Song tutorials are a dime a dozen these days, but not every “tutorial” really helps you learn. Maybe that’s why people keep making more and more of them. 🤔 When I teach a song, it’s never just to teach a song: I want my students to learn my 5-step song-learning process. That way they don’t just have one song memorized, they have a system they can apply for the rest of their lives.

That’s what I’m teaching in this post and video, using “When I Was Your Man” by Bruno Mars as our example.

Why This Song?

There’s no one perfect song to practice with, and everyone has different tastes. But as it happens, I kind of picked this song out of jealousy. My wife got to meet Bruno Mars a few years back, but since she was on a work trip in Houston I didn’t get to be there and meet him too. Not only did he and his band say hello, they ended up giving an impromptu performance on the instruments in the lounge. I can’t believe I missed it!

The next best thing is to play a Bruno Mars song for myself. After all, we can’t always go to every concert or meet every amazing musician that we admire. But we can enjoy a little bit of that experience with our own interpretation, every time we play their music.

Who is This Tutorial For?

While all my resources are beginner-friendly, some are more beginner-friendly than others. 😉 This tutorial is going to be most helpful if you already know how to find basic chords like majors and minors, as well as know some of the basic improvisation tools I teach. (Not sure how to learn those skills? Start here.)

So whether youré going through my Piano In 21 Days program, or you’ve been following my YouTube channel for while, or you just plain know this stuff already… this is going to be a fairly easy process for you. Let’s go through it together.

Step 1: Find the Chords

Remember, we are not using sheet music here. The faster, simpler way is chord charts, so that’s what we’ll use. More specifically, guitar chord charts. Don’t worry, the fact that they’re written for guitar does not mean you can’t use them for piano.

Go to your search engine of choice and type in the name of the song, plus “chords.” In this case, look for “when I was your man chords.”

This will almost always give you several good chord chart choices. I typically pick the best result a.k.a. the one at the top. It’s usually from a site called Ultimate Guitar, which is a great resource my students and I use often.

That top result brings me to a page where the song lyrics, chords, and some other basic information is listed. Right off the back, we can see that this song is in the key of C, and there is no transposing. That means the song is played in C and has no further alterations needed there. C is a common and easy key to play in, which is great. Moving along!

At the top of most chord charts, you’ll see a list of the chords used in the song. Look at those to see what chords you’ll encounter. If you know how to play all of them already, awesome! If not, take a little time to find the chord formula or learn the specific chords you need. Ultimate Guitar does have a piano feature if you need a little cheat sheet, but I don’t use that and I don’t recommend you rely on that. It’s better to use chord formulas wherever you can. 😉

Looking Over the Song

Now scroll down and take a look at the whole song. Note where the verses, choruses, and other elements of the song are. Notice where the chord changes occur (they’re listed over the lyrics).

In this song we have D7, D minor, C, G/B, A minor, G major, G7, Em/B, E minor, B♭, C/G, F, and F minor. Whew!

That’s a lot of chords, there usually aren’t that many in one song. So while we’re in a relatively easy key to play in (C major), the number of chord transitions make it a little more complicated. Again, if you are completely new to this then I recommend you start here.

If you are already familiar with major and minor chord types but just need a refresher on the other chords in this song, check out these links:

Okay, now take a look at the chord chart again and briefly make sure you can play each chord there.

Step 2: Listen to the Song

Now that you have the chords pulled up and fairly fresh in your mind, it’s time to listen to the song. You can play it on YouTube, stream on Apple or Spotify, whatever you prefer. But don’t just listen to it.

Read along with the lyrics and chords on the chord chart, noting where you hear the transitions in the song itself and how they correspond to what you’re seeing on the page.

This serves multiple purposes:

  • Training your ear to hear chord changes
  • Preparing you for playing along with the right chords
  • Identifying any errors in the chord chart (advanced)
    • Sometimes there are errors in chord notation due to human error. Listening and reading along can help you notice if something doesn’t sound or look right. You can always choose a different chord notation version if needed.

Listen and read through the song simultaneously, as many times as you need to. Some people listen again and again, some don’t. Do whatever is most helpful for you. The most important thing is to hear and understand where the chord changes are. 😉

Step 3: Play the Basic Version

This is the part where you start playing along! Keep it simple: as you continue to listen to the song, simply begin to play the basic versions of each chord as you come to them. Try to stay on rhythm, but other than that just focus on getting those chord transitions down.

Follow along until you can confidently play each chord where it belongs and move to the next each time it’s appropriate. It might take a little practice, but you’ll get it!

Step 4: Spice it Up

If you’ve got those basic chord changes and rhythm down pat, it’s time to start spicing things up! This is where we add in our improvisation tools. (If you need an overview of those tools, check out this video.)

Play along with the song, but this time don’t just stick to the basic chords. You can use any improv tools that you like or feel fit the song. And it’s okay to experiment! Whether you’re using arpeggios, different rhythm patterns, the Annie rollover, or anything else, give some different combinations a try.

Step 5: Break Free

Now that you have practiced the basic version of the song and added your own flourishes with improvisation, you can break free. What does that mean?

Well, for starters: turn off the original song. You can still play with a metronome or backing track if you need to. But without the artist’s version of the song, you’re going to be able to play it by yourself and really make it your own.

No need to stop looking at the chord chart though – I never recommend memorizing the chords unless that is something you prefer or enjoy. I tend to refer to chord notation even for songs I’m familiar with, and I even keep a binder with printed song chords so that I can bring it with me if needed!

So, breaking free doesn’t mean memorizing everything. But it does mean moving forward on your own without the music. After a bit of practice, you can also sing along if you want.

Wrapping Up

At this point, you’ve worked your way through the 5-step song-learning process and have a new Bruno Mars song that you’re able to play. Remember, this is a journey and you do not have to achieve perfection on your first try, or your fifteenth try. Relax, do your best, and take as many breaks as you need.

This song-learning process is what I teach throughout my Piano In 21 Days course, and it’s worked for thousands of students already! If you’re interested in learning more, sign up here. Whether it’s from Bruno Mars or something completely different, I can’t wait to hear what song you work on next. 😉