by Gjermund Sivertsen
How To Play Jazz Piano. The Four Core Elements

It is maybe the most important jazz piano lesson you can ever watch. If you understand this, understand how to apply these principles, you will be a much wiser jazz pianist.

Here is my video from YouTube on how to play jazz piano and understanding the four core elements. 

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How To Play Jazz Piano – Understand the essentials.

Playing jazz  piano is a challenge in many ways. When I learned how to play jazz piano, nobody showed me what it is all about. Playing jazz piano is not about how fancy you can get, but how you express yourself through music. It all comes down to awareness about what is going on around you, and deep listening to what is the musical potential that lies right in front of you!

If you know a bunch of scales, chords, licks, and tricks, but yet you have not understood the essentials, then you might miss the big picture of what is going on when you play jazz piano. (Or any other musical instrument or style).

When you play music, you’re creating sound waves. You can divide it further into four core elements: Melody, harmony, rhythm, and dynamics.

The whole point of my lesson about this was to show you how you can focus on the different elements one by one, but also that they are all present in the music. When you are playing jazz piano, you are tweaking the four core elements! That’s it

To play better, I’ve found it to be beneficial to study all of the four core elements one by one. If I play a jazz standard, then I become a lot more aware and creative if I listen to how I’m playing the melody and what potential the melody has. The same goes for harmony, rhythm, and dynamics.

Here you can see an illustration of the four core elements:

Let’s break down what you can do with the four core elements:

In almost all music, there is a melody.

As jazz pianists, we usually have two roles.
1. You don’t have to play the melody since
another musician is presenting the melody
for you.

2. You play/present the melody. For example, if you play solo
piano or together with bass/drums. (As a trio).

Still: The concept of the melody goes beyond playing a written, studied melody. When you’re improvising, you are usually coming up with a new melody on the spot that fits the chord changes of the tune you’re playing. It is mostly like this, but there are a few exceptions, such as if you’re playing free-jazz (free-improvised music), or more modern pieces without any distinct melody.

Here are some tips on how you can present the melody:

1) Don’t play the melody as it was written In jazz, we’ve got to be innovative. If you play the melody just as it was written (when you play a jazz standard), then it is usually not that innovative. Instead, come up with your own version of the melody. You don’t need to do much. Just change a few notes.

Example: Here, you see the original melody from Body and Soul. The bottom line shows the version where the melody was tweaked. Please note: This is a transcription and not an arrangement. The “Tweaked” version was improvised. It is essential!

In the example, you see that the rhythm was changed too. There were more notes added and the tune came out a lot different than the original.

2) Stretch the melody out in time too. Think like a vocalist. If you play together with a good singer, they are often phrasing the melody way different than what was presented in The Real Book.

3) You can tweak the melody even more by adding other notes than
what was written.


In this transcription, you can see that there were added multiple notes that were not originally in the melody.

4) Play chords with your right hand when you’re presenting the
melody. You can do this in combination with steps 1-3, but think of the chord as a different layer than the melody. The placement of the chord can be on the beat, but the melody comes off the beat.

5) Create a fill around longer melody-notes

Usually, it is enough to produce a couple of extra notes when there is a
long melody note.
6) Improvise the way you present the melody.
It goes for the melody, the harmony, the rhythm, and the dynamics. Stay
present and listen to what you are playing, what the others are playing,
what do you hear is possible to play at all times. It is where the magic


I find that so many students of mine are not at all aware of how they are presenting the chords. It is pretty easy to get this awareness by just becoming aware.

For example, I used to play rolled out chords without even noticing:

This way to present the chords should become your default. It gives a lot more clarity than rolling out the chords. It is like listening to a
presentation. Some speakers have great clarity, where others lack clarity. If you want to sound like you have clarity, a good place to start is to clean up the way you play your chords.

One way to play the chords is to “drip” them out over time (without rolling).

In this example, you see that the melody and bass notes are presented on the beat, where the chord-notes are presented mostly on the off-beat.

More about variation:

The key to success, except for the piano keys that are all keys to success, is variation! If you combine variation with a balance where you are listening to what music demands of you (and when playing with others, what they do), then you’re equipped to do amazing things.

There are several ways to vary the way you play your chords.

For example, you can ask yourself: In what register am I playing the
chords? How do I “Phrase” the chords (see the examples above)? How wide are my chords? How supportive are my chords for helping my fellow musicians? What colors do I add to the different chords? (For example a (b5,b9,#11, etc)

These are just some questions worth asking.
There are other things we can do with the chords, such as reharmonization.

Reharmonization means to change the meaning of the original harmonic choices (usually from the composer). It is not the same as playing a chord with different voicings.

There are endless ways to reharmonize. To make it simple, let’s speak
about minor/small reharmonizations and dominant/big reharmonizations.

Minor reharmonization:

In this example, I’ve changed the Ebmi7 to Eb7.

It is just a small thing, but yet so significant! There are no right/wrong ways to do this. Use your ears to find things that you enjoy. Also, it is smart to not over-do this.

Major/big reharmonization:

In this example, I added a sequence of Minor 13 voicings. They don’t belong in the key of Db (The key of the tune “Body and Soul”). To come up with ideas like this, you need to gain enough experience. If I rewind my musical journey with 15 years, I would never have come up with
things like this. Today, however, I have so many ideas that I instead strip down the ideas and use a handful of my best ideas. This kind of creativity develops over time.

When it comes to reharmonization: Use it a lot, but make sure it is intentional. Don’t add stuff just because you know it is possible.


If you play jazz piano, the chances are that you enjoy harmony so much that you don’t even think about rhythm. I’m writing this as I used to be a pianist who was very good with harmony but lacked the feel for rhythm. The good news is that you only need to become aware of your rhythmical habits, and then change it for the better.

In all music, there is some form of rhythm. I see the concept of rhythm as the placement of music over time. The rhythmical aspect is always present when we play music, as time goes by. When it comes to the rhythm, the most important thing that we should do is to become aware of the rhythm as we play and listen to others play. It is a deep subject, and I won’t have the time to cover it all here, but besides increasing our awareness of our rhythm, we should learn how we can tweak the rhythm as we’re playing.

For example, you can change the placement of a melodic phrase. You can change the placement of a chord where you add or subtract syncopations. You can make even eights to swung eights, swung eights to even eights. You can change the time signature from 4/4 to 3/4.

The list of things that you can do with the rhythm ends where your imagination ends.

The big takeaway is that you should always be aware of how you play the rhythm, and if you study rhythm over time and experiment with it, you should ideally find new rhythmical ideas that you can apply when you’re playing jazz piano.


Have you met people who are talking so loud that after hanging out with them, you’re feeling drained of your energy? Or the opposite? Some are speaking with such a low volume that you struggle to hear them.

It is the same with your music.

One of the things I ask my students to do is to explore how low can they play and how loud can they play. If you don’t know your register, you should experiment with it.

I enjoy playing both soft and loud,  depending on the mood I’m in and the
direction of the music I’m playing.

The point is that we should all become aware of how loud/soft we’re
playing, how loud/soft do we want to play (what is our intention?), and how loud/mild are our fellow musicians playing?

How to play as soft as possible?

1. Press down the piano-key(s) slowly. It is all physics. If you press
down the key slow, the hammer will barely hit the strings.

2. If you want to create the experience of playing super-soft, play little
or no harmony.

How to play as loud as possible?

1. Press down the piano-key(s) fast. You don’t get louder by raising
your hand. It can all be controlled via your fingers.

2. If you want to create the experience of playing super-loud, play big
chords spread out while you press down the keys quickly.

Please note: How loud/soft your default is can vary. What is interesting is also connected to your personality. One example is if you play together with drummers. The sensitive type of drummer will adjust his volume, while the more dominant figure will not care if nobody hears the piano. (I’ve played with both kinds of personalities). This example is not based on science, but I’ve found it to be the case many times. Explore it for yourself.

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Even if all the four core elements: Dynamics, rhythm, melody, harmony, are all separate parts, they also relate. We should not ignore any of these, but instead,
explore them one by one.

After you have spent time exploring the elements one by one, try to play something and analyze how the melody was presented, the harmony, the rhythm, and the dynamics. Do you have enough variation? Is there more potential for what you play?

It is all about raising our awareness and our ability to play better. This approach has helped me tremendously, and I hope it will help you too.

Remember that once you play, you should not think about it intellectually. Just listen and try to listen from the four angles.

Take care of your music.