Hacking Pop Interpretation

I was always wondering: how do they do it? The pro piano players who take pop songs and create wonderful, authentic instrumental versions of them that sound awesome on their own without vocals. I remember jealously listening to those pieces and thinking — damn, I’ll never be able to do this — and then going back to my block triads with octave bass. It’s okay, son, don’t go too hard on yourself—

Well guess what! I won’t say I’ve mastered it, but I hacked it, and now it’s just a question of practice hours, baby. I call this exercise “Pop Jam” — the idea is dead simple:

  • Find chords on the Interwebs (or in the Real Book if you’re into jazz standards)
  • Play through the whole chart once with block chords and simplest bass on Earth
  • Then replace block chords with shell voicings and connect them using minimal movement principle and thus achieving sweet ass voice leading
  • Add broken 10ths in left hand
  • Break shells in right hand into arpeggios (or some semblance of)
  • Add other intervals and ascending / descending movements in left hand (1-5-10, 10-9-3-1, whatever)
  • Use diatonic passages in right hand instead of shells
  • Throw in super low bass in left hand in key moments
  • Combine everything
  • Perform it until it’s suddenly 4 AM

Here are some parts of this approach illustrated with an example of Katy Perry’s vintage banger Fireworks (first four bars):

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Here’s what it sounds like:


It’s barely recognisable, I know. Of course it is, because it’s a freaking interpretation! 😄

Piano day (1h 40m)

Modal studies

  • Lydian DNA in 7th arpeggios
    • LH only
    • LH + alternating shells in RH (gave up pretty quickly, need to approach it slowly)
  • Harmonising Lydian scale in chord pairs around the cycle in growing gaps (Imaj7 — II7, Imaj7 — iii, Imaj7 — #IV, etc. — e. g. C — D, F — A-, Bb — Eø, etc.) — extra cool exercise!

Arpeggios + combined LH & RH melodic studies

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This badass workout achieves three goals:

  • Improve LH technique by drilling the 2-octave arpeggios along with harmonic intervals
  • Think in chord tones and improve key fluency
  • Enjoy the non-boring exercise that actually sounds nice even though you’re still just playing a diatonic pattern around the cycle of goddam fourths


  • Major blues scale improv in all keys (recap)
    • LH: harmonic 5ths & 6ths
    • Broken 10ths + blocks

Just for the hell of it

  • All Lydian scales (similar & contrary motion)

Piano day (1h 30m)

(Back to practice after a 3-day travel.)

  • Improvisation
    • Minor blues scale in all keys (over m7 chords in 7-3-5 shells)
    • Major blue scale in all keys over dominant chords in shells
    • Alternating between major and minor blues (sounded like crap)
    • Major Bebop scale in all keys around the cycle of 4ths (tried over major and dominant)
  • Left hand
    • 2-octave stride patterns
      • Progression from “Just One of Those Things” (without right hand)
      • Harmonising C minor with 2-octave jumps (root → 1st inversion with added m6, i. e. 3-6-1)

Next time: harmonise a tune from the Real Book, play to the walking bass & drums track, do some voicings, search for & add technical exercises

Piano day (1h 30m)

  • Harmonising the C major scale with modes & studying the MATH behind the modes
    • All major modes for the key of C harmonised with 7th chords (Ionian thru Locrian): LH plays 7th chord, RH plays intervals: 2nd, 3rd, 5th, 6th, 7th, octave and back
    • All major modes for the key of D
    • Same for E, F and G — and then I ran out of time :)


That’s such a cool exercise! Along the way I also found some cool maths that help recall the number of b’s or #’s for each key in each mode more quickly. For example, if you pick a major scale, take a flat 6 of it and run a scale from that b6 in reverse parallel to your major scale (starting on the same note), you will get all the references for your modes. E. g. for the key of D:

D E F# G A B (flat 6: Bb) C#

Bb scale running in reverse starting on D against the mode order (derived from C Major scale) starting on Ionian:

D (Ionian) — D

D (Dorian) — C: C major has no accidentals, so has D Dorian

D (Phrygian) — Bb: Bb major has bb, so has D Phryigan

D (Lydian) — A: A major has ###, so has D Lydian

D (Mixo) — G — G major has #, so has D Mixolydian

D (Aeol) — F — you got the idea

D (Locrian) — Eb

Of course it’s better to just use the mode formula, like, Dorian has b3 and b7 and therefore D Dorian is… er… Right, no accidentals at all, lol. But sometimes this way feels a bit quicker for me, but then again I’m just terrible at math!