What is a piano cover?
Ten years ago if you used the words “piano” and “cover” within the same sentence people would have automatically assumed you were talking about a protective dust cloth. The advent of video sites like Youtube and Vimeo encouraged wannabe pop artistes to promote themselves by posting videos of themselves “covering” their favourite songs. Justin Bieber, for example, was an undiscovered youngster until the rapper Usher chanced upon his videos and salivated at the opportunities to manage him and produce his music.
The term “cover” has since gained promience in modern parlance to mean “a different take or version of the original”. A “piano cover” is a remake of the original song where all the elements, including the sung melody, are played solely on the piano.
Selecting A Song
Which song do you cover? This is the easiest and the hardest bit. Arguably pianists already know which song they want to play and record – perhaps it is a song that is currently popular in the charts. But recency does not have to be the main factor. Perhaps the song to cover is one that has some personal meaning and appeal. Deciding on a possible song is the easy bit.
The hard bit is in evaluating whether the choice works as a standalone piano cover. The song may be a personal favourite, but you have to set aside your personal likes to see if it has any potential as a piano cover. Discount the lyrics – particularly if there are elements of rap – and try to imagine the original without any electronic dressing to see if it has good enough a melody to sustain it as an instrumental work. This is where songs from certain genres disqualify themselves as being unsuitable because there is not enough melodic merit on its own to qualify it for a cover.
Listen to the notes of what the artiste is singing, without the words. Hum the tune. Is there enough of one, enough variety in the notes to make the song interesting as a solo work over three minutes? If there is only purely rap, would playing the sung notes on a piano make it sound interesting? Or would be possible to mimic any electronically-produced sound on the piano? Is it possible to effectively recreate the screams of a thrash metal song on the piano?
There may be interesting melodies in the other sections of the song – many pop and RnB songs open with an eight-bar riff, but the key is in mentally weighing up if the melodic elements throughout a song can be accurately recreated on the piano, and still sound like a composition to someone who has never heard the original song before.
Working out the melody
Having decided on the song you wish to record, how do you work out the notes of the sung melody? There are a few different ways.
The fastest way to work out the notes of a song is to see if it has already been reproduced in some form or other. Try typing the title of your intended song in Google searches together with the terms “sheet music” and seeing if any exists. But don’t just look within the text search results; sometimes the first page of a score appears within the image searches, and clicking on the images may bring you to a page with better ideas of the notes of your intended song. Some of the sheet music may be for sale but it is not necessarily a good idea to purchase it; because you might not be able to see the later pages and make an overall judgment on whether your skills will allow you to play the song. In any case, doing a cover involves adding your own ideas to the original song, not just playing what someone else has arranged. Nevertheless, searching for the sheet music can help you glean valuable idea of the notes in the song.
Using YouTube, you could also type the title of your song, including the words “how to play” and “piano” – for example, “how to play Bohemian Rhapsody on piano”, which will again bring up videos to give you a rough idea of the notes which make up the song. The words “piano tutorial” have also become common parlance, and typing “Bohemian Rhapsody piano tutorial” on YouTube may give you a few starting points. YouTube is the most common video-sharing site, but if the song you want to play is a lesser-known one you can also try Vimeo or Dailymotion.
The method that develops your skills
The above two methods help you work out the notes to a melody by directing you to information that others have created. But what if the sheet music or tutorial videos do not exist? In this case, you can try working it out on your own – it may take a bit more time, but in the process of doing so, you develop your own aural skills, and it will eventually give you the skills to work out notes for other songs yourself.
Start by singing or humming the tune and then try to work out the notes on the piano. Hum the tune, try to find the starting notes, and as you hum the next few notes that follow, try to work out if they are higher or lower than the previous ones. If they are higher, then you should be moving to the right of the keyboard; conversely, lower notes mean your hand moves along to the left of the keyboard.
Rather than start from the beginning, it may be a good idea to try to work out the more familiar parts of the song like the chorus.
Working out notes by ear is not necessarily all that difficult. It depends on the song in question, of course, but most songs are written in a particular key, and use a set of notes over and over again. Most songs also have to have some form of organisation to sound coherent, and not sound like just a meaningless stream of notes. Perhaps the eight lines of the chorus can be divided into two similar halves, with a few changes in notes in the second half. A good tip to try is that before you begin to work out the notes of the the melody, take note of any sections which sound similar – it is likely the notes are used in the same order.
Working out a tune by ear is like assembling an aural jigsaw puzzle. Once you have the first few pieces, the easier it becomes. And it is a self-improvement skill. Just try not to be overwhelmed at the outset by the missing pieces you have to figure out.
Working out the chords
Once you have the melody, the next step is in working out the chords. A chord is a group of two or more notes played at the same time (although three at a time are more common), and give more interest to the music than simply the melody on its own.
If you are anxious to know the chords, doing a search on a video sharing website may lead you to a video that explains which notes to play on the piano.
You can also do a Google search for the song, with the artiste’s name and the search term “chords” (for example “Hello Adele chords”) to obtain ideas about the notes you have to play together with the melody. But what do those confusing symbols such as Em and DmM7 mean?
Chords can be divided into four main types – major (generally sound positive), minor (generally sound slightly darker and negative), augmented (dreamlike) and diminished (very dark, slightly sinister). On a scale of sound, when you move from diminished to minor to major and then augmented, the effect ranges from being dark at one end to dreamlike at the other.
The more chords you know the better, although at the early stages the two main ones you need to know are the major and minor ones. Major chords are written only with the root note, while minor chords are indicated with a trailing “m” (i.e. the symbol “G”, for example, means ‘G major’ and “Gm” means ‘G minor’).
Okay, so you know the “m” stands for “minor” when applied to chord symbols, but how exactly do you work them out?
The arrangements of notes for each are the same:
Major: Take the root note, add four semitones, and then another three
Minor: Take the root note, add three semitones, and then another four
The notes that make up G major, for example, are G, (four semitones away) B, and (another three semitones away), D.
The notes that make up G major, for example, are G, (three semitones away) B-flat, and (another four semitones away), D.
Suppose you are unable to find out the chords of a song from searches. How do you work out the chords of a song on your own in that instance?
Remember that the chords of a song have to harmonise, or sound well, with the melody of a song. Otherwise the song would sound terrible! The chords of a song are derived from the melody. So once you know the set of notes which make up the melody, write them down and see how many chords you can formulate using the add 4 | add 3 pattern of major chords, or the add 3 | add 4 pattern of minor chords. These chords will form the majority of chords you will use in your cover.
Try to experiment with these chords with the melody to see which sound work together. Usually one or more of the notes of the correct chord will appear in the melody, so while you may get an array of chords from the previous step, the choice of suitable chords is helpfully narrowed by the notes in the melody.
This method helps you remember the notes which make up a chord, and through practice your skills become more advanced. You become quicker at working out chords for a song. A good chord knowledge not only helps you “cover” songs in less time, but also gives you the theoretical grounding to eventually composer your own music.
Setting out the chords to an accompaniment
Once you’ve worked out the tune and chords, you might want to practise them together before moving on to this step.
The essence of a piano piece is a melody supported by broken chords. If the notes of the chords are played simultaneously as a block, their impact is lost from the moment the keys are depressed, as the vibration of the strings decreases and the sound fades away.
For short pieces of music, this is fine, but a melody with just block chords for accompaniment is insufficient to sustain the listener’s interest in longer pieces. Hence, the notes of the chord need to be played one at a time so that there is constant movement in the music.
A common chordal accompaniment for the left hand is arpeggios – the three notes of the chord, along with the lowest note doubled at the higher octave, are played singly from the bottom.
Another common chordal accompaniment is the Alberti bass, an accompanying pattern invented by (guess who?) Alberti and popularised by Classical composers like Mozart and Beethoven.
You may wish to re-create the accompaniment in the original song, rather than set it to a Classical accompaniment. Listen to the beat played on the drums, and try to identify where the bass drum and snare drums are playing. A popular pop pattern is the 8-beat, where the bass and snare alternate in this pattern: B | S-B | B | S
To re-create this effectively, play the main note of the chord (in octaves if you can) where the bass drum plays, and a block chord where the snare drum plays.
In most genres, the drum patterns provide the best clue as to which accompaniment is best in the left hand piano part. But this is not necessarily always the case. In genres such as rock and metal, the rhythms played by the rhythmic guitar(s) define the song more and hence the piano cover should be more reflective of them.
In a piano cover, the left hand must combine both the harmonies and the beat of the original song to support the tune in the right hand. When you practise making piano covers, you train yourself to aurally identify drum patterns, and then adapt them in tandem with the chords. As you get better in integrating these two steps, you will find that your playing becomes more instinctive, and that you get to work out accompaniments for songs more quickly.