A Common Method
Understanding the principle of the triad (1, 3, 5) will help you make sense of something else that I discovered in my learning that has opened my mind to know what to listen for, and how to write beautiful piano pieces.
If I were to write a piece of music that contained only the basic chord, hit simultaneously with a melody, it would sound simple and somewhat uninteresting. But if I were to break it up into the notes of the chord played individually, it would soften the blow of a pounded chord, and feel more gentle. In other words, if I were to play 1, and then 3, and then 5, rather than playing all three at the same time, it would sound a bit more interesting. With this in mind, I also noticed that most people like to separate the notes even a bit more than that. Remember, as long as you are using the notes 1, 3, and 5, it doesn’t matter which octave and which order they are played in. The more common, and often more interesting way people play chords in their pieces, is to play 1, 5, higher 1, and 3. Sometimes they will even just do 1, 5, and higher 1. Other times they will do 1, 5, higher 1, 2, 3, or perhaps something like 1, 5, higher 3, 2, 1. Whatever the combination, if you will keep in mind that this is a more common basis for many people’s music, you will find it easier to hear what they are doing.
I don’t want to discuss timing in too much detail, but it is a very important part of learning to play the piano, and I want to discuss just one aspect of it in order to help you in learning to write music, which we’ll discuss in coming podcasts.
Nearly all music is broken up into beats, or beat patterns. Basically, you can count off beats as you listen to a piece. 1, 2, 3, 4, 1, 2, 3, 4… and so on. Most music has a pattern of either 1, 2, 3, 4, (called in music theory a 4/4 rhythm) or 1, 2, 3 (called a 3/4 beat). Basically those are the two most common. You can tell which pattern a piece of music is in by counting beats as you listen. Whichever of these two beat patterns sounds like it fits better is probably the one that it is.
The reason I tell you this is so that you can know when to change chords. On a 1, 2, 3 rhythm, the chords will usually change every 3 beats or every 6 beats, and on a 1, 2, 3, 4 rhythm, the chord will usually change after 4 or 8 beats.
In parts 6-9 of the Play by Ear, Write by Heart series, we have mostly discussed the triad. I have done this for two reasons. The first is to help you know what to listen for as you try to play a piece by ear. If you can’t hear the lower notes of a piece well enough to pick them out and play them, you now know that you can experiment with the chords that fit the notes in the melody, and it likely won’t be too difficult to figure out what chord is being used. This knowledge should save you some time and frustration in trying to find with your fingers what you’re hearing with your ears.
The second reason we have discussed so much about the triad is because in writing music, you will find that chords are the basis of all your music, and chords are made of triads.
Continue playing with chords using what you’ve learned about triads. The piano is especially conducive to playing with chords, because this triad pattern is so easy to recognize across the keyboard. Play with chord progressions – meaning a structured set of chords, and try them in different orders. Change some of their qualities from major to minor or vice versa, just to see what you come up with. You’ll find as you do that it’s not difficult to come up with an interesting chord progression, and with an interesting chord progression, all you will need is a melody, and you will have your own original music.