Saturday, November 29, 2008

What do those sharps or flats mean at the start of a song?

What do those sharps or flats mean at the start of a song? Watch this short video to find out.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

"How many chords do I have to know to play a song?"

Lots of people over the years have asked me some variation of the question "How many chords do I have to know to play a song?"

The answer is "What song?" Some songs have many, many chords, but there are hundreds of songs that have only 3 chords, and hundreds more that have only 4 chords.

So to be able to play a simple song like "Amazing Grace" (simple in terms of music, not theology) or "On Top of Old Smoky" or "Happy Birthday" all you really need to know are 3 chords -- the tonic chord, the subdominant chord, and the dominant chord.
Please see "Songs you can play with just 4 chords" for exciting information on this idea.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

How Time Signatures Work in Music Rhythm

Time signatures are the area of western musical notation that give specifics about time and how it will function within the song. The importance of these two numbers is apparent by their placement alone; time signatures are literally the second thing a musician sees, after the clef. One glance at the time signatures and the musician is able to put the entire song into context; not only do time signatures denote rhythm, they can also tell quite a bit about style and genre.

Time signatures consist of two numbers placed vertically on the staff. They appear right after the key signature (if there is one) or the clef (if there isn't). Each number says something different about the piece of music: the top note indicates how many beats are in one measure of music, the bottom indicates which type of note makes a beat (or "gets the beat," in musician-speak). For example, times signatures of 4/4 tell a musician that there are four beats per measure of music and that the quarter note is one beat.

But time signatures aren't always so easy. The above explanation only applies to one type of time signatures, simple time signatures. 4/4 is the most common of the simple time signatures, but 3/4 and 2/4 are used frequently, as well. The other type of time signatures, compound time signatures, tends to be a bit more complicated. Compound time signatures are recognizable by a top number of six or higher that is always divisible by three, like 6/8. To figure out how many beats exist per measure, the top number is divided by three; so in 6/8 time signatures, the top number wouldn't say that there are six beats per measure, but rather two. Likewise, the note type is found by multiplying the bottom number's note value by three; an eighth note doesn't get the beat in 6/8 times signatures, but the dotted quarter note does (a quick note: the note value in compound time signatures will always be dotted). 6/8 and 12/8 are two of the most common compound time signatures, used heavily in waltzes and blues, respectively.

But even compound time signatures don't cover the broad spectrum of rhythms that time signatures have to offer. No, there are still times that a rhythm is so odd, so seemingly offbeat, that the time signatures must be similarly irregular. And that's how we get to irregular time signatures, time signatures that can be categorized into simple or compound, but because of their rare usage and strange rhythm aren't really categorized as such -- like 5/8 or 10/4. Time signatures like these are found pretty frequently in innovative rock and pop groups. The most famous examples of irregular times signatures are found all over Pink Floyd's "Dark Side of the Moon," but bands like Rush and Genesis (early Genesis, before Phil Collins stepped away from the drums) have also used them to marvelous effect.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

How To Improvise On The Piano Using Chords

Improvisation means "freedom of ideas", so in music that would mean you are not limited to the traditional music nor to the written music. Pros often play from "fake books" -- a type of music notation (also called a lead sheet) that uses only the melody of the song along with chord symbols. Once a person knows chords, then they can play any note of a chord almost at random, plus scale notes and connecting passing tones that move between the chord notes.

For piano players, the right hand will usually play the improvised part using various piano notes, while the left hand plays the chord. But the improvised part is created from, and around, the chord. You'll learn how to use chords notes, neighboring notes, scale notes, and non-harmonic piano notes in your improvisations, and how each type functions in the overall scheme.

For more information on this facinating skill, go over to Piano Improvising Using Chords.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Piano Instruction For Adults

There are lots of adults who would love to start playing the piano again, after years of being away from th e piano. They took lessons as a kid, and remember a little, but really need some good instruction to get them going again in piano.
Proper adult 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.

There are many spots on the web where an adult can learn to play the piano faster than with "traditional lessons", such as and others.

Friday, November 07, 2008

Harpsichord, grand piano, spinet -- what's the difference?

A harpsichord is the earliest precursor to the piano, sharing many of the same qualities; it is a stringed instrument using a series of keys to access the strings. But unlike a piano, which uses a hammer to hit the strings, a harpsichord actually plucks them, creating a distinctive sound not unlike that of a plucked violin. It was a massively popular instrument from the time of its invention (dated back to the 14th century) until the popularization of the piano. And the love of the harpsichord didn't even end at that point; many composers continued to write specifically for the instrument and many musicians (even modern, 20th century ones) frequently use it in performance.

As the term harpsichord actually means to refer to an entire family of similar instruments, there are a variety of forms and styles. The most famous harpsichord is known simply as the harpsichord, a large wooden instrument that looks not unlike a grand piano; in fact, this type of harpsichord was indeed the grand piano of the instrument group, used for public and high-society performances. The spinet harpsichord, yet another popular type, is a harpsichord with angled strings; the size of this harpsichord prevents an entirely horizontal positioning.

But the spinet harpsichord is not the smallest in the family; a series of small harpsichords were produced. The virginal harpsichord is a very small version tailored for women; the muselar virginal harpsichord is slightly larger than the virginal, with the strings attacked from their mid-points; and the spinet virginal harpsichord is a small harpsichord with angled strings. Additionally, an upright harpsichord called the clavicytherium was produced for a short time before it fell out of favor; this harpsichord was the true inspiration for the upright piano.

Thursday, November 06, 2008

What is "Improvisation?"

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.  It's kind of like coloring without crayons.

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.
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