Archive for August, 2008


How To Play Piano Using Chord Symbols

Saturday, August 30th, 2008
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Chord Symbols

Chord symbols (for example, Cmaj7 or G6) are a type of notation used frequently in jazz and other areas of modern music to notate chord progressions and changes. This type of notation differs from that of classical music in that chord symbols don’t show the function of a chord the way the Roman numeral notation does. Chord symbols, for modern music with lots of changes, are much easier to read. They function as a sort of shorthand for change-heavy music and are written with four chord parts in mind: the root, the quality, the extension, and the alterations.

The first part in chord symbols, the root, tells the musician which note is the root of the chord. In an E6 chord, for instance, the E serves as the root. Chord symbols also allow for inverted chords, or chords with a root other than the bass note. These chord symbols express that by showing the bass note with a diagonal slash under the original symbol.

Quality, the second part in chord symbols, denotes whether the chord is major, minor, diminished, or augmented. In a Cmaj7, the maj tells us that the C chord is major. The abbreviations for this area in chord symbols are maj, min, dim, and aug, respectively.

The extension in chord symbols, written after the quality, shows the musician if the chord differs from a triad (a third chord), such as an eleventh or seventh. This part of chord symbols is not always shown; if there is no indication of an extension, the musician is to assume that the chord is a triad.

The last part in chord symbols, the alteration, is usually but not always expressed. Think of this part as the “notes” section in chord symbols; it gives the musician any specific (and sometimes irregular) instructions for playing the chord and is always written in parentheses after the extension (or the quality, if no extension exists). For instance, (no fifth) would tell the musician that the chord is to be played with the fifth tone left out. Sus – short for “suspension”, would mean to play the 4th scale note instead of the 3rd. A minus sign would mean to lower (flat) a chord tone, such as C-9 which would mean to flat the 9th of the chord. Conversely, a plus sign would mean to raise (sharp) a particular chord tone.

Reading music using chord symbols allows a person to use written music as a map, rather than a note-for-note approach. By just reading the melody note and the chord symbols, musicians can improvise to their hearts content and create their own sounds on the keyboard.

The best of all worlds, however, is to be able to read music as it is written in a sheet music score, but also be able to read the chord symbols. Then the musician is free to choose which is best – the written part, or an improvised part. The sky is the limit for musicians who can do both. For a course on playing piano using chord symbols, take a look at “How To PLAY More Notes Without READING More Notes”

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10 Piano Styles You Can Learn To Play

Friday, August 29th, 2008
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Piano Styles You Can Learn To Play

When studying the piano, a student encounters a myriad piano styles. To master the instrument, at least several of these styles must be learned, and all if at all possible. Knowledge of various playing styles enables a pianist to enjoy and play in any genre and to cross-polinate styles to create a fusion he or she can call their own.

Many modern piano styles are based on the blues. The blues involve an emphasis on the major and minor pentatonic scales, with an additional note included. The flatted fifth is added to the minor pentatonic to create the blues scale. Many blues songs are based on a simple chord progression, known as 12-bar blues. This uses the I, IV and V chords of a scale to create a foundation for melodies and solos.

For example, rock piano was born out of the blues and then took on a life of it’s own in the stylings of Jerry Lee Lewis, Michael McDonald, Elton John, Billy Joel, and many others.

Cocktail piano is a style generally connected with Liberace, Eddy Duchin, Roger Williams, and others who play popular tunes with lots of great technique — lots of notes, runs, flourishes, and so on. But I hate to catagorize and of these great pianists, as many of them play in other styles as well.

Boogie-woogie is a piano style based on the blues. It started as a solo piano style, but has expanded into other genres, such as county-western and gospel. It differs from the blues in that it is considered dance music, while blues music traditionally expresses sadness and frustration.

Rhythm and blues piano is based on blues, jazz, and gospel styles. As the name suggests, the emphasis is on the rhythm of the song. Most R&B has a particular swing to it, with a strong feel of syncopation in the rhythm. Syncopation involves placing the stress on a normally unstressed beat. This often results in an almost off-time feel to the untrained ear.

Ragtime piano also incorporates syncopation. Ragtime uses syncopation in its melodies by placing melodic notes between the stressed beats of the rhythm. Ragtime is often considered the first completely American genre, even predating jazz.

Jazz piano encompasses such a broad palate of styles that it is impossible to describe. Many piano styles incorporate ideas borrowed from jazz, such as improvisation. An emphasis on extended chord forms also stems from jazz piano.

New age piano often involves less chord changes than other styles, instead relying on simple two-chord progressions and polychords. A polychord occurs when two different chords are played at once. This technique is taken from earlier classical works by composers such as Stravinsky.

Gospel piano is often similar to the blues, jazz and R&B. It emphasizes certain extended chords, such as the 11th, and usually has the swinging feel associated with jazz and R&B. The apparent simplicity of gospel songs often hides the fact that they are, indeed, quite musically complex. Syncopation is highly stressed in gospel music, as it contributes to the overall spiritual feel of the music.

Country and western piano has similar roots as blues piano. Both styles stem from earlier folk styles, often developed by the less fortunate people of the era. Many early country songs stem from Appalachian folk songs. Country and western piano is highlighted by very bright playing, with simple chord progressions underneath the melody.

Traditional sacred piano styles involve the playing of liturgical songs and hymns. These can range from the harmonically and rhythmically complex to simple two and three chord songs. Many hymns stem from folk songs of centuries past. The variety of sacred piano styles is as numerous as the liturgical songs themselves. These piano styles often involve a strict reading of notation, with less of an emphasis on personal interpretation than other styles.

The classical piano style is probably the most varied of all the styles. Classical music is older than other styles, and is considered to the proper grounds for musical instruction. Many elements of other piano styles come from classical music, and nearly all forms of musical theory are used in classical music. Classical music usually requires intense training to master, though there many pieces designed with the novice player in mind.

Though classical is often considered the high point of music, this “ain’t necessarily so.” For instance, many players who are “classically trained” have trouble adapting to the feel and sincerity of the blues. For this reason, a well-rounded player should be adaptable and learn as much about each of these piano styles as possible. In this way, a pianist is ready for any musical challenge. And besides, who knows where the future of music lies?

Piano Styles Galore at PlayPianoCatalog.com

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The Jazz Piano Playing Genius of Oscar Peterson

Thursday, August 28th, 2008
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My first exposure to Oscar Peterson was in Sacramento at a concert called Jazz at the Philharmonic. It was a series of concerts and recordings produced by Norman Granz over a period from 1945 to 1983 featuring such jazz giants as Louie Bellson, Ray Brown, Benny Carter, Roy Eldridge, Ella Fitzgerald, Stan Getz, Dizzy Gillespie, Illinois Jacquet, Gene Krupa, Charlie Parker, Oscar Peterson, Barney Kessel, Lionel Hampton, Billie Holiday, Lester Young and a few others, including the great Nat King Cole.
Piano playing genius of Oscar Peterson

I was blown away with his technique, playing complicated improvised runs at the speed of sound, and having fun doing it — singing along, now and then laughing, and generally just enjoying the music almost as much as those of us in the audience.

From his early love of music to his last years, Oscar Peterson’s life was full with accomplishments and support from his family. The decision to become a professional pianist led to a weekly radio show and many performances in hotels and music halls for Peterson.
Although his life ended at the age of 82, Oscar Peterson had a productive career that ended too quickly. Named Oscar Emmanuel Peterson, he was born on August 15, 1925, in Canada. As a child growing up in Canada, he and his family lived in a predominantly black neighborhood called Little Burgundy in Montreal. Because of his surroundings, Peterson was largely influenced by jazz music, which was extremely popular during this era.
Peterson started playing and perfecting the art of the trumpet and piano at age five. However, tuberculosis caused him to stop playing the trumpet and focus primarily on his gift for piano playing. To develop his extraordinary skills, Peterson practiced scales and classical eludes every single day. His daily routine consisted of four to six hours of solid practice time a day. Studying with pianist Paul de Marky helped further refine his talents.
Peterson soon began to concentrate on jazz, ragtime and boogie-woogie music. Because of his newfound interest in emerging music types, he was nicknamed “The Brown Bomber of the Boogie Woogie.”
By nine years old, Peterson’s collaboration list was growing quickly. At fourteen years old, he won the national music competition hosted by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. However, his next life-changing decision proved controversial. Peterson decided to drop out of school and to become a professional pianist. The decision to become a professional pianist led to a weekly radio show and many performances in hotels and music halls for Peterson.
Oscar Peterson listed many of his personal influences in the musical spectrum. These influences included Nat King Cole, Teddy Wilson, James P. Johnson and Art Tatum.
After being heard on a radio broadcast, Oscar Peterson joined Norman Granz’s recording label called Verve. Quickly, Peterson was assigned to Granz’s “Jazz at the Philharmonic” project. This project included work with major artists and musicians including Ray Brown, Coleman Hawkins, Ben Webster, Milt Jackson, Herb Ellis, Barney Kessel, Ed Thigpen, Niels-Henning Orsted Pedersen, Louis Armstrong, Stephane Grappelli, Ella Fitzgerald, Clark Terry, Joe Pass, Anita O’Day, Fred Astaire, Count Basie, Dizzy Gillespie and Stan Getz.
From this point on, Oscar Peterson would be acclaimed for his genius work with his craft. His reputation grew, and he soon was a major celebrity in the spotlight. In the 1940’s, Canadian Radio hosted Peterson as a regular on many jazz programs.
By the 1950’s, Oscar Peterson was a household name all over the world. He was labeled one of the leading pianists in jazz music. His greatest asset after his unique, exceptional playing ability was his versatility. Peterson played in numerous duets, quartets, solos, trios, small bands and big bands. In the 1950’s, Peterson collaborated with Bill Evans and McCoy Tyner. Duos with Herbie Hancock occurred in the 1980’s. Performances in the 1980’s through the 1990’s often featured his protege Benny Green.
In 1993, Peterson suffered a stroke. Fortunately for the world, he recovered quickly. By 1995, Peterson returned to the world of musical performance.
In a tribute to his beloved friend and associate Norman Granz, Peterson named his dog Smedley two years before his untimely death. Smedley was Granz’s nickname from Peterson. Like the original Smedley, the dog Smedley had a great attachment and devotion to Peterson. Even at Peterson’s death, the beloved and loving dog stayed at Peterson’s side by his bed, refusing to leave him. Peterson died of renal failure on December 27, 2007. His fourth wife, Kelly, and eight children survived him.

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Changing Keys In a Song: What is transposition, and how can I do it?

Wednesday, August 27th, 2008
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Changing keys in a song

Transposition is changing the key of a piece of music, or changing the notes without changing their relationship. This is often done to make the piece of music easier to play or sing. It’s a common practice in bands that don’t perform their own material; the singer may wish to cover a song with vocals that are far out of his or her range. Transposition can correct that problem by shifting the key into a range that is comfortable for him or her. Transposition is also used with instruments. Some instruments (called transposing instruments) are not tuned to the same note; for instance, a Bb clarinet is tuned to a B flat and an alto clarinet to an E flat. Transposition of the sheet music for these instruments ensures that they won’t sound discordant when playing with the rest of the orchestra or band.
Transposition may be a simple concept, but it take lots of practice to achieve. The easiest sort of transposition — and technically it is not transposition at all, since it remains in the same key – is done by octave — simply moving the piece of music up or down eight steps. This sort of transposition may work for a male singer wishing to sing a female’s part, but it does little for transposing instruments or other areas of vocal work. In these cases, it’s best to use transposition by either scale degree or harmonic interval.
Transposition by scale degree uses the scale degrees of a piece of music to determine the relationship between the notes. Each note in a piece is assigned a scale degree (tonic, dominant, subdominant, mediant, submediant, etc.) and the same scale degrees are used for the new key. This type of transposition is potentially simple, as the relationship between the notes will always remain the same, regardless of the key.
Transposition by harmonic interval uses intervals as a guide for the transposition. By finding the interval between the dominant notes in the two keys, one can deduce the interval between the all the notes. If the difference between the notes is a major third, then transposition of all the notes will be done by a major third. This type of transposition is also potentially simple but calls for an added carefulness when dealing with accidentals that aren’t expressed in the key signature.
The very best way to transpose is to learn to think in more than one key. Most beginners start learning in the key of C, so after awhile they can think in that key — they know where the notes in that key are, and their fingers can get to them easily. Since every key a person can play in is mathematically the same as every other key, by learning to play in a 2nd key one can learn to think in that key, just as they did in the key of C.
Keys are like languages: if you don’t know Spanish, you certainly can’t think in Spanish, and when you learn to speak it, you will have to rack your brain for the right word for quite awhile before you begin to think in Spanish. Its the same in music — there are only 12 major keys in which you can play (in contract to languages, where there are hundreds) — so if you can eventually learn to think in all those 12 major keys, there is no key left that you couldn’t transpose in to.
Practically speaking, however, most people don’t need to know all 12 keys — just the keys in which most songs are written: C, F, G, D, A, Bb, and Eb. If you can learn the other six too, that’s fabulous, but you can certainly get by with just those 6 keys, or perhaps even less — and least C, F, and G — the “big 3” when it comes to keys.

To learn more about transposing, go to How To Transpose & Modulate
and How To Think In The Key

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Swing Bass for Piano: Get Your Left Hand In Action

Tuesday, August 26th, 2008
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Left hand swing bass
It is called “swing bass” because your left hand swings back and forth between a low note (or group of notes, such as a 10th, alternating with a chord in the area right below middle C.

You definitely know the sound of swing bass when you hear it, even though you may not know its characteristic name. The swing style of playing is great for the piano because of the left-hand, right-hand ability the piano affords. You can play swing bass on the piano with the left hand while the right hand improvises a melody over it.

Swing bass starts with an underlying lower register note feel given to a song. Its roots are in jazz from the 1920 to 1940 era. During the 1920s, dance music was very popular in North America. This dance music was of the jazz form. During this 20-year period, some of jazz music’s most creative musicians and composers stretched the limits of this music.

Dance music tradition dictated sticking to melodies as written. The pioneers of swing music and swing bass arrangements felt that melodies needed each individual musician’s interpretation. Improvisation became the norm, and jazz had a new form that gave musicians a lot of freedom for personal music expression.

Of course, these freer melodies required a supporting bass line that fit the swing style. The swing bass style developed based on rhythm, harmony, and melody elements. Other names for swing bass are “stride” or “striding bass.” The harmonic unit for swing bass is sometimes tenths in the left hand. The piano player plays notes that are 10 scale notes apart from each other, often with the 5th of the chord included between the root and the 10th (10th is the same as a 3rd, except an octave higher)taking big strides from the low group of notes up to the chord somewhere around or below middle C. Often on the 3rd beat of a measure the 5th of the chord is used as the low note, followed by another chord on the 4th beat.

The harmonic unit for swing bass is a combination of half-note swing bass and quarter note “walk bass.” The “walk bass” involves playing the fundamental, third and fifth notes of a chord. The leaps are not as extreme in the walking bass. Therefore, a pianist can mix the great striding sounds of swing with the shorter leaps of sound of the walking bass. This lends variety to a swing piece and gives it that unique jazz feel.

The melodic unit of swing music to improvise over the swing bass are quarter, eighth, sixteenth and triplet notes. Again, playing around with these note values to shorten or lengthen note sounds is at the heart of swing playing and jazz improvisation. A piano player can jazz up even the most basic popular song by adding swing elements to a piece.

The swing bass sound and feel is great for the piano because of the lower notes. A piano player can give a bass feel to a song without a string bass player present. The style a bass player would use can be part of the song, although the tone will be different. This is because string bass creates a warmer sound, while the piano makes a more percussive sound. While a string bass player can swing by bending strings and doing glissandos, a pianist cannot. The pianist can give the swing bass sound a more articulated, harder edge with the percussive abilities the keys afford.

When should piano players use the swing bass style? It’s ideal when a song needs jazzing up in a solo performance. Without accompanying musicians to provide support, pianists can lay down their own swing bass line. In addition, a band missing the services of their bass player can have their pianists perform emergency swing bass services. They can vamp away with their left hand and still have the freedom to create right-hand melodies.

Swing bass is great for changing the mood of a song for jarring contrast. Staid classical or traditional popular songs are great for this. Your listeners expect the next logical sounds to emanate from the piano, as is normal for the piece you’re playing. They are familiar with the tune and have pre-conceived expectations of how it will sound. You can surprise them by tossing in a section with swing bass and swing melody. It will delight and surprise them and keep them alert for any other surprises in the rest of your playing.

Consider the swing bass style for some of your piano playing. It is a great tool for lending spark and variety to songs. You’ll hit your stride as you practice this technique more and keep your audience swinging with your music.

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