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Play by Ear, Write by Heart: Part 6
Though it is not my intent to get deep into theory, there are some music theory principles that are very helpful to understand when trying to learn to play by ear or write your own music. One of these principles is the concept of the triad.
By the time I took a theory class, I understood the principle of the triad, because I’d used it so much in hearing and writing music, but it was in music theory that I learned the term. I will discuss it in a little bit different aspect than you would find in a theory class. We already spoke a little bit about a chord, which, as discussed, is group of notes played at the same time. The triad is the basic principle behind which notes make a chord, and why those are the notes chosen.
One thing that might help you see how a triad works is to do the following: label the notes on your piano 1 through 7, with number 1 on ‘C’. You can do it mentally, or you can get pieces of tape and write it on them. Put 1 on C, 2 on D, and up the piano so that the number 7 is on B.
For those who don’t know the letter system on the piano, just find one of the sets of 2 black keys (as apposed to the set of 3 black keys), and start with the first key to the left of the 2 black keys. That is number 1. Then going left to right on the white keys, number the keys 1 to 7. Then repeat the sequence with the next 7 keys. Each group of seven is called an octave. In music lettering, these keys are C, D, E, F, G, A, B, and the sequence repeats the same way.
Now let’s talk about the triad. Any group of 3 notes is a triad. For our purposes, we will stick primarily with a triad where there is a space between each note, such as the numbers 1, 3, and 5. This is a very basic and fundamental triad. Also, 2, 4, and 6, are another triad, and 3, 5, and 7 are another.
The 1, 3, 5, triad in our example is a C Major chord. It is difficult to explain this without terms, so let’s call this the 1 chord: Notes 1, 3, and 5.
Remember that this 1 through 7 sequence repeats throughout the piano keyboard. Everywhere on the keyboard that is marked 1, 3, or 5, is part of the C Major chord. There is one note between 1 and 3, one note between 3 and 5, and two notes between 5 and the next higher 1.
When you reach a higher 1, this is a new octave, but it is still the same note as the original 1.
There are many octaves on the piano keyboard, but each are playing the same note on a higher or lower level. I can hit a 3 on a piano, and then hit a 3 that is four octaves higher, and I am still in the same chord. The 1 chord. As long as I am hitting a 1 or a 3 or a 5, no matter what octave I am on, I am still playing part of the same chord.
Probably at this point you newbie’s are about to give up on this podcast because it sounds so complicated. Bear with me. These things are not essential to know in order to learn by ear, but they really help. It was at least a year or so before I caught onto this concept, but you can learn it in ten minutes.
While you newbie’s are thinking of whether or not you want to go through with this, you old-timer experts may be getting bored. You’ve likely long-since learned this. I know. You are welcome to skip to the next chapter if you feel so inclined. Otherwise you are welcome to bear with me. There just might be some important things for you to gain from this also.
Now that we have established the 1 chord, can you guess what the 2 chord would be? Notes 2, 4, and 6. Try these notes, in any octave, notes 2, 4, and 6, and you will be playing parts of the 2 chord.
The same remains with the 3 chord: 3, 5, and 7.
I hope it’s not too confusing if I use the term “2 chord” to mean the notes 2, 4, and 6, while referring to the “2 note” as being simply 2. I will also try to be consistent with how I speak of 2 chord and 2 note, so it doesn’t get too confusing.
By this same concept, when you play the notes 5, 7, and 2 (higher 2) you are playing the 5 chord:
So it is with 6, 1, and 3. This is the 6 chord.
No matter which octave you play in, you are still in the same chord. The same applies with all the chords up through 7. In all honesty, there are a LOT more chords than that, but don’t worry about others right now.
You may notice, as you begin to learn a piece of music by ear, that most of the time, when two notes are hitting at the same time, they are notes that are in the same chord. While chords may change every time you hit a new group of keys, usually the keys that are hit at the same time will be in the same chord.
When you get into this stuff deeper, you’ll find chords with four or five notes, usually in the same pattern as the three in an ordinary chord (i.e. 1, 3, 5, 7, or perhaps 1, 3, 5, 7, 2, etc.), but don’t worry about that right now.
Take some time to play with different chords. Try playing with the 3 notes in the chord all at once or one after another or in any other varying pattern. Just play the notes in a chord all over the piano, in all different octaves. Try a 1 chord, then a 4 chord, the some other chord. Have fun with it, and just try to get the feel of playing chords according to this triad pattern. We’ll talk more about chords and triads in the next podcast, so just have fun with it for now.