The piano is probably one of the greatest instruments ever made, in fact, it’s probably either number one or at least in the top 3. There are a couple of reasons for that: one being the way the keys are set up. The piano has all 12 notes spread evenly across the keyboard at 8 different octaves, unlike the guitar where you can play the same note at the same pitch at 3-4 different parts of the neck.
Details like this make the piano a great instrument, and they’re probably what made the piano the instrument of choice for MIDI controllers. As every producer knows, every MIDI controller (or nearly all of them) are based on the piano, however, they’re good for more than just that. If you were interested in using the piano sound to make beats, for example, how would you go about doing that?
To make a piano beat
1) Choose a key
2) Select a common chord progression like i-III-v-VI
3) Record the piano melody in your DAW
4) Add a kick, snare, and then overheads
5) Fill out the arrangement with other instruments
6) Add 808s that outline the chords and follow the kick
There’s obviously more to it than what I just told you, but that’s the 90% action of creating a piano beat. From there, you just have to fill out the structure with other melodies, a bass-line, and then use arrangement techniques to add some much-needed musical diversity. We’ll explore how to do all of this and some of the things I learned from PianoForAll which I’ve applied to my own work.
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Tools You Need to Make A Piano Beat
Truthfully, to make a piano beat all you really need to use is a DAW because most DAWs like FL Studio, Logic Pro X, and Garageband have a piano roll in it where you can just create melodies with your mouse (here’s my piano roll tutorial, by the way).
I imagine this is how the vast majority of producers do it, at least the producers who don’t know how to play. That said, there are some things you can grab that’ll make your life a lot easier including loops, samples, and the e-book, PianoForAll if you’re serious about getting a handle on the piano.
As I said, you need a DAW to make a piano beat. For this tutorial, I’ll be using Garageband because it’s free to use if you have a macOS or iOS device – get this iPad from Amazon if you’re in the market for one. If you don’t have a macOS device, you could also just use your phone.
However, there are free trials available for DAWs like FL Studio 20, for example. The premium version is here on Plugin Fox. To get Garageband on your device, you just have to get it from the App Store as my other article shows you how to do.
2) MIDI Keyboard
A MIDI keyboard, unlike the DAW, is more optional. This is the tool that’s actually going to allow you to play an instrument resembling a piano. A popular option is the M-Audio Oxygen Pro 49 (on Amazon), and the reason for that is simple: it’s cheap, it looks cool, and it works awesome.
Another great thing about this keyboard is that it has 49 keys which is probably the bare minimum when it comes to buying a keyboard with piano-like functionality. Any fewer keys and you miss out on a lot of range. It’s why I rarely recommend the 25-key keyboards from AKAI.
That said, if you’re in the market for something a lot better and something that’s going to last forever, the Arturia KeyLab 61 MKII (from Amazon) is a great move, however, the Oxygen Pro that I linked earlier or the KeyLab 61 MKII are great budget options. The Arturia KeyLab 61 MKII is currently on my Christmas list, I’ll tell you that.
3) Loops and Samples
And finally, I had to mention loops and samples because these by far are the easiest way to create a beat in seconds. You have to either use one from Apple Loops (my guide on that), or you can buy some from places like Loopmasters which is great for stuff like that.
There are many other places to find loops and samples as well including Cymatics. There are others, but those two are the ones I use. In case you’re wondering, Apple Loops can be used commercially and royalty-free which I’ve previously explained elsewhere on the site.
You can do the same with all samples and loops you buy from Loopmasters as well. I actually spoke with one of the reps from Loopmasters about that and here’s what he had to say in the email. You may have to zoom in on it in your browser or flip your phone to the side to see it better.
Making Piano Beats – Step-By-Step
I’ll show you how to make a piano beat in your DAW using two different methods. One is by creating a melody from scratch with your MIDI keyboard, and then the other is with an Apple Loop and then samples from Loopmasters. Both of these methods are a great way of creating a musical project or developing a musical idea.
Personally, I almost never use Loops and Samples in my projects, simply because I enjoy creating melodies from scratch. That said, I don’t have some kind of vendetta against using loops. Every once in a while, I may use a loop or a sample of some kind to fill out an idea or maybe to give me an idea to work with, in general.
They’re great for kick-starting the creative flow. Without further ado though, let’s get into how we would create a piano beat from scratch.
Making Your Own Piano Beat From Scratch
1) Jam On the Piano to Create Your Melody
Creating Melodies From A Musician’s Perspective
Everyone has their own way of creating melodies, but I’ll show you how I do it. For the most part, I create melodies just by messing around with an instrument. I’ll start by playing basic chords such as minor 7th and major 7th chords, and then I’ll add extensions to them to make it an AMaj7th/add9 chord or an added 11 chord.
Another thing that I’ll do is I’ll use my guitar to come up with a melody, and I do the same thing. In some cases, I find that it sounds way better to have a VST or a soundscape instrument to play the melody, rather than my guitar, so I’ll figure out the notes of the chord and then play that very same thing on the MIDI keyboard.
If you already know how to play the piano and you just need some instruction on how to use it to make a beat, you could probably go ahead and skip to the next part of the article on how to actually record the piano and how to make the beat.
That’s just how I do it. But I know that not everyone understands what an Amaj7th/add9 chord is and not everyone understands how to play chords on the piano or on the guitar. So let’s dive into how you would go about making a piano melody without any music theory knowledge.
Using Chords to Make Melodies
Rather than jamming your way into a new creation, you’ll just have to learn some chords and then play them on the piano. The video down below shows you how to play some of my most favorite chords on the keyboard.
Use these chords to come up with your melody, or you could even just use one chord as your primary progression, change one note in it, and then you have your foundation. From there, you can use arpeggiator instruments and soundscape instruments to fill out the track in a way that you think sounds cool.
Another thing that you can do is just Google what some of the most common chords are. And then you can take a look at my songwriting tips guide which has a huge list of some of the most commonly used chord progressions in popular music.
In fact, you should look at that article because it really dives into this stuff in detail. I’ll also include the chart right here for the progressions. I use this chart all of the time.
|Progression in Roman Numerals||Chords|
|I-IV-V||F, B♭ and C|
|I-vi-iv-V||C, Am, F, G – 50s Progression|
|I-IV-VI-IV||C, F, Bb, F|
|iii-V-ii-I||C♯m, E, B and A|
|i-IV-V||F♯m, B and C♯|
|i-V-IV-III||Am, G, F, E – Andalusian Cadence|
|I-IV-IV||E, A, and B|
|iv-♭VII⁷-I||Dm, Bb7, C – Backdoor Progression|
|I-V-VI-IV||D, A, B and G|
|I-V-VII-IV||A, E, G, D – Chromatic Descending|
|VI-III-I||E, B and G|
|vi6-ii-V6-I||Am6, Dm, G6, C – Circle Progression|
|V-ii7-I||D, Am7 and G|
|I-V7-IV7-IV7-I7-V7-I7-V7||C, G7, F7, F7, C7, G7, C7, G7 – 8 Bar Blues|
|I-V-IV-vi||C, G, F and Am|
|I-IV-V-vi||G, C, D and Em|
|III-II-I-VI||B, A G F♯|
|I-V-VI-IV||D, A, C and G|
|ii-IV-I||Dm, F and C|
|VI-V-IV-I||D, C, B♭ and F|
|ii-V-I||Dm, G, C – Common Jazz Progression|
|I-V-IV||D, A and G (drop D version)|
|I-IV-V||A, D and E|
|V-IV-I||D, C and G|
|I-IV-vi-V||D, G, Bm and A|
|I7-IV7-ii7-V||C7, F7, Dm7, G|
|I-V-vi-iii-IV||E, B, C♯m, G♯m and A|
|I-III-IV-VII-IV||D, F, G, C and G|
|I-III-IV-ii||D, A, G and Em|
|vi-I-V-IV-II||Em, G, D, C and A|
|I-II-III||D, E♭ and F (drop D)|
|i-V-II-VII||Asus2, E, B and G|
|vi7-ii7-V7-i7||Am7, Dm7, G7 and Cm7|
|I-V-vi-IV||C, G, Am, F|
|vi7-II7-V-I||F♯m7, B7, E and A|
|VI-v-i-VII-i||F, Em, Am, G and Am|
|i-III-v-VI||Em, G, Bm, C|
Take one of these chord progressions, and then google the chord if you don’t already know how to play it. Learn each chord individually, and then you’ll have to record the melody in your DAW. Let’s run through an example of what you would do.
Example – Making A Chord Progression Using i-III-v-VI in E Minor
The i-III-v-VI progression is a commonly used chord progression in music but not so much as an I-IV-V progression, for example. When I first made this article, I tried using an I-IV-V progression to make a cool-sounding piano beat, but I just couldn’t make it work to my ears.
There are master songwriters out there who manage to make that boring progression sound great, but apparently, I’m not one of them and I’m ok with that. The I-IV-IV progression is a classic at this point and it has been used many times in some form or another.
Tip: When using a chord progression formula for a song, you don’t have to use it entirely as its written. You can do as I did in this tutorial, for example, you can use inversions, extended chords, or you can arrange the chords in such a way where it resembles the formula only in spirit, rather than being so exact, ie, I-IV-I-IV-I-IV-V, instead of just I-IV-V.
As I just outlined in the tip above, a progression doesn’t need to be exactly as it’s written. For example, in this song, I used an i-III-v-VI progression but I used extended chords and also inversions to make the progression sound more interesting to my ears.
I also reverted back to the basic versions of the chords for the chorus but we’ll talk more about that in a second. Let’s dissect how we would come up with chords from one of these commonly used formulas or progression guidelines (I think we’ll call it that because it’s a better name).
In the Key of E Minor (the relative minor of G Major), you have the notes, E, F#, G, A, B, C, and D (the Circle of Fifths chart does a good job of telling what accidentals – sharps or flats – are in the key signature).
These are the same notes as G Major, except the scale starts on E as its tonal center. Now, if we build triads from these notes by using every other note, we get the following chords:
EGB, F#AC, GBD, ACE, BDF#, CEG, and DF#A. These chords look like the following in the roman numerical format that you’ll commonly see them in:
i – E Minor
ii – F# Diminished
III – G Major
iv – A Minor
v – Bm
VI – C Major
VII – D7
So let’s use the E Minor (i), G Major (III), B Minor (v), and C Major (VI) chords for this progression and I’ll show you how they’re played on the piano in their regular and more basic form. Also, you could just Google some of these chords to see how they are played on the piano and on the guitar if you’re in a rush, but this isn’t the best way if you’re serious about learning.
I recently stopped doing this because I find it’s bad for not only creativity and originality but also for music theory memorization and comprehension. But that’s neither here nor there, here are some diagrams for the chords I just mentioned.
E Minor – i
The E Minor chord is one of those chords that most students to the piano or the guitar will learn almost right away. Similar to C Major and G Major, it’s definitely up there in terms of the chords that you would learn at the start of taking lessons.
G Major – III
This is how G Major looks on the piano.
B Minor – v
This is how B Minor looks on the piano. Take note of the F# which is sharp because we’re in the key of E Minor.
C Major – VI
And finally, the C Major chord.
Play these chords on the piano, and then you have something very basic to work with. Also, you can take a look at my article on how to make a song in 5 minutes if you need more information on using this principle.
For the piano beat that I made, I used the chords here although, as I said before, I used slightly different chord voicings and I also used inverted versions of the same chords for more musical diversity. Now that we’ve got an idea of how to make the fundamental progression and the melody, let’s actually record it.
2) Recording Your Piano Melody
There was a time when recording a melody was more difficult because it had to be played on time perfectly by the musician, but nowadays, you can just use a MIDI keyboard like the M-Audio Oxygen Pro 61 (from Amazon) with a DAW and quantization to make it all perfect. It can still be challenging, just not as much as it used to be.
i) Turn on the Metronome and the Count-In Button (or your DAW’s equivalent)
If you want to record a melody that you created from scratch rather than draw it in with the piano roll, the number one piece of advice I can give to you is to use a metronome. Use the metronome or a click-track so your music is actually on time.
This is going to save you a lot of headaches in the future. If you failed to record it on time, however, and you’re just using a MIDI keyboard and a VST, you’ll be able to quantize it using my guide, so no worries there. You could also just draw the notes in with the piano roll using the (Command + Click) function as I said a moment ago.
I usually do a mix of both. In this case, I laid down the primary progression by playing it straight up, but then I moved notes around on the grid to make them sound better, and then I also used the piano roll to invert the chords.
ii) Choose your BPM
Select the BPM by clicking on the number in the very top-center of the Garageband interface. These days, I’ve been into making slower songs kind of like what I did in my recent lo-fi beat tutorial and in my aesthetic track tutorial.
iii) Choose the Piano that You Like or Record Your Own
For this tutorial, I chose XPand! 2’s Natural Grand Piano and Natural Ambient Piano because I found that they made my progression sound the coolest. XPand! 2 (on Plugin Fox) has a ton of great sounds despite being so inexpensive.
And, as I said, I recorded half of it and then drew in the other half of it because I used weird voicings and 2nd inversions of the i-III-v-VI progression, a few of which I learned from the e-book, PianoForAll.
At this point, I haven’t actually written a tutorial on how to record a piano because I don’t own one, unfortunately, but that’s something I’ll do in the future. Setting up a premium condenser microphone like the AT4040 (from Amazon) near a piano, I imagine, won’t be all that different from micing a guitar amplifier.
iv) Hit the Record Button and then Draw In Your Notes After If You Need to
If you’re using Garageband, click the ‘R’ on your keyboard to begin recording, click on it with your mouse, or use your DAW’s equivalent. By the way, here’s the comprehensive keyboard shortcut list for Garageband. I imagine other DAWs have similar shortcuts for making this work.
v) Clean Up the Recording Manually or With Quantization
Once you’re done laying down your melody, use the piano roll to manually bring notes to the grid, or you can just use the time quantizer function. I usually use the 1/16 note option and then choose 100 for the quantization, but it depends on the time division of the notes. Usually, 1/16 is where it’s at that though.
This has the effect of bringing all of my notes to the gridline exactly as I want it. Typically, I’ll use time quantization on the rhythm section of the songs and not so much on the actual melody. I’d rather clean up the melody manually, but it’s up to you and your idea of what sounds good.
In this case, I had the quantization turned off. A good rule of thumb though is that if you have a lot of notes without a lot of space between them, you’ll need something higher like 1/32, but if you have fewer notes, 1/16 or fewer will do.
To move the MIDI notes to the grid manually, all you have to do is click on it and drag it to wherever you want to take it. There are a few tricks about this too including the following:
- You can move whole selections at once by dragging a selection box around them.
It’s pretty self-explanatory, just drag a box around the notes the way you would in other software.
- You can extend or retract more than one MIDI note at the same time.
You have to drag the selection box over the notes and then once they’re selected, you hover the cursor at the end of the MIDI notes to bring up a little bracket/arrow symbol which you then use to extend or detract the note.
- If you’re using Garageband or Logic Pro, you can use (Command + C) and (Command + V) to copy and paste sections wherever you want (use the playhead arrow to determine exactly where the notes fall).
This is the bare-bones way of making a melody with a piano instrument. The easier way to make a melody is to use a loop as I showed you in my piano song tutorial. It’s worth going through here again though because it only takes a few seconds.
B) Using Loops to Make A Piano Beat Instead
To use a piano loop, you can choose one from Loopmasters on their website, or you could use Apple Loops if you’re using Logic Pro X or Garageband. There are tons of places to find loops and sounds, and Loopmasters is just one of them if you’re not using an Apple product.
Regardless of where you get them, they function in the same way, which is to just drag and drop them into your DAW. Usually, they come with information like what key signature they’re in as well as the BPM. This is important to have because it gives you a better idea of what you can do with it and how it’ll fit into your project.
To use one from Loopmasters or from Cymatics, it’s the same thing, except you’ll be dragging them from out of a file folder, rather than from a folder that’s native to Garageband or Logic Pro X. That’ll look something like what you can see down here.
We now have the brunt of the melody which is the primary progression. I’ll usually come up with the chords first and then I’ll find the cool melody to go over the top of it. In my mind, the melody that goes over the top of it is usually kind of like the hook, although, not necessarily. It’s just a way of adding some musical diversity to your song along with the inversions.
Bonus Tip: the Inversions
Using inversions is a great way of making a standard and boring chord sound a lot more interesting. It’s really amazing what you can do just by changing the notes around a little bit in the chord, but continuing to have the root note as the tonal center.
I learned this from watching a YouTube video from Rick Beato where he interviewed the Weather Report guitarist, Pat Metheny, who said that jazz guitarists would always use an inverted chord over the traditional triad. They do this because it sounds cooler and it definitely worked in the case of this song.
3) Adding the Hook or the Over-Arching Melody
For this part, I used the Moon Guitar from Spitfire Audio Labs and I just walked down the E Minor scale over top of the i-III-v-VI progression. It doesn’t take much to fill out a song in this way. Sometimes you just have to add in a few extra notes in there.
4) Adding the Kick and Snare
You can see what the kick looks like up here, and as you’ll notice, there’s nothing overly complicated about it. The real complexity comes from the overheads which we’ll talk about in a second. I actually struggled to come up with the drums for this song because I didn’t want to do a basic hip-hop beat.
The snare beat falls on every 2nd and 4th beat in the measure which is a fairly common way to make a drumbeat for any type of song.
5) Adding the Overheads (Hi-Hats, Cymbals, Crashes, Rides, and Shakers)
Chorus Overhead Pattern
The real complexity lies in what I did with the overheads, and I find that’s where things get really interesting and fun. It took a long time for me to come up with stuff like this because I didn’t have proper instruction, but I’ve found that dissecting drum patterns and seeing how they’re made is a useful way of teaching yourself.
Once you’ve done that, you can see how mathematical drums are. For example, in the image above, you’ll notice how there is a note on pretty much every other grid-line, it’s just that the part of the kit is continuously changing which makes for a nice sound.
Moreover, another important point to get in there is to understand that the velocity for the entire pattern is different because I played the foundation of it on my AKAI MPD 226. Once I came up with the brunt of the pattern, I then went into the piano roll and adjusted everything manually. Again, I can’t stress studying drum patterns enough.
Verse Overhead Pattern
The pattern is almost 100% the same in the verse, but the difference is there are fewer rides. I’ve instead chosen the open and closed hi-hats on the button of the piano roll which sounds almost like a shaker. Having a note on every grid-line, but changing the type of hi-hat for every line, sounds incredible and it’s a great way of imitating a real drummer, particularly when you’ve changed the velocity of each note.
6) Add Accompanient With Another Instrument
As I said earlier, I used the Natural Grand Piano and Resonant Ambient Piano from XPand! 2 (which goes for a surprisingly good price on Plugin Fox). These two instruments wound up sounding really nice together because the Natural Grand Piano is almost like piano overload.
The resonant one adds that flavor that it needed. And the best part about it is that all I had to do was copy and paste that progression. It took just a few seconds and it had the effect of filling out the song in an impactful way.
7) Recording Real Guitars or Another Instrument (Optional)
At the moment, I’ve only recorded a guitar solo for this track using the E Minor 7 arpeggio and C Major 7 arpeggio alongside the Blues E Minor Scale, but I’ll probably end up adding some acoustic guitars to go along with the Moon Guitar in the verse.
I’ve written how to play along to a click track before on my other site, Traveling Guitarist, but what I’ll say again is that you need to use a metronome to record instruments. Either a metronome or a click track. If you don’t know how to plug in your guitar to your computer, you can check out this video here. It’s for Garageband, but it’ll work for any other DAW, including FL Studio and Logic.
I also added a guitar solo using Blue Cat Audio’s Axiom and my PRS SE Custom 24 (from zZounds). Besides the Axiom from Blue Cat Audio (which goes for the best price on Plugin Boutique), I would use something like Guitar Rig 6 Pro from Native Instruments.
Right now, other than using my actual amp/cab combo mic’d with a Shure SM57, I would use either the Axiom or Guitar Rig Pro 6 which seems to have the best effects I’ve seen thus far. If you’re into FX, Guitar Rig 6 Pro (from Native Instruments’ website) is where it’s at.
8) Add the Bass-Line
As you can see here, the bass line in this track is only 5 notes, and frankly, I think this just might be one of the best bass lines I’ve ever made. It complements the song perfectly and it sounds great.
The short note at the beginning of the phrase created a jumpy-funk-type vibe to the track, whereas the triple notes in a row were created to go along with the kick. As I’ve said in my bass and 808 tutorials, the bass and kick work together in what seems like all of modern music. They just mesh well together.
This means that, in many cases, you may be able to create a bass line simply by adding notes that hit right when the kick goes off. As for the pitch, just outline the chords or use another note from the scale, ie, E Minor. Also, you’ll notice how in that last image, I used another short note right at the end which functions as a portamento slide.
You can learn how to do that in my sliding 808s tutorial. The long and short of creating 808 glides in Garageband is to just go to Plugin Boutique and get Initial Audio’s 808 Studio Synth plugin. This is the one I always use, however, DAWs like FL Studio and Logic Pro X have this capability by default, I believe.
9) Arrange the Song to Create Musical Diversity and Flavor
Like many of the topics I’ve brushed on here, how you could go about arranging the song extends far beyond anything that I’ve written in this tutorial, but I’ll show you just a few things that I did to this track in particular. One involves the intro.
- Adding a totally different instrument but with the same progression to introduce the song.
For this, I used the Spitfire Audio Labs’ Strings “Short” preset and then I just used the same chords. Also, I used another shaker instrument to go along with the introduction. I found this worked really nicely and it just diversified the song.
- Adding a Different Drum Pattern During Different Parts of the Song
For the chorus, there are a lot more ride notes and they’re fairly low in velocity (which means they’re just played with a light touch). When it comes to adding overheads these days, I use my AKAI MPD 226 (from Amazon) which is great for creating a realistic-sounding drum pattern. This is because you don’t hit all of the notes with the same velocity.
For the verse, you can see right away that there are a lot more notes closer to the bottom of the piano roll. Those are very gently played hi-hats that are also opening and closing. They’re played so gently that they almost sound like shakers but they’re not.
The pattern pictured above is precisely how you get that opening and closing sound of the hi-hats that you hear in music. I’ve written more about how to imitate popular drum patterns in my guide on how to create drums.
- Omitting the Main Progression to Build Tension
It’s fairly self-explanatory but worth mentioning that just by omitting certain instruments for a short period of time, you can create a lot of tension and drama in your music. I do this kind of thing all of the time in my music because of how well it works and how easy it is.
- Creating an Outro
For the finale of the song, I just used the exact same drum pattern as I did for the beginning but then I use the shaker that I used at the start and then omitted for the rest of the track, and I also used the strings again. I believe there is a term for this songwriting technique but I couldn’t tell you what it is.
- A Fade Out on the Master Track
Probably one of the most common ways to close out a track is to fade out. As I’m sitting here writing this, I almost feel like it’s one of those things I should stop doing because it’s so standard. Regardless, it’s easy to do and it sounds good. How you do it is you just click Click > Create Volume Fadeout in the toolbar.
But wrapping things up, that’s how you make a piano beat in your DAW. The long and short of it is that you just want to lay down your piano melody and progression over a simple hip-hop beat, add some 808s, and you’ve got your foundation set up.
Can You Make Rap Beats With A Piano?
When it comes to music, there is no limit to what you can and can’t do. Using instruments that normally “don’t belong” in a particular genre is how entire genres are made. The piano is one of the most versatile instruments and for that reason, you could absolutely use it in a hip-hop or rap beat.
Important Things to Note About Making a Piano Beat
1) There Are Many Ways to Make a Song
This is a tutorial that’s meant to give you some ideas and help get you started. It’s not meant to be taken as “this is the only way to make a piano beat,” so keep that in mind.
2) Learn Simple Tricks Like Chord Inversions to Spice Up Your Creations
Like I said in my article on the best way to learn piano for music production, PianoForAll is particularly good at teaching the piano and music theory in a way that’s accessible and also immediately applicable to your music. Chord inversions and other concepts are just one of many principles that you’ll learn to apply to your songs, and it goes for a surprisingly good price on their site.