How to Teach Pop Songs in 6 Simple Steps

A six-step guide to pop piano teaching success.

How to Teach Pop Songs in 6 Simple Steps

If your students want to write their own songs, they should understand how to play existing pop songs.

It gives them an insight into the structure of pop songs and highlights what they like and dislike, providing inspiration for their original works.

But how do you teach pop songs to your piano students?

Psst! You can download Tim Topham’s Pop Piano Teaching Algorithm at the bottom of this blog post! 

Table of Contents:

  1. Why You Should Teach Pop Songs on Piano
  2. Step One: Listen To The Original Song
  3. Step Two: Find The Chords
  4. Step Three: Comp To The Music
  5. Step Four: Create A Lead Sheet
  6. Step Five: Transcribe the Melody
  7. Step Six: Play With Your Own Flair
  8. Bonus Task

Why You Should Teach Pop Songs on Piano

Imagine it’s time for your Wednesday afternoon student, and they saunter in with a big grin on their face.

Student: “I just heard the most amazing song.”

You: “What piece was it?” (Notice how you might intentionally change the word song to piece)

Student: “It just came out, have you heard of Billie Eilish?”

You: “Billy Eyelash? No, never heard of him – let’s hear how that G major scale is coming along!”

Does this scenario sound familiar?

If this sounds like you (and let’s face it, I think we’ve all been guilty of trying to get lessons ‘back on track’), let’s consider a more appropriate response:

You: “No, but I’m excited to hear it. How about we start our lesson with a little listening? Go ahead and blast it through my Bluetooth speakers!”

I’m of the belief that we should take the time to teach pop songs our students show an interest in. It’s important to show students that we can play any pop song on the piano.

And yes, I mean song.

Whenever I tell new or transfer students this, their eyes always inevitably get bigger, as if a whole new world had opened up for them.

What I don’t do anymore, unless the student is an excellent reader, is find sheet music for their new project.

Reading every note and rhythm 100% accurately from a fully notated score takes too long, and most of the time, the arrangement is either oversimplified or overly complex.

When I adjudicate the popular selections category at the local music festival, many of the students seem so stuck to what is on the page, even if it doesn’t sound good.

This prevents them from playing the music freely and expressively, and I can’t tell what their own sense of the feel of the original song is. I wonder what would happen if teachers took the same amount of care teaching pop music styles as they do sonatinas.

Over my teaching career, I’ve taught a lot of pop music, and so I developed my 6-step process to teach any pop song successfully.

This is not just “dessert” music: I want my students to learn how pop music is made and create their own sound through this process.

Step 1: Listen to the original song

Not a piano cover, not a YouTube video with those annoying piano tiles; the original song that the student loves. They will probably have it on their phone or you can look it up online together in the moment.

Don’t listen to it by yourself before the next lesson. Do it there in the moment when they are interested and can show you the best version, etc.

Some students ask “where is the piano part?” when listening to a song, and I think that’s a great ‘teachable moment’.

The beauty of the piano is that because we have all the keys in front of us, we can cover the harmony, melody and any other sound effects/interludes as we wish. Which brings us to…

Step 2: Find the chords

I tend to go first to Ultimate Guitar tabs but if you are working on chord identification by ear, you could try to find them with the student as you listen.

If you already have sheet music for it, or they brought it in, highlight the chords or analyze them if they aren’t written in. Step 2 is all about seeing the big picture progressions.

piano teaching chords
Start teaching pop songs by working out the chords.

Related: 4 Chord Composing Course

Step 3: Comp to the music

I recommend finding the easiest way to play the chords first so that the student experiences some measure of success during the lesson. This is also when we make sure that the chords we discovered are accurate and in the right key, and if not, we make adjustments.

If there are many 7th or slash chords, you may simplify to triads first and reintroduce them when the student is ready. If the tempo is too fast, use the Anytune App to slow the song down.

You can also transpose in Anytune to find the key that works the best. Beginners will probably find C major or A minor the easiest; however, if they have strong ears, they may not want to deviate from the original.

If you’re looking for some free sheet music and chord charts to help you teach pop songs, be sure to check out my Top 10 Pop Songs as well.

YouTube also has a feature (Settings -> Playback Speed) to slow the video by 25, 50 or 75%. Sometimes you can find the original song in different keys if you specifically search for it.

While comping, tailor the chording pattern to the student’s comfort level and style of the piece. Solid chords in root position in one hand is usually the first step.

Subsequent steps could include adding the root of the chord in the bass in left hand, playing the chords in different inversions for better voice leading, splitting the chord tones between the hands, using broken chords, changing the rhythm in the bass, using octaves in the bass, adding passing notes between chords, etc.

Related: How to teach Songwriting to your Piano Students (plus free eBook download)

Step 4: Create a lead sheet template with the form and chords in the right places

The student will have to discover the time signature and how many bars/beats each chord receives. I usually use the app Notion, but old-fashioned staff paper will do too!

Write in sections (verse, chorus, pre-chorus, bridge, etc.). Analyze the form with your students so they can add the appropriate instructions (DS, repeats, etc.). Ideally, this will be no more than one page.

I recommend writing the staff corresponding to the correct chords in the text below, which will help immensely with the next step.

Find out more about lead sheets here.

Step 5: Transcribe the melody

The student might want to jump to this right after listening to the song or have already figured out some of it by ear. That’s okay!

I like to start with harmony and form as a framework, which we can then drop the melody into so that we have the context. As we know, the pitches in the melody will be synchronous with the key and chord progression.

Take a look inside Tim Topham’s Pop Piano Teaching Course

Having this already written down helps the student narrow down the parameters when transcribing the melody. If the student struggles with rhythmic dictation, try putting just a dot for pitch (no rhythm) above the appropriate lyric.

If they are more rhythmically inclined, they should transcribe the rhythms first (write the rhythm above the staff), then add pitches to those rhythms.

In my experience, this is the most tedious step, especially if there are many lyrics. I usually start this process at the lesson and then assign it to be completed at home. This diligent work is so beneficial for the students’ theory knowledge as well as their ear, and I want them to go through the process themselves and really own it.

They have to be able to read it afterward, so neatness counts!

Step 6: Play with your own flair

Now that they’ve gone through these steps, they will have a working lead sheet that they can play from. You may need to step in and check the melody they’ve written and have them practice it hands together with solid chords until they realize how they want to personalize it.

To make the melody more interesting, consider adding thirds or sixths (chord notes) under the melody note, moving to higher octaves, adding echoes, filling in gaps, etc. Consider comping in different styles for the different sections (verse, chorus, bridge) or even colouring chords by adding 7ths, 2nds or suspensions.

Think back to the original recording. Can you capture the same feeling? Do you want to create a totally different feeling? You may want to add a backing track or play along with the original song again. I’m quoting my teacher friend and colleague David Story when I say, “Just don’t be dull.”

Here are a few of my students with their finished products:

Rihanna playing “Shallow” – this student did all the steps on her own in one week but didn’t write anything down; she has an exceptional ear and memory.

Here’s my student Rachel performing her take on “Falling” by Harry Styles. She loves to play pop music and really nailed this one so we decided to record it.

Bonus Task

Try this process out with the following songs. I’ve found these to be quick studies and have included the repeating chord pattern here.

Lost Boy by Ruth B (Em, G, C, G). The student may want to just comp and sing along like the artist in the video. Watch out for the stray D major chord!

Hello by Adele (vi, I, V, IV). If possible, try first in C major and then in the original key of F minor.

Just the Way You Are by Bruno Mars (F, F/D or Dm7, F/Bb or Bbmaj9). This chord pattern lends itself well to passing bass tones and the melody is really easy to find by ear. Enjoy!

Conclusion

Please know that these steps are just a guideline. Feel free to modify them at your leisure based on the unique tune and the student. You may be surprised to find out who in your studio finds this tediously easy and who really struggles.

This process is a great lens through which to see how high your student’s level of musical literacy really is—trust me, it’s worth the effort. Don’t worry if you will be “figuring it out” along with the student. Admitting you don’t have all the answers builds a lot of trust.

Discovering a new song together is really quite fun and stimulating during lesson time as well—make sure you watch the clock because you might just go over time!

I’d love to hear from any readers who try this out with their students. Feel free to leave your thoughts in the comments below. Happy Teaching!

Free Download

As a thank you for reading today’s blog post, you can download Tim Topham’s Pop Piano Teaching Algorithm.

Tim’s Pop Teaching Algorithm is a flow chart to help you pick the right piece of music and the right teaching method.

Liz Craig

Liz Craig (B.Mus, ARCT, RMT) has been teaching piano creatively since 2006. While growing her studio, she has also built an award winning wedding music business playing for over 100 events each year in Ontario, Canada. Liz performs a wide variety of styles of music including her own arrangements of the newest popular songs.

Liz has penned articles for the Canadian Music Teacher Magazine, Notes Magazine and here on the staging.topmusic.co blog. Get in touch on her website www.lizcraig.ca or follow @lizcraigpianist.

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  1. As a long-term teacher of a jazz piano, for the last 4 years I have been teaching pop piano, and I tried to raise it to an academic level, similar to jazz, which creates a pleasant feeling . I was interested to see the program of work on the song, and make sure that the methods are very similar. There are some details that make me change the order of work:

    The main difference between pop songs and traditional folk songs is rhythm and groove; therefore, I prefer to start with them, not even using full-fledged chords in left hand, but the power of chords, which exclude confusion between major and minor in beginners. This lays the foundation for comping.
    The next step is to study the lyrics and melody by singing. Students really love this, and this lays the foundation for playing the melody with right hand. The exact performance of musical notation of the song isn’t the goal, notation in combination with the lyrics will help help to orientation ( printed notes never fully match the sounding original in rhythm or pitches. ). Chord symbols are best placed above the corresponding words. The rest is pretty consistent with what I’m doing in class.

    • Great ideas Nachum, thanks for sharing! I agree that the feel and the groove are so important and I like your idea of doing the “power” of chords (are you thinking open 5ths?) to get this across first. Singing as well is a great tool while comping to start multitasking before adding RH.

      Totally agree with you that it’s hard and almost impossible to notate pop songs fully. With some of my students, we don’t even necessarily transcribe the rhythm, just the pitches over the words and chord symbols to get enough to get oriented as you mentioned.

      Glad you enjoyed the article and keep up the great work!

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