Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Is It Really Possible To Play 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.

So can the average person ever hope to play their piano by ear? Maybe not to the degree that some extremely talented musicians do, but anyone can learn enough about the basics of playing by ear if they learn the following skills:

1.Being able to hear a tune and have a general sense of the contour of the melody -- when the tune moves higher or lower as the song progresses.

2.Learning to chart that melody contour either on paper or in their memory.

3.Learning to match the melody to appropriate chords.

Playing by ear is really a combination of of three factors:

1. Using your tonal memory to recall music you have heard:

2. Using your ears and fingers to help you reproduce what you recall;

3. Using "melody contour" (the "shape" of the tune), "chord structure" (how to form the chords on the keyboard to match the tune), and "chord progressions" (the path chords take as they move through a song).

Obviously, the first 2 steps you can take more or less by yourself -- you can mentally rehearse recalling a particular tune; you can sit at the piano for hours and through trial and error pick out tunes, chords, and rhythms. But the real key to playing by ear is learning how to chart the shape of a tune, learn how to construct chords, and then determine the likelihood of chord progressions -- in other words, which chord comes next.

When you get an understanding of step three, you will be in a MUCH better position to understand and profit from steps one and two!

For a complete course on playing the piano by ear, please click on the link below:

Click here: http://www.pianoplayingbyear.com


'Above all, seek understanding.' That goes for music as well as the rest of life...

Sponsored by Keyboard Workshop, Box 700, Medford, OR

Friday, April 10, 2009

What is a "jazz chord"?

What is a jazz chord anyway?Is it different than other chords? Some people think the jazz chords are unique animals, but in actuality they are the same as any chords. Jazz chords indeed do have their own flavor, but that flavor is usually created through the skillful use of color tones and unique chord progressions. It is not unusual for a chord used in jazz to have 4 to 7 unique color tones added to the basic triad, and the subtlely with which the chords progress give them a one-of-a-kind feeling that is often associated with jazz. You will find that many fusion musicians also use similar chords. In fact if you look back in the works of Shostakovich  & Stravinsky & Milhaud and Debussy and others (and even Bach), you will find prophetic hints of complex chords that are now thought of as "jazz chords." 
But the easy answer is that jazz chords are just chords, however complex.

Thursday, April 09, 2009

Learn to scout a song before you play it

It's always a good idea to scout a song before you play the song. In other words, take a look at the key signature and the time signature and see if there's any repeats in the song. In the key signature note which sharps or flats or being used. If there is one flat in the key signature then the song is in the key of F. if there are two flats in the key signature then the songs in the key of B. flat. If there are three flats in the key signature then the song is in the key of E. flat. If there are four flats in the key signature then the song is in the key of a flat. If there are five flats in the key signature, the key is D. flat. If there is six flats in the key signature, the song is in the key of G. flat.
 If there is one sharp in the key signature the song is in the key of G. If they are to sharps in the key signature the songs in the key of D. If there are three sharps in the key signature than the song is in the key of A.If there are four sharps in the key signature the song is in the key of E.  If there are five sharps in the key signature the song is in the key of B. if their sex sharps in the key signature of the song is in the key of F. sharp.
As far as time signatures are concerned, be sure to notice the top number of the time signature. That tells you how many counts are in each measure. The bottom number of the time signature tells you what kind of note gets one count.

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Changing Keys

Modulation is a fancy word for key change -- switching from one key to another in a single piece of music. It is a common practice in composition (both classical and rock or pop) and can be used to a variety of effects. Modulation can be subtle and smooth or abrupt and startling. It can cast an eerie glow on a piece of music or completely change the mood and direction. The effect achieved, however subtle or abrupt, is largely dependent on the type of modulation used.


The most common type of modulation is called pivot chord modulation. In this type of modulation, the key changes based on a chord shared by both keys; the destination chord often has the same root note or quality as the original chord. This allows for a smooth, almost foreshadowed modulation. A good example of this is found in the last chorus of rock songs; this type of modulation is used there to an almost triumphant effect.

Another common type of modulation is pivot tone modulation. Similar to pivot chord, pivot tone modulation uses a common pitch to move from key to key. This type of modulation is also subtle, depending on the piece of music in which it is used. It can, however, be used to a startling effect if the two keys have few notes in common. In songs using pivot tone modulation, the common pitch is often sustained or repeated and used a bridge between the two keys.

The most abrupt kind of modulation is direct modulation. The name is exactly what is says it is: a direct modulation using no common note or chord to bridge the two keys. When used correctly, direct modulation is shocking and can easily change the song's mood. This type of modulation switches keys either at a phrase's end (phrase modulation) or at a point in the middle of the song (static modulation).

Friday, March 20, 2009

What do those numbers at the start of a piece of music mean?

Numbers such as 4/4, 3/4, 2/4, 6/8 and so on which appear at the beginning of a line of sheet music are called "time signatures". The top number tells how many beats are in each measure, while the bottom number tells what kind of note gets one beat (one count).

For example, in 3/4 time there are 3 beats in each measure, and a quarter note gets one count. If the time signature was 3/2, there would still be 3 beats in each measure, but a half note would get one count.

In 6/8 time there are 6 counts per measure and an 8th notes gets one count.

There can be "odd numbers" such as 3, 5, 7, 9 on top, but never on the bottom, because the bottom number describes the kind of note that gets one count, and there are no "3rd notes", "5th notes", and so on -- just half, quarter, eighth notes, etc.

Saturday, March 07, 2009

How the piano got its name

Prior to the invention of the piano there was an instrument called a harpsichord which was played by playing a keyboard but the result was plucking of the strings similar to a guitar. And prior to the harpsichord there was an instrument call the psaltry which was played by actually plucking the strings. Later the psaltry had a keyboard, and that led to the harpsichord.
When the piano was invented somewhere around 1700, it was novel in that instead of the strings being plucked they were struck by a hammer which was inside the piano.As a result music could be played both soft and loud which was not true with the harpsichord or the sultry. So it was named the "pianoforte" which in Italian means the "soft loud instrument." It was refered to this way for many years until finally the "forte" part of the name was left off and was just refered to as the "piano." Kind of strange in a way, since in Italian the word piano means soft. So to be literal, you are playing the "soft." when you play the piano, even though you play it using a variety of dynamics.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

What Does "SATB" Mean?

On certain types of music you will see the notation "SATB", and unless you have been in a choir somewhere along the line, you might not understand what it means.
It means "soprano, alto, tenor, bass", and so music that is written in this way was obviously written for voices, not for the piano or some other instrument. But most every hymn book is written SATB, so what is a piano player to do?

If he or she plays it as it is written, it sounds vacant, because 4 piano notes cannot adequately mimic 4 human voices. So a piano player needs to be able to "see through" the 4 parts and come up with the chord those 4 notes are spelling out. Once the chord is known, then the pianist can fill in with a much larger sound to accompany the singers, or if playing solo, improvise based on the chord structure of the song.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

How To Play In The Cracks...To Make Your Piano Sound "Bluesy"

To get a blusey sound, singers and instrumentalists play in quarter steps -- somewhere in the cracks between two piano keys. It's easy for them to do it, because they can manipulate their voice and lips, but harder for a piano player to do it. Watch this short video to get an idea how it might be done:


How To Play In The Cracks To Get a Blues Sound from chordman on Vimeo.

Monday, February 16, 2009

The Order Of The Flats & Sharps In Key Signatures

Did you realize that flats or sharps in a key signature always follow the same order? Lots of people are surprised to hear that, but it's true. If there is just one sharp in the key signature, it is always F. If there are two sharps, they are always F and C. Three sharps would be F, C and G. Four would be F, C, G, and D. The entire order of the sharps goes like this:

F  C  G  D  A  E  B

And you can always tell what key a song is in from the key signature by going up 1/2 step above the last sharp in the key signature.

The order of the flats is just the opposite:

B  E  A  D  G  C  F

Notice that the flats are in exact reverse order to the sharps.

To find the key in flat key signatures, look for the 2nd to the last flat, and that is the name of the key. If there is just one flat -- Bb -- then the key is F. And I'm sure you know that if there are no sharps or flats in the key signature, the key is C.

(Every major key has a relative minor key that shares the same key signature, but we'll consider that another day.)

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

The Blues Scale & Cool Stuff You Can Do With It

Most of us who took piano lessons as kids are all too familiar with scales, and most of us hated practicing them with a passion. But understanding scales and what they do is critical to the process of improvisation as well as key orientation and just a general understanding of what's happening in the song we are playing.
The word "scale" comes from the Latin word "la scala" which means "the ladder". So a scale is a ladder of notes that starts at the bottom -- called the root note -- and proceeds upwards to the top of the ladder -- called the octave note.
There are several kinds of scales, the most common being the major scale, followed by three different types of minor scales. After that there are several specialty scales, including the blues scale used widely in jazz, R&B, blues, and quite a bit in pop music.
The "blues scale" is really a combination of the major diatonic scale (the "regular" scale we all grew up with) plus three additional notes:

To continue the article, please go to http://www.playpiano.com/Articles/28-bluesscale.htm

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

How old should your child be before starting piano lessons?

1. Can your child hold a pencil or crayon properly? The motor skills needed for these tasks are largely the same ones needed to play the piano. A child who cannot properly hold a writing instrument will be overwhelmed trying to force unwieldy fingers into a "C" position. Ask a doctor, teacher or occupational therapist to evaluate your child's pencil-holding skills if you're unsure.
2. Can your child count to 10? Rhythm and timing is very important when learning piano. A child who cannot count to at least 10 may have trouble learning certain concepts about piano.

3. Can your child follow sets of instructions? A child who cannot follow a simple series of instructions is not ready for starting piano lessons. Test your child by giving a series of three commands. Then evaluate how well the child follows through. Here's one example: Ask your child to go to his room, find a red sweatshirt in his drawer and put on the sweatshirt. Tell him to come back and see you when he's finished. He may be ready for piano lessons if he reports back to you in a reasonable amount of time with the job done. Does he go upstairs and forget what you said? Does he only get half of the job done? Does he get extremely frustrated trying to complete the series of tasks? If so, he probably isn't quite ready for piano lessons.
4. Can your child sit still and pay attention for at least 30 minutes? Piano students usually begin with 30-minute lessons. A child who fidgets or whose mind wanders before 30 minutes pass will not reap the maximum benefits of a piano lesson. He or she may become frustrated or may be very slow to learn. Piano lessons are costly, so there isn't much point in spending the money without getting the full benefit of learning. Or at the very least, locate a teacher who gives shorter lessons for very young students.
5. Does your child express an interest in music? Children who love music will probably be very motivated to learn to play the piano. They will enjoy practicing and won't complain (at least not often) about going to the lesson. A child who doesn't show an aptitude toward music won't have the motivation necessary to apply herself to learning the notes or concepts.

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Opportunities in teaching music

If you are a musician of any kind, there is an opportunity for you to earn some good part-time income from your skills. It doesn't matter what instrument -- there is a demand for private instructors on all instruments, but especially guitar and piano.

Your first thought will probably be "But I'm not qualified!". That's exactly what I thought many years ago when I started, but necessity demanded that I try, and by taking beginners only at the start, I gradually learned what it took. There is an endless supply of beginners looking to play an instrument and its a supply that is inexhaustible.

Of course, you want to get qualified as soon as possible, so simultaneously take some lessons or instructions yourself. I was in college when I started, studying music, and many of the questions I had got answered by the teachers I was studying with myself. By the time I got out of college I had a "one-person music school" that later bloomed into a multi-teacher studio.

For information on starting your own one-person music school, click here.

Saturday, January 31, 2009

What Is "Naked Music"?

Naked music is music that is plain vanilla. And there's nothing wrong with that. But most of us want to bring our own feelings to the piano and play MORE than just what is written. To do that, we need to analyze the structure of the score, including the chord progessions and form of the song, then improvise using a wide variety of arranging techniques. For help in that area, see http://www.pianoplaying.com/

Thursday, January 29, 2009

How Many Chords Are Possible?

Have you ever wondered how many chords are possible? Have you ever added up all the major chords, all the minor chords, all the diminished, augmented, 6th, m6th, 7th, maj7th, m7th, half-diminished, 9th, m9th, 11th, 13th, etc, etc.?
I challenge you to do it sometime -- I think you will be astounded.

If you would like to explore all the chords, take a look at All The Chords In The Whole Wide World.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

What is the "Backdoor of Piano Playing"?

There is more than one way into the world of piano playing. Most people take the front door -- formal lessons where you learn to read music, learn the correct technique, practice scales, memorize pieces, and so forth. That's great if you have the time, and certainly the best method for children, but if you are a busy adult with no time for scheduled lessons, there is a back door you can take -- learning chords and how to apply them to your piano playing.

There are many online courses you can take to get you into the backdoor of piano playing -- just use any search engine and type in something like "learn piano chords" and you'll find many courses to help you.
http://www.chordpiano.com/

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Friday, January 23, 2009

Rootless Chord Voicing For Exciting Sounds!

Chord voicing refers to the way notes of a chord are arranged. The most basic voicing of a chord is in it's triad form in root position; root of the chord as the lowest note in the chord, then the 3rd of the chord, then the 5th. Any chord can be inverted, so the 1st inversion chord voicing would find the 3rd as the lowest note in the chord, then the 5th, followed by the root on top -- one octave higher. The 2nd inversion of the chord would find the 5th as the lowest note, followed by the root, with the 3rd on top -- one octave higher.
Rootless chord voicing involves leaving out the root of the chord but using other intervals and implying the root.  For example, you might voice the C major chord with the 3rd and 5th along with some color tones, such as a 6th or 7th, but leave the root note (C) out. But since the 3rd, 5th and 7th of the chord is being used, it implies a root -- C.

Rootless chord voicings from chordman on Vimeo.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Minor Chords

There are only 12 minor chords -- even though some of the 12 have more than one name, such as C# minor and Db minor. They are called "enharmonic" chords -- they sound alike but are written differently on a music score.

Here are the 12 minor chords:

C minor chord is C, Eb, G
F minor chord: F, Ab, C
G minor chord: G, Bb, D
D minor chord: D, F, A
E minor chord: E, G, B
A minor chord: A, C, E
Db minor chord: Db, Fb, Ab (Fb is enharmonic with E)
Eb minor chord: Eb, Gb, Bb
Ab minor chord: Ab, Cb, Eb (Cb is enharmonic with B)
Gb minor chord: Gb, Bbb, Db (Bbb is enharmonic with A)
B minor chord: B, D, F#
Bb minor chord: Bb, Db, F

Thursday, January 01, 2009

What is an octave?

The word "octave" is related to "octopus", "octagon", etc -- in other words, eight. In music, an octave is 8 diatonic scale notes  higher or lower than  the note of the same name.

For example, the "A" note is always 8 notes higher or lower than the previous "A". The "A" above middle C vibrates 440 times per second, so the "A" an octave above it would vibrate 880 times per second, while the "A" below middle C would vibrate 220 times per second, and so on.

The human ear identifies these octave notes as being "the same" -- only higher or lower, so if a soprano sang A440 and a bass sang A110, the human ear would hear it as the same note -- just separated by pitch. That's why there are only 7 distinct diatonic pitches and only 12 distinct chromatic pitches, despite the fact that the piano keyboard has 88 keys. Each note is repeated over and over again, but at a higher or lower octave.

What is an octave?

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