The Very Basics

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The piano is an input/output device. There are keys and pedals. You press them in combinations and sound comes out.

This lesson is a quick description of the parts of the piano and some basic language that I’ll use in all subsequent lessons. The way I write about these things may appear mindblowingly simple, but clarity is extremely valuable, as we’ll see.

Strings

Inside a piano are many, many strings. Metal strings stretched tightly across a metal frame. That’s why pianos are so heavy. If you had the skills, you could pluck those strings to make music. That’s basically what a harp is. However, when we play piano, we don’t do that.

We use…

Keys

Keys are levers that trigger mechanisms that hit strings with hammers.

Unless your piano is electric, in which case, keys are levers that touch sensors that make some kind of computer play a sound based on a recording of a real piano. Either way, pressing keys make…

Notes

Notes are vibrations happening in the air. Notes are the basic unit of language for music. There are very low ones, very high ones, and tens of others in between.

The difference in pitch from one note to the next is quite small, and is pre-defined to make all pianos the same. For the purpose of learning music, you should consider that increment to be identical from note to note. We call that increment a…

Semitone

A semitone is the smallest unit of our musical language on the piano. Other instruments can make other pitches in between, but we can’t, and that’s fine.

The difference between one pitch and another on the piano can be measured in semitones. The colour (black or white) doesn’t matter. Starting from one note and counting up any number of semitones then playing the two notes will create an…

Interval

Intervals are the differences in pitch from one note to another. Starting at any point on the piano and playing two notes that are 3 semitones apart will create the same “interval” no matter where they are on the piano.

To talk about this, we need to be able to describe the notes, so we have…

Spelling

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For spelling, we use letters. You may have noticed that the piano has a repeating pattern of white keys with two black keys and three black keys mixed in with them. The note to the left of the two black keys is called “C”. The letters run in alphabetical order, so to the right of C is D, then E, F, G. After G, we start again at A, then B, and we reach C (which is the one to the left of the two black keys).

The black notes are described according to their position relative to the white ones. The one between the A and B can be called “A sharp” or “B flat”. For the purpose of learning this, think of “sharp” as meaning “one semitone up” and “flat” as meaning “one semitone down”.

So we don’t have to keep writing “sharp” and “flat”, a “sharp” is annotated with a “#”, a flat is annotated with a “b”.

When we play combinations of notes we are always creating…

Harmony

Harmony is the word we use to describe the language of sounds being played together. It’s a huge and complicated subject, really, but worry not! We don’t have to worry about it too much at first. It’s really just important to know about…

Chords

A chord is basically a combination of notes played at the same time. For example, we can play C, E and G together, and that’s a chord that we call “C”.

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In popular music and jazz, we deal very heavily in this currency. Chords are the first thing we need to know about in popular music and jazz. To accompany a singer (or yourself singing) or play in a group, you can get along very well exclusively playing chords.

Keys

WHAT!? We had this!

You’re right, we did. Sadly, the word gets used twice. A “key” is not only a physical object that we use to make notes happen, it’s also what we collectively call all the notes in a scale. So, the “scale” of C Major is what we call it when we treat the notes C, D, E, F, G, A, B, C consecutively, but all together we call that the “key of C major”. Please don’t worry about this too much. You can generally see “scale” and “key” as interchangeable terms, and I will.

To make this less confusing, I basically won’t refer to the individual note-making devices as “keys”. I’ll say “play a note” rather than “press a key”.

Beats

Music happens over time, and we need a way to mark that time… a bit like we use seconds and minutes in English. Beats are an arbitrary division of time. If you clap “1, 2, 3, 4″ you’re making a beat. We don’t just measure music in beats, though, as the numbers would get very high! So we need a bigger unit of measurement…

Bars

Bars are made of a pre-determined number of beats. If there are 4 beats in a bar, we can count 1, 2, 3, 4, 1, 2, 3, 4. If there are three, it’s 1, 2, 3, 1, 2, 3. In theory there can be any number of beats in a bar. In practice, almost all the music you play will have 4-beat bars or 3-beat bars.




The Circle of Fifths

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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. 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.