Play by Ear, Write by Heart: Part 14


Play by Ear, Write by Heart: Part 14

Getting Better
As you find yourself getting a little more comfortable with learning to play a piece by ear, don’t be afraid to stray a little bit from your genre.  While you may not have desire to try other styles, every genre can teach you something that will help you improve your own style.  One potential problem with sticking too tightly to your favorite style is that you may become very repetitive and predictable in your music.  This is especially true as you begin to write your own music.  It is a common trap, and an easy rut to fall into.  Try learning a few different types of music.

I do not suggest by this that you need to master every style, or that you should be equally talented in every genre, but I am suggesting that you try out something new once in a while.  Musical styles are like seasonings.  While you don’t want seasonings to overpower foods and confuse the taste buds, a couple of sprinkles of different seasonings can give your food a unique and enhanced taste.  So it is with music.  Slightly jazzed new-age music is tasteful.  Slightly new-aged rock is actually very popular.  So is pop-tinted African music.  You don’t need to have all your music ‘seasoned’, but occasionally it helps.

Comparison is Poison

Another caution is that musicians absolutely MUST NOT fall into comparison.  It is absolute poison.  You must not compare your abilities with those of another.  Whether a person is better or worse than you in a talent, there is no room for any degree of competition in the world of a true artist.  That is not to say that we should not learn from others.  We should listen to as much music as possible and try to adopt the good things that we find, but we cannot think less of our own music because someone else’s music has more skill or more emotion.

It is true that another person has a better ability to learn to play, write music, and they may demonstrate remarkable skill.  Ought we to wonder about that?  What if some of today’s great musicians had gotten discouraged by comparing themselves to Beethoven or any other great artist?
There will always be someone better than you, and there will always be someone worse (even if you can’t seem to find one!).

It helps to consider the place of music in our lives.  Is one good piece of music truly better than another?  If so, by what standard are they measured?  If you measure by pure skill, you won’t notice the feeling of the music.  If you measure by the amount of effort put into an individual piece, then you won’t notice how much time and effort the musician put into developing his or her ability to write music.  If you measure by the rules of music theory, you won’t notice the development of new ideas and new styles in modern music.
Measuring how “good” a song is compared to another is fruitless, since every piece has a different meaning, a different motive, and a different feel.

It is the same with the musicians themselves.  Two musicians have such different experience and motivations that it simply doesn’t work to compare them.
Do not be discouraged or boastful by comparing your ability to another persons.  It will only lead you away from becoming better at what you do.

25 Second Sneak Peek


25 Second Sneak Peek

I’m planning on putting out another CD this summer, and I thought it might be fun to occasionally give my blog followers a sneak peek into some of the pieces that will be on the CD.  In fact, this CD will have some differences from my last CD.  While most of the pieces will be piano solos, there will be a few with either flute or voice.

Here’s a 25 second sneak peek into a piece called The Sixth Day.

Let me know what you think!

Un-edited Improv Session


Un-edited Improv Session

Okay, I’m putting myself on the line here again. I sat down, pushed record, and this is what I came up with.

Personally, I think the first part sounds nice… but a little two much like Irene Cara’s “What a Feeling.” Hmmm… It would definitely need some slight melody altering if I were to develop it into a full piece.

And on the second half I hit a couple funny notes.  But it is un-edited improv – so I shouldn’t be too hard on it.

What do you guys think?  Do the two parts have potential to be developed into full pieces?

– Chas

Play by Ear, Write by Heart: Part 13


Play by Ear, Write by Heart: Part 13


Play only when you want to

Another interesting thing about the emotional aspect of playing by ear deals with your mood.  Whether you notice it or not, your mood plays a huge part in your ability to hear, and especially to feel, what you’re playing.  My basic rule of thumb is this:  Never play the piano when you’re not in the mood to do it.  There’s a funny link between your emotions and your motivation when it comes to playing and writing music by ear.  If you are not in the mood to play, don’t do it.  For me, when I force myself against my will to play the piano by ear, it sours my motivation to return to it.  Afterward, I can often go weeks without feeling like playing the piano again.
If you’re also a music reader, you know that you can practice reading music all you want against your will.  The increasing of skill involved in training your eye-hand coordination has little tie to your motivation to be working on it.  The technical aspects of playing by ear still works this way, but with writing music by heart, it’s different.
Perhaps this sounds strange, since piano teachers encourage a set time and duration of practice hours per day.  The fact is, we are not talking about piano lessons.  You are learning to not only hear, but to feel the music.  If your feelings are fighting your will-power in this, let your feelings have their way.  This may sound odd, but in my experience, it works best that way.  This does not mean that you should only play the piano when you have a burning desire to do so.  It only means that if you have a burning desire NOT to play, don’t.  If you’re not sure whether you want to play right now or not, give it a try.  If it gets better as you go along, great!  But if you start feeling even less desire to play, just leave it alone and come back another time.

The Call of the Piano

You may think by this that there will be times that you never play the piano.  While this may happen on occasion, you will likely find that as you begin to develop more skill, your motivation will increase also.  You will find that often it is as if the piano itself is calling you.  When you hear that call, or in other words, when you feel that longing to play, go with it!  Play away.
Play for as long as you have the desire to play.  When you begin to get bored of it, put it away and come back later.  I would highly suggest taking at least a little time every day to practice.  You should choose for yourself how often and much time to spend at it, but consistency is one of the great keys to obtaining skill.  If you do so, you will be amazed at the speed of your progress, and the wonderful enjoyment you find in it.  It really does become addictive.  Where possible, take advantage of every time you feel the desire to play.
In light of that, I should mention that it has been in those moments where the piano has ‘called’ to me, that I have created my best musical pieces, and experienced the most fulfillment in my ability to create something new and beautiful.  There is much to be said of the first time you find yourself creating music from nothing.  It may not be masterful yet, but it will surely feel that way at first, because of the excitement of the moment.  The motivation that is born of this experience may be enough to hold you for a lifetime of music writing.

Play by Ear, Write by Heart: Part 12


Play by Ear, Write by Heart: Part 12

Silence is golden

One aspect of the feeling of a piece that is often overlooked is the beauty of silence.  Some musicians fear silence, thinking that it will give the impression that a mistake was made, or that the piece is finished.  What if, after all, the audience started clapping before the song was over!  The fact that is overlooked in this, however, is that silence is as much a part of music as sound.  One of the great definitions of music is “sound and silence organized in time.”  This being the case, we need not fear silence any more than we need fear hitting a key.
The secret to the proper use of silence is timing.  A carefully designed pause may have a much greater emotional effect than a continuation without break.  A tempo, slowed to near stop, followed by a grand silence can create a wonderful effect.
In listening, as well as in writing new pieces, we can include silences with confidence, not fearing what the audience might think.  Doing so will actually do more good than you might realize.

Softness is silver

Another thing to consider when trying to put emotion into a piece is dynamics.  By dynamics I mean how loud or how soft you play.  This is at least as important to understand, if not more so, than the proper use of silence.  A common misconception regarding dynamics is that the harder you play, the more effective the music is.  This is simply not so!  The key to dynamics is to reserve the loudness (or the softness, as the case may be) for the most important parts of the piece.  Think of it this way: the softer your beginning is, the more power you have to increase the loudness of the rest of the piece – and vice versa.
This must be done in moderation, however, since the introduction of a piece is the first impression.  You don’t want people’s first reaction to the piece to be “I can’t hear it.”  Therefore, the ideal is to find a good middle ground, with plenty of space on both sides of the decimal scale to work with.  And then, don’t be afraid to use the slack you have given yourself.  On a gentle part of the piece, you may find it more effective to drop the power to almost no sound at all.  Then when the need for more power comes, don’t hold back!  Pound those keys!  You’ll find that the contrast between loud and soft will strike incredible emotional chords in your self and your audience.
Therefore, as you listen for what a piece sounds like, and feels like, be sure to notice why it feels the way it does, and what gives those emotional charges their power.

The Forbidden Tritone…



Okay, I’m asking for your honest opinion here.  I’m working on my next CD, and one of the chunks of music I’m considering developing into a full piece is this one.  I’ve always liked playing around with crazy chord progressions, and for many years I have wanted to come up with something that defies all the laws of music theory and has a tritone chord progression.

The tritone is traditionally the worse, most dissonant interval (set of notes) of all.  Basically, if you play a C and then an F#, that’s a tritone.  I think music theory would scream at me for even attempting a piece that actually uses the tritone interval for a chord progression.  Maybe that’s why I was so determined to find a way – and this sample is filled with tritones.


I want to know your HONEST opinion.  Does it work?  Is it pushing things a little too far?

If you do like it, what kinds of emotions does it invoke?  If I do use it, it will need a name.  I never choose a name lightly.

Arrangement Practice Series: Part 3

Practice Arrangement 3

This one has a lot of goofing up, but I think it also has one of the best possibilities so far.  Total ad-lib, or improv, or whatever you want to call it.

For an explanation of what this post is about, see

Play by Ear, Write by Heart: Part 11

Play by Ear, Write by Heart: Part 11

The Heart: the Basis of the Musical Ear

I think there is a reason that the word “ear” is encompassed in the word “heart”. When it comes to music, the heart is the key to success, and to ignore the heart is to take the spirit from the body of the music.

When I speak of the heart, I am referring to the emotions and feeling. If a piece of music is full of spectacular technique and skill, but lacks emotion, it is essentially dead. The key to learning to play a piece of music by ear is to capture the feeling of it. It has been said that whatever a musician is feeling as they play, that same emotion will be felt by all who are listening to to the piece. This being the case, in order to hear and reproduce a piece of music, it is essential that you duplicate not only the notes, but the feeling of the music.

Not only is emotion essential to playing the music right, but emotion is also key to finding the right notes. As you learn a piece, and start the cycle of playing, rewinding, and replaying a CD, notice how the music, and even the individual chords make you feel. Note the effect the chord has on you. Then, as you stop the CD and try to duplicate what you hear, continue to notice your feelings. Does the sound coming from your hands give you the same emotional response as the music on the CD, or does it change your feelings? If it changes your feelings, even slightly, then something is missing, and you’ve got to try again.

Sometimes your ears can deceive you a bit. You may have the correct right hand, but the left hand is playing the wrong chord. Perhaps your mistake still sounds good, which may give your ears the impression that you have it right. But what do your emotions say? After playing the chord on the CD, and then trying to duplicate it with your hands, if you feel even slightly different, your heart is telling you that something’s not right.

Perhaps the lowest left hand note is right, and the right hand notes are right, but are the other left hand notes correct? If your ears are hearing a 1 chord (1, 3, and 5), but your heart is hearing a 4 chord (4, 6, higher 1), then perhaps the real chord is a variation of a 4 chord, such as 1, 4, and 6. This is a common mistake, since when you play the 1 chord, it doesn’t feel right, but when you play the 4 chord, it still doesn’t sound quite right!

Strange, isn’t it, to think that your ears and your heart can argue about what you are hearing? In such a case, both may be right about what they hear, but until both are satisfied, you still don’t quite have it. Ideally, it is best to get the ear and the heart in agreement. If, however, you just can’t seem to come to an agreement, always follow the heart. It’s better to feel right but sound wrong than to sound right but feel wrong.

Practice Arrangement Series: Part 2

Practice Arrangement Series: Part 2

Here we go again.  This is my second attempt at coming up with an arrangement for “I Stand All Amazed.”  For this particular song, if you’re following the series, you will hear every attempt I’ve made at coming up with the arrangement.

Because of this, there are a lot of problems and mistakes.  I want to share them, so you can see what it takes to come up with an arrangement.  Sometimes it goes better or faster than this, but not usually.

If you want to give input, please comment and let me know your thoughts!

Play by Ear, Write by Heart: Part 10

Play by Ear, Write by Heart: Part 10

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.

So What?
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.