Building a Chord (Jazz)

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Okay! We are finally ready to play some real music… or at least the most important component part of some real music.

As we know, songs are made of sections and sections are made of chords.

Once you know how to make a chord, you can make a song.

In jazz piano we can make all chords with reference to the Major Scale .

Here’s an example of a simple “chord progression”:

C, Am, F, G

Here’s an example of a complicated chord progression:

Ebmaj7, Cm7, Fm7, Bb7b9, Gm7, C7b9, Fm7, Bb7

… but both are basically the same idea… that each “symbol” represents a combination of notes, and that those notes can be described in terms of the Major Scale.

This is best clarified by real examples.

Major Chords

The chord called “C” is made by playing the 1st, 3rd and 5th notes of the scale of C Major. The chord called “F” is made by playing the 1st, 3rd and 5th notes of the scale of F Major. The chord called “G” is made by playing the 1st, 3rd and 5th notes of the scale of G Major.

See a pattern developing?

Essentially the chord called “whatever” is made by playing the 1st, 3rd and 5th notes of the scale of “whatever”.

Put more simply:

C = 1, 3, 5 = C, E, G

Try playing C, E and G on your piano. Nice sound! That’s a “Major Chord”.

Combining this with the knowledge you have acquired from the previous lessons, you should be able to make the following chords:

C = 1, 3, 5 = C, E, G
G = 1, 3, 5 = G, B, D
D = 1, 3, 5 = D, F#, A
A = 1, 3, 5 = A, C#, E
E = 1, 3, 5 = E, G#, B
B = 1, 3, 5 = B, D#, F#

Minor Chords

Almost all good piano music is made of a combination of Major Chords and Minor Chords.

Minor Chords are made just like Major Chords, except we “flatten the 3rd”.

That just means we play exactly the same three notes, but the middle one is “lowered” by one semitone. You take the middle note and play the one to the left of it instead.

For example:

A Major = 1, 3, 5 = A, C#, E
A Minor = 1, b3, 5 = A, C, E

The “C#” has become “C” by being “flattened” to make it a “minor” chord.

another example:

C Major = 1, 3, 5 = C, E, G
C Minor = 1, b3, 5 = C, Eb, G

The “E” has become “Eb” by being “flattened” to make it a “minor” chord.

In practice, we don’t write “C Major and “C Minor”… we write “C” and “Cm”.

Combining this with the knowledge you have acquired from the previous lessons, you should be able to make the following chords:

Cm = 1, b3, 5 = C, Eb, G
Gm = 1, b3, 5 = G, Bb, D
Dm = 1, b3, 5 = D, F, A
Am = 1, b3, 5 = A, C, E
Em = 1, b3, 5 = E, G, B
Bm = 1, b3, 5 = B, D, F#

Now we have a “bank” of chords we can use.

A, B, C, D, E, G, Am, Bm, Cm, Dm, Em, Gm.

Hands-on Exercise

Play these chords with just your right hand on the piano…

Chord NameNumbersActual Notes
C1, 3, 5C, E, G
Cm1, b3, 5C, Eb, G
G1, 3, 5G, B, D
Gm1, b3, 5G, Bb, D
D1, 3, 5D, F#, A
Dm1, b3, 5D, F, A
A1, 3, 5A, C#, E
Am1, b3, 5A, C, E
E1, 3, 5E, G#, B
Em1, b3, 5E, G, B
B1, 3, 5B, D#, F#
Bm1, b3, 5B, D, F#

Try to see if any stick in your memory, and also see how they are made of 1, 3, 5 of the scale.

You can use this list for reference in future, so don’t worry too much. Just relax and try to hear the “quality” of each chord. They all sound unique and different, even though they are of only two types.

There are many other kinds of chords, of course, but these two will be plenty for us to start playing a few songs. We’ll meet more later!




Identifying The Structure

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This is one area in which Jazz (generally speaking!) is significantly simpler than most music.

Pop songs very often start with an intro, move into a verse, chorus, bridge, solo, instrumental, middle 8… lots of different sections in whatever order the songwriter chose.

Jazz is, for the most part, very simple in structure, and even simpler in description.

Essentially, the first part of the song is referred to as “A”.

The second part of the song, if it sounds a lot like the “A” section is referred to, again, as “A”.

Any part of the song that’s significantly different may be referred to as “B”.

If there are any more parts that differ from “A” and “B”, they may be referred to as “C”, but this is uncommon.

We then define the structure of a jazz song as per one of the following examples:

AABA

AAB

AB

ABCA

… the letters indicating which sections come after which.

AABA is the most common structure for a jazz song.

Once the structure has been identified, it simply remains to decide the following:

1) How many times do we repeat the song?

This will depend on really obvious things, like how long you want the song to be, how many players there are, etc.

2) What happens during each repetition?

Usually you’ll want an instrument or singer to perform the main tune of the song, then have a few repetitions for solos, repeat the tune in the middle, maybe again at the end. 5-7 times through the song is normal, but there are no rules about this.

3) How do we start the song?

Songs that were originally from musicals often have a pre-written intro that can be used if everyone knows it. In a “jamming” situation, these are almost always overlooked. Usually someone will just count 1, 2, 3, 4 and everyone starts together.

4) How do we end the song?

Songs can always be ended by simply playing through to the end of the song and then playing the opening chord. However, many people like to do unexpected and interesting endings, some of which we’ll cover in the “Endings” section later.

Have a listen to some jazz songs and see if you can identify the structure.




Overview (Jazz)

Jazz Piano Overview

We’re going to learn to play jazz songs on piano by understanding and interpreting them in a “modular” way (in terms of their component parts).

Jazz is an inherently “rule-breaking” art form, so practically anything I say can (and will be) met with hundreds of examples where it’s not the case. However, if I keep saying “in many cases” or “most of the time”, it’ll be a pain for me to write and you to read, so please just try to remember that the whole game of learning jazz is subjective and full of options.

The “Standard”, The “Form”, The “Head” and The “Solo”.

A piece of jazz music is usually made of a short “song” which is repeated many times with variation each time.

This will often be a “Standard”… an old song that everyone knows.

When the song is repeated, sometimes the melody is clear and familiar, or even sung with the correct lyrics by a singer. When that happens, we call it “The Head”.

When that’s not happening, there’s usually someone playing some improvised notes that catch your attention. This is called a “Solo”.

No matter what is going on, the band is operating using a pre-defined structure. This is called the “Form”.

All this stuff is vital… if it’s not crystal clear, go and listen to some jazz right now and try to identify the Standard, the Form, the Head and the Solo.

Chord Progressions

“The Form” is a long “chord progression”, usually made of 2 or 3 shorter “chord progressions”. We’ll learn more about chords later, so don’t worry.

Beats and Bars

Try this… count “1, 2, 3, 4, 1, 2, 3, 4″ over and over, out loud whilst tapping the table.

What you’re doing is creating “bars” of four “beats”.

Every four “beats” (1, 2, 3, 4) makes a “bar”.

Beats and bars are the unit of measurement we use to describe time passing in a song.

Most importantly, it is how we establish how long each chord lasts in a chord progression.

What’s the point of all this?

If you’re going to learn jazz in a relaxed, easy way… we just need to be breaking it into bite-sized chunks that are easy to handle, and this is the terminology we will be using.

The next lesson contains a more detailed look at some of these terms, then we’ll be getting stuck into some playing!




Building a Section (Pop)

Okay… it’s time to really play some music!

For this lesson I really have to pick a song to use. In future I’ll show you how to pick your own songs, but for now, we’re going to use “Stand By Me”, because I think you know it.

Okay, so let’s examine the song in the way we’ve described in previous lessons (LINK), now that we know how to break it down!




Building a Chord (Part 1)

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Okay! We are finally ready to play some real music… or at least the most important component part of some real music.

As we know, songs are made of sections and sections are made of chords.

Once you know how to make a chord, you can make a song.

In pop piano we make all chords with reference to the Major Scale .

Here’s an example of a simple “chord progression”:

C, Am, F, G

Here’s an example of a complicated chord progression:

Ebmaj7, Cm7, Fm7, Bb7b9, Gm7, C7b9, Fm7, Bb7

… but both are basically the same idea… that each “symbol” represents a combination of notes, and that those notes can be described in terms of the Major Scale.

This is best clarified by real examples.

Major Chords

The chord called “C” is made by playing the 1st, 3rd and 5th notes of the scale of C Major. The chord called “F” is made by playing the 1st, 3rd and 5th notes of the scale of F Major. The chord called “G” is made by playing the 1st, 3rd and 5th notes of the scale of G Major.

See a pattern developing?

Essentially the chord called “whatever” is made by playing the 1st, 3rd and 5th notes of the scale of “whatever”.

Put more simply:

C = 1, 3, 5 = C, E, G

Try playing C, E and G on your piano. Nice sound! That’s a “Major Chord”.

Combining this with the knowledge you have acquired from the previous lessons, you should be able to make the following chords:

C = 1, 3, 5 = C, E, G
G = 1, 3, 5 = G, B, D
D = 1, 3, 5 = D, F#, A
A = 1, 3, 5 = A, C#, E
E = 1, 3, 5 = E, G#, B
B = 1, 3, 5 = B, D#, F#

Minor Chords

Almost all good piano music is made of a combination of Major Chords and Minor Chords.

Minor Chords are made just like Major Chords, except we “flatten the 3rd”.

That just means we play exactly the same three notes, but the middle one is “lowered” by one semitone. You take the middle note and play the one to the left of it instead.

For example:

A Major = 1, 3, 5 = A, C#, E
A Minor = 1, b3, 5 = A, C, E

The “C#” has become “C” by being “flattened” to make it a “minor” chord.

another example:

C Major = 1, 3, 5 = C, E, G
C Minor = 1, b3, 5 = C, Eb, G

The “E” has become “Eb” by being “flattened” to make it a “minor” chord.

In practice, we don’t write “C Major and “C Minor”… we write “C” and “Cm”.

Combining this with the knowledge you have acquired from the previous lessons, you should be able to make the following chords:

Cm = 1, b3, 5 = C, Eb, G
Gm = 1, b3, 5 = G, Bb, D
Dm = 1, b3, 5 = D, F, A
Am = 1, b3, 5 = A, C, E
Em = 1, b3, 5 = E, G, B
Bm = 1, b3, 5 = B, D, F#

Now we have a “bank” of chords we can use.

A, B, C, D, E, G, Am, Bm, Cm, Dm, Em, Gm.

This is about half of the possible major and minor chords, but they are by far the most common in popular music, and we can proceed using only these.

Hands-on Exercise

Play these chords with just your right hand on the piano…

Chord NameNumbersActual Notes
C1, 3, 5C, E, G
Cm1, b3, 5C, Eb, G
G1, 3, 5G, B, D
Gm1, b3, 5G, Bb, D
D1, 3, 5D, F#, A
Dm1, b3, 5D, F, A
A1, 3, 5A, C#, E
Am1, b3, 5A, C, E
E1, 3, 5E, G#, B
Em1, b3, 5E, G, B
B1, 3, 5B, D#, F#
Bm1, b3, 5B, D, F#

Try to see if any stick in your memory, and also see how they are made of 1, 3, 5 of the scale.

You can use this list for reference in future, so don’t worry too much. Just relax and try to hear the “quality” of each chord. They all sound unique and different, even though they are of only two types.

There are many other kinds of chords, of course, but these two will be plenty for us to start playing a few songs. We’ll meet more later!




Overview (Pop)

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We’re going to learn to play pop songs on piano by understanding and interpreting them in a “modular” way (in terms of their component parts).

Let’s consider the components of a song:

The Whole Song

“The whole song” is everything from start to finish. At this “level”, you can consider the length, style, instrumentation, character, meaning, lyrics… everything you “feel” about the song is usually discussed at this level.

The Sections

One “level” down from “the whole song” are the sections. Here, I’m talking about the structure of the song as it goes along through time. This stuff will be mostly familiar to most people… a song may be comprised of things like “verse” and “chorus” as well as perhaps less familiar terms like “bridge”, “middle 8″, “intro”, “outro”, “solo”… etc. We cover all this in due course, but it’s useful to start thinking about songs in terms of the “bits” they’re made up of.

Chord Progressions

When approaching a pop song, all sections (more or less) should be seen as being comprised of “chord progressions”. A “chord” is a combination of notes that characterise a few moments of a song before “progressing” to another chord. Most of the character in popular piano music is underpinned by the “feeling” caused by progressing from one chord to the next.

Beats and Bars

Try this… count “1, 2, 3, 4, 1, 2, 3, 4″ over and over, out loud whilst tapping the table.

What you’re doing is creating “bars” of four “beats”.

Every four “beats” (1, 2, 3, 4) makes a “bar”.

Beats and bars are the unit of measurement we use to describe time passing in a song.

Most importantly, it is how we establish how long each chord lasts in a chord progression.

What’s the point of all this?

If you’re going to learn pop piano in a relaxed, easy way… we just need to be breaking it into bite-sized chunks that are easy to handle, and this is the terminology we will be using.

The next lesson contains a more detailed look at some of these terms, then we’ll be getting stuck into some playing!




Before We Even Start…

Of all the people who start to learn piano, most give up pretty quickly, generally saying “I tried learning, but I wasn’t any good at it”.

Of those who stick it out for a while, most stop at some point later, usually when real life prevents them from having lessons.

With this in mind, I have a few quick, important points to make:

IMPORTANT POINT 1

Piano teachers should (and never do) say:

“I will help you learn piano the way I learned. If it doesn’t work for you, but you love piano music, go to someone else.

So, I’m saying that now.

I offer free materials and inexpensive one-to-one lessons that have worked for many people since I became a full-time piano teacher in 2009. Many of those people came to me having had a “failed” learning experience in the past and now have a great relationship with their piano.

For some people, my ways don’t work.

That’s why I don’t charge until you see it working, and not at all if you manage to learn entirely from my free stuff.

IMPORTANT POINT 2

I do not teach people to read traditional musical notation.

Musical notation is not widely used in the writing, arranging or performing of most popular or jazz music.

While it’s a useful skill, I believe that many people fail to enjoy piano playing because of a disproportionate emphasis on sight-reading, which may not be something they enjoy or find straightforward.

IMPORTANT POINT 3

My approach to teaching is based on explaining how the music you enjoy came to exist in the first place.

It draws heavily on your many years of listening to pop/jazz music. This approach is ineffective for little kids.




Mapping Out A Song

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Okay, it’s time to start looking at how a song really works.

Songs are generally made out of sections, and those sections are referred to differently, depending on the kind of music.

For now, we’ll think in terms of a pop song. Pop songs are generally made out of the following types of section, most of which will probably already be familiar to you…

Chorus

The part that everyone generally remembers! It will usually take place several times and almost always contains the same words. An example is the “Bye bye, Mis American Pie” part of “American Pie”.

Verse

The parts that tell the story, there are usually several of these, and they sound similar, but the words are usually different each time.

Bridge

A short section that sometimes connects the verse to the chorus.

Middle 8

An extra section that’s entirely different from the other parts. Called “Middle 8″ as they’re often in the middle of the song and are frequently 8 bars long.

Solo/Instrumental

A part that has no words, and usually features a unique musical part played on some kind of “lead” instrument, like an electric guitar, trumpet, saxphone, violin. These are usually just verses with the lead instrument playing instead of someone singing, but might be a unique part.

Intro/Outro

A bit of music that’s used to start or end the song.

In Practice

A typical song may look like this:

Intro
Verse
Verse
Chorus
Verse
Chorus
Verse
Chorus

Or could be much more complex…

Intro
Verse
Verse
Bridge
Chorus
Verse
Bridge
Chorus
Solo/Instrumental
Middle 8
Verse
Bridge
Chorus

Or simpler…

Verse
Chorus
Verse
Chorus
Verse
Chorus

… but it will almost always be made up of those kinds of parts, so once you understand them, you’ll be on your way.

Put on one of your favourite songs now. Listen to it closely, and try to identify all the different sections.

Knowing how to “map out” a song in this way is essential. We need to break the song up into manageable bits so that we can tackle each one at once.

If you have any problems doing this, just fill in the form below and ask for help! I’ll get back to you as soon as I can.




The Circle of Fifths (Part 1)

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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.

For now, though, we’re just going to use it as a way to figure out the notes of each key.

It’s really simple.

The scale of C major uses all the white notes.

If we go to the fifth note of the C 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.

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If we go to the fifth note of the G scale, D, and start to play all the notes of the G scale, it will nearly sound like a major scale, right up until the last note, C, which we need to change to C# in order to make a major scale.

If we go to the fifth note of the D scale, A, and start to play all the notes of the D scale, it will nearly sound like a major scale, right up until the last note, G, which we need to change to G# in order to make a major scale.

If we go to the fifth note of the A scale, E, and start to play all the notes of the A scale, it will nearly sound like a major scale, right up until the last note, A, which we need to change to A# in order to make a major scale.

This carries on and on. However, for now, we only really need the scales of C, G, D, A and E and we can move on to the fun stuff!




The Major Scale

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The major scale is probably the most familiar sound in all of western music.

If you hear the words:

“Doh, Re, Mi, Fa, So, La, Ti, Doh”

… you will most likely associate them with an ascending sequence of notes. If you want to hear that sequence, simply find “C” on the piano and play it, then every white note above it, one at a time. If you try this from any other position, you’ll notice that it doesn’t make that same sound.

The reason for this is to do with intervals. When you play all the white notes upwards from “C”, you ascend by 2 semitones, 2 semitones, 1 semitone, 2 semitones, 2 semitones, 2 semitones and 1 semitone (2, 2, 1, 2, 2, 2, 1).

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If you start at any point on the piano and ascend by 2, 2, 1, 2, 2, 2, 1 semitones at a time, you will make the sound of the major scale from any point. This will require a mixture of white and black notes.

Try starting from any point on the piano and making a major scale from where you are without thinking too much.

Some people like to do this by trial-and-error… hearing the wrong notes they play and correcting them. Others like to count “2, 2, 1, 2, 2, 2, 1″. Take a few minutes now and try to make a major scale from any key (black or white) from the piano. You’ll see that some keys are harder to start from than others. Don’t worry too much about that now.

One of the fundamental skills of playing pop and jazz piano is being able to make the major scale starting from any note.

When you play the major scale, starting from “C”, we call that “the key of C major”.

The key of “G” major is the closest related key to “C” major, requiring only one black note (F#).

Try playing the scale of G major. The notes are G, A, B, C, D, E, F#, G. Only one note is different from C major, and the sound is the same.

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Sit at the piano and try to figure out what notes are needed to make the major scale starting from C, G, D, A and E.

The answers lie in the next lesson (the Circle of Fifths) but it’s really much better if you’ve had a go at figuring it out for yourself. Remember, you can find the notes by counting (2, 2, 1, 2, 2, 2, 1) or by listening for wrong notes and correcting them.