Hopefully you are enjoying the sensation of musical weightlessness after this past week of improvising! No written notes to hem you in, rather the opportunity to play almost anything you want, whenever you want. Within a few necessary guidelines (like keeping your spacesuit on), you are free to improvise, to create, to express yourself. You never have to play the same thing twice, if you don’t want to.
And now you want to reach higher, try out some other tools in your arsenal.
The next place to explore, the most logical next step on our odyssey is:
The red planet. The god of war. The best movement of Gustav Holst’s “The Planets” and the home of Marvin the Martian.
We talked recently about creating a song out of three basic chords. How simple can you create harmony and still have a functional tonal center?
Let me take you in another direction this week. How can we envision and pigeon-hole every progression that ever was or will be? What kind of structure would we need to wrap our minds around all the possibilities?
We’ve talked about rings of growth representing more and more tonal material, but they are pretty static. We need an analogy that’s more dynamic, more inspiring.
Feels like we’re shooting for the stars. Hey – that’s it! We’ll look at exploring music theory as an ever-expanding set of skills and concepts which we will call the Music Theory Solar System.
Our first goal in exploring this Music Theory Solar System (stay with me) will be to actually escape the earth’s gravitational pull by playing some simple songs with just a few chords. Then we’ll start to improvise lead lines as we explore the moon (I know, sounds a little like PBS. Patience.)
Escaping Earth’s Gravity
Now if we’re going to explore the universe, we’ve got to master some fundamentals. If we don’t, our efforts have no chance of success. None. So we start small and simple.
For this metaphor, I’ll assume you have an instrument (which could be your voice). I will also assume you know how to play to some degree. After all, the Wright brothers knew a little something about mechanical engineering, gravity and physics before they flew, too.
So our first direct effort toward exploring the Music Theory Solar System is to escape the earth’s gravitational field. For the guitar player, this will mean playing a few chords and changing from one to another without dropping a beat.
It means playing clear tones with the tips of your fingers. It means knowing what a major scale is and how to build it.
And it means learning bar chords.
Being able to play a series of chords, that is, a “chord progression” is absolutely foundational. The simplest chord progression to build upon is a I IV V progression. For a more in-depth discussion of this type of chord pattern, check out When You’ve Only Got 3 Chords To Use…, and try a few songs from the list you find there. These are not all I IV V, but most are. And they will be great songs to build on.
These chords will allow you to play simple folk, country, and rock & roll styles. I’m sure there are others. But these three chords are where we start.
So if you’ve got those first techniques learned and you’re playing some I IV V songs (even if you still make mistakes), we can proceed. Next stop: the Moon.
To The Moon
To make it to the moon in this analogy is to add simple melodies over the I IV V progressions you know. To do that, you’ll need to learn a simple scale pattern as a basis for improvising (making it up as you go along). The simplest scale pattern to use? The major pentatonic mode.
One of the early fundamentals is to know how to build major scales (each major scale is a series of 8 tones in a whole-whole-half-whole-whole-whole-half step pattern). We assign numbers to the scale tones so that we are now talking about a major scale as 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8.
The major pentatonic mode is really a partial scale. Pentatonic means “5-tone”, and the tones we’ll use are the 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 5th and 6th. A mode is simply an altered scale.
Now to improvise on a I IV V song, the best place to start is thinking about the major pentatonic mode that complements each of the chords. We’ll use the key of C as an example. The I chord is C major, the IV chord is F major, and the V chord is G major.
When the I chord happens, improvise using the 1 2 3 5 6 1 of I (C), that is, C D E G A C.
When the IV chord happens, we’ll use the 1 2 3 5 6 1 of IV. IV is F major, so the mode will turn out to be F G A C D F.
And when we hear the V chord, G major, we’ll improvise using the 1 2 3 5 6 1 of V, which is G A B D E G.
Record yourself playing a single chord, let’s say C, for 2 minutes. Or if you’ve got recording software, program the chord in and loop it to repeat. Then, listening to that chord, find the notes in the C major pentatonic mode on your instrument, and make it up as you go along. As long as you stay on those 5 letter names, you can’t play a wrong note!
Do the same for F, then for G.
The next step is to combine chords and create progressions. Loop 2 measures of C going into 2 measures of F, then improvise to each chord, making sure to change your mode exactly when the chord changes. Now combine C and G in the same manner, and improvise using the C and the G major pentatonic modes.
Finally, put all 3 chords together in some repeatable pattern. Like one of those 3-chord songs. Making sure you are always playing the mode that matches the chord you’re hearing, improvise your way through the song. Have fun, explore, jam out!
And when you look over your shoulder, don’t be surprised to see Earth in the distance.
Have you escaped the Earth’s gravity and learned to improvise yet? What aspect of it do you find the most fun?
Please leave your comment below, or email any questions you have about improvisation, music theory or Next-Step Musicianship to [email protected].
Probably quite a few. I was half-listening to the radio in the car when I heard Robert Palmer’s “Bad Case Of Lovin’ You” come on. (Doctor, doctor, give me the news, I’ve got a …bad case of lovin’ you.) Really catchy. Fun song.
It’s also a simply constructed song. 3 chords total in the whole thing. Actually, I may have heard a 4th chord in there during the bridge, but I think it only happened once.
So how can you have a song that is satisfying to listen to but only has three chords? Is that really enough? And how often does that happen?
Well, it happens a lot. Here are some you may have heard:
All About That Bass (Meghan Trainor)
All Along The Watchtower (Bob Dylan)
Johnny B. Goode (Chuck Barry)
Louie, Louie (The Kingsmen)
One Of Those Nights (Tim McGraw)
She’ll Be Comin’ Round The Mountain (traditional)
Steamroller (James Taylor)
Sweet Home Alabama (Lynard Skynard)
This Land Is Your Land (Woody Guthrie)
…just to name a few.
It Takes Three, Do The Math
Here’s what’s going on.
Just like your smartphone needs at least 3 cell towers in order for the GPS to figure out exactly where you are (the process of triangulation), it takes 3 chords to inescapably lead the ear toward 1 of them as the focal point, the key center. You’ve got to have at least 3.
If the song is entirely built on a single chord, your ear finds no tonal contrast and no perspective. All it knows is the single chord, and unless the rhythms, dynamics and textures are really interesting, the song will be Boring. Capital B.
And if the song is built using only two chords, you won’t be able to determine which one is the key center between the two. Through other means maybe, like having one chord last longer than the other, or putting one on the strong beats and the other on weaker beats. But tonally speaking, the chords will have equal weight.
So it takes three. Think about basic geometry (and this is about as far as my mathematical prowess goes): how many points does it take to give us perspective, to cause us to see a form? A single point is only a point, and it has nothing to do with anything. With two points, I can create a line segment. But I still don’t have perspective. Which side of the line segment am I on? I don’t know with only two points.
But with three points, I can draw a triangle. Now I can say I’m on this side or that side of the form. I now have perspective.
Three Facets Of The Songs You Listen To
In music theory terms, the three chords that form the basis of a key are the tonic, sub-dominant and dominant. These are the chords built from the 1st, 4th and 5th of the scale, and it’s true of both major and minor keys.
Without getting into the actual mechanics of why this is true (I will in the future), think of these three chords as each having their own feel, their own point of view.
The I chord (built from the 1st of the scale) is the tonic chord, and it is the focal point of the entire song. It’s all about the I chord. No matter how much you play or don’t play that chord, it’s still the main subject of the conversation. And it’s the only chord you can play that will make the song sound finished at the end.
The IV chord (built from the 4th, go figure) is the sub-dominant chord, and it is away from the key center, wanting to go somewhere but it doesn’t know where. It is a waiting chord. Waiting to resolve. All dressed up with nowhere to go.
The V chord (you guessed it, built from the 5th) is the dominant chord, and it is also away from the key center. But because of the way it’s built, it has an inherent tension that needs to be satisfied. It is an expectant chord, it knows exactly where it wants to go: back to the I chord.
Dressing It Up With Other Options
Even when the chords are not I, IV and V, often substitutions can be made. Using relative minors and secondary minors, chord patterns become much more interesting while still absolutely tied to the tonic/sub-dominant/dominant triangle.
Embellish the chords with additional scale tones (6ths, 7ths, 9ths, etc.) and you get more and more color. And you’re still tied to the triangle.
What’s Next For You?
Start listening for the tonal triangle everywhere you hear music. Listen for three different feels from the chords. Look for the triangle in the songs you play. When you start recognizing it, it will get easier and easier to spot.
And all my rambling will make perfect sense.
How many songs can you play with three chords? Can you hear the triangle?
Please leave your comment below, or email any questions about music, theory and next-step musicianship to [email protected]
If you are even slightly a creative type, you have already come face to face with the challenge of keeping track of new ideas.
The new approach that dawned on you when you were out for a walk, but had left the building by the time you returned.
The plot line or song lyric that made perfect sense while you were trying to get to sleep, then had evaporated in the morning.
The fresh color combination, the on-target illustration, the untried design – all of these were crystal clear in your mind’s eye, but somehow slipped away by the time you needed them.
I know the feeling, you have my sympathy!
New ideas will hit me at almost any time, day or night. I may have been musing on some problem, or writing a new song. Something in my travels will strike me as a great idea for a blog post or an ebook, and I’ll need to write it down before I forget it. Because forget it, I most certainly will.
I’ve tried many systems over the years. All of them are good, but they don’t all work for me. I’ve had to experiment to find what does work for me.
For example, if I am writing a song in my head and get to a point where I need to put it into a tangible form, I’ve got a few choices at my disposal:
I can write it down in music notation, complete with staff, measures, notes and lyrics. This, by the way, is by far the most accurate way to write it down. Music notation is an elegant language developed over more than four centuries by musicians who wanted to do exactly what I’m talking about. Yet, if I don’t have staff paper or computer software, I’ll need to start from scratch, drawing 5 long, parallel lines close to each other to create the staff. Takes practice, and I’ve done it often. It is difficult, however, if the paper I have is not full size. (I know the Gettysburg Address was written on a napkin, but he wasn’t composing music, which I believe is a much more difficult proposition.)
I can record it with the voice recorder on my smartphone. Just needs to be transcribed later.
I can write it using my own symbols and numbers to which I assign specific values and meanings. This has probably been the most helpful to me, come to think of it. I’ll use arabic numerals (1,2,3,4, etc.) for scale tones and roman numerals (I,ii, iii, IV, etc.) to represent chords. I’ll use a long horizontal line with a slash at each end with a number over it to represent a group of measures (looks like a multi-measure rest), along with greater than or less than signs (< >) to indicate relative volumes.
And if it’s not music we’re talking about, just keeping a notepad handy can solve the problem. Grab a stack of smallish notepads from your local drugstore and put one in your car, by your bed, in your coat pocket, in your kitchen, by your computer, by your TV… you get the idea. And make sure you also have a pen or pencil in each location.
So once we’ve got the new idea “committed to paper”, so to speak, what do we do with them? You can stick it in your pocket, as long as you have a deliberate time when you will retrieve it. I charge my smartphone at night, so when I plug it in, I also make sure I go through my pockets for anything else that might be important. Skipping this step will result in finding your song idea at the bottom of the washing machine, an inert lump of shrunken wood pulp.
Rick Warren, pastor of Saddleback Church, has his “black box”. During the day, whenever a new idea strikes him, he’ll grab any scrap of paper and write it down, then stick it into his “black box”. At regular intervals (weekly, monthly, yearly) he will go through all of the notes he has collected and file them away topically, ready to use for sermon illustrations. I like this idea, it’s really easy on the front end. But the filing it away takes both discipline and a topical framework within which to put the notes.
I’ve found three software tools that have been working really well for me: Shazam, iTunes, and Evernote
When I listen to songs in the car, I will often run across tunes that inspire me and that I don’t want to forget. A couple of taps on my Shazam app, and the program has identified the song, adding it to a growing list of songs I’ve researched. Then, when I’m at my computer (and not driving!), I’ll pull up the list it saved for me, get on iTunes and inexpensively buy the songs. The last step is to put the downloaded songs into an iTunes playlist that reminds me to come back to it. I use “composing inspiration”, or “gems”, or “Christmas” as playlist names, for example.
For pretty much everything else, I use Evernote on my computers and on my phone. I can type in a note, clip it off the web, send emails to it, even voice-record notes and take photos, all saved as “notes” within the program. To each note, I quickly add a tag, like “lyrics”, ToDo Today”, or “home projects”. Any label you find helpful is fine. Later, you can search for all the notes with a particular tag with no further sorting or filing.
Hope these help you stay on top of the ocean of ideas churning through your brain!
What do you do with new ideas? Have you found a system that works for you?
Please leave your comment below, or email any questions about music, music theory and next-step musianship to [email protected].
With Thanksgiving around the corner, it’s time for us to be thinking about what we’ll prepare for the feast. The list of favorite dishes has grown over the years, and some are now not just expected, they are highly anticipated (sometimes with threats involved if we don’t make them…) Though they will be made from different ingredients in different kitchens with different types of expertise applied, they all have their place of honor on our Thanksgiving table.
So here’s my analogy for this week: figuring out how to play a song is like sitting down to the feast. Where do I begin? Is there anything new here I don’t want to miss? And will there be enough food to go around? (This last one is never a problem at our house.)
Starting Your Song Chart
To chart the song you want to learn, that is, to write it down as you listen, start by drawing a forward slash for each beat you hear. Group them in however many beats you hear in a repeating fashion. Are you hearing 3 beats in each measure, or 4, or maybe 6? Write 4 measures this way for each line of the song, then leave another space between the big sections of the song.
And by the way, if you’ve never tried charting a song, let me encourage you to go for it. You’ll experience new understanding and enjoyment of songs you’ve heard, with new appreciation for the artistry behind them. With practice, you’ll get better and better at it. It will take some focused time, but yes, you can learn how to do it!
Components in 4s
The components of a song, particularly a pop song, are predictable. Rare are the exceptions. Now a composer can create whatever she wants, she has that freedom. But if she wants her song to be heard and embraced by her audience, she will have to stay within normal boundaries most of the time. We expect it.
Each song has (are you ready?) a beginning, a middle, and an end (not rocket science). And we feel the most natural connection with a song when its smallest components are based on the number 4. 2s, 3s and 6s are frequently used as well, but 4 is the default. Historically, 4 beats in each measure is even referred to as “common time”. 4 beats to a measure, 4 sub-divisions to each beat (sixteenth notes), 4 measures per sung phrase, 4 phrases in a verse.
We like 4. So as we start to listen critically to a song, that is what we’ll expect. Try tapping your foot on each beat in the song, and see if it doesn’t reflect the number 4 in some way.
Though the sections within the song will each be built in 4s, the composer might play with timing somewhat. Just for variety, a measure with only 2 beats might be inserted somewhere to make lyrics or the melody flow better. Or, in order to keep energy ramping up, the start of one section may actually overlap with the last measure or two of the previous section. Like the end of a chorus going into an instrumental, for example. As the vocalist is singing the last word of the chorus, the instrumental begins, ignoring the fact that the chorus still had two measures to go. Makes you feel like the instrumental couldn’t wait to get started.
The song’s intro that provides the first impression, maybe a preview of what will follow. Here we’ll find the key, the tempo, and the mood. Soon, as the lyrics begin in the first verse, we get a peek under the hood at the content of the song. The groove, if it is not already in motion, starts here.
The verse may present the problem to be solved or the circumstance to be celebrated or grieved. It introduces the characters in the play and the direction the vocalist wants to go in the song. Might be a story, an intense emotion, or a situation.
The first line of the verse should draw the listener into the second line, the second into the third, and so on. Short or long, at the end of the verse, the listener is intrigued. Not committed yet, but curious.
A segment less often included but quite effective might be placed right after the verse. It has been labeled in recent years, the “Pre-Chorus”. It’s job is to build more tension and more expectation that will be brought to fruition in the Chorus itself. Usually this will be just a couple of phrases, leaving you hanging.
Finally, after all this preparation, we get to the Chorus. The song title is probably in here, along with the hook (the phrase you just have to sing along with). It will answer the question or flesh out what was hinted at earlier. Now it is very clear why the composer wrote this song. The Chorus will typically sound bigger and fuller, with additional instruments and vocals, even an orchestra to add to the layers of sound.
After you’ve listened through the Verse and the Chorus, what you’ll hear next is probably another verse. It will be similar to the first verse, but now with more emotion, more detail, more angst. That takes us into the next Pre-Chorus and Chorus, followed by an instrumental section that helps the listener to emotionally breathe. A Bridge, which is really another verse, might follow that, with its own variations in the chord pattern and lyric cadence. It leads us right into… you guessed it… another Chorus or two.
The last Chorus might get louder at the end, or it might calm down, returning us once again to the reality of our lives. A short instrumental may follow, wrapping up the song. Or it might leave you hanging. The cheap way (in my humble opinion) to end a song is to fade the recording out. Maybe they want to give the impression the party will just go on and on. Or maybe the artist and producer just couldn’t agree on an ending.
What has your experience been when you’ve tried to chart a song? Please leave your comment below, or email any questions about song charting, rhythm, music theory and next-step musicianship to [email protected]. And if you’d like to keep up to date with CaseTunes, sign up to receive updates and weekly posts in your email inbox!
Let me say right up front I’ve never met Taylor Swift. I don’t know a lot of her songs. I don’t know much about what kind of person she is. I don’t know what she’ll be like five years from now.
But I am often inspired when I see her perform.
When she walks onstage, she’s ready to rock and roll (or whatever the country and/or pop equivalent is). She wears her emotions on her sleeve, she attacks the stage with purpose, energy and skill. Though she uses her appearance to her advantage, that’s really not what keeps me watching. It’s her attitude, along with her expertise. It’s her passion for the music and for the crowd.
And – I’m just guessing here – I think she has a blast.
What Draws Us In?
We are invited into each performance by several components, all working together to invite us into the experience: the look, the skill, and the passion.
The look is most often the first aspect of a performance that catches our attention. It includes everything we see from the performer(s) to the landscape, architecture, and lighting that surrounds us. It’s true whether it’s on a screen, in a theater, or outside at a summer concert. It has to all fit together. And though many of you are way more visually oriented than I am, the look influences the whole experience, either enhancing or distracting. It starts with the atmosphere of the venue, is enhanced by the lighting and staging, but then is focused on the performer. I’m not judging here, just recognizing the reality that the way the performer dresses and carries him/herself is crucial to first impressions.
The skill of the performer will be the next thing we’ll notice. At first, there is a period of validation – can this artist deliver? When we’re satisfied they can, the next thing we want to know is whether or not they can hold our attention. I joke about having A.D.D., but I think most of us these days are increasingly attention-span-challenged. Are they performing with excellence, are they exceeding our expectations? Then, when we’re convinced they are, we wonder if they will show us something new and fresh. We want to be surprised and delighted.
The passion of the performer, when we’re comfortable with the look and the skill, is what I believe keeps us engaged. Their passion doesn’t just entertain us. It helps us believe. Passion in the performance lifts us up, transcending the mundane and the mechanical. It gives us a glimpse into life on another level, where beauty and excellence are vibrant and alive. We want to live in that place, and the passion we witness in a performance makes us feel like we really can.
Steps To A Passion-Filled Performance
We who perform, though all artists, are all over the map when it comes to our ability to emote onstage, demonstrating our passion. As for me, a guy who has to work at showing emotion when I perform, I admire those who seem to be so good at it. I’m better at it than I used to be (I think). But it takes some deliberate steps for me every time.
Know well what you’re going to sing, play and say. Rehearse the mechanics of your performance to the point of being absolutely comfortable with each facet. Drill the rhythms, pay attention to being in tune. If you are planning to comment between songs, write out what you want to say. Even if you don’t stick to your script, the exercise of writing it out will help you focus on what your message really is.
Look the part. Dress for the gig (more on this in a future post). When you are confident in how you look, you can feel free to focus on the performance. If you are performing for an older crowd, dress up, they will expect it. If your audience is younger, consider the venue and how they will be dressed. Then go just a step up. And never dress in a way that distracts, from too sexy to too sloppy, from clownish to indifferent. Make sure your look fits the experience you are trying to provide for your audience.
Expand your movements. If you feel like you’re moving enough onstage, you’re probably not. This includes, by the way, the look on your face. Are you communicating your passion you’re feeling through your facial expression? You may need a friend’s input for this one.
Let your passion lead you. When you have prepared the music, the atmosphere and your movements the best you can, the next step is to exercise the courage to put your heart out there. It takes courage because you are vulnerable and exposed. But that’s the best way to get an audience to follow you, by showing them how you feel and leading them to the same place. And when you are done, you can be confident you’ve left it all on the stage, you’ve done your job and inspired many through your passion.
It sounds counter-intuitive, but silence is quite possibly the most important part of our songs.
Silence? Not playing the right notes at the right time?
Not using dynamics, tempo, and all the other artistic tools on our workbench? Silence? Really?
We may think silence is a bad thing, like when a musician forgets what comes next, furrows his or her brow and stops playing. We know they’ve blown it big time.
Or we may look at silence as the holy grail our parents tried to get us to adopt. (”Be QUIET!” -remember those wonderful moments from your childhood?)
But the intentional use of silence in our music is good. In fact, it is necessary. And cool.
Reportedly, the world-renowned concert pianist Artur Schnabel, once made the statement (quoted in many places): “The notes I handle no better than many pianists. But the pauses between the notes, ah, that is where the art resides.”
(I found this again on brainyquote.com, but I’ve heard about the quote for many, many years. Not sure when he said it, but it nevertheless has the ring of truth in it! Great quote.)
Types of Silence
We should start with an understanding that silence is not always exactly, well, silent. There are several kinds of silence. And each has its place in our arsenal. So what kinds of silence are we talking about?
I think of silence in three primary categories:
Rhythmic silence happens when a player doesn’t play for a moment but the music is still going on. This is always useful, whether you’re counting rests in the music or playing short, detached notes (staccato, spiccato, pizzicato).
Natural silence happens when you’re sitting in the doctor’s waiting room and the background music has stopped, or when you’re sitting in the audience when the lights dim, and you’re waiting for the Concert Master to walk out onto the stage. (Maybe when a tree falls in the forest with no one around to hear it. Jury’s still out on that one…)
Utter silence is to be found in the vacuum of outer space. It takes some work for us to really experience utter silence here.
The Ten Ways
And so, thinking about silence in these three ways, here are ten ways to take advantage of intentional silence in your own songs.
Punctuating rhythms. Rests, particularly shorter ones, are inherently part of rhythm. They are to be found within phrases as well as at the end of phrases and should be counted just as deliberately as the notes themselves.
Longer silences between phrases you play will help your music breathe. Just as sung lyrics may invite you to take a breath at the end of each line, leaving space between your instrumental phrases really helps you to shape and group your phrases. It also helps the listener to stay with you.
Breathe between movements. When you finish a major section of the larger work, let silence help you take a breath, don’t rush it. Then start fresh into the next movement or section.
Use silence as a surprise, like building up to a chorus and unexpectedly silencing everything on beat 4 before you crash into the downbeat of the chorus. Really fun, makes the band sound tight!
Build anticipation through a longer period of silence. Particularly in a ballad or slower song, if you hold onto a moment of silence for just a little longer than expected, it can really add to the drama of the song.
Use momentary silence to regroup after a long held chord. When you hold a chord or sing a long syllable as the music comes to a halt, take just a quick moment to be silent before you restart. Might only be a literal second. But an artfully placed moment of silence will make your song sound unhurried and relatable.
Silence is your starting point before you play. The air is, to varying degrees, silent just before you begin. Even if you’re playing in a club, the disorganized sound of conversations and incidental noises in the room are the counterpoint to what you’re about to play. Use it to prepare yourself, expect the listener to be preparing themselves, anticipating something great. (Then it’s up to you to not let them down. Just sayin’.)
Repeating periods of silence can add to a general pulsation of the music that feels like an unstoppable forward movement, like you’re in your kayak on the river, gradually getting closer to the rapids. As silences get shorter and shorter in a repeated fashion, the tension will build.
Utter silence for a beat or a measure can make the listener feel like they are in a vacuum, with a complete absence of sound. It is unnatural and disconcerting. Utter silence can make you feel deprived, like something normal is missing. You long for the next sound to take away the discomfort. I’ve heard this used effectively on pop recordings, but it’s never used for very long. It can be a painful moment, followed by relief when the music comes back in.
Explore silence as an experiment. John Cage always seems to enter the conversation about silence because he famously performed a piece in 1952 that he entitled, 4’33” (”Four Minutes, Thirty-Three Seconds”). No instruments were to play, the whole point was to discover the ambient sounds in the room. Silence, in his view (and mine) is not really silent.
How do you use silence in your own music? Please leave your comment below, or email any questions about music, music theory, and next-step musicianship to [email protected].
Someone once said that every time you play a song in a new key, it’s like visiting a new country.
The landscape is different, the feel is different. It can really be refreshing.
There may be mechanical reasons to change the key of the song. Maybe it’s too high for you to sing comfortably. Or maybe you could play the song a little easier in a different key than the original. Or maybe you just like it somewhere else.
On the guitar, transposing can be as easy as using a capo (a clamp-type device placed on the neck to raise the pitch of all the strings equally). If the capo works for you, by all means, use it. I’ll use mine on occasion. But a capo has limitations.
What I’m going to describe is the actual process of transposition, that is, intentionally moving a melody and its chords up or down as much as you want. You’ve got complete freedom, yet the song remains intact.
The big idea here is to use numbers as the common ground.
Let’s say we’re starting off in the key of C (easy place to begin). Here’s the scale with its corresponding numbers:
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8
C D E F G A B C
2. Translate your melody into numbers, representing each note’s place in the scale (we call these scale degrees, fyi).
For this example, we’ll use one of your Top 10 favorite folk songs of all time, “On Top Of Old Smokey”, although this technique works for all styles & genres:
1 1 3 5 8 6 4 4 5 6 5
C C E G C A F F G A G
1 1 3 5 5 2 3 4 3 2 1
C C E G G D E F E D C
3. Give each chord a number as well, again taken from its position in the major scale. Be sure to add whether it’s major or minor (capital Roman numerals for major, lowercase for minor).
In “Smokey”, the chords are as follows:
F (IV) C (I)
On top of old Smokey, all covered with snow
G (V) C (I)
I lost my true lover from courtin’ too slow.
4. Decide if you want the song to be higher or lower, and how far. Build that scale.
Let’s say that the song just gets a little too high for me to sing, so I’ll need to lower it a bit. (I know I titled this blog “Stepping Up”, but you can go either direction. Work with me.) If I take it down a whole step, now I’m on Bb:
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8
Bb C D Eb F G A Bb
I = Bb major
IV = Eb major
V = F major
5. Now apply the numbers you assigned for the melody and chords to the new scale. Keep all rhythms the same as they were.
Old notes: C D E F G A B C
Scale degrees: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8
Now become: Bb C D Eb F G A Bb
Chords now change to:
Eb (IV) Bb (I)
On top of old Smokey, all covered with snow
F (V) Bb (I)
I lost my true lover from courtin’ too slow.
Thinking about the melody and chords this way allows you not to just transpose to a single key. It allows you to transpose to every other key. When you think about numerical relationships, it applies to all keys. The more you get used to thinking in numbers, the faster this process becomes.
Try transposing a verse or chorus from one of the songs you already play. Use these 5 steps, and you’ll be able to put any song in just the right key for your voice or your instrument. Or try taking the last chorus of your song up a half step for some added energy at the end. (Barry Manilow made a career for awhile out of key changes in his songs! It was a bit overused, but it worked for him. He’s really a fine musician, by the way.)
How have you used transposing in your music? Please leave your comment below, or email any questions you have about transposing, music theory, or next-step musicianship to [email protected].
We check our GPS to see if there’s a faster route (or we might step a little heavier on the accelerator). We buy gadgets that will perform tasks for us with less effort. When it’s the middle of apple-picking season and our apple peeler/corer/slicer breaks, we start planning on how to get a new one. Really.
Saving time and effort usually seems like a wise course of action. To wit, my life is full of clever innovations.
I admit, I have myself become dependent on (addicted to?) lots of gadgets in my life. Many of them are musical. I really appreciate my Snark tuner, for example. It allows me to tune my guitar during a performance or in a noisy room, and it will always be pretty close to concert pitch. But it also makes me lazy. “Where’s my Snark? I didn’t bring it? You mean, I have to tune up the old-fashioned way, by listening?”
Or this handy gadget. On the top, it reads, “Pick’s 4 Life”. It’s a pick-stamper, meaning if I ever need a pick to play my guitar but can’t find one, I can just pull out some old credit card and punch out a new one. No kidding, it’s pretty cool! And, if Dave Ramsay should read this, it’s a great way to actually use your credit cards for something helpful instead of buying lots of stuff you can’t afford.
I like shortcuts. I use them. I promote them.
But they are not always the best answer.
Training Takes Time
The thing is, when it comes to music, there are very few shortcuts that are worthwhile. Listening to music is one thing (I still use my iPod a lot), but creating it, playing it, singing it – now we’re talking about training yourself to reach new heights with a personal skill set, not a new toolbox.
Getting your fingers or your voice to take on new, complex tasks where very small details matter is not easy. Step by step, almost anyone can learn to play or sing, but only through diligent practice.
I have students, for example, that struggle with counting aloud while they play. It’s an important technique to learn, but it can be hard to learn.
Now for you woodwind and brass players, your approach will have to be different for obvious reasons. But playing guitar, piano, cello, ukulele – this is now an axiom in my studio:
If you can say it while you play it, you know it. If you can’t, you don’t.
Saying note names or counting aloud as you play are both difficult when you first start doing it. It feels like juggling. But those techniques really help you clarify in your mind what you are doing. Saying what you’re playing puts your thought process right out in front of you like nothing else.
You’ll notice your mistakes faster and know what to practice.
Then you’ll play more accurately.
And then, you’ll learn new songs faster.
If you find you can’t do it, that means there is something still too fuzzy about the whole thing. Maybe your technique is distracting and not dependable. Maybe the whole counting thing doesn’t make sense yet.
But the axiom is true. If you can say it while you play it, it is clear in your mind and will stand a better chance of coming out correctly. If you can’t, you don’t know it well enough. Not yet.
It Pays Off
Listen, you don’t get in shape for a race in a day. You practice, you train, you repeat it over and over. There is no shortcut, no way to bypass the blood, sweat and tears of personal training. But every time you repeat it, you train not only your reflexes but your thought processes as well. It will get better if you stick with it.
Let me encourage you today, if you feel like practicing gets you nowhere and you’re getting tired of the struggle – take a deep breath, regroup, try it again. You can do this music thing. Take smaller segments of the music. Try a slower tempo. Take a break and come back in a few minutes.
It’s going to take diligence, time and focus. And there aren’t any shortcuts.
How is your own practice time going? Is progress slow, or have you found some methods and mindsets that work well for you?
Please leave your comment below, or email any questions you may have about music, practicing, or being a next-step musician to [email protected].
How do you get out of your musical ruts? How do you break free from repeating all the same things you’ve been doing over and over, and inject some new life into your music?
Glad you asked. As a matter of fact, I can think of several ways.
You can make a point of listening to artists and styles you don’t normally listen to. You can play with other people and have them show you licks. You can find a teacher who inspires you.
And those are all good ways.
But the clearest way, to me, is to get a handle on the big picture, locate yourself in it, then take the next step toward something better. First get some basics down, then add something more advanced to spice things up a little.
One way to think of music theory is as a series of concentric circles, like the annual rings or growth rings of a tree. At the center are the foundations, the basic elements for life and health. Each ring moving outward adds new tonal material or a new way of looking at the relationships within the previous ring.
In the center, it is simple, it is predictable, and it is safe. At the outermost ring, the relationships are cutting edge with the rest of the world, beaten and railed against by the storms of artistic whim and public opinion. It is not safe out at the edge. Exciting, yes. But not safe.
Here is how I envision the skeleton of 21st century American (western) music theory. Just like the growth rings of a tree.
At the core:
Simple major chords (I IV V) and pentatonic melodies (for simple folk, country, and rock & roll styles)
Alter a couple of tones to create minor pentatonic melodies (Blues)
Add more scale tones to create the triads generated from a major scale. Use major and minor pentatonic melodies (for all of the above styles as well as Pop)
Add more scale tones at a time for embellished chords, and and use the entire major scale for more sophisticated melodies (approaching Jazz, as well as developing all the others)
Displace roots within the major scale for various modalities (i.e. Dorian, Phrygian modes, et al)
Add an additional tone outside the scale for secondary dominants and altered chords
Dysfunctional Harmony explores relationships not based on tension and resolution as all the previous levels are
Full Chromaticism uses every 1/2 step for more complex, but still explainable, progressions and melodies
Out Of The Blue. This is where I use whatever tonal material I want, whenever I want, simply because I can
This is a pretty good analogy, and it has served me very well over the years. Doubtless, I’m leaving something out, but I think as a basic structure, it works.
Make It Your Own
You can, of course, add to it and refine it as you wish. You can move along historical lines if that makes more sense to you, from Gregorian Chant to Renaissance, to Baroque and Rococo to Classical, Romantic, Impressionistic, Modern, 20th Century. Then (thanks to technological improvements from the Gramophone to the iPhone), you can feel free to trace through Jazz, Country & Western, Rock & Roll, Easy Listening, Opera, Broadway, Disco, Alternative Rock, Grunge, Indi, Electronica, Rap, and many other small distinctions that get tedious, to say the least.
The goal of an analogy like this is to give you an idea of what’s out there. How much of this do you know and use? If you recognize elements on one ring but not on another, it may help you know what to explore next.
The more simply I can think about music theory, the more helpful it is to me. And as I consider these growth rings for my own music, each one inspires me to learn more, to grow my expertise and ability on each level.
Do these music theory rings make sense to you? How far can you go in finding and playing songs on every ring?