On Air Now
Smooth Classics at Seven with Zeb Soanes 7pm - 10pm
3 December 2020, 17:12 | Updated: 21 January 2022, 16:50
One of today’s biggest pop stars is a jazz piano major, with perfect pitch and a passion for a certain Romantic piano legend. Here’s all you need to know about Charlie Puth’s musical background.
“Jazz music is really cool and relaxing,” once said pop star, Charlie Puth. “I like doing all kinds of improvisation and stuff.”
It’s a pretty great revelation, coming from one of today’s biggest chart-toppers. But before transitioning into the mainstream, Charlie Puth – who’s had hits with Meghan Trainor, Selena Gomez and Wiz Khalifa – was a piano major with jazz ambitions.
Charlie Puth grew up with music. His mother Debra, who worked as a music teacher, got him interested in classical music and started teaching him piano from aged four.
But by the age of 10, Puth’s head turned to a new genre after hearing the recordings of American jazz piano legend, Bill Evans.
“I grew so obsessed with becoming the best jazz pianist ever,” he tells Grammy. “I was like, ‘OK, pop music, is cool but I want to focus on jazz’.”
Puth joined a summer youth jazz ensemble at 12, and at the end of his primary school years, he went door-to-door selling a Christmas album he had recorded and produced. He made $600 from sales – pretty impressive for an 11-year-old boy making music in his bedroom.
During his high school years, the young prodigy attended the Manhattan School of Music Pre-College as a jazz piano major and classical studies minor.
In 2013, he graduated from the prestigious Berklee College of Music, whose star alumni include Lord of the Rings composer Howard Shore and legendary record producer Quincy Jones, where he majored in music production and engineering.
Puth has previously attested to the similar chord progressions found in jazz and pop repertoire. “Whoah, there’s a lot of similarities with jazz and pop music and no one even knows, especially in R&B,” he said.
Even with his pop career launched and in full flow, Puth continues to jam on the piano and often posts videos of his improvisations to Instagram. He’s got a great natural rhythm and feel for the music, often playing around with some really beautiful chord progressions.
Jazz pianist and harmony expert, Charles Cornell, even did a whole video on his channel dedicated to reviewing Puth’s improv videos. “You can tell a lot about a player’s feel, simply from how they play an eighth or quarter note. And this is really sick,” he says.
He does! Puth said he developed the rare skill – to recognise and produce any given note, on cue – around four years old.
Talking on The Tonight Show starring Jimmy Fallon, Puth hilariously recalled the time he was suspended from school for faking the sound of their fire alarm, whose pitch and timbre he had perfectly memorised.
Puth has also been open about how he was bullied at school for his musical ear, telling The Independent: “I found out that I had something 0.5 per cent of the population has, a type of perfect pitch, where I can hear notes and play them back right away.
“It was mostly verbal, like name-calling and such, the verbal stuff was massive amounts of discouragement like, ‘how could you remotely think you could make it in this industry?’, but I didn’t listen, because I knew I was pretty dope.”
The music video for Puth’s pop hit ‘One Call Away’ – which has more than 500 million streams on Spotify, no less – begins with the singer playing one of Russian composer Sergei Rachmaninov’s most famous works, the Prelude in C sharp minor.
It’s an advanced piece, mainly for the thick textures and quickfire notes, and is generally placed around Grade 8 or above.
Story has it, the Prelude was so popular that it was referred to as just that – ‘The Prelude’. Audiences would demand it as an encore at the end of Rachmaninov’s concerts, to the point that the composer grew sick of it and wished “many many, times… I had never written it.”
Charlie Puth fans, as soon as gigs are back on… you know what to do.