Wednesday, December 27, 2006

How To Tell What Major Key A Song Is In Quickly & Easily

Key signatures are a type of musical notation that indicate which key the song is to be played in. But key signatures, despite the name, are not the same thing as key. Key signatures are simply notational devices; just as a note is the notational name for a pitch, key signatures are the notational names for keys. It is what it says it is: a signature, a simple piece of information that tips you off to the physical form (the key) to be played.

What does it mean to be "in the key of F", or "in the key of Bb"?

It means that the composer based the composition on the scale of F (which has 1 flat in it), or the scale of Bb (which has 2 flats in it).

Key signatures appear right after the clef (before the time signature) and show a sharp or flat on the line or space corresponding to the note to be altered. Key signatures placed at the beginning of songs will carry through the entire song, unless other key signatures are noted after a double bar, canceling out the first. For instance, it's entirely possible to start a song in the key of F but end it in the key of E flat; it all depends on the key signatures and where they're placed throughout the song (a key signature can change at any point). Accidentals can also show up throughout a song and only once or twice flatten or sharpen a note that was not previously indicated; this cancels out the key signatures, as well, but only temporarily, for as long as the accidental lasts.

Beginners just learning to read music often have a hard time with key signatures because the key itself is not expressly written, and it's sometimes difficult to remember what goes where.
Key signatures with five flats or sharps have been known to terrorize new musicians -- how in the world, they think, are we supposed to remember all these note changes while we're playing the song? It's obviously possible, though, and there are some rules that can help beginners identify and remember the key as it relates to the key signatures, rules that go beyond rote memorization. If there is more than one flat, the key is the note on the second to last flat. If there are any sharps at all, the key is a half step up from the last one noted. F major, a key frequently found in beginning sheet music, only has one flat (B), and C major has no sharps or flats at all. Key signatures, when viewed in light of these rules, are much easier for beginners to digest, ensuring that a proper knowledge of key signatures is on its way through the door.
One fact that most people don't realize is that sharps and flats always occur in the same order:

The order of the flats is B, E, A, D, G, C, F.

The order of the sharps is just the opposite -- F, C, G, D, A, E, B.

So if there is one flat in the key signature, it is always B. If there are two flats in the key signature, they are always B and E. Three flats are always B, E, and A. Four flats in a key signature spell the word BEAD. And so on.

It's the same in sharps, too, except backward. If there is one sharp in a key signature, it is always F. Two sharps in a key signature are always F and C. Three are F, C, and G. And so on.
So once you have memorized the order of the flats, all you have to do is apply the rule mentioned earlier: the next to the last flat is the name of the key. For example, if you have four flats in a key signature, they are Bb, Eb, Ab, Db. The last flat is D, so the next to the last flat is A. So the key is Ab.

With sharps, just mentally go up 1/2 step from the last sharp, and that is the key. For example, if a key has 4 sharps, they are F#, C#, G#, D#. One-half step above D# is E, so the key is E.
Memorize the order of the flats and sharps and those two simple rules, and you'll be able to identify what major key any song is in quickly and easily. (Minor keys are just as easy, but beyond the scope of this article.)
Week 22 - "How To Find The Key of a Song When There Are Flats In The Key Signature"
Week 23 - "How To Find The Key of a Song When There Are Sharps In The Key Signature"

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

How To Color Without Crayons: Adding Color Tones To a Chord

How To Color Without Crayons: Adding Color Tones To a Chord

Adding color tones to a chord is like adding colors to a black and white drawing; it adds depth and dimension and well as bringing it to life.

There is a time and place, of course, for "black and white" music, just as there is in art. And many times as a musician I choose to use shades of grey to color my improvisations on the piano, just as an artist uses light and dark to create the feeling and mood of the sketch.

But there are also times when adding a splash of color can do wonders for your piano playing (or guitar or electronic keyboard or organ or whatever). These musical colors create nuances of texture and feeling that are just not available using shades of grey.

So what colors are available from your musical palate? And how do we blend them in to the existing framework of a song?

I'm glad you asked, because you will be astounded at the number of combinations or color tones that can be blended together into any given chord.

First, though, lets review what a basic black and white chord is made of. Every basic triad is composed of 3 notes: a root (the lowest note of the chord), a 3rd, and a 5th.

A major triad consists of a root, then the 3rd note of the major scale, then the 5th note of a major scale. For example in the key of C the major triad is C, E, and G. In the key of D the major triad is D, F#, and A. Why the F#? Because in the scale of D F# is the 3rd degree. So in the key of Db the major triad is Db, F, and Ab. Why the Ab? Because it is the 5th note in the scale of Db.
A minor triad consists of a root, a 3rd lowered one-half step, and a 5th of the major scale. So instead of E as the 3rd of the chord we use Eb. In the key of D, instead of F# being the 3rd we use F, since it is 1/2 step lower than F#.
An augmented triad consists of a root, a 3rd, and a 5th raised one-half step. So the C augmented triad would be C, E, and G#.
A diminished triad consists of a root, a 3rd lowered one-half step, and a 5th lowered one-half step. So the C diminished triad would be C, Eb, and Gb.

Those are the "black and white" chords: no color, but appropriate in most instances.
But when you want to add a flair of creativity to your playing, here is the color palate you have to work with:

2nds: the 2nd note of a major scale.
6ths: the 6th note of a major scale.
major 7ths: the 7th note of a major scale.
7ths: (also known as dominant 7ths): the lowered 7th of a major scale.
9ths: the 9th note of the major scale (same as the 2nd note except an octave higher). If you're wondering why the 9th is not just called the 2nd, it's because the 9th is combined with other color tones, whereas the 2nd is not.
Flat 9ths: the 9th note of a major scale lowered one-half step.
11ths: the 11th note of a major scale (same as the 4th except an octave higher).
Sharp 11th: the 11th note of a major scale raised one-half step.
13th: the 13th note of a major scale (same as the 6th, except an octave higher).

So you can add a 6th to a major or minor triad to create a brighter sound. You can add a major 7th to a major or minor or diminished triad to create another kind of sound. You can add a 7th (dominant 7th) to a major, minor, diminished, or augmented chord to create another kind of sound. Or you can add a 7th along with a 6th; or a 9th along with a major 7th; or a 9th along with a 7th; or an 11th along with a 9th and a 7th; or a 13th along with an 11th and a 9th and a 7th.

And on and on. We could go on combining color tones until the cows come home, but the best way for you to learn what's possible is to just dig in and experiment. You'll find many, many exciting combinations you can use in various musical situations that will brighten your song and add a rainbow of colors to your creative improvisations.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Inversions: How To Stand a Chord On Its' Head

Many people get all confused when chords are turned upside down. They recognize them when they are in root position, but when you stand them on their head...well, it gets kind of fuzzy for folks.

That's understandable. We grow up playing chords in root position, which means that the name of the chord is on the bottom, with the other two notes an interval of a 3rd above each other. (E is a 3rd above C, and G is a 3rd above E). For example, when we play the C chord in root position, C is the lowest note in the chord, so it seems obvious that it is the C chord.

But when we see the C chord with E on the bottom, or G on the bottom, it's not so obvious, partly because the chord is no longer a stack of 3rds.

Chords upside down are called "inversions".

Here's the deal:

Every 3 note chord (called a "triad" -- trio -- tricycle -- meaning "3") can be played in 3 different positions -- inversions:

Root position = The name of the chord is the bottom note
1st inversion = The name of the chord is the top note
2nd inversion = The name of the chord is the middle note

So when C is the lowest note of the C chord, it is called "root position". When C is the top note of the C chord, it is called "1st inversion". And when C is the middle note of the C chord, it is called "2nd inversion".

So a root position triad (a triad is a 3-note chord) is a stack of 3rds; actually, a minor 3rd on top of a major 3rd. A first inversion triad is a stack with an interval of a 3rd on the bottom and a 4th on top. A second inversion triad is a stack with an interval of a 4th on the bottom and a 3rd on top.

So what?

Here's what: Each inversion has it's own sound, so you can get a variety of sounds by using one inversion and then another. Each inversion also has its own feel, so some pianists find it easier to use a particular inversion than others, particularly to move smoothly from chord to chord.
So what happens when there are more than 3 notes in a chord, as in a 6th chord or a 7th chord?
Same deal -- it's just that now there are 4 positions of the chord instead of 3 as in a triad; root position, 1st inversion, 2nd inversion, and 3rd inversion. That gives the pianist lots of choices for voicing and fingering.

There's no law, either, that a pianist has to use all the notes of a given chord. If I want a more open sound, I might leave out the 5th of a 4-note chord, and just use the root, 3rd, and whatever the other note is -- 6th, 7th, major 7th, 9th, or whatever.

For example, I might voice a C7 chord with E on the bottom, skip the G, then include the Bb and C. Or I might play it as an arpeggio (broken chord) by playing a low root an octave lower, then play the 5th, then the 3rd an octave higher, and then come back to the Bb.

The choices are almost infinite, and the more complex the chord, the more exciting voicing choices there are.

So don't settle for just one position of a chord -- stand it on it's head and experiment with all the luscious choices for voicing it to create a sound all your own.
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