So you’ve learned some piano and get excited to finally begin playing your favorite pop songs. You purchase the sheet music and sit down with great anticipation as you begin to read through the music. Depending on your ability, it could be seconds or minutes later, but eventually you find yourself saying in complete frustration, “Why doesn’t this sound right?!?”. Don’t worry just yet, it might not be you.
You’ve just uncovered what I believe to be the worst customer service the music publishing industry provides to potential players, that pop piano sheet music is often dumbed down to basic notes for easier playing. The problem is, most times it’s too simple, and doesn’t quite sound right. Sometimes, if there is a specific piano introduction (like in Adele’s “Someone Like You“), that is transcribed fairly accurately, but once you get to the meat of the song, you’ll see a lot of basic notes, often simple quarter notes, half notes and even whole notes. One quick listen to the recording and you’ll easily notice that the music is more complex than the sheet music suggests. So why write it that way?
I really don’t have the answer as to why publishers do this. Perhaps they want the music to be accessible to someone at any skill level. Maybe they think piano players don’t practice as much as guitar players (you can often find exact transcriptions of guitar parts). Whatever their reasons are, the music on the page doesn’t match up with the recording. So what’s a player to do?
The answer lies in understanding the structure of pop music. And I’m using the term pop music to mean anything non classical; rock, country, jazz, etc. If there isn’t a specific piano part to play, like there is in some intros, then you will be playing from the song’s chord structure. So to play pop styles of music, you’ll need to learn how to play chords on piano.
The truth is, even most professional pop music piano players don’t get traditional sheet music. They get what’s called a lead sheet or chord chart to play from. This is just a list of chords in a song, sometimes with the melody written with it so you can follow along. These types of music notation do exist in the publishing world. They’re called fake books, or sometimes real books. Playing this way, with this type of written music is a matter of learning what the chord symbols mean and playing a piano part based on those chords. This is why classically trained piano players often struggle with pop music, because their understanding of chords and their variations is often limited. Learning more about playing piano chords will not only unlock the mystery of pop music, but will give you access to a great deal of music, since the number of possible chords are limited. In fact, you’ll find that many of the songs use the same chords. So learning even just a few chords will give you the ability to play a great number of songs.