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How To Play Piano Expressively (A Guide To Playing Musically)

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Have you ever been to a piano concert and thought to yourself “wow that pianist is unbelievably musical!”? Well if that sounds like you then what you we’re likely experiencing is expressive playing. Pianists who study the instrument can usually play the notes and rhythms correctly, but attaining musical expression has always been the toughest element to master. Because this is a problem for so many pianists I decided to put together a guide on how to play the piano more expressively. 

So, how do you play the piano more expressively? To play the piano expressively, pianists must understand the history and harmonic structure of the music. Visualizing the scene they are setting for the music, applying emotions to it, and allowing the harmonies to dictate the dynamics are crucial. Moving with the music, taking artistic liberties, and connecting with the audience are all forms of musical expression at the piano. 

Playing a piece of music expressively takes many years to develop, and the influence of a teacher can have a huge impact on that. I’ll share with you a few of the steps I take to analyze a piece and determine the meaning behind it. I’ll also share tips on how to put your own spin on a song so that it represents you and so that the piece is more musically pleasing for both you and the listener. 

How To Play Piano Expressively

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Putting Emotions Into The Music (Playing Expressively)

Playing the piano is not as simple as having technical superiority and great memorization. It’s a wide range of things, and communication of the music you play is what moves listeners the most.  Putting emotions into the music is quite important because without it pianists simply sound identical to one another. 

How much emotion you put into the music matters as there is some standard acceptance for all types of music. For example, classical musicians may want to be more reserved in their playing, especially if it’s music from the Baroque period. 

On the other hand, if you’re playing Jazz, Pop, or Rock music you might want to really sell those dynamics and extremes to get the audience into your performance. Even in classical music, there’s still plenty of room for expressive playing, especially in the music of the Romantic era. 

Below are a few tips to help you put the right kind of emotions into your music no matter what the genre is. 

Visualize A Scene As You Play 

Most composed music is inspired by a scene or event. Composers of some of the world’s greatest Classical music wrote pieces inspired by what they saw on their travels and their own personal life experiences. As a performer of that music, it’s important to also find your connection to the piece.

For example, if the song is called “Winter Winds”, then you might want to visualize a frozen tundra and snow blowing wildly. Perhaps the music refers to the seasons or a tragic event. Whatever it is, it’s important to get into that frame of mind before playing the piece. 

I always suggest doing a bit of basic historical research on a piece of music before performing it. By doing this you can get an idea of when the composer composed the music, who it was dedicated to, and general performance expectations. 

When it comes to using visualization to your advantage it helps to close your eyes when you play. The reason many pianists do this in performance is that it helps them play more expressively. They are able to tune out any distractions such as the lighting in the room, the audience, and even the keyboard itself.

Closing your eyes allows you to see vivid imagery of the scene you’re trying to recreate through the music. Listen to those harmonies and see how you can associate them with certain events in the scene. Visualizing doesn’t just mean thinking about the history of the piece, but maybe an event in your personal life that you connect to. 

A simple exercise you can do is to play a short passage of music that has interesting harmonies or melodic material. Memorize it and then try playing it with your eyes closed at different speeds. See if you can associate some kind of imagery with that passage of music. Now when you play the piece as a whole, you’ll have something you can connect to in that section. 

Follow The Harmonic And Musical Structure Of The Music

The harmonic and musical structure of a piece of music is really important. Understanding how the musical form and where certain harmonies are can help with developing expressive playing.

For example, if a piece is in basic ABA form, then you know that the opening material will return at the end of the piece. With that information alone you can make a plan to play each of those sections in different ways.

If the A section of the music has a soft dynamic, then perhaps you can play the B section with a louder dynamic. The same can be said for the notation. Perhaps the music moves in basic quarter notes in the A section and then turns into a flurry of sixteenth notes in the B section. Putting emphasis on certain points in the music is one of the easiest ways to play expressively. 

Another thing you can look at is ascending and descending melodies. Many pianists will naturally add a crescendo as the music starts to move upward or change to more complex harmonies. The same can be said for when the rhythm of the music slows down, and a lot of this is usually indicated in the score by the composer. 

Certain harmonies have historically been associated with certain meanings and expressions. For example the Neapolitan chord, or even certain cadence types such as the plagal cadence. I find that when playing a piece of music that has a chord that only occurs once, it should be emphasized whether that’s loudly or softly. 

I recommend studying some of the basics of music theory and chord analysis so that you can understand how to pick these out in the music. Doing a basic analysis of the form and harmonies in the music you’re playing can help you develop a plan for which elements you want to bring out most in your performance.

There is no right or wrong rule here, but the idea is to take things a step beyond what the composer has written and made it your own. 

Take Artistic Liberties 

The best pianists are willing to take chances during a performance. Whenever you’re playing a piece of music, you need to be comfortable trying things out in the middle of the performance. Much of this is instinctual and can be inspired by all sorts of things. 

If a pianist has their eyes closed and is completely engaged in the music, they may change the dynamics of a certain section or note on a whim. A big element of playing expressively is diving into the unknown. This kind of expressive playing is unplanned, however, a certain amount of control is necessary.

For a pianist to truly play free and take artistic liberties they need to:

  • Have a firm understanding of the harmonies
  • Understand the overall form of the music
  • Have the music entirely memorized
  • Be comfortable playing without looking at the keys
  • Have full composure 
  • Completely be in the zone while performing

It’s very easy to learn a piece of music one way and never change anything that you do. However true artistry lies in not playing music the same way twice. When you play something the exact same way, you’re limiting the ability to be expressive at the piano. 

Every time you sit at the piano and start playing, go with your current mood. By doing this you will definitely discover some different things you can do with certain passages and harmonies in the music. The way you articulate certain notes, the tempo you play with, the amount of depth in the key; a lot of things can change. Allow yourself to be free from one standard way of playing! 

Improve Your Piano Technique 

There are pianists with tons of great ideas to make the playing sound more expressive and engaging. The problem, however, is that they don’t quite have the technical ability to pull it off. 

For example, if a pianist has little control when it comes to playing eighth-note passages with evenness, then they may have a tough time executing a proper crescendo or decrescendo during that passage. The same can be said for a pianist who has trouble voicing three-note harmonies or cannot properly play octaves in fast succession.

If you notice that you have weak fingers, poor accuracy, or the ability to articulate certain passages well, then you may need to revisit your technique. Below are some technique books that can help you develop everything you need to play musically with much more ease:

  • Hanon The Virtuoso Pianist
  • Czerny Art Of Finger Dexterity
  • Mozkowski Etudes 

To see a full list of piano technique books for all levels, read this post

Get Feedback From Other Pianists

Sometimes you might feel like you’re playing expressively, but unless you record yourself playing it’ shard to tell exactly what’s going on. 

For this reason, I recommend reaching out to other pianists for feedback on your playing. This is a little different than just asking a relative or friend if your playing was exciting or not. Pianists can not only give you great feedback no your playing, but they can also give great suggestions on how to express the things you’re trying to with your playing.

Ideally, you’ll want to ask your piano teacher for advice and to listen to your playing. If you are studying on your own then post your recordings in a piano forum or Facebook group. Even sharing on YouTube is a great way to get feedback.

Listen To Recordings For Inspiration 

Sometimes to be expressive at the piano is not always a natural process, especially for a novice performer. At other times it may not always be clear what artistic liberties should be taken with certain styles of music either. To help with this I suggest listening to recordings for inspiration.

The thing to be careful with is to not completely mold yourself after another pianist. As you listen take notes of certain things each artist does at various points in the music. Take notes of what you like (and don’t like) and then move on to another recording.

What you do not want to do is copy artists verbatim. By this point, you’ll have a huge list of ideas to try out. 

What’s funny about this technique is that your idea of good expressive playing will be fluid. How you play a piece one day might not seem that enjoyable the next. The thing to remember is that artistic playing is always evolving, and the more mature you become as a musician the more your playing will change. 

From experience, I find that the most beneficial part about listening to recordings is to get an understanding of the music you’re playing. For example, if you’re not too familiar with Bach’s musical style or Haydn’s elaborate ornamentations, it helps to listen to recordings of that kind of music. 

Some great pianists you can listen to for Classical music include:

  • Vladimir Horowitz
  • Lang Lang
  • Van Cliburn
  • Yuja Wang
  • Martha Argerich
  • Daniil Trifonov

Perhaps you want to get some inspiration for Jazz piano music. In that case, I recommend listening to the following artists:

  • Oscar Peterson
  • Bill Evans
  • Chick Corea
  • Herbie Hancock

There are plenty of other musical styles and an endless list of artists to choose from. Even searching on YouTube for lesser-known artists and amateur artists can also yield some excellent results! 

Move Around

An often overlooked technique for playing more expressively is ot simply move around. This doesn’t just include the arms and shoulders and fingers, but the body as a whole. Certain movements can help pianists get a much richer tone in their playing.  It also helps to move with the music to bring out certain melodic lines and harmonies more easily. 

If you want a more subdued and quiet sound, you’ll probably want to move a lot less. You’ll have to experiment a bit to figure out what works for you in this regard. 

Another benefit of moving when you play is that it builds in some muscle memory. You’ll start to associate certain movements with harmonies and passage in the music which helps you memorize the piece much more easily. 

Final Thoughts

Playing music expressively is not a black and white answer. Much of it is based on your mood, experience level and technical ability at the piano. Your understanding of the music, it’s structure and harmonies can go a long way in developing expressive playing though. 

The best advice I can give is to think about playing freely and less restricted. There are rules to music and they should be followed, but using your imagination can help.

Follow the dynamics given by the composer and other suggestions as a starting point. From there, see how you can expand on those instructions within reason. What you want to be careful with is to not distort the style of the music by changing any and everything. 

A big part of playing expressively at the piano centers around experimentation. Trying new things, keeping some things and getting rid of others. By listening to other artists you can gather some quick ideas and then see how they fit into the kind of musician you want to be.