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.

Play by Ear, Write by Heart: Part 9

Play by Ear, Write by Heart: Part 9 – Chord Qualities

Chord Qualities
In the examples discussed in the last podcast, we used a 1 chord, which, to put it simply, sounds happy. We call this ‘happy’ chord a Major chord. We also briefly mentioned a 6 chord, which sounds more sad or heavy. This kind of chord is called a Minor chord. When I speak of the quality of a chord, I’m referring to whether it is a minor chord or a major chord. There are other kinds of chords besides Major and Minor, but we can discuss that another time.

You might notice that most of the seven chords we can choose from are either a major chord or a minor chord. Specifically, the 1 chord is major, the 2 chord is minor, the 3 chord is minor, the 4 chord is major, the 5 chord is major, and the 6 chord is minor. The 7 chord is the only one that is not either major or minor.

Play around with these chords. Try playing them with a simple melody, such as Old McDonald or Jingle Bells. Try making them sound normal and typical, and then try making them sound strange and mysterious. Try to keep chords consistent with the notes in the tune. It may take some practice to figure out which notes are the prominent ones, and which are just passing through to keep the melody interesting. Usually the 1st and last note in a phrase are prominent. Most of the notes played in the rhythmic beats of the phrase are also prominent. If this is sounding too complicated, just try playing around with a few tunes for a while. When you think you understand the concepts pretty well, continue on to the next section.
Tampering with Chord Qualities

While the natural state of the 1 chord is major, you actually have the power to change it to minor. If you can hear the difference between the sound of a major chord and a minor chord, you will understand to some extent why changing the quality of a chord may be useful. Music is all about feeling, and changing a major chord to a minor chord changes the feeling the music portrays.

To change a 1 chord to a minor chord, you must change the middle note of the chord. In a 1 chord, the notes are 1, 3, and 5. You must change the note 3. You must lower it. Instead of playing the 3, play the black note that is to the left of the 3 note. When you play the black note to the left of a key, you have made it flat. In music terminology, you are moving down a half-step.

The term ‘Step’ is used to describe the distance from one note to another. From note 1 to note 2 is one step. Moving from note 1 to the black note at it’s right is one half-step. The note that is one half-step above the 1 note is a sharp 1 note, or a 1 sharp. The black note that is one half-step lower than a 2 note is a flat 2 note, or a 2 flat. You’ll notice that a flat 2 and a sharp 1 are the same note. From the 3 note to the 4 note is actually a half-step also, since there is no black note between them.

Ok, back to our minor 1 chord. If you take the major 1 chord (1, 3, and 5), and lower the middle note of the chord (1, flat 3, and 5), you have turned it into a minor chord.

The same principle works in reverse. You can turn a minor chord into a major chord. The 6 chord is normally a minor chord. But if you take the middle note of the chord, and move it up one half-step, it will become major. In other words, a 6 chord is normally structured 6, higher 1, and 3. But if you raise the middle note (1, higher sharp 1, 3), you have turned it major.

This principle works on all 7 of the chords. In fact, even the 7 chord can be turned into a minor chord by doing 7, higher 2, and sharp 4, or major if you do 7, higher sharp 2, and sharp 4. Also, the black keys can be played as triads just as well as the white keys can. This is important to know, since most piano pieces you try to learn by ear are not in the key that we have been using.

The principles are the same in every key, and if you watch for them as you learn to play different pieces of music, you’ll find that they can be very useful.

Arrangement Practice Series: part 1

Arrangement Practice 1

I’ve decided to try something a little different today.  I don’t know how it will work, but I thought it would be fun to try.  In case you’ve ever wondered how a musician comes up with arrangements (cover music), I’m going to show you – at least this is how it is for me.

Some of you are familiar with the hymn, “I Stand All Amazed.”  I have been intending for awhile to come up with an arrangement of it, though I’ve never tried with this one before.  I’ve attempted to play it from the hymnbook, and have played the simplified hymns version from sheet music, so I’m quite familiar with the tune, but I’ve never tried to make my own arrangement.

So I’ve decided that for this particular hymn, I would record every bit of practice I do on this song – every minute that I’m working on this hymn, and publish that practice on my blog.  That way, you will hear exactly what I’ve been doing with it.  Obviously it will start rather pathetic.  It’s my first try at it.

My intent is to give non-musicians an idea of what I am doing when I come up with an original arrangement of a well known tune.  You might say I’m trying to expose some of the mysteries of composition.

If you want to know how to develop the skill to be able to work with a tune – or in other words, if you want to know how to get to where I am now, you’ll have to read the “Play by Ear, Write by Heart” series that I have been doing on this blog.  There is much of it yet to come.  But this series, we’ll call it “Arrangement Practice Series,” will be from my first attempt at a tune through to the finished product.  Maybe I’ll even throw in commentary along the way (none of which was spoken while being played – I simply don’t have the ability to do that).

I have no idea how many episodes it will take to have the finished job – maybe 2, maybe 20.