Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Chords, Part I

Anyone who wants to play jazz and pop needs to have a thorough understanding of chords. Of course, you can find pop or jazz tunes in arrangements where all the notes are written out for you in standard notation, but this is not the real way to play these genres, and these arrangements are often not particularly good. The essence of jazz, especially, is to play from a "chart" or "fake book," where you are given the melody and chord symbols. This gives you the freedom to make your own arrangement. But of course to do that, you must understand the symbols and understand chords and how they are constructed.

Students coming to me from other teachers usually fall into two groups as far as chords are concerned: they know nothing or almost nothing (if they have learned only classical from standard books and have never had to harmonize anything themselves); or, they have learned a bit but have gaping holes in their knowledge and have odd and laborious ways of figuring out chords when they encounter the symbols.

I'd like to show you how I introduce chords (which I do at the very first lesson).

We start by learning the C, F and G major chords, which are the three major chords that fall all on white keys. The student will use these three chords to harmonize their first several songs, such as Twinkle Twinkle, Happy Birthday, and many others, even the first part of Hey Jude (all of which they have figured out by ear). I also introduce the concept of I, IV and V, that these chords are built on the 1st, 4th, and 5th degrees of the C Major scale respectively. (They have already been shown the major scale and how it is constructed.)

After a few lessons I write out a page for them titled "Chords by Group." Without my having to explain every technical detail about how a chord is built, it gives them the ability to learn all the major and minor triads (3-note chords) fairly quickly. Here's how it looks:


C, F, G W-W-W
A, D, E W-B-W
F#/Gb B-B-B
Db, Ab, Eb B-W-B
Bb B-W-W

The W stand for white key, and the B stand for black key. While this is not very technical and does not tell them exactly which keys to play, they know enough about how the major triad sounds and is built, from having played the C, F and G chords, to know if they are playing each chord correctly. You'll see a pattern emerges. The A,D,E group (W-B-W) and the Ab,Db,Eb group (B-W-B) are like the positive/negative of each other, as are the B (W-B-B) and Bb (B-W-W) groups. The chords are essentially grouped by their physical "shape." Everyone who has tried this finds it easier to remember six groups and their patterns than they do to try to remember 12 chords with no apparent relationships. I absolutely do NOT want them to use a chart which spells out the actual notes in each chord (such as can be found in books, music stores, online, etc.), as this requires no real understanding on the part of the student and the student has no chance to observe or understand the patterns inherent in the chord structures.

With these 12 major chords, the student can now harmonize a great number of songs. Moreover, they can now start moving the simple songs they initially learned in the key of C to other keys. They simply have to play the scale in the new key (which, as mentioned, they have also learned in the early lessons), find the notes that would be I, IV and V, and play the chords. I regard this step of moving to other keys as extremely important. Otherwise, students spend far too long playing only in the key of C and develop almost a fear of other keys which use the black keys. This "white key mentality," as I call it, is very pervasive, and really holds the student back. (Most of the traditional piano books for the early students stay in the key of C far too long, so unless the teacher gives them pieces to play by ear in other keys, as I do, they get so used to playing only on white keys that they develop the fear of other keys.)

Then we learn the minors the same way.


A, D, E W-W-W
C, F, G W-B-W
Eb/D# B-B-B
C#, F#, G# B-W-B
Bb B-B-W

You can see there are similar patterns.

With all the major and minor triads solidly in hand, the student can harmonize a great number of songs, as well as improvise their own music, with very satisfying results. At this point they can be playing more advanced music by ear than they would be able to read from notation. This keeps the enjoyment high when the music they are learning to read is still very simple.

In the next post I'll cover inversions of the triads, as well as the other two types of triads, diminished and augmented, and the symbols for each. Then I'll cover 7th chords (4-note-chords).

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