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!




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!




Bret McKenzie and Kermit the Frog sing “Life’s a Happy Song”

Remarkable.




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 Piano is an I/O Device

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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.