Where to Play Accompaniment Chords and LH

Stephen R., California

This comes up a lot with students in Accompaniment… which way to play the chords, move them up or down? For instance in Amazing Grace students tend to go up for the F and G chords. Also, should C (or any tonic root notes) be on the bottom of the LH or top? Do any of you experienced teachers have any opinions, maybe Neil Moore? Where to place chords and LH? I tell students to keep the Accompaniment “under” the melody and also to avoid bigger leaps. If the melody descends move the accompaniment down, if the melody ascends move the accompaniment up. How much should teachers be guiding with this or letting students do it their own way? Also, how low is too low for accompaniment? I would think around Bass C for the RH chords sounds a bit too low.

Ian B., California

I often teach something I call “the rule of thumb” to students once they actually start AC1. I explain that it’s not actually a rule but, in an attempt to keep the piano part in the background (part of the setup conversation for accompaniment), I try to keep my RH thumb between middle C and Bass C.

For students who have not actually started AC1 (ex. Amazing Grace in F1 or Xmas songs), I sorta let students do whatever comes most naturally.

Some students will stick to Honey Dew pattern and go down. Others are feeling more of a connection to what they learned in Jackson Blues. I consider either choice legit and wait until they notice someone doing it differently to discuss further.

Once students reach a level of awareness that there are options (RH ⬆️⬇️, LH C on top or bottom), I will have a longer discussion about listening and deciding what sounds better.

Mark M., New York

Definitely subjective. All of it.

Neil’s advice about RH generally staying mid-to-below-middle is helpful. It makes sense for Honey Dew, Amazing Grace C/D/E, Auld Lang Syne C/D/E, Danny Boy Db/Eb all to have the I at or above Middle C and then go down to IV and V. It sounds good, and it makes for consistent learning. But it’s not black and white. Star-Spangled Banner’s D&E make sense below Middle C due to smaller moves in that particular context. And they therefore teach us that there is no one right spot for the RH to play a chord.

Except for Honey Dew, I believe LH for SM accompaniments is mostly taught with I on the bottom at Bass C or nearby. That, too, makes sense. Keeps students building a sense of I being the foundation and makes it easier to learn to transpose if those patterns are kept consistent for a while.

In the end, I tell my students, as long as you’re playing the correct chords and notes, play each hand wherever you think it sounds good and wherever your hands/fingers feel comfortable doing it. Then we can get in discussions about what sounds good and what feels good / is easy/economical to play. I will certainly express contrary opinions, but I’ll say, if you like that spot instead, go for it. I like empowering them to choose — and encouraging them to be mindful and question their choices.

As far as relationship to the melody, yes, Neil says that the initial mid/low RH advice is because it gives the listener the impression that the melody is above the piano, has its own space. But it’s just an impression. The melody isn’t always truly above the chords and it doesn’t have to be. I personally would not say that it’s a matter of moving in the same direction as the melody. It can sound good to move the same direction, it can sound good to move contrary. It can sound good for the chords to be noticeably below the melody or noticeably above. Depends. Listen to Bette Midler’s “The Rose” and Harry Nilsson’s “Without You” and Sara Bareilles’ “Brave” and Jay-Z’s “Empire State of Mind” — high chords are no problem.

As for what’s too low, subjective like everything else. For LH individual notes or octaves, there is not necessarily such thing as too low. I regularly play among the lowest notes on the keyboard. For RH, a root position C major built on Bass C can sound fine. Perhaps even the B or Bb chords right below that. Depends on the situation — mood, style, preferences, etc. I doubt I’d ever play RH chords below that particular Bb. Again, though, subjective!

Stephen R., California

I also recommend to students that they try and minimize the LH movement with single notes, stay in a 5 over 5 position, usually root on the bottom.

Leeanne I., Australia

I find that students move the chords up in Amazing Grace because that’s what we do in Jackson Blues. Same chords. I let them do it once then sing along really high and tell them that chord placement is too high for my voice, they need to move down for this song so I can sing above the chords.

Laurie Richards, Nebraska

Somewhere a long time ago I came across this diagram from Neil which suggests the best range for RH and LH in accompaniment.

For me personally, I do not like RH chords being played at F above middle C or higher. It creates a ‘thin’ sound; I tell students we want to fill out all the ranges for a nice big sound. The higher range is for the melody. If they start playing chords up higher I say “It sounds like a chipmunk song”.

Kym N., California

Today, a 5 year old girl plays Joy to the World accompaniment. She said, ”Let me play the song higher to see how it sounds.” Such a brilliant idea from herself. When students question the choices of lower or higher chord, I asked them to test it out.
For AC1, we always play most of the chord lower except for C which sound better using the middle C.

When they finish AC1, I have them explore different regions of the piano with other songs.

Original discussion started December 20, 2018

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