Beginners Guide to Runs and Fills on the Piano

Introduction: Beginners Guide to Runs and Fills on the Piano

One of the best ways to add texture and a sense of depth to your piano playing is by adding in runs and/or fills into the music - that isn't on the page. These are things that you just add in on your own!

We hear singers do this all the time when their voices go up really high and include a lot of consecutive notes that flow up and down. They sound like "extra notes" which makes sense because they are extra notes. Singers add these to the original framework of the song that they are singing according to their own personal preferences and technical knowledge and ability. Pianists do this all the time too!

Today's lesson will teach you what exactly "runs" and "fills" are, what you already need to know in your own piano playing to be able to play them, and how to be able to play them quickly.

Always equate the saying "extra notes" with fills and runs...that's what they are. This means that they are not included in the original composition that you are playing. You add them in after you have learned the piece and want to inject some of your own decorations and expression to add to the beauty and emotion of the piece.

There are some important things that you need to already know to be able to use fills and runs in your piano playing correctly. Let's see what they are in the next step and see what you might need to review before trying this new technique on your own.

Step 1: What You Need to Know First

First, you want to make sure that you know your major and minor triads. Much of what you will be adding in with fills and runs will be chords and arpeggios, so the better you know your chords, the easier adding them in will be.

  • Remember that triads are simply 3 note chords.
  • It is helpful too, to know your augmented and diminished chords in the major and minor keys.

The next thing you need to know is Chord Tones - which are simply the notes in each chord.

  • Chord Tones can be mixed with nonchord tones once you really learn the notes in all of your chords.
  • Knowing the chord tones tells you exactly what notes you can use for any fills and runs that you are playing along with a specific chord. Nonchord tones would be notes that are not in the original chord, but still sound good or add whatever element you are looking for in the sound.

Key Signatures are the next thing that you really want to have down before trying to add fills or runs. You don't have to necessarily have to know all of your key signatures to get started with fills and runs, but the more of them that you know, the more elaborate you can be with your creating. You'll have more options.

  • You have to play notes that match the key signature of the piece and the chords for any fills and runs.
  • Learn the key signature for your major and minor keys.

The final thing that you need to be familiar with is...Extended Chords. Whenever we add a note to a triad, we extend the chord. A common example of this is the 7th chord which is created by adding in the 7th chord tone to a triad. There are many different types of extended chords and you can actually add in as many chord tones that you like in your fills and runs. Their effect on the sound if your fills and runs will be more dramatic and express more the feeling that you're trying to achieve.

Now let's find out how to play your first run on the piano and just exactly where you would add them to your music.

Step 2: Where to Use Runs and Fills in Piano Music

There are a few things you need to gather from the piece that you're playing before you can start adding more notes.

Check the key signature of the piece. Make sure that you know it well and play a scale in that same key signature for 2-3 octaves just a few times to help you connect with all the notes. (In this lesson my example is "Silent Night" which I'll play in the video at the end of this lesson). This piece is in the Key of G...so play the G scale (remembering your F#) up and down a couple of octaves.

In image #2, I have circled all of the long notes...and in this case, these notes are all dotted half notes. These are exactly the places that you can and would want to add extra notes or fills and runs. Always look for extended notes like this for your fills.

Playing the scale helps you to see exactly where the notes in this key are and will help you when it's time to start playing chord tones, instead of each note consecutively. Why is this important? Because you aren't going to play every note of the scale in your fill-run...you're going to pick just a few notes out of the scale to play. (You really don't have time to play the whole scale in tempo usually).

In our example here, since we're in the key of G we're going to pick the G Major Triad notes (G, B & D) as our 3 notes and we're going to repeat that triad 2-3 times going up the keyboard. Just play them for that one measure though, as the main melody comes back in the next measure. Then, you would play the fill again at the next extended note or dotted half note. Once you are comfortable playing those 3 notes in the triad, you can also add an extra note to the original 3; creating a 4 note chord/arpeggio instead of a 3 note one.

You will hear what both of these chords sound like in the video at the end of this lesson...which will really help understand the concept and how to play them.

Let's now take a look at some other ways that you can play fills and runs in your playing. But try out this one first in a few different pieces so you can get more comfortable doing this...once you get over any challenges with the beginning part of this, you'll be on your way to doing it quite naturally!

Step 3: Other Ways to Play Runs and Fills

When you are experienced in using fills and runs in your piano playing you will find that there are many many different ways that you can create the sound you want to have my just mixing up things a bit in terms of how you play your notes.

  • Try playing the notes in a different order...start at the top, or in the middle, or repeat a note. It's really up to you!
  • Mix up the groupings of the notes. This means that instead of playing your fill notes individually you could opt to group some of them together and keep some of them separate.
  • Don't forget rhythm! It's not just the notes that you can mix up and play around with...do that with the rhythm too.

Step 4: How to Play Runs and Fills Fast

Scales, scales, scales. :)

Oh..and your metronome!

Scales are "superfoods" for pianists. Learning our scales helps everything about our piano playing because everything that we play is... scales; just in a million different forms!

So learning our scales (major and minor) is the first part, and the second part is being able to play them fast. That's where the Maestro Metronome comes in to help us do that. We should challenge ourselves each day by playing our scales with the metronome faster than we did the day before.

Sadly, but honestly, this IS the only way to learn and rip your scales off like a pro. The good news is, that using the metronome works...AND you will end up coming to really depend on it and like how much a good helper it really is.

Don't grab your metronome just yet...but do get to your keyboard and let's go through all of this together at the piano!

Step 5: Come Practice With Me!

Ok...that was a lot of information.

  • You know now what fills and runs are - extra notes. (pretty simple!)
  • You know where to play them in your music...during long notes.
  • You also know what you need to be familiar with before you start trying to add extra notes to your music.
  • You know what you need to practice on and with, to be able to play fills and runs easily and quickly.

This video takes you through each of these steps with "Silent Night" as our example. I'll show you 3 and 4 note fills in this piece and even some extended chords so you can hear the different emotional effects that they produce.

By the time you finish both the written and visual parts of this lesson you will have played your first fill and then you're going to want to try it in another piece on your own...it's that much fun! Enjoy!

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