Its All About the DNA, Your key to Better Piano Playing

Many of my adult students take lessons because they want to learn to play and music from the American Popular Songbook. You will undoubtedly recognize such names as George Gershwin, Cole Porter, Jerome Kern and Richard Rodgers. When many of my younger students reach high school age, they are often drawn to this same repertoire through their participation in school musicals and/or jazz ensembles. As you might imagine, after all of the years of playing solo piano gigs, this is a style of music that I really enjoy teaching.

Whether I’m teaching an 8 year old how to play one of the Six Simple Songs or working with an advanced adult student to help her learn to create and play and arrangement of Surrey with the Fringe on Top, I find myself emphasizing one point over and over. Perhaps it’s because of the popular CSI, Law and Order and similar TV shows, that in the middle of a lesson I blurted out: “It’s the DNA of the key, everything follows from that.”  What is this DNA I’m talking about?

Every popular song is written in a particular key. You can recognize this by looking at the key signature (found on the left side of every line of music). Most piano students think of the key signature as something that tells them which notes to play sharp or flat (usually the black keys).

Really though, the key signature tells you which family of notes are used to create the song. You can recognize this collection of tones because it’s the major scale. The major scale provides the composer of the song with the raw material used to create it: the melody (the tune) and the harmony (the chords).

The essence of the song’s harmony is what makes the piece of music work. It’s the song’s DNA.  There are three important chords which make up the DNA of every key. Whether you’re playing a piece by Bach, Irving Berlin, or The Beatles, the DNA is always there. It combines the pre-dominant chord (prepares your ear for moving toward a resolution), the dominant chord (draws or pulls your ear toward a resolution) and the tonic (the chord of resolution, the home chord where you feel settled).

You may be wondering how to recognize the DNA. Fortunately, you don’t need a medical degree to find it. If you are playing a song which uses mostly triads (three-note chords) the three chords that make up the DNA are the chords built on the 4th (pre-dominant), the 5th (dominant) and the 1st(tonic) degrees (notes) of the major scale, notated in music using the Roman numerals: IV – V – I. In the C major, these chords would be: F – G7 – C. Some examples of songs that use this progression include This Land Is Your Land, Amazing Grace, Canon in D (Pachelbel) Rock Around the Clock, and My Heart Will Go On (Theme from Titanic).

Although the melody and harmony of the songs from the American Popular Songbook also come from the major scale, there are several differences. The chords now have four tones in them instead of being triads. You may be familiar with the chord types called major 7th, minor 7th, dominant 7th etc.  Songs like Over the Rainbow, Satin Doll, Our Love Is Here to Stay and Someday My Prince Will Come all use these kinds of chords. Although the DNA of these songs still consists of the pre-dominant, the dominant and the tonic chords, they are now built on the 2nd, 5th and 1st scale degrees (ii-V-I). In C major, these chords would be: Dminor7 – G7 – Cmajor7. In the key of Eb major, these would be: Fminor7  – Bb7 – Ebmajor7.

The exciting thing about selections from the American Popular Songbook is that they often have spots where the music visits other keys either completely or by simply hinting at them. How would you recognize this? Just look for ii-V and ii-V-I progressions, which occur in certain places and you’ll uncover a visit to another key.

The subtitle of this blog post is Your key to Better Piano Playing. At this point, you may be wondering how discovering the DNA of a song can do this. The reason is that once you have identified the ii-V and ii-V-I progressions of a song, you can use any of the various accompaniment patterns (four note chord um-pahs, the 10th system, 9th voicings or walking bass) to play these chords. You will also know which scales to use to improvise on these chords.

All of this material is covered in much greater depth, with more examples, including audio clips, in my new audio music theory lesson: The ii – V – I Progression.

My former composition teacher, Tom McKinley used to say, “Practice precedes theory”. I wish I could tell you that I understood how to use this DNA concept in a flash of insight. On the contrary, I spent many years on the gig playing solo piano hour after hour as these ideas began to make sense. It was only after several years of teaching what I had learned to students during in their lessons that my practice became theory.

If you’d like some help looking for clues to the DNA of your piano pieces, get in touch with me or even better consider taking some piano lessons.


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