What is the Circle of Keys? Some people call it the “Circle of 5ths”, while others call it the “Circle of 4ths”. In reality, it is the same thing — it just depends on whether you move to the right or the left on the circle.
The Circle of Keys describes key relationships — which keys are most closely related, and which keys have very little relationship to one another. For example, the Key of C and the Key of G are very closely related, because they only have one difference — the F# which is in the Key of G. Otherwise, they use the same notes of the scale (but start on different points, of course).
But the Key of C and the Key of Gb have very little in common, since they have 6 differences — the six flats in the Key of Gb. (Bb, Eb, Ab, Db, Gb, and Cb).
Listen to this 10-minute podcast and you will understand:
Sadly, jazz is slowly becoming a dying art. Cities were once full of jazz clubs, schools were teaching jazz as part of their curriculum and the “coolness” of jazz was alive and well. It was as much a part of American culture as baseball.
The modern day is much different. Many of those storied downtown clubs have closed, schools don’t have the budget to teach the many different styles of music, and only the major colleges and universities now have jazz studies curriculums as part of their degree programs.
With all of the headwinds facing jazz music, that doesn’t mean that it is dead. Still, there are a large amount of people who like to play as well as listen to jazz and if that’s you, there are plenty of reasons why learning how to play jazz piano is not a waste of time. There are many places to play, bands to join, and modern jazz musicians are still producing a lot of new music. With that in mind, let’s look at how we can get started learning.
It’s Easier than you Think
Jazz is not an easy style of music to learn but from a practical standpoint, you can sit in with a jazz band and sound half-way decent much earlier in your development than orchestral music. Imagine trying to sit in with a professional orchestra playing a piano concerto just a few months in to your lessons. With jazz, you can do that.
Why? In part because the amount of chords you deal with in jazz is smaller and those chords often come in a predictable pattern. Every jazz pianist, for example, must learn the 12 bar blues progression in all keys that are common to jazz music. Once you know that, you know the chord progression of a large amount of jazz music and for those songs that don’t fall in to the pattern, you quickly learn by experience.
You should also learn to read a lead sheet. A lead sheet has the melody written out in traditional music notation as well as the chord symbols above it. Learn to read those chord symbols and how to properly voice the chords and you can play with a jazz group. You probably can’t solo with them yet but you can provide chords and background accompaniment. The best way to learn how to read a lead sheet is to purchase a fake book. The New Real Fakebook is one that is well known among jazz musicians.
Anybody who studied jazz in school or took lessons on any instrument related to jazz probably used the Aebersold recordings. This collection has more than 100 volumes of common jazz music. Some of the recordings have the lead line taken out so you can practice soloing and other tracks only have the melody so you can practice accompanying a melody. The Aebersold recordings may be the best way to learn how to play along with a jazz band and best of all, they’re fun!
Every jazz musician will have to learn to solo at some point. Most teachers advise to start with the first 5 notes of the chord and only play 2 or 3 notes per measure. From there, you can work up to more notes and more complicated rhythms.
As always, the best way to learn how to play jazz piano is to take lessons. If your goal is to learn jazz piano, make sure your teacher has experience in this area but remember that regardless of the style you want to learn, you should take the time to learn the basics of piano playing so expect some “classical” training in addition to studying jazz.
Did you grow up playing Chopsticks on the piano? I did. And many of my friends did. Even kids that didn’t play the piano knew how to play Chopsticks. It is probably the most “popular” piano song ever — not because it’s a great song, but because it is so easy to play.
If you would like to play it in a different way than everyone else, take a look at this short video. Perhaps it will stimulate some ideas in your mind that will apply not just to Chopsticks, but to arranging songs in general.
It’s fine if you WANT to play old hymns just as they are written in the hymnbook, but you certainly don’t have to. Most hymnbooks are written in 4 parts: soprano, alto, tenor and bass. But you as a piano player have 10 fingers and 88 keys — way more than just 4-part harmony. So what do you need to know to be able to arrange your own version of old hymns and gospel songs? Watch this short video and you’ll see.