The Piano is an I/O Device


The piano is fundamentally an I/O (input/output) device.

It has an interface (keys and pedals), some mechanisms that process input (hammers, etc) and a means of output (sound, through vibration of strings).

This is not a metaphorical way of looking at it. I mean this in a completely literal sense. It is a machine designed to produce output for human interpretation based on human input.

In a general sense, a musical instrument is a device/tool/instrument.

I cannot think of any field of human endeavour in which we attempt to teach a child to operate an instrument in the way that it is considered normal to teach piano.

We don’t send kids to hammer/saw/chisel classes. We might send them to woodwork classes.

We don’t send them to tennis racket classes. We send them to tennis classes, or tennis comes up as part of more general sports classes.

We don’t send them to pen, ruler, pencil, spoon, whisk or paintbrush classes.

Come to think of it, there is one device that we teach for its own sake. The automobile. A device we expressly want people to operate in a specific, designated manner for the safety of others.

Anyway, let’s get back to what type of device it is… an I/O device.

The user inputs keystrokes and pedal operations and the machine outputs audio. If the device is faulty (from poorly tuned strings, broken hammers, etc), the audio output will be unexpected (“wrong”). If the input is not what the user intends, the output, again, will be unexpected (“wrong”). If the user inputs the intended keystrokes and the machine is not faulty, the “correct” audio output is expected.

When a child goes to “piano lessons”, it is almost certainly the case that the intended input is predefined. The object of the exercise is to take a piece of written music and train the child to enter the correct keystrokes for the device to produce the expected output.

Moreover, that will, in the overwhelming majority of cases, continue to be the object of the exercise throughout the child’s experience of learning to operate the device.

This system is great for people who want to play classical pieces. If you want to faithfully bring to life written pieces of music, this is the kind of tuition you require.

I wonder, though, for how many children is the recreation of classical pieces a priority? For how many parents is it a priority? In my experience, most parents want to give their kids the opportunity to “be musical”.

The current system is much like someone becoming skilled at painting and repeatedly recreating famous paintings, someone learning to program for the web and repeatedly re-making famous websites, someone learning to use Microsoft Word so that they can type out “Of Mice and Men” or someone learning to talk and using the skill to read famous monologues aloud.

There is an enormous duality existent in the minds of regular people, almost certainly due to a lack of any real quality time thinking about this matter.

Before the second half of the 20th Century people had to write musical ideas down on paper. There was no recorded music. This music (of which there’s an awful lot) survived through other humans sitting at a piano and faithfully re-enacting the intentions of the composer.

For lots and lots of years, then, “playing the piano” had a vital purpose in keeping alive music that society considered valuable. It was a noble pursuit.

As soon as recorded music became something normal people had access to, something exciting happened. Normal people started to participate in the making of recordings. As long as someone was able to execute their music and someone who’d finance it saw the value in it, they’d be able to produce art in the new recorded medium.

Without ever having to write proper musical notation, artists were able to memorise their own work, perform it, record it and distribute it. The jazz, pop and blues piano records we love are almost entirely produced in this way. The artist creates musical ideas, remembers them, executes them lots of times, records them and distributes them.

What happens next is bizarre.

The child goes to piano lessons. He/She asks to play music by Elton John or Billy Joel (or whoever), and the piano teacher pulls out a book of transcribed sheet music of Elton John/Billy Joel songs.

Never mind that this isn’t how the songs were written, how the songs were remembered, how the songs were played at any stage, by anyone in any part of the process of making the recordings or the live shows of the songs.

That problem is now more than 40 years old and is worsening daily. The musical landscape is now awash with creative bedroom musicians with loop pedals, complex rhythms never once executed by a human, regular speech autotuned into music… super fun crazy stuff is going on and the kids are excited.

Then they get to their piano lesson and it’s scales, fingering and notation… disciplines blatantly ignored by virtually all purveyors of top-quality modern popular music.

Make of that what you will.

Getting Better


So, you’re playing the piano a few hours a week, making progress.

Getting better.

Because progress comes at the expense of focused time, it appears logical that you’re “not good enough yet”. You could obviously be spending more time in a more focused way. Almost anyone could, on anything.

Thinking in this way can lead to magnificent results. There are great players all over the world whose constant self-deprication and unwillingness to accept they have “done enough” result in amazing performances that move audiences in inspiring, life-changing ways.

You will get better if you spend focused time at the piano. That’s a constant I find heartwarming and exciting.

That said, it is vital to assess your primary motivation. For me, the point of playing is to enjoy the feeling associated with engaging with and communicating musical ideas.

To achieve this, “getting better” isn’t really a goal at all, unless the music I want to play is demanding in a specific way I’m not currently adept at. In that case, I may need a period of focused time.

To have “getting better” as a primary motivation is very inappropriate to most people in most areas of life and causes all kinds of problems.

If the point of speaking was to get better at speaking, it would be a pretty bizarre state of affairs. Most people would speak only during speaking lessons and during designated speaking practice times, occasionally doing a nerve-wracking public speech (which is exactly how it is with music for many people).

Of course, the point of speaking is to communicate ideas (and the point of listening, by the way, is not to assess the quality of the speaking, but to receive those ideas). If you play the piano to explore and communicate ideas, it’s not appropriate to give yourself a hard time over your technical shortcomings in general. Just focus some time on them specifically and return to feeling glad about how capable you are.

Chances are, of course, you’re a fledgling communicator of music, whereas you’re an expert communicator of language. This may be frustrating, of course, but I don’t believe we turn children into great speakers by getting them to believe they need to get better at it. They just do.

You just will.

The Circle of Fifths


The circle of fifths is a very useful thing. Really, really useful. If you get your head around it, it will help with lots of things. Trust me.

It’s also really simple. Look…

The scale of C major uses all the white notes.

If we go to the fifth note of the scale, G, and start to play all the white notes, it will nearly sound like a major scale, right up until the last note, F, which we need to change to F# in order to make a major scale. This creates a “rule”. The rule is that if you take one major scale, the major scale built on the fifth note of that scale will be almost the same, apart from the last note will need to be sharpened.

Now, it just so happens that if you start on C, move up a fifth to G, move up a fifth to D, etc, and carry on indefinitely, you will eventually land back on C, having been through every key.

That’s basically it.

So, why is this useful?

Well, for a start, it allows you to have a way of working out what notes are in every key for yourself, rather than just learning them parrot-fashion.

Secondly, you may notice that in the key of C, G is the fifth, and in the key of G, C is the fourth. So, if you know the circle of fifths, you will automatically know the fourth and fifth chord in any key.

Thirdly, and I think most importantly, it allows you to feel the relationship between the keys.

There is a special kind of very subtle modulation between keys.

For example, listen to the sound of a major chord moving through the circle of fifths.

It is a very comfortable, musical sound.

This is because the first chord C is (obviously) in the first key. When we move to G, we feel like we’re still in the key of C because the notes of G are in the key of C. So, when we move to D, that’s the first suprise note, but it doesn’t feel so crazy because it’s in the key of G, which is a chord we’ve just heard. This can carry on all around the cycle and lots of great songs are based on the idea of moving around the keys like ths.

You can also move around in fifths whilst staying in one key, changing the chord to major/minor according to the notes in the key. Here’s an example:

C, G, Dm, Am, Em, Bdim, F, C

(I know Bdim to F isn’t a 5th, but we need to cheat a little to get back to C quickly! Also, B has no 5th in the key of C… it’s F#. You could experiment by going there and doing a key change or something).

Many songs are written by finding a pattern like this and “jumping off” at an arbitrary point into some other idea just at the point where it sounds too much like a pattern is developing.

You can move around the circle of fifths playing 7th chords. C7, G7, D7, A7, E7

The song “Hey Joe” is a circle of fifths. If you don’t know this song, you probably should. YouTube it.

Anyway, this thing is exceptionally useful, so don’t skimp on the time spent with it. Don’t make it a chore, though… explore it and have fun with it. Experiment.