stretches in the left, so it moved up a tenth, or even further than that. This one, just two octaves.

Make sure you check out this score. You can see all the scores. You can hear them online. Really, really good.

Let me show you some other examples. Another Coldplay tune that is pretty popular is Hymn for the Weekend. Let me find you … Here’s Hymn for the Weekend in their level one version. It’s starts with an F-minor chord so we’ve actually got … It’s not in F-minor. We’ve got three flats, so it’s in C-minor. The flats make it a hard level one but have a listen anyway.


If you listen to the radio, you might well recognize that as well.

Wendy says, “My students like the accompaniment arrangement so that they can sing the melody.” Yeah, I’ll get onto that. There’s another whole set of arrangements in here that I’ll get onto in one sec.

That was the level one version of this song. We could go to level two, which sounds more like this.

We’re adding more chords in the right hand. We’re adding more complexity in the left hand. If we go to the level three … So this is the full one, then you get the real shuffle feel, notated in. It looks far more complex, but it doesn’t sound that different really. If the student can sense that, “Duda, da, da, duda, da, da, duda, da, da,” the shuffle feel of this piece. Even the earlier arrangements sound good.

Here’s the level three one.

They’ve got this offbeat, shuffling kind of pattern in the left hand which makes this much harder. Let me show you. That’s the level three version, what that looks like. We compare that to the level one. There’s level one. You get an idea of just how much more approachable these arrangements are, right?

Again, I wouldn’t be showing you this unless I knew that it sounded good. These arrangements actually sound good, even in their simple form.

Now, as Wendy said, they don’t just have three levels, and sometimes four levels, of each piece in arrangement form. They also have a whole lot of other stuff. This is The Sound of Silence. This is one of their other best sellers in — If we can see it, let me show you — in four-hand piano, so, a two piano version, right? There’s arrangements like that if you’re looking for something new, and contemporary, and for two hands or a duet, then definitely check it out.

What they also have is reading aid versions. This is a full … It’s a full notated score at whatever level you’ve chosen. If you can see, some of the notes are listed as red. Some of the note names are written in, more fingering’s written in. If you’ve got three against two, and funny polyrhythms, and things like that, it will actually … It will show you dotted lines, so the kinds of things that a teacher would add to a score to help the student, is already written in and you can print it out like this, in one of those handy thing. I know, as a short cut, I’ve before changed the color of black notes on my students scores. if they [inaudible [00:28:38] something really, really fast, and they keep getting it wrong, changing the color of black notes is useful. That’s exactly what they’ve done here. That’s the reading aid version.

I’m just going through, again, all the different types of arrangements they have on Noviscore. It’s crazy.

By the way, if you’re still watching this and you’re enjoying it, please let me know and please share this with other people so they can watch it as well. It’s on replay, so anyone can watch it afterwards, so if you can share it, that would be great.

Sounds of Silence, I don’t know if I’ll play the whole thing. Let me just have a quick look through. So here … Well, I’ll just play the little one. This is the beginner kind of version of The Sound of Silence, piano solo from Noviscore.

They’ve made good use of this Alberti based left-hand pattern, which is true to the original, and is very simple to play for students, because we’re in root position, broken chord, right? It’s a very clever way of making an arrangement that’s playable for very many levels of students.

I just want to show you, finally, they also have arrangements for piano accompaniment. This is what the pianist would play, if you’re accompanying a singer, or what a student might play, if they’re accompanying themselves, of course. There’s the piano arrangements with just the lyrics written above.

Hi [Christine [00:30:21]. Good to see you.

We’ve also got versions in different keys for different instruments. This is The Sound of Silence in B-flat for example. If you happen to, therefore, teach other instruments, and would like them to play along at a piano concert with your pianist, or something, then you can grab the score from the same site. It’s pretty cool, right?

They have it in … In the case of Sound of Silence, it’s in B-flat, it’s in E-flat, and all ready to go. You can grab any of those and they’re all sheet music downloads.

The great thing is … I’m glad you’ve hung around on this call until now, because Noviscore is offering all of you guys a discount for being one of my followers. The coupon code, which you can grab at, R-A-P, will be written there. The coupon code is TIMTOPFEB, T-I-M-T-O-P-F-E-B, TIMTOPFEB, and that will give you 20% off any of your orders on Noviscore between now and the end of February. How cool’s that? I reckon that’s pretty good.

Look, even if you go and download one or two arrangements, try it out, see how it goes, see what you think, try it out with a student, and then let me know. What do you think about it? It would be great to hear from you.

If you’re on the call now, watching live or replay, please give me a thumbs up to let me know that you’re enjoying this or just write a comment, “Tim, yes, I would love to see more of these little repertoire raps.” I am actually going to wrap this one up — Ha, see what I did there? — now, because I don’t want to go too long.

My next one is going to be all about the kind of film music that teenagers, in particular, are really drawn to, where to find good arrangements of that new age, filmy, some students would probably … some teachers would probably say, waffley music, but its so appealing. It’s quite repetitive, that minimalistic feel. I’m going to go through that in my next one. It’s going to be in two weeks time, 10 a.m. Thursday, Melbourne time. That is, approximately … I was just actually doing a podcast with someone in America and I think it’s about 6 p.m. or thereabouts in the United States, or some … Depending on which part of the country you’re in. Hopefully you can join us. It’s probably about 11 p.m., I guess, in London. Hopefully it’s a good time.

Let me know. I would love to hear what you think. Leave a comment just saying, “Yeah, this is cool,” or, “Could you do this instead?” Actually, if you want me to go through some repertoire that’s of particular interest to you, a style, or a composer, or something like that, let me know and I’ll see what I can do down the track.

From here, in my little studio in Melbourne today, thank you very much for joining me. Hope you’ve enjoyed it and I will speak to you soon. Make sure you share. There’s a share button somewhere here. Share it for me. Thank you. See you


About the Author

Best-known for his blogging and teaching, Tim is also a well-respected presenter, performer and accompanist based in Melbourne, Australia. You can check him out on Google+, Facebook and Twitter.

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