Jazz Piano Lesson: Chords, Inversions and Voice Leading

Jazz piano can seem kind of “mysterious” or “magical” to the uninitiated or untrained, but once you know a few basic tricks, it’s easy to see how to create your own jazz piano arrangement using just a few standard techniques.

In this post, I’ll show you – in both video and text/picture form – how to get started making your own piano playing sound more… well… “jazzy.”

This is kind of a bonus lesson for my Jazz Piano… FAST! online/DVD video piano course (special Introductory Sale until 9/9/17 at Midnight), which you can learn more about here.

First, the video:

Roman Numeral Chord Progressions

In the video, I’m working with the I-vi-ii-V7 chord progression, which refers to a series of chords independent of any key. In this case, we’re working in the key of C, so we just need to translate those symbols to that key.

But what do they MEAN?

In the key of C, the C major scale is simply made up of all the white keys on the piano:

C-D-E-F-G-A-B-C

Let’s number those notes as 1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8

Now, if we play a C major chord in root position, we would play C-E-G, or 1-3-5. Since the root of this chord is the “1” note, and it’s a major chord, we’ll label this with a capital Roman numeral I.

If we then move each of those 3 notes up the C major scale one note, the next chord we get is D minor, or D-F-A. Since this chord’s root is the “2” note, and since it’s a minor chord, we’ll label this with a LOWERCASE Roman numeral ii.

Similarly, we get the following chords, moving up the C major scale:

I – ii – iii – IV – V – vi – vii(dim)

There is no VIII chord – it’s the same as the I chord. Also notice that the vii(dim) chord is diminished, since the notes are B-D-F.

A very popular chord progression that’s been around forever is ii – V7 – I. The “V” (5) chord is normally played as a dominant 7th chord, FYI.

So, in the video, I’m working with the famous I – vi – ii – V7 progression, which you may know from “Heart and Soul,” that famous duet played by aspiring pianists of all ages. 🙂

It’s simply C – Am – Dm – G7.

In order to talk about our first technique for sounding better on the piano, we need to talk about…

Chord Inversions

A chord inversion is simply a chord that is played in something other than “root position.” Root position means the root of the chord is on the bottom (left-most on the piano keyboard).

So, a C major chord in root position is C-E-G.

If we move the C to the top of the chord as E-G-C, that’s called 1st inversion.

If we then move the E to the top, that’s called… you guessed… 2nd inversion. That would be G-C-E.

If we move G to the top, we’re back again to C-E-G, or root position.

Got it? Piece of cake, right?

Good “Voice Leading”

Next up, we need to talk about creating good “voice leading” – meaning that we don’t want the chords we play to jump around too much on the keyboard.

And we use chord inversions to accomplish that.

Ideally, we’d like the individual chord notes to move as little as possible from one chord to the next.

So, instead of playing this:

Good voice leading might have us play this instead:

Or maybe this:

Play those for yourself and notice the difference in sound. They should sound a bit smoother and less “disjoint” than the first version.

Adding 7ths to the Chords

Finally, we can begin to move towards that “jazzy” sound by changing major chords to major 7th chords and minor chords to minor 7th chords.

To create a major 7th chord, we simply add the note that is one half step below the root of the chord. So, C major – C-E-G – becomes C major 7th, written CM7, and played C-E-G-B.

To create a minor 7th chord, we add the note one WHOLE STEP below the root of the chord. So, A minor, written Am – A-C-E – becomes A minor 7th, written Am7, and played A-C-E-G.

For now, we’ll leave G7 alone, althought there are a few other things we can do with that one, too!

So, finally, our I-vi-ii-V7 progressions becomes IM7 – vi7 – ii7 – V7 and might be played like this:

And if we’re playing the chord roots in the left hand, we could even omit the root in the right-hand chords shown above.

Notice how beautifully the individual chord voices move on the keyboard, which I just noticed myself after creating this picture. I love it when artistic beauty expresses itself in multiple forms!

So, there are just a couple of steps you can use to start creating your own jazz piano arrangements.

For a lot more ideas and a more in-depth look at 3 classic jazz standards – “Moonlight in Vermont,” “Satin Doll” and “The Girl From Ipanema” – check out my Jazz Piano… FAST! online/DVD video piano course, which is on sale for a very special introductory price until Saturday, September 9th at Midnight!

Thanks for reading, watching and (hopefully) playing along!