The Power of 4 Chord Composing

The Power of 4 Chord Composing

The Power of 4 Chord Composing


All month we have explored the importance of composition in the piano studio. Now, I am excited to share with you an online course which I have been spending heaps of time creating over the past months.

It’s called my 4 Chord Composing course. The following post will explain why teaching chords and composition is so vital. Also, at the end of the post you will be able to find the first three modules of my course available for only US$6.99.

The Power of Chords

This 10-week 4 Chord Composing Plan is designed to introduce any student to the fun and power of a chord-based approach to playing and creating music at the piano.

Just about all music (from baroque and classical to jazz, pop and rock) is based on chords and yet explicit instruction around the chord-based nature of music – how it works, the theory behind it and how to create it – seldom enters a traditional piano lesson.

The power of chords to assist students in the reading and performance of traditional music, not to mention the deep theoretical understanding that a chord-based knowledge of music brings to a musician, is critical to a pianist’s sight-reading ability, understanding of musical genres, ability to improvise and understanding of form and structure.

Chord-based teaching provides a bridge between written musical theory textbooks and the practice of making music. It gives students a practical demonstration of, and immersion in, the theory through a student’s real-world love and innate understanding of popular music.

Put simply, this teaching approach connects students with the theory in a practical and meaningful way, using musical structures they innately know and understand.

If you’d like your students to be able to read music more fluently, to be able to compose their own music and improvise out of trouble when performing, if you’d like them to be able to read a chord chart, fill in a left hand and accompany themselves as they sing, if you’d like your students to play in bands and have the best chance of making music for the rest of their life, then this program is for you.

What is 4 Chord Composing?

piano composing for teachers

Welcome to my 4 Chord Composing online teaching course.

4 Chord Composing introduces students (and teachers) to an understanding of the chordal structure of music, chord progressions, chord types, melody, scales, patterns and rhythm through the context of composing mainly 4 chord progressions.

4 Chord Composing may be introduced within the first couple of weeks of lessons, depending on the student’s age, maturity and hand size for playing chords.

If teaching beginner teens and adults, I use the content of Lesson 1 at the first or second lesson and continue this chord-based journey regularly in lessons. Older students really respond to a chord-based approach alongside traditional note reading and technical work.

The lesson plans and content are based on my own experience of what works. It is a very broad-based teaching plan and will depend very much on the speed at which your student is comprehending the material. It’s much better to do a few things per lesson well and leave students wanting more than trying to squash too much in at once and overwhelming them.

There is probably enough content in this 10-lesson plan for a year of work if you only spend 15 minutes per lesson on the material. It all depends on the time you have available, the goals you’ve set for your students and your student’s motivations.

Check out Lesson 1 of my 4 Chord Composing course right here. It’s all about introducing major and minor chords into your lessons.

Top 20 Tips for 4 Chord Composing

  1. This is the perfect lesson content to use alongside or instead of a traditional curriculum, depending on the goals you’ve set with your student. It’s perfect for when students are having a bad day, have done no practice or have forgotten all their books.
  2. Help students learn to really listen to themselves when they play so they can find out what’s working. Most students don’t listen to what they’re playing very much; certainly not deeply.
  3. Connect the practice of playing chords and progressions to the theory of structure, cadences, keys, raised 7ths, etc. 4 Chord Composing is Theory made Practical. Make the most of the connections.
  4. Listen out for student mistakes (aka. moments of “accidental brilliance”) and encourage and unpack them. Oftentimes it’s the mistakes that sound the best.
  5. Encourage students to build on mistakes – ie. repeat them, work out why they sound good, replicate in another way or different key, etc. (This is really hard for kids who feel they always need to get things “right”).
  6. Keep it simple. Less is more.
  7. Get students to repeat things far more than they think they should, especially when they start putting progressions together into song form. Pop music is very repetitive. That’s why pop riffs are called “hooks”.
  8. If students have small hands, their left hands can play single notes or 5ths instead of octaves. Right hands can play 3rds or 5ths instead of triads to begin (with 5ths you’ll miss out on the tonality of course, but 5ths provide a strong physical hand shape to build on).
  9. You don’t need to notate anything (unless you want).
  10. Connect this composing with pop music that the student is listening to.
  11. Piggy-back chord-based pop song reading with these composing ideas.
  12. Play with the student, preferably on a second instrument, LOTS.
  13. Use beat-making apps/tools to play along to – eg. Clavinova, digital piano, iReal Pro, GarageBand, SuperMetronome Groove box.
  14. Don’t use a metronome.
  15. Use alternate sounds if you’re on a second, digital instrument. These chord progressions sound great with student on piano and teacher on rich strings on a keyboard. The student will instantly feel and sound like they’re writing a film score!
  16. Try not to talk too much. Explore more by demonstrating and listening. I know it’s hard.
  17. Be ready to fail. You’ll be exploring and composing with the student so not everything will go right. Either of you may make mistakes. They may sound horrible. That’s OK. You’re learning together and that’s what this is all about.
  18. Working on chord-based composing with students is one of the most engaging and pedagogically-sound activities you can do with your students. Just because it’s a load of fun, doesn’t mean they’re not learning a heap along the way.
  19. Did I say don’t talk too much?
  20. Have fun!

Chords Make Theory Practical

While there is a lot of instruction around chords and students will learn heaps about music in this process, all the exploring is through students’ own chord-based compositions. I believe composing (creating progressions) is the best way to learn about the theory of music and help students when playing other pop songs and written pieces.

Remember to keep pointing out the connections between the theory that you know (eg. cadences, leading notes, tonic/dominant relationships, good vs. bad melodies, major vs. minor, etc.) and what students are learning as it won’t necessarily be obvious.

This course will sharpen your students’ ears as long as you ask more questions than you dictate answers or solve problems. Students will need to listen much more actively to their playing in order to find out the best progressions and melodies.

Please be aware that if you print out these lesson plans, you won’t be able to access the hyperlinks which I’ve provided to supplementary information and teaching videos, so I suggest you save an online copy for reference even if you print this out for teaching.

I hope you have as much fun exploring this material with your students as I do on a daily basis.

Here is Lesson 2 in my 10-part course. This video will show you how to incorporate a chordal approach to teaching and connect it with pop piano playing. Enjoy!

Purchase the First Three Lessons for only US$6.99

You can start using the first three lessons in my 10-week 4 Chord Composing right now! Purchase the first 3 lesson plans below and implement chordal teaching in your studio today.

TopMusicPro Member? Click here to access the full course now.

Want the Full Course?

If you’ve enjoyed the content of these lessons and want to know how to continue teaching in this way, then make sure you check out the rest of this course.

These lessons are just the tip of the iceberg and a part of my 10-part “4 Chord Composing” course that is available right now in the TopMusicPro Community.

Here are the modules you’ll be able to access straight away:

  • Lesson 1: Learning Major and Minor Chords
  • Lesson 2: Pop-style Piano Playing
  • Lesson 3: Composing with 4 Chords
  • Lesson 4: Creating Melodies
  • Lesson 5: Adding New Chord Types: Sus, add2, Slash Chords
  • Lesson 6: Styles and Patterns
  • Lesson 7: Form and Structure
  • Lesson 8: 7ths, Borrowed Chords and Bass lines
  • Lesson 9: 4CC Apps and Technology in Action
  • Lesson 10: Where to Now? Arranging and Advanced Ideas

Thanks for reading and I hope you enjoy my 4 Chord Composing online course. I’ll see you in the TopMusicPro community!

Tim Topham

Tim Topham is the founder and director of TopMusic. Tim hosts the popular Integrated Music Teaching Podcast, blogs regularly at and speaks at local and international conferences on topics such as integrated teaching, creativity, business, marketing and entrepreneurship. Tim has been featured in American Music Teacher, The Piano Teacher Magazine, California Music Teacher and EPTA Piano Professional. Tim holds an MBA in Educational Leadership, BMus, DipEd and AMusA.

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The Power of 4 Chord Composing
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  1. Hello Tim
    I am on a pension so can’t afford to join the inner circle or purchase the lessons alone. I am not a teacher as such but studied Piano to 6th Grade AMEB many years ago and haven’t played for years. A neighbour did some work for us and wouldn’t charge us but said he would love me to teach some basics to his 11 year old son. So, I really want to return his favour. I thought maybe I could just start him off and then refer him to another teacher explaining to him about my now limited knowledge. I would also like to start playing again myself. I have been watching your videos and downloaded your 1st no book beginners lesson. I would appreciate you advice although I am very aware of how busy you are. Yours sincerely Dianne Asphar

  2. Having subscribed, I cannot find a way to sign in and get back to the lessons I want. One place for login in did not accept my password and did not email when I requested a password change.

    • Hi Nova – I’ve forwarded your comment to our support team who’ll be reaching out shortly!

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