Building a Chord (Jazz)

20120929-144819.jpg

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

20130228-145728.jpg

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.




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)

20120929-144819.jpg

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!




The Very Basics

20120905-112506.jpg

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

20120905-113721.jpg

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”.

20120905-114550.jpg

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

20120828-135105.jpg

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.




The Circle of Fifths

20120828-140225.jpg

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.