Robert Estrin - piano expert

How to add harmonic spice to your own music

Learn how to add harmony to your own improvised music

In this video, Robert tackles improvisation, and how you can enhance your own musical improvisation by adding some "harmonic spice."

Released on January 15, 2014

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DISCLAIMER: The views and the opinions expressed in this video are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Virtual Sheet Music and its employees.

Video Transcription

Welcome to and, I'm your host, Robert Estrin. Today we have a viewer question. And the title of today's show is "How to Add Harmonic Spice to Your Music." Connie asks, "How do I get beyond the 1, 4, 5 chords in my improvisations of Christmas music?" Well, this isn't just about Christmas music today. This is about all sorts of music. We're going to show you how you can add harmonic interest to your improvisations. Now, when Connie was talking about the 1, 4, and 5 chord, what does she mean by that? Well, very quickly, if you're in C major, if you build a chord on C, that's a 1 chord. Well, C being 1, 2, 3, 4, F becomes your 4 chord, and then G becomes your 5 chord. These are referred to as your primary chords. They are major triads, and you can harmonize almost anything with a 1, 4, and 5. So, for example, let's say we're in A major. I'll establish the key. 1, 4, 5, 7, 1. So if you wanted to do a familiar song like "On Top of Old Smokey," you'd have something like this with just those three chords. So it went from 4 chord to 1 chord. Now a 5 chord. And back to 1. So, we just have three chords, the 1 chord, the 4 chord, the 5 chord, and the 1 chord in A major. Very simple.

Well, what are some possible other chords you could put in there? The first thing to look for are what are referred to as the secondary chords. The secondary chords are pretty much the rest of them. 1, 4, and 5 are primaries, so 2, 3, and 6 are your secondary chords. 7, not so much, because that's a diminished chord. The other three chords, your 2, 3, and 6, are minor chords. So, once again, in A major, your 1 chord, your 2 chord is a B minor, your 3 chord is a C sharp minor, and your 6 chord is an F sharp minor. So, where could you use those? Well, let's experiment a little bit. How about here? So we just learned that you can substitute a 2 chord for a 4 chord. You can even keep the same note in the base if you want to. Instead of playing the 4 chord like this, you could actually put the B up here, which is basically an inversion of your 2 chord. Did you catch that? So substitute from a 4 chord to a 2 chord, but put the bottom note on the top, and it's almost the same as the 4 chord. They're very similar, except for one note.

Moving on, start again. And we can go to a 6 now. So those are just very basic block chords in the left hand. To make your music sound fresh and more vibrant, you can actually voice differently. Try to get the chords with the right hand, to put some distance between the base and the rest of the notes, and you end up with this kind of sound. So these are just a couple of chords you could use to add color to your music. We're going to cover, in future videos, secondary dominance, diminished chords, and all sorts of other flavors to add spice to your music. Thanks so much for joining me. Robert Estrin at and
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Comments, Questions, Requests:

Alice * VSM MEMBER * on June 22, 2022 @11:43 am PST
Thank you, Robert! I found this video to be very helpful and practical. I thoroughly enjoy your tutorials.
Robert - host, on June 25, 2022 @7:50 am PST
Thank you! You can search among thousands of videos and articles with keywords here:
Connie * VSM MEMBER * on June 9, 2022 @11:58 am PST
Thank you, Robert. This was very helpful in my practice to include more improvisation in my piano playing. In my opinion, I often find the composition, most especially in the bass, needs a more varied and interesting harmony and rhythm to it. I wonder if you could do a video on left hand bass patterns for piano improv: Fill notes, walking up in places, and walking down in places, various ways to play octaves (one I saw was sort of like a trill), and rhythms you can apply to all keys. Thanks so much for all you do! Love your videos!
Robert - host, on June 9, 2022 @3:53 pm PST
There are many videos to come - I will make a note about this suggestion - thanks!
Rich Marino * VSM MEMBER * on June 9, 2022 @11:40 am PST
Thank you Mr Estrin. That last demo of the enhanced "On Top of Ol' Smoky" was amazing. I would be thankful to develop a fraction of that talent.
Robert Estrin - host, on June 9, 2022 @3:55 pm PST
Try experimenting and you will come up with some new ways of harmonizing melodies. Putting the chords in the right hand underneath the melody may take some time. But it's worth it!
rita on May 2, 2014 @1:43 pm PST
Thankyou, I found this very informative. In order to study this more would it be possible to have a printout so that I can see the notation of the left hand.
Robert - host, on May 3, 2014 @11:31 am PST
The purpose of this video is to help you experiment improvising accompaniments to songs you know. The idea of the I - IV and V chords are simple so long as you are very familiar with your major scales. They are built on the notes of the major scale!

Try harmonizing first in C major so you have no sharps or flats to distract you. Then venture to G major or F major (which each have one accidental) until you are comfortable. Then you can venture to other keys.
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