Archive for June, 2011


Piano Improvising: 3 Areas For Improvisation

Friday, June 17th, 2011
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How Does Improvisation Work?

Improvising on the piano using melody, rhythm and harmony

Can I Learn to Do It?

There are main 3 ways in which a pianist can use improvisation in their playing:

– Melody
– Harmony
– Rhythm

If you understand how these areas work, and know how the original is supposed to sound, then you can learn how to improvise them. It’s like acting or doing a comedy sketch, you really need to know how to play the music correctly before you can successfully improvise with it.

Melody Improvisation

If you are going to work with melodic improvisation you can either decide to play most of the original music and only keep a few familiar phrases to identify the piece, you could play around with improvising just the odd group of notes here and there, or you could create something in the middle. Listen to what you’re playing. Does it still sound good? Is it still recognizable as the melody you’re supposed to be playing?

Harmony Improvisation

Here you have greater scope to improvise because the melody line will carry anything that you change in the harmony and still leave the listener feeling that they heard the tune they expected to hear. You could add more depth to the base line, or remove the base line. You could add a counter melody that works with the main melody. You could use the basic harmony chord structure and improvise this using such things as passing notes and suspensions to create a completely different sounding harmony that was originally composed.

Rhythm Improvisation

With rhythm improvisation you can play around with different styles of rhythm. Perhaps your romantic love theme could turn into a dance tune by quickening the pace a little. Cover artists often use this technique in order to put their own mark on a song made famous by another singer.

Apart from these structured forms of improvisation that deal with music already composed, you can also improvise using your knowledge of music themes and structure to create something completely new – a real time composition. This allows you to create a new melody line with harmony as you play and each time you sit at the piano to use this free form kind of piano improvisation you will compose something original.

Any piano player can learn to improvise using the above techniques but in order to perform an improvisation that’s fresh, but it takes practice. If you use melody, harmony or rhythm improvisation methods then you need to practice to ensure that you don’t fall into the trap of playing the tune the way it’s usually played. If you’re going to free form improvise then you must know how to bring a melody and harmony together with a rhythm in order to create something that sounds as if it’s always been that way. You are making it up as you go along, but the end result needs to sound flawless and that takes hours of free form practice in order to ensure that you don’t bring discord into the music by using a combination of opposing chord – unless, of course, that’s your intention!

For wonderful courses in improvisation and other related subjects please go to Improvising & Other Good Stuff!

Copyright June 17, 2011 by Duane Shinn. Do not use without permission!

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Extended Chords: What Are They?

Thursday, June 16th, 2011
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Extended chords - super chords!
Imagine if a painter only had 12 colors to choose from. He wasn’t allowed to mix them together, he couldn’t dilute the colors, he could only use one type of brush and every painter had to use the color and type of canvas. Visual art would be boring, wouldn’t it? Artists would have a much tougher time developing their own style and even the person with no interest in art would begin to notice that everything she sees is based on the same 12 colors.

If musicians could only use triads (Three note chords based on 1-3-5 of the scale) the world would sound like it would look with only 12 colors. The various styles or genres of music would be much tougher to distinguish from each other and their unique sound that we’ve grown to love would be gone.

This is why composers developed extended chords. Extended chords “extend” the basic triad by adding notes to it. Extended chords, combined with creative voicings, are what give the different styles of music their unique sounds. Let’s look at how they work.

First, we will call a triad the building block of all chords. Remember that if we have a C Major triad, it is built by stacking the first, third, and fifth scale degrees on top of each other. This is referred to as a C Major chord. If we add another note on top of our triad, we would add the seventh scale degree (because for now, we always skip a note in between). Now we have a chord called a “C Major Seven” chord. The notes of this chord are C-E-G-B.

We can add another note on top of that. Do you know what it would be? It would be a D because we’re skipping a note. Now, although technically D is the second scale degree because we went in to a new octave, when we’re building chords, we call it the ninth scale degree. So now we have C-E-G-B-D. This is a “C Nine” chord.

Are you seeing the pattern? The next tone we add would be an F and we would have a “C Eleven” chord and the next would be an “A” and we would have a “C Thirteen” chord. Of course one cannot extend to a fifteenth chord because we’ve used all of the diatonic notes.

As we always say, very little in music is painfully simple and extended chords are no exception. First, these are the most basic of extended chords. There are many others. For example, there is another seventh chord called a dominant seventh chord that is spelled, C-E-G-Bb. There are hundreds of extended chords.

The other complication with these chords is that the more notes that we add, the worse they sound if we don’t do some creative voicing. When we write a seventh chord, for example, we often remove the fifth of the chord. This gets increasingly complicated as more tones are added.

Now, go to the piano and listen to these extended chords. You’ll find that your musician’s toolbox has just been expanded. And if you really want to get up to speed on extended chords, grab our course on “Super Chords Made Super Simple!”

Copyright June 16th, 2011 by Duane Shinn. Please do not copy without permission!

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Modulation…what is it? (Adding color to your piano playing)

Monday, June 13th, 2011
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Modulation
Have you ever heard a piece of music that sounds like it was going along just fine and suddenly the whole thing sounded higher or lower? Or have you heard a piece that sounded just as happy as can be and then with the flip of a switch, it became sad?

This isn’t by accident. Composers employ a technique called modulation to accomplish that. So why do they do it, anyway? Sometimes there are real-world reasons such as a duet between two singers with very different ranges in their voice. By moving the whole piece up or down, two people with very different vocal ranges can sing it.

Often, though, there are much less technical reasons. Sometimes composers employ modulation simply to make a piece of music sound fresh in the listener’s ear. Music is largely based on repetition and repetition can get boring. Modulation makes the music sound fresh in the ears of the listener.

But you’re probably saying, “You’ve told me what modulation does but you haven’t told me what it is or how to do it.”

Here it is: Modulation is simply changing the key of a piece of music while the piece is being played. For example, maybe the key of the music was G Major but that key was getting a little stale in the ears of the listener so the composer changed it to A Major just to freshen it up.

Sometimes the composer changes the written key signature in the music while other times they don’t. If the modulation is a very temporary event, the written key signature often doesn’t change. If it is going to remain for a long period of time, the person playing the piece will often see a new key.

Now, you’re probably saying, “That’s really cool. How do I do it?” There are musicians who specialize in the study of music and how it’s put together. These people are called music theorists. They will tell you that modulation is often difficult. Not all keys can be used next to each other (the way not all colors can be combined on the same painting) There’s a complicated process in the world of music theorists.

There’s good news, though. There’s a whole other school that isn’t really a school at all. Musicians without all of that advanced knowledge figured out that sometimes modulation works by simply changing the key abruptly. They found that an abrupt change is sometimes pleasing to the ear. They also found that if they can get to the V Chord (five chord) which is the chord that is built on the fifth note of the key, that makes it easy to jump in to another key.

Those scholarly music theory types look over their glasses and say, “we call the V chord a pivot chord.” That’s just a fancy name for a chord that can be found in both keys.

By the way, if you’ve heard of transposition, modulation is different. Transposition is taking an entire piece of music and changing it to another key. Modulation is a change in key within a piece of music instead of the entire piece.

If you want to study modulation more, there are plenty of books written on the subject and those academic types are right, it is rather complicated sometimes but sometimes music is all about finding something that sounds good and doing it. Spend some time experimenting with modulation. We have a course on modulation and transposition at our catalog site – click the link below.
Copyright by Duane Shinn June 12, 2011. Do not use without permission.

Remember to check out all the piano courses at Play Piano Catalog!

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What in the world are “12 Tone Rows”?

Saturday, June 11th, 2011
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Head towards the internet and do a search for Arnold Shoenberg. Listen to some of his music and other composers who use the twelve tone composition technique and you will instantly have opinions. If you’re like many, your opinion will be extreme like or extreme hate.

12 tone composition, also loosely referred to as serialism was invented by Arnold Shoenberg in 1921. In traditional music some tones become more heavily used than others. Remember our discussion of key signature? If a piece of music is in the key of C Major, the note, “C” will be used in that piece much more than any other note with “G” probably being the 2nd most used. Notes like “D” and “A” will feel left out unless the music changes keys to D Major. Notes like F# may never be heard while the music is in the key of C Major.

Shoenberg knew that this unequal emphasis of certain notes is what gives traditional music its “traditional” sound. He wanted to invent a type of music that sounded entirely different than traditional music so he came up with the Twelve Tone Row. The basic principle is simple: You can’t repeat a note until you use the other 11 chromatic notes. Sounds simple, doesn’t it? First you use C, then C#, then D, etc. until you’ve used all of them. Then start again! This simple technique is actually very complicated.

First, we have to construct a row. To make our row, we have to use all 12 chromatic notes only once but we can use them in any order we would like. How many rows do you have to choose from? 9,985,920! That’s a lot of rows but it’s even more complicated than that!

If you were only allowed to play your chosen 12 tone row, that would be boring! There are a series of what Shoenberg calls transformations that we’re allowed to use. We can play our tone row backwards, (called retrograde) we can transpose it up or down as many steps as we would like, or we can “invert” the notes within our row (If a note went up a minor 3rd, we could move it down a minor 3rd instead), if we want to keep our 12 tone composition simple. We can then harmonize our original tone row of choice by using one of our simple transformations.

In actually, these transformations get extremely complicated. There are 48 different transformations when you combine transposition, inversion, and retrograde. (We’re leaving some of the more confusing parts of this technique out of this article so if you do the math, it won’t work out)

By combining different rows using their transformations, you will get harmony. The rhythms you choose are entirely up to you so the way your rows interact with each other is one of the many ways your music becomes unique.

Before you get too excited about learning this complex technique, don’t expect your 12 tone music to be pleasing to the ear in a traditional sense. It will never sound anything like the music you hear on the radio nor will your non-music friends have a lot of positive comments. You’ll hear something like “DUH! Even I could write that!”

12 tone rows is yet another tool in the composer’s toolbox. Play around with it and have fun!

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Review of Augmented Triads On The Piano

Tuesday, June 7th, 2011
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Once in a while it’s good to take a little review of the basics, so we’re going to take a quick look at augmented triads and see how they are formed and how logical they are. Augmented triads (3-note chords) are formed by raising the 5th of a major triad 1/2 step. Watch this 5-minute video:

Have you heard of the Crash Course In Exciting Piano Playing?

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