Sunday, October 27, 2013

Visual Aid for Key Signatures

The visual aid

One late night I began doodling around the topic of key signatures. I had fun interweaving note names with numbers, and when I was finished, I found that I had created a musical tool that perhaps you might find handy.

The end result, in effect, is a visual fusion of a key (letter name) with its respective number of sharps or flats. Here I have posted the tool in two forms (click to enlarge each image):
  • Vertical (black and white), progressing in ascending fourths as you move from the top of the image to the bottom.
  • Circular (with color), as in the circle of fifths. As you move clockwise, you are moving up by fifths. As you move counter-clockwise, you are moving up by fourths.

Circle of fifths

 To use the visual tool...
  1. Locate your desired major key.
  2. Observe its corresponding number. This is the number of sharps/flats in a particular key.
  3. If you are in a flat key (the blue half of the circle), add that number of flats to the key signature by following the order of flats (B E A D G C F).
  4. If you are in a sharp key (the green half of the circle), add that number of sharps to the key signature by following the order of sharps (F C G D A E B).
 *Keep in mind this tool is designed for finding the key signatures of major keys. That said, it's easy enough to figure out the key signature for a minor key if you know its relative major key.
  • Relative keys share the same key signature. In the same way you and your relatives share similar DNA, relative keys share the same number of sharps/flats.
  • To go from a minor key to its relative major key, simply move up three half steps.
  • Example: To get from F minor to its relative major, walk up three half steps (F#, G, Ab). We arrived at Ab, which means the relative major of F minor is Ab major. Therefore, we can say that both F minor and Ab major have the same key signature!
**In these visuals, I included only one of the common enharmonic key spellings (Gb and F#). Other enharmonics include Db/C# and Cb/B.

If you found these visuals helpful or if you know someone who might find them helpful, please feel free to share!

Sunday, September 8, 2013

'A' Train Intro

Billy Strayhorn's composition "Take the 'A' Train" was the Duke Ellington orchestra's signature tune. The piece's introduction is instantly recognizable and prepares the listener for the rest of the classic composition.

Here's a transcription of the famous 4-bar intro (click to enlarge):

It is comprised of just two chords. The first chord is a second-inversion C major chord, and the second chord can be thought of as a first-inversion D9#11 (though it lacks the root). Using an enharmonic spelling, it could also be thought of as a third-inversion Ab7#5, but the D9 interpretation seems more fitting, if slightly incorrect, considering the D7#11 chords found later in the head.

These two chords are covered by the left hand, and the right hand plays melodically above. The right hand covers the span of a minor sixth, connecting E to the G# below with a glissando. The minor sixth is notable in that it is just a half step smaller than a major sixth, which is found in the first few notes of the tune's melody (G up to E). The introduction's minor sixth, in a sense, creates tension (as does the whole-tone color produced by the #11 chord), which is subsequently resolved on bar 1 of the head.

Have a listen to Duke Ellington and his orchestra playing 'A' Train (begins at 0:12):

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Bebop Scales

Around the 1940s, the jazz world saw the emergence of a style known as "bebop." The style is characterized by fast tempos and an advanced harmonic vocabulary, and it places significant importance on the improvisatory element of music.

In order to improvise in this jazz style, it is helpful to first learn the idiomatic harmonic "language" (vocabulary). So, here are a few bebop scales (each beginning on C) which can be practiced in all keys, and then applied to your soloing.

Three bebop scales

The scales are constructed by taking a traditional scale/mode and altering it slightly by adding one chromatic passing tone between certain scale degrees. This additional note results in an eight-note scale (rather than the normal seven-note scale), which is handy when dealing with 4/4 time signatures. The scale, played as eight eighth notes, perfectly fills up a measure, and helps the soloist more easily place chord tones on the strong part of the beat.

In order to apply these scales, consider a 2-5-1 progression. Use the Dorian bebop scale on the 2, Mixolydian bebop on the 5, and Major bebop on the 1. (You'll notice that the Dorian bebop scale contains the same notes as the Mixolydian bebop scale. Indeed, they are both modes of the same scale.) The example below applies these scales to a 2-5-1 in B-flat major.

Dorian, Mixolydian, Major

Monday, April 8, 2013

The Mental Component of Piano Playing

Lately I've been reading through George Kochevitsky's "The Art of Piano Playing," and most recently I have been reading the chapter titled "Growing Awareness of the Role of the Mind." It is the last chapter in the historical section of the book, which began with an explanation of the early schools of piano pedagogy ("the finger school" and "the anatomic-physiological school). The final school discussed in this chapter is dubbed "the psycho-technical school," and it has appealed to me perhaps the most out of all the schools, simply because I have a tendency to want to analyze my music and understand it theoretically before playing it.

The basis of this pedagogical school of thought is quite logical: any motor movements begin in the central nervous system. The muscles do not move without the guidance of the brain. So, even though repetitive, mechanical-type practice may seem to be effective in some cases, it is the brain which is making new connections. It is not merely a matter of muscles getting stronger. In other words, it is important to realize that what many people call "muscle memory" is something of a misnomer. It is the brain which (either consciously or unconsciously) is making new connections to improve the efficiency of the motor movements.

Perhaps this is obvious to most people, but since it can be easy to fall into the imperfect routine of exercising the fingers in a purely mechanical manner, it is important to remind ourselves: "The roots of talent are in the gray substance of the brain, not in the hands" (Kochevitsky).

The following are some words which support the view of the psycho-technical school:
Dr. Friedrich Steinhausen: "A quantitatively small alteration in the brain has much greater importance than the most significant muscle enlargement."

Otto Ortmann: The acquisition of pianistic movements is primarily a psychological process."

Michelangelo: "la mano che obbedisce all' intelletto" (the hand which obeys the intellect)

Franz Liszt: "Aus dem Geiste schaffe dir Technik, nicht aus der Mechanik" (Create your technique from your own inspiration, not from mechanics)
While training the finger muscles is an important component of piano-playing, we must remind ourselves that this training happens in our nervous system, and the learning is not contained in the fingers themselves. We must train our brains to understand music theoretically, to hear music aurally, to create a clear artistic vision, and to connect these ideas with the muscles involved so that the music may be executed correctly and clearly.

Saturday, March 30, 2013

Jazz Vocab: Beethoven figure

This is the first of what I intend to be many "Jazz Vocabulary" posts. We're kicking it off with some Ludwig van Beethoven. I played his Sonata No. 16 in G Major, Op. 31 (Movement 1) last spring, and within the piece, there is a recurring melodic idea (first stated in the key of G major) that works well as a jazz pattern.

The Figure

 Here's how it appears in the sonata, in the key of G Major:

(RH: treble clef, LH: bass clef)

I liked the shape of this line so much that I decided to integrate it into my jazz vocabulary. It's easy to construct and figure out in any key: It begins on the tonic, approaches the major third by a half step, encloses the tonic, moves stepwise down to the 5th of the scale, continues to the 6th with a chromatic passing tone, encloses the 4th, then continues down stepwise until making it "home" to the tonic.

Applying the Figure

It can be used over major chords, and is easily repeatable (as Beethoven demonstrates in his sonata), given you are using a proper fingering. For instance in the key of G, I make sure my thumb is landing on the root (G) and the fifth (D) of the scale. This ensures that the fingers are in position to repeat the pattern for the next octave below.

Practicing the Figure

Take this pattern around the circle of fifths all 12 major keys. You'll find that slightly different fingerings will be necessary for each key, but the adjustments are only minor. Many keys may use identical fingerings for this pattern. To get you started, I created a sheet with the pattern in the keys of C, F, Bb, and Eb. At the end of the sheet, I also included the pattern in the original key of G major. Fingerings have been included, but they are only suggestions, as your fingers might prefer something else.


In this video, I play the pattern first in C major a few times, then I continue to take it around the cycle, as per the sheet.


Download the worksheet: Beethoven Worksheet
Watch the video again: Watch again

Sunday, March 3, 2013

"The music is all around us..."

"...all you have to do... is listen." —fictional character, August Rush

I haven't gotten to the point (yet) where I walk down the street and hear the noise of traffic as a sort of symphony of sounds (as August Rush does). However, I do realize that there is that potential. Music has that boundless, unlimited potential. We hear a symphony orchestra playing and easily identify it as music, but we could just the same hear a car's horn and call it music.

This gets into a musical philosophy reminiscent of John Cage's, who said, "The function of art is not to communicate one's personal ideas or feelings but rather to imitate nature in her manner of operation." Music for Cage is a sort of "purposeless play" and an "affirmation of life," which serves only to present sounds as they are in their natural form, rather than to manipulate sounds in order to portray something other than nature.

August Rush (fictional), John Cage (nonfictional)

For Cage, this philosophy resulted in music which challenged more traditional notions of music. For example, his famous composition 4'33" contains no notated music. In fact, at first glance, it would seem the piece calls for complete silence (three movements of tacet). However, Cage's intention was for the performer to refrain from making sound in order to allow the other sounds in the environment to be brought to the aural forefront (e.g. a cough from an audience member, or a squeak from a chair).

Calling a stifled cough "music" may be hard idea to swallow for some music listeners, but for Cage, he saw it like this: Self-expression is not the most beautiful, truest form of art. After all, what we deem self-expressive is largely only a reflection of our individual tastes and biases which we have picked up during our lifetimes. These tastes are developed through a series of judgments, by imperfect, fallible human beings. The most beautiful, truest form of art is that which is untainted by human manipulation or judgment. So, for Cage, the the only way to express truth in a musical manner was to remove the performer entirely from the creation of the music.

This all challenges our traditional views of aesthetic. It is natural for us to develop tastes for particular pieces of art and distastes for others. We see a painting, and we very quickly cross-check it against our likes and dislikes and form an opinion about it. But, as Cage posits, what may be more "natural" in the "Mother Nature" sense of the word, is a life free of judgment. If we remove judgment, we are left with beauty.

Cage summarizes:

"Every day is a beautiful day. Everything is pleasing, provided you haven't got the notion of pleasing and displeasing in you."

(Easier said than done, Mr. Cage.)

But it is an important idea, I think. There are certain realms of life where judgments (well-informed) are necessary (e.g. dietary discretion at the dinner table to ensure a healthy, functioning body), certainly. But in our aesthetic lives, I think it's important to challenge ourselves to "turn off" judgments occasionally and try to see a painting with fresh eyes or listen to a new type of music, free of any pre-conceived bias. If we adopt some of Cage's ideas, we can work to broaden our aesthetic sensibilities and more easily appreciate the beauty of our natural world.

So, after all this talk of John Cage, here's a clip of 4'33" performed by David Tudor. Your task is to notice the beauty in the performance, whatever that may mean to you.

And if you haven't got the time for Cage, take a quick stroll down the nearest street and listen for some beautiful, musical car horns, in the spirit of August Rush.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Musical Mnemonics

For the beginning music student, reading musical notation from the staves can be tricky at first. Fortunately, clever music teachers have come up with several mnemonic devices to help remember the note names of the staves' lines and spaces (always ordered from bottom to top of the staff).

Here are some I've heard over the years:



  • FACE


  • Every Good Boy Does Fine
  • Every Good Boy Deserves Fudge
  • Empty Garbage Before Dad Flips
  • Even George Bush Drives Fast



  • All Cows Eat Grass
  • All Cars Eat Gas
  • American Composers Envy Gershwin


  • Good Boys Do Fine Always
  • Good Boys Deserve Fudge Always
  • Great Big Dogs Fight Animals
  • Good Burritos Don't Fall Apart

Do you have any favorites I should add to the list? Comment below!

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Augmented Sixth Chords (French)

With this post, I conclude the Augmented Sixth Chords series. This final installment takes a look at the French chord, in all its glory. (Click the images to enlarge.)

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