The Ultimate Guide to Left Hand Piano Styles & Patterns - Creative Music Education
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The Ultimate Guide to Left Hand Piano Styles & Patterns

By Tim Topham | Piano Teaching

Feb 22

As students start exploring more non-traditional repertoire in your lessons (eg. pop, lead sheets, etc.), they’ll soon realise that a pianist’s left hand is crucial in providing a number of things:

  • Steady Beat
  • Rhythm & Groove
  • Style

Patterns are one of the most fundamental ingredients of music and so students with a solid pattern vocabulary will be much better as both readers and players.

If you haven’t explored left hand piano styles and patterns before, your students may not understand what you mean and how important they are, so one of the best ways of helping students understand the importance of left hand patterns is with a practical exercise.

Take a simple chord progression like Pachelbel’s Cannon (you could also transpose this into C if it’s easier for your student:C – G – Am – Em – F – C – F – G – C) and explore some of the left hand patterns you’ll find on the ultimate guide below:

piano chords canon in d

Depending on the level of your student, s/he could play the chords while you play the patterns or vice versa.

After each style, ask the student if they know what the style is (eg. tango, boogie, etc.) and/or what feeling the style gives (fast/flowing, old/classical, dance-like, etc.)

It’s amazing how often subtle differences in left hand accompaniment completely changes the feel and style of a piece of music.

That’s exactly why left hand patterns are so important and why I created a download especially to help teachers explore this with students.

Download the Ultimate Guide to Piano Patterns

To make exploring these patterns in your studio that much easier, I’ve created a download of the most common patterns that students should know.

There are a few things you should note about this guide:

  • All patterns are written in major. They can easily be adapted to suit a minor key by lowering the 3rd.
  • All patterns are written in C Major. Encourage students to transpose to other key areas (this is easy to do if they apply these patterns to lead sheets and chord progressions).
  • All patterns are notated for a bar of 4/4 but can easily be adapted to suit other common times and students should be encouraged to explore them in other meters.
  • Patterns are notated in the most sensible format for 4/4 however, they may be elongated or shortened (eg. change quaver (eighth) pulse to crotchets (quarter) pulse) depending on the time signature.
  • If you want a simple chord progression to practice these, use the Pachelbel Progression in C: C – G – Am – Em – F – C – F – G – C or any common pop song progression, eg. C – Am – F – G or C – G – Am – F or get students to make up their own using the common chords in the key of C major (C, Dm, Em, F, G, Am).
  • Patterns are written as “continuous patterns” that flow continuously through the music. Many of these patterns can also be played in a “discontinuous” form, which is often more effective (see my note about repetition below). Here is an example of a discontinuous version of the common “pop style”. Make sure students know that the patterns don’t have to be continuous all the time.

left hand piano patterns

  • This is not meant to be an exhaustive list of all the possible styles. Rather, I’ve just included the most common that I come across and that I feel are important for students to explore. These also tend to be the patterns and styles that are most common in the piano literature.
  • Feel free to vary these patterns; composers will rarely stick to just one for long. Students can: change styles, go from discontinuous to continuous or vice versa, etc.

You can download your guide here:

How to Use This in Your Teaching

There are a few ways of introducing pattern work in your lessons. Here are a few ideas to get you started:

  1. Each lesson you could explore a new pattern in the context of a simple lead sheet or chord progression.
  2. Students can use these patterns as a basis for basic improvising on a chord progression.
  3. If you’re about to introduce a student to a piece of music that uses one of these patterns, then introduce the pattern – how it looks, sounds and feels to play in a variety of positions – well before they see the music. Get them to try playing the pattern over a simple chord progression (eg. C, Am, F, G) and writing it out in each position. When you come to learn the music, ask them if they can spot anything familiar in the LH?!
  4. Practise the LH pattern while improvising using scales in the right hand:

practising piano scales with patterns

Make sure you help students understand that there will always need to be a balance between the melody (RH) and the accompaniment (LH).

This can be hard to achieve, so I wrote about one of my tactics in this post: Using Ghosting to Balance the Hands. This can be a great activity to use in conjunction with pattern work.

A Note About Repetition

It’s worth noting that while patterns do help give us a feel and style of a piece of music, the same patterns aren’t designed to be continuously repeated bar after bar.

Even composers like Mozart only used the Alberti Bass for short periods of time before changing the pattern. One of the most obvious examples of Mozart’s use of Alberti Bass is at the start of the ubiquitous K545 Sonata:
example alberti bass mozart

But look what happens in the left hand after only four bars:

As Susan Deas says in her book:

Never let yourself fall into a repetitive accompaniment pattern – even the nicest pattern will sound horribly annoying after about three or four bars. Keep mixing it up. (Deas, 2007)

When you mix things up, you might like to:

  • break the pattern up
  • only play part of the pattern
  • move the pattern to different registers
  • change to one of the variations
  • stop the pattern altogether

It all depends on the context of the music and what’s happening in the melody. Of course, you wouldn’t likely want to mix a tango pattern with a boogie (unless you were aiming for a particular effect) as that would change the style of the piece completely.

Just help students keep in mind that while left hand patterns are important for building atmosphere and style, the melody should always be the most important feature of the music.

Conclusion

One of the best ways of exploring these patterns is to use them in chord progressions.

Earlier this week, I released a post called What’s the Difference Between a Chord Chart and a Lead Sheet.

In that post, I offered you a free download of my Chord Progressions to Inspire Creativity and show you a video of how I teach them. Here’s a quick example of one of the progressions. Click it to download and watch the video.

teaching chords to piano students

I’ll soon be releasing my training course all about teaching chords and non-jazz (pop-style) improvising and composing to students.

It’s one of the features of my teaching that other teachers are most inspired by and I’m really looking forward to sharing this with you in the next couple of months. As long as you’re on my email list (there is a subscribe option at the bottom of every page), you’ll find out when it goes live.

Let me know if you have any questions by leaving a comment below.

Bibliography

Deas, S. (2007). Improvisation for Classically Trained Musicians. Petersham North, NSW: Susan Deas Music.

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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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