Monday, September 29, 2008

Piano Notes: The Alphabet of Music

Piano notes, or notes played on a piano, are deceptively simple little things. They are the alphabet of music. All told, there's only twelve of them in a diatonic scale, a fact which makes the whole concept sound much less complicated than it really is. Even the term piano notes itself is often misused; while it's usually meant to refer to the actual pitch, the term piano notes technically only applies to the written notation of a pitch and not the actual sound. Then there are the issues of rhythms, scales, accidentals, octaves -- the whole thing can get very complicated, very fast.

Piano notes are named after the first seven letters of the English alphabet and keep that name regardless of the octave; on a typical 88 key piano, these notes are represented by the white keys. But since the diatonic scale has twelve notes and not seven, some of these can be altered. To get the extra five notes, we can sharpen (raise a half-step) or flatten (lower a half-step) some notes; these piano notes are the black keys. Not every note can be sharpened or flattened, however. Since C is only a half-step away from B, B cannot be sharpened and C cannot be flattened. Likewise, E is only a half-step away from F; therefore, F cannot be flattened and E cannot be sharpened (there are, of course, some exceptions to this depending on the key signature).

The rhythmic aspect of piano notes are based on their duration, creating a series of piano notes all differing in type and value. Whole piano notes are four beats and represented by a hollow oval with no stem. Half piano notes are two beats, or half of a whole, and represented by a hollow oval with a stem. Quarter piano notes represent a fourth of a whole note, eighth piano notes an eight, sixteenth notes and sixteenth and so on as far as 128th piano notes (which are rarely used). It's also important to mention that piano notes can be altered by adding a dot after the written note. Dotted piano notes indicate that the note's value is that of the original note plus one half. Dotted half piano notes, for instance, are worth three beats and dotted quarter piano notes are worth one and a half.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Music Courses

Music courses are a great way to learn about virtually any area of music; history, theory, instrument instruction -- you name it and somewhere music courses specialize in it. Though generally found through colleges, universities or high school programs, music courses are also offered via one-on-one instruction with a private teacher or community-based workshops. Some churches even offer music courses as a complement to their choirs; the music courses may be offered to the general public, but they're often geared toward the choir members and congregation.

Music courses offered by colleges are generally far more in-depth than other music courses and are usually only available to degree-seeking students (though some colleges offer music courses as part of their continuing education programs). Lower level college music courses often focus on an amalgamation of music theory and history, teaching individual theory concepts based on the historical period to which they are particular. As the music courses grow in skill level so too does the number of specialized topics. Advanced music courses are available for nearly every historical music period and are sometimes based on one particular movement. Advanced music courses for theory grow increasingly more difficult and slowly teach every detail found in modern music theory; it's during the theory music courses that students intending to major in music have their skills challenged the most -- some even refer to these music courses as a weeding out period.  The photo to the left and above is a young me in front of the Westlake College of Modern Music, a school for jazz musicians right on Sunset Blvd. in Hollywood.

Instrument-based music courses are equally as tough at the college level, though they usually assume a working knowledge of the instrument before the class begins. Those wishing to learn an instrument, therefore, are better off with private music courses or music courses offered by a community orchestra or social group. These music courses will focus on the basic details of learning an instrument, starting from the very beginning. Fingering, theory and music reading will be covered, in addition to the occasional bit of history. Students of these music courses may then wish to move on to college-level music courses after completing a few years of private instruction.

Friday, September 26, 2008

What does it really mean to "play by ear?"

To play by ear is to learn a piece of music (or, by extension, an instrument) by simply hearing it over and over again. A number of musicians, many of them self-taught, began their music education in this manner; it's often an invaluable way to learn the mechanics of song and chord structure. Ever sat down at a piano and picked out "Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star"? Or what about grabbing a guitar and suddenly stumbling into the opening licks of Deep Purple's "Smoke on the Water" or Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit"? If you have, you can play by ear. It's an unbelievably common practice, even among non-musicians who just peck around at an instrument if it happens to be in the room. Even classically trained musicians that have spent their lives learning to read music are sometimes encouraged to play by ear; it's a technique that hones that inherent musical sense found in so many thriving musicians.

A great number of self-taught musicians started their training by learning to play by ear. Instead of picking up a book or taking lessons, they just slowly picked out the chords of a song until the entire thing was mastered. Then they moved on to another song. And another. Gradually, they learned their instrument just by their ability to play by ear; each song presented a new chord or a new technique to figure out and conquer. It's a method used mostly by popular musicians, particularly rock musicians who learned the nuances of composition and performance simply by knowing how to play by ear.

Though classical musicians are generally educated based on tons of music theory and sight reading, some methods tout the benefits of knowing how to play by ear. The Suzuki method of musical training, for instance, espouses the idea that learning music is the same as learning a language; it's acquired by years of hearing it coupled with formal training. Just like we pick up our language by listening to our parents and subsequently attending school, the Suzuki method teaches young children to play by ear before they begin formal training. The Suzuki school of thought on learning how to play by ear has proven to be fairly effective, but it is sometimes considered harmful as the children progress in their education; to play by ear at such an early age (and long before formal training) has the potential to damage the child's ability to actually read music instead of just picking out the notes or melodies.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

What is a "Chord Substitution?"

A Chord substitution is precisely what the name implies: the substitution of one chord for another during a chord progression. It's a technique often found in jazz music (but other genres, as well) used to add a little extra pizzazz to a piece of music. Chord substitutions contribute to the element of surprise; it keeps the progressions from becoming predictable, without compromising the overall tone of the piece. Instead of playing a constant, consistent G chord, for instance, musicians will sometimes use chord substitutions to replace that G with a G6 or Gmaj7, depending on the song and the effect desired. Chord substitutions are a great way to add a kick to an otherwise monotonous progression.

There are many things to consider when working with chord substitutions. First of all, chord substitutions will be especially easy when the two chords share a number of common notes. C major, for example, can be easily substituted with A minor because both of these chords contain a C and E. But it isn't just enough to share common notes; the common notes in chord substitutions are best received when they drive the chord. The first two notes of a chord (including the root) are what give a chord its defining characteristics. If chord substitutions contain these notes in an insignificant place, the substituted chord won't be as interchangeable. Let's consider C major and A minor again. These chord substitutions works because the two common notes, C and E, are the two most important notes within the C major chord. The root note, C, shifts in these chord substitutions, but it is still present enough to keep the chord's essential quality. But it's important to mention here that, rules and regulations aside, chord substitutions are really in the eye of the beholder; if you think it works and like the sound the chord substitutions have created, feel free to explore it. There's no rule in chord substitutions (or music, for that matter) that can't be broken.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

What does the word "Melody" refer to in music?

The melody is the tune of a song or piece of music. It is the part you whistle or hum – the part that carries the words, if there are any.
Melody is possibly the most stigmatized concept in music theory. For something to be melodic, many people believe that it needs to be slow and pretty; it's a word that carries a heavy connotation. Melody (at least the current version of the word) is beautiful, and anything that deviates from that is simply not melodic. Strictly speaking, however, melody has nothing to do with beauty or abrasiveness. Melody is just a series of notes or pitches played in succession, notes that can be heard as a whole. Simply sitting down at a piano and banging out a couple of notes does not a melody make. A melody needs to be heard as a single entity in order to be considered a melody. And even the most dissonant of musical phrases is still a melody if it fits that requirement.
The modern idea of melody differs from that of early western classical. Melody is heavily used in rock and pop music, and those genres usually base a song on one or two melodies only: the verse and the chorus. Of course, there are some subtle deviations along the way, but a catchy, radio-friendly pop song will repeat the same melody over and over to make it memorable for the listeners. Early western classical music didn't have the same concern with airplay and demographics, so a strictly repeated melody wasn't the norm. This type of music used melody to introduce a theme, moving on to vary that theme in several different ways. The basic melody was still there, but it had the potential to became nearly unrecognizable as it shifted and changed. The sonata form is a stunning example of this concept of theme and melody restatement.
Melody is also extremely important to jazz musicians, especially those that specialize in improvisation. Though there are several types of improvisation, melody is frequently used as the song's base. Improvisers will set a pre-determined melody and allow the lead instrument to jump forward from that melody. It creates a wonderfully rich piece of music that shows how quickly (and interestingly) a melody can evolve.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Is there a difference between keyboard chords & piano chords?


Keyboard chords are chord played on a piano or any other keyboard-based instrument, such as a synthesizer or digital piano. The differences between keyboard chords and chords of other kinds are minimal; in fact, the only real distinguishing factor is the instrument on which they are played. By virtue, keyboard chords are exactly the same as guitar chords. The keyboard may be played differently than the guitar, but the basic chord formation remains the same.

Keyboard chords, like all other chords, consist of three or more notes played together. The notes don't necessarily need to be played at the exact same time, however. Broken keyboard chords, or arpeggios, are three or more notes that are staggered as opposed to simultaneous; as long as the notes are close enough to be heard as a whole they're still considered keyboard chords.

The names given to keyboard chords are based on either note number or interval type. Keyboard chords classified by note number are given names like trichord (three notes), tetrachord (five notes) or hexachord (six notes). Keyboard chords named by interval type are given names such as tertian (keyboard chords based on a third), secundal (keyboard chords based on a second) or quartal (keyboard chords based on a fourth). It's also possible to name keyboard chords based on both qualities; for example, tertian trichords are keyboard chords consisting of three notes a third above each other. These type of keyboard chords are extremely common, often a staple of rock and pop music.

Keyboard chords are extremely versatile and can be altered in a number of ways. Lowering the pitch by a half-step produces diminished keyboard chords (notated by the abbreviation "dim"); likewise, raising the pitch by a half-stop creates augmented keyboard chords (notated by "aug"). Inverted keyboard chords carry a bass note other than the root, and seventh keyboard chords are those that add to the triad a note that is a third above the chord's fifth. Extended keyboard chords are variations on seventh chords, created by adding notes that go beyond the seventh interval into a ninth, eleventh or thirteenth.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Improvisation: How To Color Without Crayons

Improvisation -- Coloring Without Crayons

Improvisation (also known as improvising) is the act of making something up as you go along -- an act with which we all have a little experience. Remember playing House or Doctor as a child, letting the game go wherever your mind would take you? That was improvisation. No rules, no boundaries, just the limitless potential of your imagination.

Similarly, musical improvisation is the act of writing a song while performing it, a technique found most often in jazz and bluegrass (but can be traced back to renowned classical improvisers like Handel and Bach). Of course, it's a little more complicated than an imaginative children's game. Though improvisation is a highly creative and flexible technique, it requires great skill on the part of the musician. A musician involved in an improvisation must have a detailed knowledge of chord structure and complicated scales and modes. The musician must also have an intuitive ability to structure a song on the fly; great improvisation thrives on its ability to sound not improvised but rather wholly composed. That illusion, the ability of a song to seem anything but spontaneously made up, is part of improvisation's allure.

There are two basic forms of improvisation: structured improvisation and free improvisation. Structured improvisation, though a contradiction in terms, is the most common of the two. In this form, musicians will use a pre-determined series of chord changes, usually held down by the rhythm section, as the song's base. The lead instruments in the improvisation (also pre-determined) then have the freedom to create new melodies and harmonies from these pre-determined chords. The flexibility of this improvisation form is dependent on the flexibility of the chord changes, and the musicians involved must be able to play exactly what they hear in their heads, as some complicated changes may not allow for large deviations.

Free improvisation, on the other hand, is far more like a game of House or Doctor -- it has no rules. Instead of focusing on harmony or melody, free improvisation focuses on the feeling and texture of the music and the way the instruments complement each other. This form tends to be far more experimental and rarely adheres to one style or genre or music -- it is, quite simply, what it is. Notable musicians who play free improvisation include Conny Bauer, Evan Parker and Hans Reichel.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

How many notes does it take to make a chord?

One note played at a time is termed a unison; two notes together form an interval; three or more notes form a chord.

Chords are at the very crux of music theory -- or music alone, for that matter. Chords are three or more notes (or pitch classes; strictly speaking, notes are the written form of pitches) played together. But these notes don't necessarily have to be played simultaneously. Broken chords, or arpeggios, are three or more notes that aren't played at the same time but closely enough to be heard as a group or whole. And even the three-note rule is open to exception. Power chords, frequently used in rock music, consist of only two notes, but they still function as chords because they work, diatonically, in the same way that a major or minor chord would.

Chords are most often named based on their number of notes or the type of intervals involved. Chords classified by note number are given names such as trichord (three notes), tetrachord (five notes), and hexachord (six notes). Chords classified by interval are given names such as tertian (third chords), secundal (second chords), and quartal (fourth chords). Sometimes chords are named based on both qualities. Tertian trichords, for example, are chords with three notes, each a third above each other. These type of chords are actually the most common in western music, found frequently in rock and pop.

These chords aren't the only chords possible, however. There are several specialized chord types that seem to defy strict categorization. Inverted chords are created by adding a bass note that is not the root note. Seventh chords can be made by adding a fourth to a triad -- a third above the chord's fifth -- which makes the highest note a seventh from the root. Extended chords are those with notes that extend above a seventh, such as a ninth or an eleventh. But it's important to mention that no extended chord can go above a thirteenth. By that point, the notes included will have already been played somewhere in the chord, taking it back down to an eleventh or thirteenth.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

What's the Difference Between a Regular Piano & an Electric Piano?

An electric piano (also known as an electronic piano) is an electronic, keyboard-based instrument made to sound like a piano; in fact, the instrument was created to provide musicians with a more portable version of the hefty upright or grand pianos. The sound of an electric piano, however, is not an exact replica. All versions of electric piano carry their own unique sound, which has made many of them extremely sought after (even though some types are extremely rare). An electric piano falls somewhere between an acoustic piano and an organ, but defies the sound properties of both. While it carries the same basic features as a piano -- full 88 key keyboard, various pedals and weighted keys -- the sound is more comparable to an organ than to any type of piano. An electric piano is actually a rudimentary, un-evolved version of the modern digital piano -- it was created with the same concepts of portability and function in mind -- but it's hardly seen in that light. Like many rudimentary, vintage things, the electric piano has only grown in popularity with its age; the electric piano, like early video game systems, is now a cherished and highly used piece of pop culture.

The term electric piano isn't always used in this specific a fashion, however. Often, electric piano describes the more modern digital pianos or synthesizers; it has similarities to both. Like a digital piano, an electric piano focuses on portability and piano-like qualities. It includes pedals and weighted keys, two very piano-like elements, and strives to create the same vibrant sound. And like a synthesizer, it is strikingly electronic and easily distinguishable from any type of acoustic instrument. But unlike either the digital piano or synthesizer, the electric piano produces a very rich, vivid sound. Audiophiles sometimes cite the electric piano as the best-sounding electronic instrument ever made; it maintains it's electronic qualities without sounding tinny or canned, like some modern electronic instruments. For that reason, it is often used where an electronic element doesn't need to be overwhelming; the electric piano makes its electronic point without compromising the richness of the ensemble.

Friday, September 19, 2008

What are the functions of "rests?"

Rests are musical notations that mark a fixed period of silence. The silence, or open space, in a piece of music is equally important to the placement of the notes. A system of carefully placed rests has the ability to make or break a song and to completely alter the its mood or theme. The types of rests and their values mirror that of the notes they are replacing and can be used in a multitude of ways.
Multi-measure rests last for several measures. They are marked as whole rests with the number of silent measures noted above them. Multi-measure rests are typically only used when the piece requires more than eight whole rests in a row.
Four-measure rests last for four measures and are occasionally marked as multi-measure rests. Though it is generally considered more correct to use a multi-measure rest with only eight rested measures, it's not at all uncommon to find four-measure rests marked as such.
Double-whole rests (or breve rests) last twice as long as a whole note. They are represented by a black vertical rectangle between the second and third lines of a musical staff.
Whole rests (or semibreve rests) represent one whole note. This is usually meant as four beats, but whole rests are often used in 3/4 time as well. In this case, whole rests represent a whole measure as opposed to a whole note. They are notated as a black horizontal rectangle under the second line from the top of a staff.
Half rests (or minim rests) are half as long as a whole note. They are represented by a black horizontal rectangle above the third line from the top of a staff.
Quarter rests (or crochet rests) last for a quarter of a whole note. Their notation is the most distinctive and commonly used; it's a nearly indescribable curvy line stretching over the staff's middle three lines.
Rests continue to be notated up to one sixty-fourth of a whole note and can also have their value shifted by placing a dot next to the notation. Dotted rests last the length of the original rest, plus one half. For example, dotted half rests last three beats and dotted quarter rests last one and one-half beats.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

What is "Composing?"

In the simplest terms possible, composing is the act of writing a song. Composing is the most vital part of music, and while most musicians are able to read the music written by a composer, few actually believe themselves to be proficient in composing. It's a tricky form, especially when a composer is given the task of composing for an entire orchestra or band as opposed to simply one instrument, such as individual piano or cello compositions.

Strictly speaking, the terms composing and songwriting are completely interchangeable. They do, after all, mean exactly the same thing: writing a song, or a part of a song, from start to finish. But the words' connotations are radically different. While songwriting is an informal practice, confined mostly to the popular musical genres, composing is the province of the classical musician. Those interested in composing must not only be able to perfectly read music, they must be able to notate it equally as well. Songwriting, while a valuable form in its own right, is rarely used as a means to write down music for others to read; those writing the songs are frequently writing for themselves or for others to whom they can simply play the song. Composing, on the other hand, is usually intended for an individual other than the composer -- and for widespread consumption, at that. Great compositions will migrate from orchestra to orchestra, eliminating the possibility of the person composing the music to physically play the song for other musicians.

Composing often requires formal training (though it in no way has to; several great composers have had no formal training at all) and many would-be composers attend music school for years prior to the start of their careers. A music school focused on composing will educate its students in massive amounts of music theory as well as individual instruments. Most composing students are encouraged, if not required, to study and proficiently play more than one or two instruments aside from piano, which is a given.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

The Rewards Of Practicing Piano Playing

Playing piano is one of the most rewarding activities in existence -- and also one of the most difficult. Regardless of whether you aspire to be the next prodigy or just want to bang out a few family favorites at the next reunion, playing piano at the most rudimentary level is a time-consuming and sometimes frustrating task. And playing piano well -- well, that takes hours of endless practice and whole mountain ranges full of discipline. But the hard work is worth it in the end; the pay off is an amazing new skill that will last a lifetime.
Most students start piano lessons enthusiasticly and can't wait for the next lesson. But after a few months the trill wears off as the reality of daily practice sinks in. Most of us found practicing boring -- I certainly did until my goals were re-ignited by an opportunity to play in a group. The sooner a student can participate in playing in some public forum, the better, whether it is playing in Sunday School or at school or for a musical group or for friends -- whatever. It's important to put what you've learned into action as soon as possible to make those long boring days of practice pay off.

Playing piano, of course, is an art. And like any art, it can be learned in a multitude of ways. Some begin playing piano by picking up a book of sheet music and hammering it out in front of the keyboard for months on end. These people, however, generally have some working knowledge of music to begin with; playing piano will be slightly easier for them because they already understand the mechanics involved in the practice.

But for those who have never sat on a piano bench or set foot on a pedal, playing piano will usually start with lessons. Well-planned lessons taught by an experienced and knowledgeable instructor can set even those completely new to music on the road to playing piano. The lessons will cover a wide range of topics, usually starting with fingering and posture; knowing where on the keys to put your fingers and how to hold your hands is the first step to playing piano. Next comes the music theory basics. Playing piano, after all, can hardly be done without an understanding of notes, rhythms and chords. It's here that the reading of music will be introduced; instructors will start a student off with basic pieces in easy key signatures to allow them a feel for how the techniques work. As the student begins to show more proficiency in playing piano the pieces will get harder. This takes times, however. Playing piano well (and at an advanced level) doesn't happen overnight, and it's common for a student not to attempt advanced pieces until years after they've begun playing piano. But like anything else, hard work pays off, and the rewards of playing the piano can be huge.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

The Vital Importance of Piano Instruction

Proper piano instruction is an element extremely vital to learning the instrument well. Though it's very possible to be a self-taught piano player, piano instruction can really increase the speed and efficiency with which one learns the instrument. That's not to say that great piano instruction makes great piano players overnight; even the most naturally talented pianists still play for years before they consider themselves advanced. But proper piano instruction will make maximize those years to the fullest and ensure that the student is learning the correct techniques.

Though teaching styles always vary from instructor to instructor, piano instruction generally covers the same basic areas: fingering, music theory, music reading and sight reading. The early lessons will cover fingering and posture, making sure the student knows how to hold his or her hands and where to put them on the keys; series of scales practiced repeatedly will be the basis of this area. Piano instruction will then move on to music theory essentials, starting with the basics of notes and chord structure and moving forward to advanced concepts in rhythm, tempo and dynamics.

Many of these concepts are introduced into the piano instruction while the student is learning to read music, a practice that runs through the entire course of the piano instruction. Teachers will assign short, easy pieces to kick start the student's music reading knowledge and eventually move forward to more advanced pieces. Sight reading, the ability to play a piece of music without ever having seen it, is sometimes placed sporadically throughout the piano instruction, after a student is fairly well-versed in reading music. All of the elements of piano instruction eventually begin to work hand in hand. Once the very early basics are covered, the advanced concepts are taught through practice of a separate concept in piano instruction; theory aids in the knowledge of reading, which in turn aids in the knowledge of both theory and sight reading. Piano instruction then becomes an intricate web of gaining bits of detailed knowledge without realizing that it's being gained.

Monday, September 15, 2008

What is "Rhythm and Blues?"

Rhythm and blues, influenced by jazz and gospel music, is often credited as being the originator of modern pop music; it has heavily influenced both rock and hip-hop music, two of the biggest music markets today. It came into popularity in America in the 1950s, just prior to rock and roll's thriving inception, and overlapped with the very popular jazz music of the time. As rock and roll grew in America, so did rhythm and blues; rock and roll fans often listened to rhythm and blues, just as rhythm and blues fans sometimes latched on to rock on roll.

Rhythm and blues hit big in the UK in the 1960s, as well; however, the distinction between rock and roll and rhythm and blues was far more pronounced. The UK rhythm and blues scene (which eventually morphed into soul) was largely embraced by a scene of mostly teenagers known as mods. These rhythm and blues fans differed greatly from the rockers, who listened only to rock and roll and held rhythm and blues (and the mods that went with it) in high disdain. The social dysfunction between these two groups caused large problems within the combined music scenes of rhythm and blues and rock and roll; the characteristic tension is documented in "Quadrophenia," a fictional movie depicting fairly non-fictional situations.

As decades passed and rhythm and blues grew in popularity in the United States and abroad, it shifted shapes and became known as simply R&B, a slower, more melodic version of the original rhythm and blues form that is often seen as the modern counterpart to hip-hop.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

What is a Piano Concerto?

A piano concerto is a type of classical composition that features the piano accompanied by a group of instruments used to produce a full backing sound. The instrument group in a piano concerto is usually an orchestra (though smaller ensembles aren't at all uncommon), and the piano concerto is almost always written in sonata form. The best known examples of the piano concert are from the baroque and classical eras when Bach and Mozart, respectively, specialized in the form; it's important to note, however, that Bach's piano concertos were adapted to the piano only after the harpsichord fell out of favor.

Many, many piano performances are comprised of a piano concerto; it's a wonderfully melodic, magnetic form of composition made even more compelling by the orchestral accompaniment. But even though the orchestra is much larger than a singular pianist, the piano is truly the star of a piano concerto. The orchestra's music is composed carefully to showcase the instrument and makes the piano sound fuller and richer as a result.

As the piano concerto is written in sonata form, the piece usually contains three movements -- though these will often shift and change to reflect less of the sonata form on which they were based. The first movement of a piano concerto is the shortest part; it's upbeat and energetic, grabbing the listener with the first note. The second movement of a piano concerto is far slower, often with the orchestra dropping back to give the piano's melodies a fair amount of space. The last movement of a piano concerto returns to a dynamic similar to that of the first movement, sometimes larger; at times the third movement will re-introduce the original melody of the piano concerto, but it is by no means rote for the form.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

What Are "Piano Tabs?"

Piano tabs, strictly speaking, are a form of sheet music that notates the music by showing where the fingers are to be placed instead of the notes themselves; the form is also known as tablature and is frequently used for guitar, as well. Technically, there is no such thing as piano tab. Tablature, though vast in its capabilities, is only intended for fretted string instruments, and while piano is certainly a string instrument, it isn't fretted. The term piano tab is actually used to refer to fingering charts (charts often used in instruction to aid in the correct placement of the fingers on the keys) or, most commonly, traditional sheet music.

Piano tab in terms of traditional sheet music is the written notation for a piece of music. It tells that musician what to play, for how long and in what sort of manner. Notes are dictated via a series of ovals, often stemmed, on a musical staff consisting of five lines and four spaces. Where the notes are located vertically on the staff indicates what pitch is to be played, and the note's physical appearance in the piano tab indicates its duration. Piano tab also includes other specifications like time signature (the song's meter), key signature (the key in which the song is played) and tempo (the speed at which the song is played).

Not all piano tab indicates the same things, however. Some piano tab, especially that found in jazz ensembles and popular music groups, is very limited, notating only the bare essentials of chord progression and tempo. In this case, piano tab is really just a quick reminder of what needs to be played; it certainly isn't relied on for the detailed nuance of the song. And some piano tab, often referred to as a score, is extremely detailed, including not only the piano parts, but the parts of every other instrument as well. This type of piano tab is intended mostly for conductors, though sometimes pianists use condensed versions as a guide to the overall melody.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Songwriting & Chord Progressions

At the very cornerstone of songwriting are chord progressions. They are, simply, chords played in sequential order. But chord progressions aren't as easy as just knocking out a few chords in a row. Chord progressions must somehow be tied together; in order to be a true chord progression, the chords must feel like a whole. Creating this entire entity can be achieved in a number of ways; a songwriter may link chords based by proximity or by common notes. Chord progressions might even be based on how absolutely different the chords are, it really doesn't matter. It's all based on the style and taste of an individual songwriter; the best songwriters can make strange, seemingly unrelated chords into viable chord progressions.

Chord progressions are based on a series of chord changes, and these changes form the basis for the melody to be formed. Chord progressions are the harmonic backbone of a song, and they often dictate the song's tone and mood. Modern music tends to frequently base chord progressions out of the first, fourth, and fifth degrees of the scale; in C major, this would be C, F, and G. Of course, these chord progressions can be varied in a number of ways (chord substitution allows heavily for that), but these basic chord progressions tend to be the framework for a decent portion of modern music -- especially rock and pop.

There are no specific rules governing chord progressions, but modern rock and pop music seems to thrive on the most minimal amount. The early days of both rock and punk music were full of songs with only three chords in the chord progressions and only a few minor substitutions. Because punk music was the province of those shunning an overwhelming knowledge of music theory, these simple chord progressions could have been the result of an inability to play much else. But simple chord progressions survived that period and moved through to musicians who have been classically trained; this has everything to do with the catchiness of simple chord progressions. A three or four chord progression gives freedom for the melodies to be explored to far degrees and allows the listener to remember the chord progressions very easily. If the chord progressions are memorable, they tend to be repeated over and over again, creating a unmistakable catchiness. And that catchiness is what has made simple chord progressions the most desirable form in modern rock and pop.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Music Notes & How They Work

Notes are the musical notation representing a fixed pitch. While the word strictly refers to the physical notation of a pitch, it's more commonly used to refer to both the pitch and the notation. When we're trying to figure out a piece of music, we rarely ask which pitches are being played; we always ask which notes are being played. But if we try to describe a song as having the same note in several places, we're technically wrong. Considering that each note is a separate notation, even if the pitch is the same, it's impossible to have the same note in several places.
Notes are named after the first seven letters in the alphabet -- A, B, C, D, E, F, and G -- and keep the same letter value regardless of the octave. But since there are twelve notes in a diatonic scale, the seven notes can be altered. To get the extra five notes, we sharp (raise by a half-step) and flat (lower by a half-step).

The types of notes and their values are based on the amount of time they take up in a song.
Whole notes (or breve notes) are four beats, which is equal to one measure in 4/4 time. They are represented by a hollow, oval note with no stem.
Half notes (or minim notes) are half of a whole note, or two beats. They are written as a hollow note with a stem that points up when placed below the middle of the staff, up when placed above it.
Quarter notes (or crochet notes) represent a quarter of a whole note, or one beat in 4/4 time. They are the most recognizable note: a solid black note with a stem.
Eighth notes (or quaver notes) are one-eighth of a whole note and are written exactly like a quarter note, but with a flag attached to the stem. When more than one eighth note is placed side by side, a solid beam connects the adjacent notes.
Sixteenth notes (or demiquaver notes) are one-sixteenth of a whole note and represented as an eighth note with two flags or two solid beams.
Thirty-second and sixty-fourth notes represent the section of a whole note indicated by their names; they are drawn as eighth or sixteenth notes with an additional flags.
It's also important to mention that a note's value can be changed by adding a dot. Dotted notes represent the value of the original note, plus one half. For instance, dotted half notes are held for three beats, dotted quarter notes for a beat and one half, and so on.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Are Guitar Chords Different Than Piano Chords?

More than one person has asked me this question: "What's the difference between piano chords and guitar chords?"
The answer is: none. But that doesn't mean a piano player could go to the guitar an automatically know where a given chord is found -- a fretboard is laid out differently than a keyboard. And the tone quality is certainly different. But as for the chords themselves, there is no difference.
Guitar chords, chords played specifically on a guitar, differ only from other types of chords by virtue of instrument; they're simply a series of three or more notes played together. These notes don't necessarily have to be played simultaneously, however. Broken chords (also referred to as arpeggios) are three or more notes that aren't played at the same time but closely enough to still be heard as a group or whole. And even the three-note rule is open to the occasional exception; some guitar chords consist of only two notes, but they still function as chords because they work diatonically in the same way that a major or minor chord would.

Guitar chords might very well be the most important element of guitar playing; after all, they're the basis of what makes a song. Most people picking up a guitar for the first time figure out a few guitar chords before even going for their first lesson, and still more teach themselves guitar chords without any help from an instructor. Self-taught guitarists learn guitar chords in a number of ways. Some learn by listening to their favorite songs and slowly picking out the notes, a common yet often frustrating process. Others figure out guitar chords by learning to read guitar tab, a type of sheet music intended for fretted instruments that uses a graph-like chart to show where on the frets the fingers are placed. Both techniques are common among those learning guitar chords, though the number of self-taught guitarists who never learned to read tab is fairly high.

Just like any other instrument, the sheer number of possible guitar chords can often be overwhelming for a new guitarist. And even the frequently taught guitar chords are beginning to fall by the wayside, making room for a variety of guitar chords created by tuning the strings in almost innumerous ways. Though power chords (guitar chords using a base note, an octave note and the fifth) are still the most common type of guitar chords, new bands are increasingly experimenting with alternate tunings to create new sounds; alternative bands such as Sonic Youth have been toying with this way of playing interesting guitar chords for decades.

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Songwriters Who Sing Their Own Songs

The singer-songwriter is a modern popular music phenomenon. The term's meaning is fairly implicit; a singer-songwriter is a musician who not only performs but also writes the music that they are performing. Though the act of writing your own material is somewhat par for the course in modern popular, rock and country music, the term evolved in a time when singers and performers, not songwriters, ruled the day. As the presence of performers who composed their songs became more and more common, the term singer-songwriter switched to refer to a specific style of music, one that is often associated with folk or country traditions.

Though a Latin tradition had started years before, the American singer-songwriter appeared in the late 60s and early 70s. It was a style bred out of necessity in a tumultuous time; songwriters typically shied away from writing about touchy, political topics, and the many folk artists, including Carole King, Bob Dylan and James Taylor, felt the need for an alternate view to be expressed. Additionally, these singer-songwriter artists (many of whom had been writing for other musicians) desperately wanted to perform their own material instead of handing it over to someone else destined for its glory. It took awhile, but record labels eventually latched on to the singer-songwriter influx, understanding its impact on both the public and the industry.

As time passed and the war ended, the folksy singer-songwriter tradition seemed to slow considerably, but the mark had been made; artists attracted to the singer-songwriter trend began writing and performing their music, forcing self-composition into the limelight as an industry standard. And even though nearly every rock band could be considered a group built of the singer-songwriter, the term stayed firmly rooted within the folk tradition; the label itself didn't re-emerge until the mid-90s, when a wave of female singer-songwriter artists such as Indigo Girls, Sarah McLachlan and Suzanne Vega revived the original form. It has since branched slightly out of the folk scene, encompassing such rock-influenced singer-songwriter artists as Bright Eyes and Dashboard Confessional.

Monday, September 08, 2008

Songwriting Is More Than Writing a Song

Songwriting is, in it's most basic definition, the act of writing a song (obviously).

But the word doesn't even have to apply to that specifically; the term songwriting is often used to describe the writing of individual song parts, such as the guitar or vocal melodies. Strictly speaking, songwriting and composing are interchangeable words. They do, after all, denote the exact same thing. But the connotation here is radically different. While composing is seen as the province of classical musicians who actually record their compositions onto sheet music, songwriting is far more informal, the work of rock, pop, folk or country musicians who may take some notes, but generally commit everything they've written to memory.

The actual act of songwriting varies from musician to musician. Some say that solo musicians have the easiest time of songwriting, writing whatever they want without having to clear it with a band or partner. But solo musicians also carry the burden of songwriting wholly on themselves. When they lack inspiration for a certain part or harmony, they don't necessarily have someone to fix the songwriting block for them. Musicians songwriting as part of a group, however, are given the luxury of using their band-mates as a sounding board.

In many band situations, no one person is responsible for all the material; someone will write a part, which is then elaborated on by the others. For instance, a guitarist may come to band rehearsal with a solid verse and chorus. The drummer may then write a series of parts based on the guitarist's part, the bass will write based on the drums, and keyboards or other instruments will write based on that core grouping. Vocal melodies are frequently the province of the vocalist alone, and while every musician has some say in what the other musicians are playing, the songwriting from instrument to instrument is largely the decision of the individual musicians. There are no strict rules to songwriting; whatever works for the musicians in question becomes the norm.

Saturday, September 06, 2008

Mp3’s – The Future of Music?

Mp3 music is audio that has been digitally encoded and compressed to make the amount of data smaller without compromising the overall sound quality. It's a revolutionary technique with incredibly good results; mp3 music is frequently indistinguishable from music found on a CD (though some audiophiles with very sensitive ears dispute that statement). The popularity of mp3 music made available on the Internet is a trend reaching gigantic proportions; these encoded songs are everywhere. Websites called mp3 blogs offer rare or hard-to-find mp3 music and avid fans sometimes spend hours at a time sifting through the piles of downloadable material. Newer recording artists that would often fall under the radar without the help of a well-known label are now able to convert their songs into mp3 music and make them available on the Internet, allowing huge numbers of people the chance to hear songs that they otherwise wouldn't have been exposed to. It's an extremely popular thing, mp3 music, one of those rare pop-culture phenomena embraced by nearly everyone.
But regardless of its massive popularity, mp3 music is surrounded with controversy. Many programs that allow users to transfer mp3 music directly from computer to computer offer the services for free, eliminating the possibility of royalties for the artist and label. Fearful of losing tons of money to fans downloading records instead of buying them, large factions of the music industry fought to make free mp3 music illegal -- and succeeded to a degree. The laws, however, have loopholes, and many websites or P2P programs have exploited them for all they're worth. Additionally, laws regulating mp3 music in the United States aren't necessarily applicable to other countries, so new websites and programs (particularly, for some reason, in Russia) have popped up offering the free services railed against in America. Because of the hotly argued ethical issues surrounding mp3 music, many shy away from the topic (and practice) completely. Others embrace it, citing huge record costs as justification enough for free mp3 music. It's an argument not likely to end anytime soon; the ethical issues will be debated as long as free mp3 music is available somewhere.

Friday, September 05, 2008

What exactly is a "rhumba"?

The rhumba is a Cuban style of dance and music with strong African roots; it's very percussive and rhythmic, similar in many ways to a bossa nova. But the modern rhumba, the Americanized rhumba we recognize today, has undergone several radical changes from the African version brought to Cuba via the slave trade. The African rhumba, noted in the 16th century, is highly sexual and aggressive. The music is energetic, fast, staccato; it mimics the aggressiveness found within the dance. The staccato beats are very exaggerated, as exaggerated as the movements that go with them, and the instrumentation is mostly percussion.

The Cuban rhumba, first discovered in the 18th century, is far less aggressive than the African form. It's slightly slower and retains its intimacy without being quite as overtly sexual. The general consensus of the time was that the African rhumba, popular in its own right, was far too raunchy. It embodied a blatant sexuality that many people found to be indecent. The dance itself, however, had so many popular characteristics that to let the form die completely would be almost unthinkable. Instead, the African rhumba was toned down into a more subtle form and given some Latin elements particular to the area.

But that wasn't the last we'd see of the highly sexualized rhumba. Strangely enough, the form was given back some of its aggressiveness upon its arrival to the United States during Prohibition. This was a time when cabarets ruled the day and indecency among these circles (though certainly not in the mainstream) was almost encouraged. The rhumba became a common part of cabaret acts, though it was changed slightly to adapt to the stage. Of course, the cabaret rhumba still wasn't as overtly sexual as the African rhumba, but it fit somewhere neatly in between the African and Cuban versions.

Eventually the cabaret rhumba evolved into the modern rhumba, the ballroom dance still danced and played today. This version of the rhumba was toned way down from the African and cabaret versions (even from the Cuban rhumba) and danced slightly faster than usual. This version of the rhumba focused more on the romantic and intimate than the sexual and quickly became known as the dance of love.

Thursday, September 04, 2008

Music Books Galore!

It's truly astounding, the sheer variety of music books on the market today. They are music books covering every historical and modern composer, both musically and biographically. Whole genres are described in 500 pages or more, musical movements detailed to their very core. Individual popular artists with authorized and unauthorized biographies; musicology; lyrical analysis; how to start a band, join a band, manage a band, destroy a band -- it's all covered in the pages of thousands and thousands of music books. And that doesn't even crack the crème brulee of music books filled with sheet music and theory and various lessons. College bookstores are stacked to the walls with these kinds of music books and elementary schools all over the country rely on the basic forms to teach children the basics of music

Those instructional music books are by far the most common type, though they're usually found in educational bookstores as opposed to your local bookseller's shop (or even one of the virtual book mega-malls). The basis of the lessons in music books vary greatly; that, of course, is beauty of them. Some music books will be filled with solely sheet music; though you'll most frequently see these type of music books for piano, they come intended for nearly every instrument imaginable. Music books of this sort are usually divided into volumes based on skill level and frequently used for individual instrument lessons.

Other types of instructional music books, usually those used in required music classes, will contain a combination of sheet music and other lessons, such as theory and history. For instance, music books used in elementary schools will sometimes have a section based on a particular musical genre, such as American spirituals or rock & roll; this section in the music books will contain a brief history of the genre, the rhythmic or thematic elements of the genre and a short excerpt of sheet music (usually vocal) to be played by the students. These music books function as an early primer for young students, teaching them a wide array of various genres and forms.

For piano books online a good source is Top Piano Books

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

What is an "orchestra"? Is it the same as a band?

The orchestra is perhaps the most recognizable figure within the classical music genre; it's an instrumental ensemble that plays classical music and its many off-shoots. A counterpart of the orchestra, the symphony orchestra, is a variation of the ensemble that plays only symphonies -- although in more modern times, the term symphony orchestra refers to any large orchestra, even one that isn't exclusively symphonic. At any rate, the orchestra is an integral part of any local music community, one that provides endless entertainment (and even employment) for those most interested in the form.

The basic difference between an orchestra and a band is the instrumentation - a band almost never has stringed instruments such as violins, violas, and cellos. It often, however, has either an upright bass or an electric bass. And a band typically plays music that is "less classical" than an orchestra. Many bands play mostly marches, while other bands play pop and jazz oriented music.

An orchestra is comprised of four instrument groups: strings, which feature violins and cellos; brass, which features French horns, trumpets and trombones; woodwinds, which features flutes, clarinets and bassoons; and percussion, which features any number of drums (including snare, bass and timpani) in addition to the piano or sometimes harpsichord. The number of individual musicians within an orchestra depends largely on the orchestra in question, its location and its type. An orchestra in a large city will often require a large number of employed musicians (the orchestra is, after all, a full-time job) of which only a fraction will play at any given performance; an orchestra as such will sometimes have 80 or 90 musicians on the payroll with only 40 or so seats for performance. It's not uncommon for an orchestra to keep several musicians on hand that aren't necessarily regular members of the orchestra; sometimes a special instrument not found within the roster will be required for a piece, in which case the orchestra will call on one of their in-the-wings musicians. Additionally, some larger cities will feel the need to include more than one orchestra in the area, all with different names; it is here that a symphony orchestra and an orchestra will utilize the name difference without any real style switch.

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

What possible good are piano recitals?

When I was taking piano lessons as a small child, I used to dread piano recitals at the end of each school year. And I imagine most kids feel about the same. But there is some long-range benefits to participating in recitals as well which really won't be fully appreciated until one is an adult and has some perspective.

I remember one particular recital when I was about in the 4th or 5th grade. I played something very simple like "Swans on the Lake" or some such, and another boy of the same age I didn't know at the time played "Kitten on the Keys" -- a uptempo, jazzy piece with lots of notes -- much more advanced than my little piece. It wasn't his fault, of course, but I felt absolutely humiliated and wanted to quit piano lessons immediately.

I'm sure glad that wiser heads prevailed (my Mom and Dad), because in high school this kid and I became best friends and played in the same combo -- he on tenor sax and me on piano. By then I could play circles around him (on piano, not sax!) simply because I had learned chords and also learned how to improvise. And our friendship has lasted up to this present time.

A piano recital is just another name for a piano performance; the term is typically associated with amateurs or non-professionals, but that is not always the case. But regardless of skill level, whether the pianist is a professional or an amateur, a piano recital can be a harrowing, nerve-wracking experience. It requires months of practice and a certain level of confidence to showcase your abilities in front of an audience, and that pressure has a way of wearing on even the most seasoned piano recital performers. With proper preparation and plenty of time, however, those pre-piano recital jitters can be kicked right out of the room; it just takes a little dedication.

Having a helpful teacher is definitely beneficial to piano recital preparations. But if you don't have access to large amounts of help, a few important steps can get you through the piano recital preparations on your own. The first step, obviously, is to pick the music for the piano recital. It's best to pick a piece that hasn't been done to death, something that will surprise and enlighten the audience. That being said, it's also important to choose a piece within your skill level; the goal here is to put on a great piano recital, not to struggle with an overly advanced piece.

After you've chosen your piano recital music, locate a recording of the composition or several different performances if you can find them. Listen to how other musicians play the piece, tune in the subtleties, the texture. But don't use this as a tool for copying; one you're well into practices for the piano recital, put the recordings away.

The next (and most important) step in the piano recital preparations is to begin practicing as early as possible. Know the piece like the back of your hand, don't let any surprises come up the night of the piano recital. In the early stages of practice, get in the habit of memorizing the material and taping what you've worked on for the day. You can later use those tapes to give you an objective view of your piano recital, to hear if you're making any critical mistakes.

Monday, September 01, 2008

What is a "Musical Tritone"?

The prefix "tri" refers of course to a group of three, as in trinity, tricyle, triathelon and so forth. A musical tritone is an interval of three whole tones (whole steps) or six half tones (half steps). Simply put, a tritone is an augmented fourth or diminished fifth, depending on the key. A tritone is typically created by adding an accidental, but it's found naturally on the fourth and seventh degrees of any scale. In a C major scale, for instance, the tritone would be found by playing the F and B simultaneously.
Tritones are significant because of their ability to create a heavy, uncomfortable dissonance. It's so uncomfortable, in fact, that it has been referred to as the devil's interval and was strongly discouraged during the Baroque period -- a time when the pleasing sound of perfect fifths ruled the day. But despite its rather nasty stigma, the tritone has the power to be pleasing and even somewhat consonant when used correctly. Because it's one of the most moody and easily personified intervals, the tritone is frequently used to foreshadow a heavy resolution.
Additionally, the tritone is helpful to jazz musicians who employ a technique called "tritone substitution." This substitution is possible by playing a dominant seventh chord that uses a root a tritone away from the original dominant seventh. Because the interval pitches are the same, the chords become interchangeable, thus giving the musician a bit more freedom to explore possibly melodies and harmonies during an improvisation.
Jazz isn't the only type of modern music to use the tritone, however. Though it was frowned upon in the early ages of western music, dissonance is far more acceptable today; in some cases, it's even what draws an audience to a certain piece of music. The tritone can be found in nearly every area of modern rock and pop, but it's exploited most often in heavy metal music that prides itself on sounding eerie or evil. Metallica and Black Sabbath have used the tritone to wondrous effect, and one of Jimi Hendrix's most famous songs, "Purple Haze," is based almost entirely around the dissonant chord. The well-known 17-minute song "Inna Gadda Di Vida," by psychedelic rockers Iron Butterfly, also used the tritone during an extended keyboard solo as a way to break the glory of a series of perfect fifths. It's a good thing they weren't around during the Baroque period.
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