6 steps to Improvising and Composing left hand piano [Printables]

Have you composed an original melody? Are you feeling inspired to improvise solo piano music or a piano accompaniment for a church chorus, or a popular tune you’ve learned by ear?

Creating a left hand part on the piano is satisfying. It works the same way whether you are improvising or composing. You begin with the melody you can play in your right hand and find a way for your left hand play along with it. When you create music with a melody that is supported by a harmonic accompaniment it has a homophonic texture. 

The only difference between improvising and composing is that when you improvise you only ever play it once. When you compose, you remember what you played and are able to play it again, and then decide on one way to write it down. 

This blog post works as the next installment to my recent posts on composing, or as a starting point for adding a left hand to any melody.

Step 1 Know the melody

To create a left hand, the first step is to know your right hand part very well. If you were learning a piece, you’d likely practice the right hand thoroughly before putting hands together. There is a good reason for taking this step even when improvising or composing. Once you begin experimenting with your left hand, you will want to play hands together to hear what will sound good. You’ll want your right hand to be able to play independently, because your attention will be focused on your left hand. You will have better luck creating a left hand if your right hand part is down cold. 

Step 2 Know the left hand toolbox

To prepare yourself or your students to create left hand parts, use my printable sheet to help kickstart the left hand. The sheet has seven different left hand patterns inspired by classical and popular music alike. All can accompany the right hand. I usually introduce this sheet to my students before we talk about composition or improvisation, but it is very useful as a starting point, as well. 

Play through (or have your students play through) the chord patterns while saying, “chord one, chord two,” (etc.) out loud as you/they play up the chords. This will prepare for understanding the names of chords. 

If you and your students practice the whole sheet, there will be many left hand options to try with your melody. 

The seven patterns are:

  • Whole note/held chords.

            Repertoire example: Mist by Clifford Poole

            Popular example: One More Try by George Michael

  • Solid chords in repeated quarter notes. 

            Repertoire example: Song of Twilight by Yoshinao Nakada

            Popular example: All of Me by John Legend (works for repeated and broken chords)

  • Broken chords up and down. 

            Repertoire example: One Hit Wonder by Rebekah Maxner

            Popular example: Someone Like You by Adele

  • Solid/broken blend (I call this “half down”)

            Popular example: Alone by Heart

            Popular example: Imagine by John Lennon

  • Solid/half down mix.

            Popular example: Hey Jude by Paul McCartney

  • Broken “Alberti.”

             Classical example: Sonata in C K. 545 1st Mvt. By W. A. Mozart

  • Broken octave with pivot. 

            Popular example: Saint Elmo’s Fire Instrumental by David Foster.  

Step 3 Know a few basic chord progressions and bass lines

If you have already played the chords saying the chord names out loud (chord one, etc.) you have covered the first step for keyboard harmony.  

Now play the chords in the key of the piece or song to which you are adding the left hand (transpose).  

In your home key, try the following chord progressions:

  • Chord one (I), chord six (vi), chord two (ii), chord five (V). Repeat. 

            Popular example: Heart and Soul by Hoagy Carmichael

  • Chord one (I), chord six (vi), chord four (IV), chord three (iii). Repeat. 

            Popular example: Memory by Andrew Lloyd Webber

Other ideas for left hand parts

  • “Pedal” bass. This means holding a single note or octave under an extended right hand part, for several measures. 
  • Simple descending left hand bass line. In C major, this would be C, B, A, G, F, and so on, until you decide to return to C. 
  • Ascending left hand line, stepping up. In C major, this would be C, D, E, F, and so on, until you decide to return to C. 
  • Come up with your own original chord progression.

Step 4 The experimental phase

Your right hand knows the tune. Your left hand knows the chord patterns and a few progressions. Now it’s time to experiment. Remember, when you are alone at your piano, there is no wrong note. Every note is a valid option. Mix and match the left hand possibilities with your right hand tune. 

Step 5 Choose one story to tell

Try to keep your ideas simple. In my post on starting to compose a melody with a rhythm, I suggested keeping your rhythms to one or two choices to create a sense of unity. Use the KISS principle (keeping it simple), once again with the left hand part. Choose one left hand pattern style for this piece, leaving the other patterns for another time.  If you are composing, perhaps you could use a contrasting pattern in a middle section and your form is ABA.

Step 6 When less is more

When the right hand has less to play, either with a long note, or in a lull between phrases, fill in more with left hand material. This avoids the music coming to a pause in all parts and keeps the interest moving. Beethoven’s music is so successful in part because he worked the hardest on his transitional passages. His music didn’t sit still but pushed forward. He made the inner and lower voices (the working left hand part) work hard to be as interesting as the melody. Then, in your writing, when the right hand is busy, try pulling back with the left hand. Find a balance of activity between the hands. 

When you (and your students) know how to create your own left hand patterns, a whole new world of music-making opens up. You’ll be able to play music by ear and fill in an accompaniment, or compose a piece from scratch and finish it with a satisfying, full sound. Allow yourself the time to try this. Be patient. Listen. Take risks. Try new things. You’ll love the results!

Do you have other suggestions for interesting chord progressions, or example pieces for these left hand patterns? Do you have any questions? If so, please leave a comment. 

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I appreciate shares, comments and likes. Happy teaching!

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