Fingering, in the context of piano playing, refers to the choice of fingers which you use to play the notes on the piano. As a piano player performs or practices, he or she has a choice of which fingers to use to play certain notes. In case you don’t remember, each finger on your hand is associated with a number. These numbers can be used on sheet music to indicate which finger to use to play that particular note.
In the beginning stages of learning to play the piano, the fingerings are often written above or below the notes on the sheet music. As the music becomes more advanced, there is no longer any finger numbers indicated. Rather the choice of what finger to use becomes the responsibility of the piano player. Piano players can make good choices or bad choices. The good choices will result in passages that flow easily without the hand having to jump and contort into awkward poses. The bad choices will leave the piano player frustrated and uncomfortable and ready to use their head as an eleventh finger.
So, the big question: What is the right fingering and how to you find it? Unfortunately there is not one right answer or one right technique for coming up with the right fingering. The right fingering is dependent on the musical passage and the person that is playing it. Some sheet music has “suggested” fingering indicated for difficult passages. If this is the case, it would be a good starting point. From there, you must work through the passage. A good fingering scheme would have your hand primed and ready for the next note. A bad one would have you fumbling and contorting for the next note. Being able to reach the next note comfortably is a key concept in finding the right fingering.
Here are few guidelines you can use to find the right fingering:
- If the passage consists of scales or arpeggios, use the fingering scheme associated with them
- For adjacent keys (keys that are next to eachother), use adjacent fingers unless you have a good reason not to.
- Think of the movement of the passage, and try to move your hand into the correct position to accomodate the movement.
Once you find a fingering that works for you, STICK WITH IT. If you can’t remember it, there is nothing wrong with taking a pen or pencil and writing the finger numbers on the sheet music. If you continually use different fingers to play the same passage, that passage will never flow smoothy and gracefully because your brain will always be involved in making choices. Rather, you want your motor skills to take over, so that the movement comes naturally without intervention from the planning centers of the brain.
The more you practice, the more the fingering will come naturally to you.
This lesson will be dedicated to mastering the art of writing the minor scale. The NATURAL minor scale is the easiest scale to write. No sharps or flats to worry about; you just have to figure out the key signature. You could go the route of memorizing all of the major and minor key signatures – but as a back up plan, you should know how to write the natural minor scale using the TONE-SEMITONE method. This will be similar to how we learned to write major scales, with one small difference: the pattern we will follow is slightly different.
Rather than just telling you the pattern, I think I’m going to torture you a bit by making you work for the answer. If you remember back to the last lesson, I discussed RELATIVE KEYS. In that lesson I explained that every major scale has a relative minor. Relative major and natural minor scales actually SHARE all of their notes, except that the minor scale starts on a different note. Do you remember which note of a major scale is the tonic of the relative minor scale? *cue jeopardy music*
Answer: The sixth note (or submediant) of the major scale is the tonic of its relative minor scale. To demonstrate this, I’ve created the image below. The top staff shows 2 octaves of a C major scale with the SEMITONE steps highlighted using red slurs. The rest of the steps are WHOLE TONES. Below the C major scale is its relative minor scale: A minor.
The SEMITONES are indicated on the A minor scale as well. Notice that they happen in exactly the same place as the relative minor. Notice that the notes are EXACTLY the same. Notice that I’m getting you to notice a lot of things. Notice that I’m using the word “notice” a lot.
So, now can you tell me what the tone-semitone pattern is for a minor natural scale? To make it easier, take a look at the A minor scale above. A to B is a whole tone, B to C is a semitone, C to D is a whole tone, etc.. When you put it all together you get TONE-SEMITONE-TONE-TONE-SEMITONE-TONE-TONE. It doesn’t roll off the tongue quite as nicely as the major scale pattern, and I have no quick tricks for memorizing this pattern. But after this lesson, you won’t need to memorize it, because you will know how to build it using the major scale pattern. Job well done!
As you learn about major and minor key signatures, it is important to understand what a RELATIVE KEY is. Major keys and minor keys are related in that some of them share their key signature. In fact, each major key has a relative minor key. They share a key signature, but each of them has a different tonic.
It is relatively straight forward to find the relative minor key of a major scale. To find a relative minor key, you must find the 6th note (or the submediant) of the major scale. For example, we know that the key of C has no sharps or flats. The notes of the C major scale are C-D-E-F-G-A-B-C. So what is the relative minor of C major? If you guessed A minor, you would be correct.
Now what if you wanted to go the other way? To find the relative major key of a minor scale? Well, that is simple as well – except for instead of taking the 6th note of the scale, you would take the MEDIANT (3rd note) of the minor scale. I haven’t told you how to construct a minor scale yet, but the third note of the A minor scale is C. Take my word for it.
So now you have the complete picture: C major and A minor are related in the sense that they share the same key signature (no flats and no sharps). The table below shows the other relative major and minor keys.
While improvising or composing music, it is important to understand relative major and minor keys. They are often used in the same piece of music as a way to add musical interest and variety.
photo credit: Powerhouse Museum Collection
Get ready! This post is all about building major triads. Building major triads is surprisingly easy if you already know how to build a major scale. (If you don’t, you can learn how to build a major scale here. ) You can build a major triad in 3 easy steps:
1) Build your major scale for the corresponding key. This means that if you want to build a C major triad, you will start with building a C major scale.
2) Take the TONIC, MEDIANT, and DOMINANT notes… slap them together… aaaannnnnnd…..
3) VOILA! You have a triad! Remember that the tonic is the first note of the scale, the mediant is the third note of the scale, and the dominant is the fifth note of the scale.
Below is a set of major triads that start on each of the white keys.
Every major triad consists of the same intervals. In the root position, the interval from the lowest note to the middle note is a major 3rd. The interval from the lowest note to the highest note is a perfect fifth. This is true for every major triad, no matter which key. The graphic below shows a C major chord in root position, indicating the intervals in the chord.
photo credit: RXAphotos
Soooo….. what is a chord?
A chord is the sounding of 3 or more notes. Chords can be played simultaneously (solid chords) or successively (broken chords). Like intervals, every chord has a QUALITY. Two of the most common chords qualities are major and minor, which are based on the notes of the corresponding scale. Other qualities can be diminished or augmented. These are less common, but just as important.. I don’t want to play favourites after all.
A TRIAD is a 3-note chord that is based on intervals of a third. The 7th chord consists of 4 notes and is quite common as well. 9th and 13th chords are common in jazz music.
Something else to be aware of: chords have inversions. This means that you can rearrange a chord so that the lowest note is any other note in the chord. The ROOT position is the “normal” position – this occurs when the lowest note of the chord is the tonic. That is, if the chord is a B major triad, the root position would have B as the lowest note of the chord.
FIRST INVERSION occurs when the root chord is rearranged so that the second note of the chord is in the lowest position. This is achieved by taking the lowest note in root position, and moving it UP an octave. SECOND INVERSION occurs when the root chord is rearranged so that the third note of the chord is in the lowest position. This can be achieved by taking the two lowest notes in root position, and moving them UP an octave.
This post was intended to be a brief overview of all that chords have to offer. In future lessons I will delve further into how to create chords and their inversions. So don’t worry if you are confused now – you will get used to it.
No, it’s not a dirty word. Contrapuntal music is music that has 2 or more independant melodies that move relative to eachother. The definition of contrapuntal is “of or related to COUNTERPOINT”, which I discuss in this post about musical texture. In many types of jazz, the left-hand is used mainly for accompaniment, using chords to provide harmonic depth. In contrapuntal jazz, each hand has a time to shine melodically, and indeed – sometimes they shine at the same time! Check out this Youtube video that displays this technique.
Very cool, but also a challenging listen. I can only imagine how challenging it is to play.
So what can you do to help you improve your contrapuntal skills? Here are a few ideas for you:
- Practice your left-handed musical “licks”: Often our left hand is not as strong as the right in terms of technique and creativity. Work on some melodic ideas for the bass line. These melodic ideas can be called “motives” or “licks”. Essentially they are just passages or phrases that have some melodic character.
- Practice chords with the right hand: Maybe you will want to switch the accompaniment back and forth between the left and right hand. You will need to be equally proficient in utilizing each hand for both chords and melody.
- Develop rhythmic independence: The key here is to get your right and left hand working independent of one another rhythmically. Try tapping exercises where each hand taps different rhythms. For more piano practice, you can trying learning Bach who is famous for his contrapuntal extravaganzas.
- Improvise entire songs with left-hand only melody: Flipping the melody switch from the right hand to the left will take some time. The more you practice playing melodies with your left hand, the more your brain will form the necessary contrapuntal connections.
Contrapuntal technique could be compared with being musically ambidextrous. As with most skills, the more you practice, the more adept you will become and the easier it will get.
Before I go on, I want to make sure you realize that the points in question are for me. Because I spent the last hour of my life drawing cartoons of cats and pumpkins… and not very well, may I add…
OK, ok! You can have points too. After all, you did click this link and it’s the least I can do to compensate you for the mental anguish you may experience while you are here. Points for everyone!
Seriously though. Halloween is great because kids get excited about it. It’s great when kids get excited about things, because parents can use it to their advantage. Why not use Halloween as way to get your kids to practice the piano? Here are two free sheet music downloads for kids. They are Halloween related because there is a picture of a pumpkin and a cat on them. And because I say they are.
The first download is a short song called Pumpkin Party. It is suitable for beginner pianists that are familiar with the C position. In this song, both hands are in the C position.
The second song is called Black Cat Parade and is suitable for pianists who are able to play chords, and are familiar with playing sharps and flats. This song is in the key of C minor. We will be learning about minor scales and minor keys in future lessons. For an introduction to minor scales, check out this awesome lesson.
If you want bonus creativity points, you can help your child come up with Halloween-related lyrics for the songs. If you come up with some good ones that you think I should use, let me know! Coming up with song lyrics is beyond my capabilities, at least for now. Now that you mention it, cartooning and writing music are beyond my capabilities as well…
Now that we are all experts at major scales, it’s time to throw a new scale into the mix. The minor scale is similar to the major scale, but different. (Yes, a very helpful description, I know.) The main difference between major and minor scales is that the interval from the tonic (first note) to the mediant (third note) is one semitone smaller in a minor scale. That is, the distance from the first note of the scale to the third note of the minor scale is one semitone smaller than that of the major scale.
This is where I will introduce major and minor intervals. If you need a refresher on intervals, see Lesson 28: Introduction to Intervals – type, size, and quality. The interval between the first degree and the third degree in a major scale is a MAJOR THIRD interval. The interval between the first degree and the third degree in a minor scale is a MINOR THIRD interval. The difference between a major third and a minor third is that the minor third is shifted down by a semitone. This means a natural note becomes a flat, a sharp becomes a natural, and a flat becomes a double flat.
Check out the first tetrachord in a major scale (top), and minor scale (bottom).
Putting the first and the third notes together into a harmonic interval you get:
Some of the other intervals in the major scale can be modified to be minor as well. These are: 2nd, 3rd, 6th, and 7th.
As a final note, there are 3 types of minor scales that we will learn in future lessons: NATURAL MINOR, HARMONIC MINOR, and MELODIC MINOR. In all 3 types of minor scales, the lower tetrachord is the same, only the upper tetrachord differs. (For more information about what a tetrachord is, click here.)
As a parent, you probably want your kid to get the most out of their music lessons. After all, you don’t want to spend an arm and a leg on lessons if your child is not drawing any sort of benefit from them. Just like in school, a little bit of parental involvement goes a long way when it comes to music lessons. Here are a few tips for parents to follow to make sure your kid is getting the most they can out of their music lessons.
1. Sit in on the lesson: Being aware of what your child is learning is important. Especially if your child is on the younger side, it is going to take a lot of repetition before a new concept is fully understood. If your child is going to lessons once a week, it is easy to forget what was learned. In this case, two brains are better than one.
2. Learn a bit of music: If you don’t know anything about music, now is a prime time to learn a little. Learn with your kid. Go over their materials, and help them when they have questions.
3. Have a rewards system for practicing: Consider implementing a simple rewards system. For example, start with an empty jar. Every time your child practices, put a marble in the jar. Once the jar is full, your child can pick a reward. For extra parent-points, give your child the option of choosing music-related rewards. Could be a trip to see some live music, a new album on iTunes, or new music-related game..
4. Don’t worry about time: Especially if your child is young, putting an emphasis on practicing for a certain amount of time is not that helpful. Attention spans vary from child to child. Try to work with the attention span of your child instead of against it. Short spurts of quality practice is better than long drawn-out distractathons.
5. Make sure you have an assignment book: Your piano teacher should be writing his/her comments and instructions every week in an assignment book. He/she should be including notes about what to practice for next week. Review these notes every week.
6. Encourage! Learning and practicing the piano can be hard, and I’m sure most piano players have gone through a phase where they want to quit. The best thing a parent can do is to praise small accomplishments, and to encourage your child to keeping trying. It is not about doing it perfectly, it is about progressing and improving. All improvements should be praised and rewarded. This gives the child more desire and motivation to stick to it.
7. Set up a goal: Maybe the goal could be a recital in front of aunts, uncles, and grandparents, maybe playing at a music festival. Setting up goals that involve playing in front of others can give a sense of excitement and purpose to the mundane everyday practice schedule.
8. Try to practice daily: Yes, this is hard. But consistency is key, especially when dealing with younger children. Even a short 5 or 10 minute practice every day is better than a 30 minute practice one a week.
9. Sit in on practice if required: Be aware of the needs of your child. Don’t just leave them in a room with a piano by themselves to figure it out. Guide them through the practice, and help when problems arise.
1o. Written activity sheets: Practicing music isn’t just about practicing at the piano. It is about understanding musical terms and concepts. Find activity sheets for kids. For younger kids, this could be as simple as a music-related coloring page. Other written games and activities can solidify musical concepts in a fun way.
If you have any other tips for parents, feel free to comment below. Really, it is just about finding what works for you, your child, and your family. Everyone’s situation is different, so no one set of rules applies. Just keep trying different things until you find something that works.
Now for one quick roundup of all of the information we have learned about major scales and major key signatures. This is intended to be a brief review, and more information on each specific area can be found in previous lessons. I will try to include links.
The major scale is a diatonic scale, meaning it contains 7 distinct notes. A scale is a sequence of ascending or descending notes. A major sclae has 2 tetrachords that follow the same pattern (TONE-TONE-SEMITONE). In a major scale, the tetrachords are separated by a half. A major scale follows the pattern: TONE-TONE-SEMITONE-TONE-TONE-TONE-SEMITONE.
Remember that a tone is 2 steps on the piano, and a semitone is 1 step – or the smallest distance between any two notes on the piano. You can review tones and semitones here.
Let’s build a major scale starting on A flat. I like to picture a piano keyboard when I am building my scales, that way I can see where the tones and semitones are. If you a beginner, drawing out a picture of a piano keyboard isn’t a bad way to start. In fact, I would even go so far as to suggest that it is a good way to start!
Here is the A flat major scale. As you can see, there are quite a few notes that land on the black keys. The arrows between the notes indicate the tones and semitones. The red arrows are whole tones, and the blue arrows are semitones.
After this exercise, we now know the notes of the A flat scale. We just have to put them on the staff. The first way to do this is by using accidentals. That is, putting your sharps and flats right in front of the note.
Next, to create a key signature, you need to group all of the accidentals at the beginning of the scale, after the clef. In the A flat scale there are 4 flats: A flat, B flat, D flat, and E flat. Remember that the flats in a key signature have to go in a specific order. For flats the order is B-E-A-D-G-C-F. The order of the sharps in the key signature is F-C-G-D-A-E-B. There are tricks for remembering this order
To create a key signature for every major key, you could go through this exercise of creating it from the major scale. You could also memorize key signatures, or you could memorize the circle of fifths
. Here is a list of the major keys, and the number of sharps or flats that are in the key signature.
About a year ago, my husband and I went to see the Ari Hoenig Quartet at the NAC Fourth Stage in Ottawa. To put it simply, this show was.. I can’t think of the right adjective, so I’ll just say it was GREAT… and trust me that this is an understatement, even with the uppercase notation. The musical prowess of each member was exceptional, not to mention their synergy with each other. The audience could sense their passion – it was in the air. They seemed to feed off one another, giving eachother energy, challenging one another. It was lyrical, intense, and occasionally comedic.
All of the band members were exceptional, but being a piano player, I was enthralled by the pianist; I later found out his name was Tigran Hamasyan. WHO IS THIS KID? His energy was unbelievable and contagious. Not to mention his SKILLZ… Yes, skillz with a Z. That is how good he was.
I have always thought there was something special about jazz musicians. Whenever I see a good jazz pianist I think to myself: “Here is someone that has mastered their instrument”. To be a good jazz musician you must have to understand rhythm and chord progression in such an intimate way that it becomes second nature. It has to become a part of your reflexes, part of who you are. Needless to say, I envy those that have this set set of skills. I suppose it is human nature to admire the people who can do the things we cannot.. that’s probably why I admire a lot of people..
OK, back to this Tigran character. I’m not going to go through all the information you can find on wikipedia. Rather, I will provide you a link with more information if you are interested. Here you go. You can check out his albums on Itunes, Rdio, or a music player of your choice. It looks like he is coming to the Ottawa/Gatineau area in March 2013. You can be sure that I will brave the French-speakers to make it out to that concert.
By the way, this post falls into a new category that I set up for the blog: artists. This is my way of exploring music a bit more than I would otherwise. If you have any suggestions for artists I might want to listen to, please let me know. Ideally I would be looking for artists that utilize the piano as a way to make music or other noises.
Now for something light and fluffy. After all of that scale-talk, you deserve it. I’m going to talk a bit about what to do when a difficult piece of music is kicking your bum… figuratively speaking. Maybe it’s a whole piece, maybe it’s just a short phrase that you just can’t get past. Either way, you can apply my ten-step program – guaranteed to make you a master of any piece of music*!
(*The text below does not constitute a ten-step program. It does not contain ten steps, and does not adhere to the definition of a “program”. Rather it is just a loosely-related list of suggestions. Additionally, this list is not guaranteed to make you the master of anything.)
Now that my lawyer is happy, let me start with number 1!
1. Break it down: If this was a 10 step program (which it is not), this would be the first step. If the phrase with which you are having difficulty is rather long, you will need to break it down into manageable, bite-sized chunks. These chunks should be long enough that it stands up well on its own, but short enough that you can practice it many (many) times in one practice session.
2. Pick a chunk to focus on: Today you will focus on only one chunk of your music. Tomorrow you will review that chunk and focus on a new chunk. Focus on one chunk at a time. If several chunks are similar in nature, it might make sense to group them. That is up to you. Do what feels right.
3. Don’t play it: You should understand the music first. Know each note and visualize which finger will be playing it. Picture the keys on the keyboard. Understand which notes are sharp, which are flat, and which are natural. Picture your fingers on the keys of the keyboard. Picture yourself on the beach, relaxing in the hot sun, a cold beer in your hand…
4. Get a red pen or pencil: Preferably you would have one handy before you started practicing. If not, stop what you are doing, drive to your local business supply shop, and stock up on red pencils. Better yet, stock up on a variety of colors, that way you can color-code your markup. Then buy matching post-it notes so you can write small notes for yourself and stick them to your music. Better yet, don’t listen to me at all, and just use a pencil or pen that you have in your junk drawer.
5. Play it: Play it once slowly. Play it twice even more slowly. Play it three times.. slow again. Have your pencil ready, because you are going to mark-up your music as you go. Are you having problems with fingering? Write the finger numbers above the notes. Are you having problems identifying the notes? Write the note names down. Are you having problems with timing? Write a few clues that help you in that area… (Timing hints are a bit more difficult to write down, but I have a few tricks up my sleeve – that will have to be a later post.) The idea of marking up your music is to draw your attention to the areas that you are finding difficult, and make them a bit easier by providing you with hints. These hints will be temporary, and should be removed as soon as you don’t need them.
6. Now for the annoying bit: Play the passage at a very slow tempo. If you make a mistake, slow down the passage and play it again. Repeat as necessary until you find a tempo at which you do not make a mistake. (The worst thing you can do is to train your brain WRONG by playing the passage over and over again while making mistakes.) Once you found the right speed, play the passage several times. If you can play it 5 times without a mistake, it is time to turn up the speed a notch. Increase your speed slightly, and repeat the process. IT IS IMPERATIVE THAT YOU DO NOT PRACTICE MISTAKES. Always play slow enough that you are playing mistake-free.
The above step can be broken up into three parts, depending on your level of expertise. The three parts would be: Right-hand practicing, left-hand practicing, hands-together practicing. This isn’t necessary, as you might feel comfortable diving right in with both hands together. That’s your call.
7. Now for an easy bit: Listen to recordings of the music in question (if possible). Look at your music while you listen, and recognize the notes that are being played. Pretend you are playing it.. yes, I am talking about playing the air-piano… And recommending playing any type of air instrument is very uncharacteristic of me, as the sight of a man playing air-guitar or air-drums can make me shudder uncontrollably.
8. Sorry: Lastly, I apologize for this post. If you have made it to this point, you deserve a very special prize – but I already ate my last miniature chocolate bar. Sorry.
photo credit: Jonas Tana
In your musical travels, you may come across the term “tetrachord”. Besides sounding like something you could play really loudly on an electric guitar, tetrachords can be used to divide a scale into two halves. Actually, if you played a tetrachord on the piano (or any other instrument), it probably wouldn’t sound all that good. If you played a tetrachord really loudly on an electric guitar, your neighbors dog might want to start a band with you.
A tetrachord isn’t a traditional chord that you would play to harmonize a melody. Rather, it is just a collection of four (tetra) notes (chord). You can thank the Greeks for this terminology.
This is a quick tidbit instead of a lesson, because knowing what a tetrachord is isn’t essential in musical theory, but in my opinion you can never know too much… On second thought, thats not true. I’ve had plenty of “TMI”-type moments in my life. Let me rephrase that.. In my opinion, you can never know too much about musical theory!
A tetrachord is half a scale – each scale has two tetrachords: the lower tetrachord and upper tetrachord that are separated by a whole tone. In a major scale, the upper tetrachord and the lower tetrachord share the same pattern of tones and semitones. The graphic below gives a better idea of what a tetrachord is. This is the C-major scale. The semitones in the scale are indicated by using a slur.
Thats pretty much all I wanted to say… It isn’t earth shattering science, but there are a few tricks that you can do with tetrachords. For example, using the upper tetrachord of the first scale as the lower tetrachord of the next. For the C major scale, the upper tetrachord begins on G. If you continue the pattern for 4 more notes, you will have the G major scale! Then if you continue the pattern for 4 more notes you will have the D major scale! (I could go on…)
This is a great example of the “Circle of Fifths” in action. Check out the circle of fifths here if you want to learn more.
photo credit: Pete Morawski
Now that we know how to create a major scale, It may be useful to know the “degrees” of a scale. A degree is the name for the position of the note in the scale. From previous lessons we already know that a scale has 7 different notes. For the C major scale those notes are C, D, E, F, G, A, and B. In this example C is the first note of the scale, D is the second note, E is the third note… I could go on, but I don’t want to insult your intelligence.
In music theory, each note has a name depending on its position in scale. The first (and most important) note is called the TONIC. In the C major scale example, C is the tonic. That’s easy. The other degrees of the scale are listed below:
- 1st: TONIC
- 2nd: SUPERTONIC
- 3rd: MEDIANT
- 4th: SUBDOMINANT
- 5th: DOMINANT
- 6th: SUBMEDIANT
- 7th: LEADING NOTE or SUBTONIC
A scale starts and ends on the tonic.
Before I let you go, let us apply this information to the G major scale. First, we will need to build our scale. Remember Lesson 29 where I discuss building a major scale using the formula: TONE-TONE-SEMITONE-TONE-TONE-TONE-SEMITONE. (You’ll be chanting this in your sleep when I’m done with you.) Feel free to go back to review the lesson if necessary – just ignore the part of the lesson where I say that the names are not important.. they are! (kindof)
Our G major scale will end up being: G, A, B, C, D, E, F#, G. So in the G major scale, the degrees are:
- G: TONIC
- A: SUPERTONI
- B: MEDIANT
- C: SUBDOMINANT
- D: DOMINANT
- E: SUBMEDIANT
- F#: LEADING NOTE
You may wish to practice using other scales.
Just to keep you in the loop, I wanted to let you know that some people use other methods of referring to the degrees of the scale. Other methods include: Roman numerals (I,II, III, IV, V, VI, VII) or solfege (DO, RE, ME, FA, SOL, LA, TI).
It is useful to know the names of the degrees of the scale as you start building chords… For example, a major chord is built using the TONIC, MEDIANT, and DOMINANT. That is a sneak peak to a future lesson! Bonus points to whoever can build a G major chord!
Recently I had the pleasure of seeing the play “2 Pianos 4 Hands” at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa. I heard an advertisement for the play on the radio, and I am a sucker for anything related to the piano, so I knew I wanted to see it even before I knew what it was about. It surpassed my expectations. 2 Pianos 4 Hands is a play about two kids growing up learning the piano. Now I don’t want to go into too much detail, but suffice it to say that it rang true with my experiences. From clashes with parents, to nerve-wracking competitions, to “The Conservatory of Music”, this play really effectively (and hilariously) communicated the trials and tribulations of growing up and learning the piano. To top it all off, some great piano performances were sprinkled throughout.
There are certain questions I can ask myself over and over and never be satisfied with the answer, like: Why can’t I eat donuts for supper? or: Why do I have to go to work? But the most troubling of all questions is this: Why should I practice scales?
Well, I can think of a few reasons, and Google can think of a few more, so if my post doesn’t quell your curiosity, feel free to type www.google.com into your browser’s address bar. (If you need more help on using Google, you can email me, I have been called an expert. Actually, I haven’t – but I’m working on it.)
Reason Number 1: Helps to practice in a key signature
This is probably the greatest benefit to practicing scales. By practicing scales, you are essentially practicing a particular key signature. This will help greatly when playing a tune in said key signature. Your fingers have memory, and when you practice scales you are developing this memory. This will come in really handy when you want to improve your improvisation skills. I have a new post planned called “Improve Your Improv”… It’s in the planning stage – well, it has been in that stage for two years. (By “planning stage”, I mean that the post has a title.) Anyhow, you will see this theme recurring in that post. Expect great things from that post. When it comes, it will be mind-blowing.
Reason Number 2: Warming Up
Scales are a great way to warm up and get the blood flowing to the tips of your fingers. I’m sure there are ways that are more fun, but this is a PG-rated blog post.
Reason Number 3: Scales are the building blocks of music
When I practice the C major scale, I’m also practicing half of Mozart’s Sonata in C major. You know this sonata .. think back to the days you were obsessed with Bugs Bunny… or was I the only one that went through that phase? (By the way: Thank you Musopen for providing access to this recording).
All piano music is made of chord, scales, and other interval combinations. There is no way around it.. unless you consider banging your head on the piano, “music”. So when you practice chords, scales, and other intervals, you are practicing parts of songs, although it may not feel like it – and it definitely doesn’t sound like it.
So, like it or not, these are my three reasons why one should practice scales on the piano. And if you don’t like it, you can always go to Google.
photo credit: Pink Sherbet Photography
Now it’s time to learn the intervals of the major scale. Just to mix it up, lets use the G major scale. Do you remember how to write a major scale? If you don’t, look here.
Here is the G major scale. As you can see, the G major scale has one sharp: F sharp. I put a lot of effort into this graphic, I might make it my facebook profile picture.
I’ll spend a few minutes explaing myself. In a major scale, there are 8 intervals based on the tonic note. The intervals are: perfect unison, major second, major third, perfect fourth, perfect fifth, major sixth, major seventh, and perfect octave. (The above graphic does not show perfect unison.) If you remember, during the introduction to intervals
lesson, I mention that each interval has a quality
. The quality of basic intervals can be major, minor, or perfect. More advanced intervals can be described as augmented or diminished. We are focusing on the major intervals in this lesson.
You might be asking yourself: Why are some of the intervals described as “major”, while others are described as “perfect”? Well, there are several reasons that are floating around. One reason is that the “perfect” intervals have high levels of consonance. The other reason is that if you invert a perfect interval you’ll end up with another (different) perfect interval. But I would like to think that a perfect interval is called perfect because it cannot be described as either major or minor. Perfect intervals exist in BOTH major and minor scales. But I’m not going to discuss minor scales right now – gotta keep you coming back now, don’t I?
If you have been practicing an instrument for any significant period of time, you may be able to relate to my experience. When I sit down to practice a new song, I usually start at the beginning, and practice a single phrase. If the phrase is difficult, I may repeat it many times before I am happy and move on. Once I get to the end of a section, I will practice the section in full, repeating any phrases that cause difficulty. By the time I get past a new section, I can hear cheese calling my name from the fridge, and the call of cheese is the call I cannot ignore.
There is one critical flaw in this method, can you guess what it is? (Hint: It is not cheese-related bowel gridlock, although that is a worrisome problem.) Rather, when I practice from beginning to end, I often find that my finishes are lacking fluency and pizzazz. Quite simply, my endings aren’t practiced nearly as many times as my beginnings!
To combat the erratic-ending syndrome, one could employ the following technique: Start elsewhere. As complex as it may seem, it is actually quite simple. When you intend to do laborious phrase-by-phrase practicing, don’t always start at the beginning. Start at the end; start in the middle; just start ELSEWHERE. Work your way from the end to the beginning of the last section, or from the middle to the end of the next section.
Of course, don’t always start at the end, or you might catch the erratic-beginning syndrome, which is just as bad – probably worse than the erratic-ending syndrome. The key is to mix it up. Speaking of mixing it up, I hear some gouda calling my name…
photo credit: PetitPlat – Stephanie Kilgast (in dolly mood)
Here is something interesting that you might want to know, since we are learning about intervals. If you are learning to play the piano, it will be important that you are able to invert intervals and chords. Right now, we will focus on intervals.
What does inverting an interval mean? It means taking the bottom note of the interval and putting it on top – essentially turning it upside down. This can be done one of two ways:
- by moving the bottom note up and octave
- by moving the top note down an octave
Look at the graphic below and try to recognize which method was used to invert the interval. After you have done that, you might want to try inverting your own intervals (heehee) on paper, and on the piano.
OK, so I have a confession to make: inverting intervals isn’t that interesting… I only told you it was interesting so that you wouldn’t leave the page. I’m pretty sure it didn’t work, and I’m most likely the only one left here. Time to get craaaazay.
Before we embark upon this journey, you may want to review the concept of key signatures in Lesson 20: Key Signatures. You don’t have to, it’s just a suggestion. I will briefly review the basic concept of a key signature before I go on.
A key signature is a group of sharps or a group of flats that appear at the beginning of a piece of music. The key signatures tells the musician which sharps and flats are to be played throughout the piece of music. A key signature can be used instead of using accidentals. To illustrate my point, I will use the scale of D major.
As you can see, the key signature is just a grouping of the accidentals that would have appeared in the scale. It makes music simpler to read, and allows the musician to identify the “key” of the music more easily. After writing out the D major scale, we know the key of D major contains an F sharp and a C sharp. Now whenever we see a key signature consisting of 2 sharps (F sharp and C sharp) we know that the piece might be in the key of D major. (It may also be in the relative minor key of B, but we will learn about minor key signatures in a future lesson.)
That brings me to my next point. The sharps and flats in key signatures ALWAYS appear in the same order. The order of sharps is F-C-G-D-A-E-B. See Lesson 20 for tricks to remember the order of the sharps and flats. The order of flats is B-E-A-D-G-C-F, backwards from the order of sharps.
So here is the fun part: Each major key has a different key signature – a different number of sharps and flats. To find out this key signature, one may do one of two things:
First thing – Create the major scale using the magic formula discussed in Lesson 29. Find all of accidentals that you put in the major scale, and group them in the correct order. That is your key signature for that key.
Second thing – Memorize the table below or memorize the Circle of Fifths (discussed here). From the table below you can see that C major has no flats or sharps. F major has one flat, and G major has one sharp.. on and on it goes until you get into the scary keys like F sharp. Try to avoid the F sharp major key, it is nothing but trouble…
To learn the key signatures, I would recommend a combination of both things. The first thing will give you a better understanding of key signatures. The second thing is faster, and sometimes faster is better. Not always, but definitley sometimes.