Thursday, October 23, 2008

How To Color On The Piano: Playing The Piano By "Ear"

Playing by ear is the ability to play a piece of music (or, eventually, learn an instrument) by simply listening to it repeatedly. The majority of self-taught musicians began their education this way; they picked up their instrument and began playing an easy melody from a well-known song, slowly picking out the notes as they went along. And even after these musicians master their instruments or a particular song, playing by ear still plays a large role. Many pop and rock bands don't play or write their songs based on sheet music, they figure the songs out by playing by ear. It's even common among non-musicians. Ever sit down a piano and mindlessly pick out the tune to "Mary Had a Little Lamb"? What about grabbing a guitar and suddenly finding yourself playing the opening licks to "Smoke on the Water"? That's playing by ear. You're able to play part of the song just because you've heard it so often.
Playing by ear is a valuable technique for many musicians; learning songs based solely on hearing them is a great way to understand song and chord structure. In fact, a great number of rock and pop musicians learned to play their instruments this way. Instead of picking up a book or taking lessons, they concentrated on figuring out the notes and rhythms to a song until it was mastered. Then they moved on to another song. And another. Gradually, they learned their instrument just by playing by ear -- and in the process learned how to effectively structure a song in that particular genre. Playing by ear is also beneficial in helping a musician develop his or her own style; sure, they'll at first mimic the style of the song they're imitating, but the amalgamation of the music that they're playing by ear will help them create something distinctive, something indicative of them only.
Though classical musicians are generally educated based on tons of music theory and sight reading, some methods rely on playing by ear. The Suzuki method of musical training, for instance, claims that learning music is the same as learning a language; it's acquired by years of hearing it, eventually coupled with formal training. Just like we pick up our language by listening to our parents and subsequently attending school, we can learn music by playing by ear and later taking formal lessons. The Suzuki method of playing by ear has proven to be fairly effective, but it is sometimes considered harmful as the children progress in their education; playing 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.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Musical Symbols: What do those Roman Numerals in music such as IV and V7 mean?

You don't see them much anymore except in music theory books. But Roman Numerals used to be used extensively to show what chord is being used in a piece of music, and what inversion of the chord is to be used. They were musical symbols, much like chord symbols are today.

Here is a chart showing the relationship of Roman numerals used in music to classical definitions:

I Tonic

V Dominant

IV Sub-Dominant

ii Super-Tonic

iii Mediant

vi Sub-Mediant

vii Sub-Tonic

And by the way, that is the order of likelihood as well -- the Tonic (I -- the home base of any key) is the most used and most likely chord in any key. The Dominant (V) is the next most used and most likely chord, followed by the Sub-Dominant. Those are the "Big 3" -- also known a the "primary chords" in any key.

After the primary chords, the next most used chord is the ii chord (notice the lower case Roman numerals -- that indicates that the chord in it's natural, organic state, is minor. Next comes the iii, followed by the vi, with the vii bringing up the rear.

Inversions are shown by an Arabic number following the Roman Numeral, such as  I 6/4 , or V 7, or IV 6.
Roman Numerals without an Arabic number following it would assumed to be root position chords. Those with an Arabic "6/4" would mean 2nd inversion of the chord, while an Arabic "6" following the Roman Numeral would indicate 1st inversion. A "7" after a Roman Numeral would mean to add a 7th to a chord.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

How Can I Train My Ear To Hear Intervals -- 2nds, 3rds, 6ths, etc?

An interval is the distance between any two notes, and in this course you are going to learn to hear 2nds, 3rds, 4ths, 5ths, 6ths, 7ths, 9ths, 11ths, 13ths, and of course octaves & unisons. You will also learn to recognize them in printed music quickly.
If you learn to "hear" an interval in your mind, and know what it is, then it is easy to reproduce that interval on the keyboard -- and that, of course, is what "playing by ear" is all about -- mental hearing and then reproducing what you hear on the keyboard. (This course is also excellent for singers and instrumentalists!)

Friday, October 17, 2008

Intervals: The Distance Between Any Two Notes

Intervals are deceptively easy little things. To define them, they sound extremely rudimentary: intervals are simply the distance between two notes or pitches. Play a note on your piano. Now play another one. The distance between those two notes is the interval. Upon closer inspection, however, we see that intervals are far more complex than that. There exist several different types of intervals, all of which can be altered in a number of ways, and understanding the nature of these changes is at the very core of a solid music theory education.
Intervals are defined or named by two characteristics: the interval's number and the interval's quality. The interval's number describes the number of staff positions that sit within the intervals: a first, a second, a third, etc. For example, the interval number for a C and an F would be a fourth because there are four notes between those two (including the C and the F themselves). Likewise, a C and an E would be a third, a C and a D would be a second, and so on.
The interval's quality is a bit more complicated. Interval quality describes the specific type of the intervals in addition to the number; intervals can be perfect, major, minor, augmented, or diminished. But not every interval can be of every quality. While all intervals can be augmented or diminished (by adding or subtracting a half step, respectively), only unisons, fourths, fifths and octaves can be perfect; a perfect fourth is five half steps, a perfect fifth is seven, and a perfect unison is zero (since a unison represents the same two notes). Similarly, only second, third, sixth, and seventh intervals can be major or minor; like augmenting or diminishing, this is achieved by adding or subtracting a half step from the intervals.
But be careful. Since major and minor intervals are created by altering the intervals by a half step, augmenting and diminishing works a little differently here. Instead of simply adding or subtracting a half step, augmented intervals (in this case) are a half step more than the interval's major, and diminished intervals are a half step less than the interval's minor. Let's consider third intervals, for example. Major third intervals are four half steps and minor third intervals are three; in a fourth interval, that half step down that creates the minor would create the diminished. But for these intervals we have to go a half step below that, making a diminished third two half steps (which actually creates major second intervals, but that's a story for another time).

Thursday, October 16, 2008

How Can I Make My Fingers Behave On The Keyboard? (Piano Fingering & Piano Technique)

It's one thing for you to know WHAT to do on the piano, but it's quite another thing for your hands to have the piano technique and the piano fingering to pull off what your mind instructs them to do. I might want to play a chromatic scale up and down two octaves, but without the technique & fingering to do it, I will think better of it and find some other solution. But you CAN train your hands and fingers so that they will be able to do what you tell them to do. Check out the CD course at "How To Make Your Hands Do What Your Brain Tells Them To Do"

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

What's The Difference Between An Acoustic Piano & A Digital Piano?

A digital piano is an electronic, keyboard-based instrument similar to a synthesizer but made to function more like a piano than any synthesizer does. A digital piano actually falls in category somewhere between synthesizers, which are made to produce extremely artificial sounds, and electronic pianos, which are made to be portable versions of pianos. A digital piano typically contains many piano-like features, such as full 88 key keyboards (though some are much smaller), a variety of different functioning pedals and weighted keys. But the sounds found on a digital piano vary from that of both an acoustic piano and a synthesizer. While a digital piano always includes a normal grand piano sound of some sort, it may also contain the sounds of other piano types, such as honky-tonk or upright. Additionally, a digital piano will often include sounds complementary to a piano, such as strings, brass and percussion.

What makes a digital piano sometimes more desirable than an acoustic piano (when it comes to popular music, at least) is the sheer number of features that enhance the experience of playing. For instance, one push of a button can transpose the entire keyboard on a digital piano to any key desired and middle C can be placed anywhere on the keyboard. Additionally, the keys on a digital piano can be adjusted to have as much or as little touch sensitivity as the pianist desires. A digital piano can also control a variety of audio functions, including sustain and delay, and be used as more of a synthesizer than a piano. And what's more, a digital piano can be programmed to play more than one sound when kitting a key or the keyboard can be split to put the bottom half at one sound and the top half at another. It's an extremely versatile instrument; a digital piano can be made by its user to sound exactly like a real piano or anything but.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Play That Honky-Tonk Piano!

Back several generations in the south there used to be "road houses", which were somewhat similar to nightclubs today, but much more wide-open in terms of the activities that took place in them. They were also sometimes known as "honky-tonks", and so the music that was played in them was naturally named after the establishment. Many of the early ragtime and jazz pianists got their start in road houses playing for dancing and for atmosphere.

Out of honky tonk - or at least contemporary with it - came boogie woogie, blues, and jazz. Perhaps the closest thing to that style of playing today would be Jerry Lee Lewis.
Honky-tonk piano is a very rhythmic, very rollicking style of piano playing most often associated with ragtime. The term itself comes from a name given to certain bars in the early 20th century; these were rough bars that often encouraged rowdy behavior and brought in self-made piano players to entertain the roughshod crowd. When honky-tonk piano first emerged, it seemed to be a musical representation of that type of behavior; honky-tonk piano was rowdy and rough, catering to working-class audiences who just wanted to dance and have a good time.

The honky-tonk piano style itself is extremely distinctive, enough so that a particular sound associated with it is included on modern digital keyboards. It's a slightly out-of-tune, twangy sound that reflects an old piano being played in an old bar. It's similar to ragtime; but unlike ragtime, honky-tonk piano is less concerned with overt melody and more with the percussive elements of the player. It was extremely rhythmic, extremely danceable and extremely popular among ragtime fans. And what's more, honky-tonk piano eventually went on to inspire a whole host of piano styles, including some branches of jazz and boogie-woogie; in some ways, the original honky-tonk piano was a precursor to the familiar walking bass found in a variety of musical styles.

Honky-tonk piano has since morphed into a style different from that of ragtime, a style sometimes associated with backwoods country music. It could have something to do with the honky-tonk piano's specific sound; the out-of-tune honky-tonk piano tone at times mimics the quality of instruments like banjos and fiddles, creating a great complement to the fast, vivacious music found on the front porches of southern homes. And honky-tonk piano even moved forward to influence many branches of modern country music, especially alternative country that relies heavily on rhythmic elements as opposed to melodic.

Thursday, October 09, 2008

What are those little short lines above and below the staff?

Leger lines (also written as ledger lines) are notation devices used to show notes that are too high or too low for the regular lines of a musical staff. A staff consists of five lines a four spaces, each of which correspond to a specific note. But notes that don't fall within those nine areas must go somewhere, so extra leger lines are drawn above or below the original staff to accommodate these notes. When learning to read music, young students often learn to recognize middle C early and quickly by its place on a leger line; it's represented by a leger line one place below E, which is the bottom line of a treble clef staff.
Leger lines are both extremely beneficiary and occasionally confusing, depending on the number of lines drawn. On the one hand, leger lines keep a piece of sheet music from jumping into different clefs for brief periods of time. Multiple clef changes can be difficult for musicians as each clef's staff represents notes differently. An F on a treble clef staff, for instance, is not an F on a bass clef staff. Leger lines help avoid this confusion by making extra space for high or low notes without having to incorporate constant and disorienting clef changes.
On the other hand, however, multiple leger lines can be too difficult to read. Notes located on three or four leger lines are usually engrained into a musician's sight-reading knowledge, but anything more than that can trip up the efficiency of a reading. It's difficult to smoothly read a piece of music while trying to count leger lines and figure out a very high or very low note. In these situations, a clef change is absolutely necessary. Still, it's the composer's choice whether or not to use leger lines here. If he or she is confident that those reading the music will be able to decipher it, leger lines may be used uniformly without a clef change, even if a clef change would be theoretically correct.

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

What does "metre" mean in terms of musical rhythm?

Metre divides music into measures of beats that are stressed or unstressed, accented or unaccented. These measures are what a song is made of; think of them as rhythmic building blocks, building blocks that have been built by metre. Using divided sections like these helps to define exactly what part of the metre is to be accented and adds structure and organization to a song. But these building blocks can't outshine the metre itself; measures may be the bookshelf, but metre is the books that fill it. It is, simply, rhythm. Beats. The backbone of a song that, without it, would be messy and chaotic (exempting, of course, some experimental music that strives to be so).

The metre of a song is indicated by that song's time signature; metre is the physical form of that notation. Just as a note is the written form of a pitch, time signature is the written form of metre. It gives us the specifics of a metre, but doesn't replace it. Understanding how time signatures function in the way that they do is the very basis of metre.
A song's metre is understood by two elements: how many beats are in one measure and what type of note constitutes one beat. A 4/4 metre, for instance, has four beats per each measure with the quarter note making up one beat. A 3/4 metre has three beats per measure with the quarter note making up the beat. A 6/8 metre isn't read like this, however; it has two beats per measure with a dotted quarter note making up the beat. This type of metre, the kind shown by a time signature with a top number of six or higher that is divisible by three, are compound and found by dividing the top number and multiplying the bottom number by three.
Metre comes in tons of forms, straightforward or syncopated. A 4/4 metre is the most common, used almost without exception in rock and pop songs because of its straightforward beat that makes writing to it (and following it) very easy. 3/4 metre is the second most common, creating a swingy, syncopated beat; this is also found in rock and pop songs, most typically in slower ballads. 6/8 metre is home to the waltz, 12/8 metre is used by blues musicians, and 2/2 metre (also called cut time) is what marches are made of. But other sorts of metre, like 6/4 or 5/8 or even 13/4, are often used to innovative effect, creating an effect that makes the rhythm hard to pin down. Though this type of metre, known as irregular, are largely known for being hard to follow, some musicians have made it clear that a song does not have to be in 4/4 to be catchy. Consider Dave Brubeck's "Take Five." Sure, it isn't 4/4, it has an offbeat nature, but it certainly isn't hard to follow, and those 5 beats per measure kind of keep us constantly surprised. The metre provides the heartbeat, and the rest of the song follows it; if that heartbeat keeps going strong, the listener is bound to follow it as well.

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Chords Are LIke Us -- They Take Familiar Paths Too, Called "Chord Progressions"

When I drive to town I almost always turn left on Oak, then right on Pine past the high school, then swing onto the freeway for 3 miles and get off on the first exit by Elmers Pancake House and then swing up Main St to the Post Office and over on Magnolia to Quick Print.
Is that the only way I could get there? Of course not. There are probably a dozen or more ways I could go, but like most people, I am a creature of habit, and so day after day, year after year, I drive the very same way.

Chords are like that too. There are an infinite number of ways chords could progress, but if you toss all the songs ever written into a giant computer and have it spit out the most common chord progressions, you'll find that the top 5 or 6 progressions are used perhaps 80 or 85% of the time.

Why is that? Because songs are composed or made up on the spot by people -- not some music machine. And people take familiar paths, just like I drive the same way to town day after day.

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.

Some of the most used chord progressions are: I, V7, I; I, IV, V7, I; I, vi, ii, V7. These progressions happen over and over and over and over again in literally thousands of song. For further information please check out Familiar Chord Progressions.

Monday, October 06, 2008

For a good overall musical education, join a choir

The choir, a simple vocal ensemble of varying sizes (generally more than 10 people), is one of the most popular forms of musical expression for vocalists, particularly because of its availability in a varitey of arenas. The church choir is by far the most common, but many singers also perform in a high-school choir, a collegiate choir or a community choir. And within those varieties of choir exist a number of choir styles. There exists the all-female choir, the all-male choir and the mixed choir, which is comprised of females and males under the vocal categories bass, tenor, alto and soprano. Additionally, a choir can be classified by the number of members; a symphonic choir is typically a large choir while a chamber choir is extremely small.

Though some types of choir, such as the community choir, don't require much out of an audition (if they require an audition at all), there are certain traits a vocalist must possess in order to be able to handle the duties of choir membership. First and foremost, the choir member must be able to sing in tune; it seems common knowledge, but many would-be choir members are impervious to this ability. But singing in tune isn't enough -- choir members must also be able to blend their voice within the presence of other voices, to control vibrato and volume; the point to a choir, after all, is to hear an amalgamation of voices not one in particular. It is also vitally important that a choir member be able to read sheet music. An inability to read music will inevitably lead to the choir member never being able to learn his or her parts. Sight-reading, or the ability to read a piece of music without ever having seen it, is especially preferable for choir members, as a conductor will frequently ask the choir to sing through an entire piece immediately in order to get a sense of the music. Lastly, a choir member must have an independent ear; that is, they must be able to sing their part even while hearing a different part coming from the alto or tenor section. If a choir member has this problem and it's very slight, the conductor will usually place them in a position far from any imposing alternative parts, but a consistent inability to hear one's own voice will ultimately lead to a choir member having a difficult time with the entire performance.

Saturday, October 04, 2008

The Pianists Guide to Other Instruments: What To Look For In An Accordion

Since pianists seldom play by themselves, I thought it would be useful to bring us piano players up to speed on other musical instruments -- how they work, what their characteristics are, and so on. So from time to time I'll include an article about every kind of instrument from autoharps to zitthers. We'll begin with accordions.

There are many different styles of accordions with different key-note systems. To know which type of accordion to buy, it is necessary to have knowledge about the various types and how they work. Here is a list of the main common types of accordions and their details.
Diatonic Accordions

This is the most popular type of accordion worldwide. The earliest diatonic accordions had one row of ten buttons, each controlling a valve which in turn regulated the air flow to a pair of metal reeds inside the accordion. These ten pairs of reeds were tuned to a diatonic scale. You can get 2 different notes with every button. When the bellows are pulled open, one note plays; whereas when the bellows are pushed closed, reversing the air flow through the reeds, a different note sounds.
Diatonic accordions are easy to use, lightweight, and have a great sound quality. These are perfect for folk and dance tunes.
Chromatic Accordions

The reeds of a three row Diatonic were rearranged to form the chromatic accordion. This accordion can play a 46 note chromatic scale. The Chromatic Button Accordion is best for playing the maximum range of treble notes of any type of accordion. These are available in a range of ones with 20 treble keys and 12 bass buttons, to ones which have up to 6 rows of treble buttons and 160 bass buttons.
The two most common layouts in the chromatic keyboard are the B and C systems. The B system is superior for technically difficult works, whereas the C system is ideal for playing chords and melodic music. The bass system also performance of serious classical or modern-day works.
Piano Accordions

These have a piano type keyboard and can play most piano music. The piano accordions are the most popular type of accordion used in the US. With the development of the Stradella bass system, this accordion was the first standardized accordion. Thus a piano accordionist can play any kind of piano accordion without a change in system. Piano accordions are generally of 12 bass, 20 key up to 160 bass, and 45 key, although there are smaller and larger ones too. The piano accordion has a huge range of notes and sounds.
Thus the most common and oft used type of accordion is the piano accordion (in the US).

Two things to keep in mind when buying an accordion:

• The lighter the accordion, the better.

• Generally speaking, avoid buying a used accordion as with use they tend to need more repair and are not as great performing as newer ones. But if you can't quite afford a new one, just make sure the used on is in good working order.

Friday, October 03, 2008

Boogie Woogie Makes The Piano Dance!

Boogie woogie is a genre of piano-heavy music particular to America in the 1940s and 50s. It's characteristic walking bass is familiar to many as a harkening back to rock and roll, even though the form is based strongly on the blues (in fact, it's often been called an upbeat version of the blues). Boogie originally started as a strictly piano form; the most familiar versions are still based solely around the instrument. But as boogie became more and more popular, so too did the idea of including a whole band. Before long, the once solo genre adapted itself to accommodate an entire band. The latest versions of boogie often include guitar and other instruments, but the piano and drums remain the focal point.
The most familiar pattern in boogie woogie is the left hand bass part that starts on the root of any key, then the 3rd, 5th, 6th, flat 7th, 6th, 5th, 3rd, and root, then repeats. It is usually played in offset octaves, meaning that the lower note is played with the little finger followed by the same not an octave higher with the thumb throughout the entire patterns. In terms of form, it almost always follows the 12-bar blues form, discussed elsewhere on this blog.

Boogie is often credited as the originator of rock and roll, but that idea isn't necessarily valid. While boogie definitely played some role in rock and roll's early days, it was really rhythm and blues that started the form. Boogie, on the other hand, remained an off-shoot of blues and an entity in its own right. It also may have indirectly spawned a dance of the same name, a dance that led largely to boogie being credited as rock and roll's most dominant predecessor.

The boogie woogie dance, an upbeat and energetic social dance with small roots in swing, was danced mostly to rock and roll. It spread through teenage social circles like wildfire and became almost synonymous with rock and roll. As boogie (the dance) continued to grow through the 50s, boogie (the music) began to disappear from the limelight. And as it grew further and further from the mainstream, boogie's captivating hold on audiences became understood as a product of the dance, not the music. The way in which the two forms of boogie were interchanged often led to confusion about where and when the form originated and how it related to the dance and the inception of rock and roll.

Thursday, October 02, 2008

Elevator Music Has Gotten a Bum Rap

The last few years background music has been often contempuously refered to as "elevator music." But it has so many different fuctions in life that are positive, that it should be "un-named" and simply refered to as background music. It is used in hospitals, sugery centers, shopping malls and a host of other applications.
Background music is one of those umbrella terms that can refer to a great number of things. Simply put, it's music played in the background; the context of the term is entirely dependent on what exactly is in the foreground. And depending on that context, calling something background music can sometimes be seen as an insult, however unintentional. Musicians functioning as a backing band for a singer or soloist usually resent being referred to as background music; the term tends to connote something that isn't really paid music attention to.

But that's not always the case. Background music is an important element in a variety of different events or performances. The background music at a social gathering or bar can often determine the overall mood of the people in attendance; it's not uncommon to find tempers rising and fights breaking out solely because the combination of personality and harsh background music made a lethal cocktail. Background music is also vital to film and television; a great song can often make or break a scene. For instance, the television producer Thomas Schlamme (of "West Wing" fame) and film writer and director Quentin Tarantino ("Kill Bill," "Pulp Fiction") have both used background music to amazing effect, choosing music that is at times barely noticeable but still capable of completely driving the scene. Great background music can make the tragic scenes more tragic, the comic scenes ten times more hilarious; and likewise, inappropriate or poorly composed background music can rip the magic right out of even a perfectly written script.

Selecting background music for a performance or event is an art in and of itself. The background music at a wedding or fashion show is just as vital to the event as the background music in a performance is to the singer or soloist. It's not a rule-driven process; background music is entirely subjective to the person choosing it. Theme and content are important to consider, though; just like you'd rarely play heavy metal while a bride is walking down the aisle, you'll almost never hear a Mozart piece in a bar packed to the walls with college students. And when considering (or composing) music to be played behind a singer or soloist, it's important to remember where the focus of the performance lies; it's not uncommon to hear background music that upstages the performer.
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