As you know, there are many kinds of scales, the most familiar of
which is the major scale, on which the largest percentage of songs are
There are also 3 types of minor scale — the natural minor, the
harmonic minor, and the melodic minor. Then there is the
Mediteranean scale, the blues scale, and all the “church modes” —
Dorian, Lydian, Mixolydian, Aolian, Phrygian, Locrian, and Ionian.
But surprisingly, the most-used scale in the world throughout history
and even now in many Aisian countries is the pentatonic scale.
The Pentatonic scale is formed of notes 1 2 3 5 and 6 of the major
scale. It is a five note scale, hence the name “penta-tonic”.
To find any pentatonic scale, just leave out the 4th and 7th degrees of
any major scale, and presto — you have the pentatonic scale.
The most obvious way to play the scale on piano, is to play all the
black keys and none of the white keys. Many of our spirituals such as
“Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” and even the great classic “Amazing
Grace” can be played with just the pentatonic scale — nothing else.
Even the great composer Chopin got into the “black key act” by
composing Étude Op. 10, No. 5 in G-flat major, also known as the
Black Key Étude. He did use one white key — F — in one measure of
the melody, otherwise it’s all black keys.
Try improvising on the pentatonic scale — you can’t make a mistake,
as all the notes of the scale are harmonious with every other note.
A solid knowledge of music theory is absolutely crucial to a musician who wants to become proficient in sight reading.
Besides acting as the basis for understanding the notes, a music theory education provides the ability to see patterns within the piece of music, a large part of the sight reading puzzle. Sight reading, after all, doesn’t require the musician to read every single note. Most musicians rarely see the entire piece of music, but rather the patterns that emerge from it. They understand notes and how they function in relation to each other and are therefore able to deduce most of the chords and changes — all from just glancing at the basic structure of the piece. In fact, most sight reading mistakes typically happen when a piece of music takes an unexpected turn, deviates from the common pattern.
These mistakes, however, are few and far between with those proficient in sight reading. An experienced sight reader will have learned to not only see patterns but also to read ahead in a piece of music while they are playing it. Looking several bars ahead to catch anything tricky or unexpected is often done while holding a sustain or resting.
Sight reading plays a large role in music education, and students are frequently tested on their ability to do it well. Some sight reading exams will allow the student a few minutes to look over the piece and prepare; he or she will be able to make notes, mark up tricky time signatures or changes. Tempo is rarely a consideration in these sight reading exams as playing the piece well is far more important than playing the piece up to speed. Advanced sight reading exams, however, aren’t quite as forgiving. These exams give the student minimal, if any, time to prepare, and tempo is absolutely considered into the final grade. Advanced sight reading exams prepare a student for work as a studio musician, a career where absolutely perfect sight reading is a must. The majority of studio musicians record a piece of music after only seeing it once — sometimes not at all. A flawed skill in sight reading will only prove to be a hindrance to the working musician; it is for that reason considered one of the most important parts of a music theory education.
The tango is an incredibly sensual genre of music and dance that originated in Argentina. It is always played by a tango orchestra consisting of strings, bandoneon, bass and sometimes piano, though various other Latin-based instruments are found outside of this core group. Each of these instruments can be represented in any number within the band; the specific instrumentation is part of the tango orchestra’s uniqueness.
Most tango orchestras are full of extremely portable instruments, instruments that can be quickly packed up and easily traveled with. This bent towards portability is a strong reflection on the tango’s underground origin. The tango originally started in the early 1900s as a sort of low-brow music in Buenos Aires. Those playing the tango were usually tied in some way those listening to the tango, so they were constantly on the move. Portable instrumentation, for these early tango orchestras, was absolutely essential.
However, the constant playing of tango music in the Argentine streets eventually bore holes into the mainstream, and the upper class (despite their initial misgivings) eventually gave in to the intimate form that we know today; it was altered and toned down into various commercial forms. By World War II, the tango was a craze in Argentina and elsewhere, bringing with it the dance of the same name.
The tango dance, unlike some forms of the music, managed to stay true to its peasant roots. The Argentine tango, a form sometimes found in modern times, is the original peasant tango, danced as early as just after the music’s inception. A variation on the original tango dance eventually found its way to the United States, sweeping the country with its sensuous, sometimes complicated steps. A simplified version of this form eventually became the ballroom tango dance that is still danced today.
The rhythm of the tango is not as complex as one would think, but because of the interplay between various instruments, one would get that impression.
There are two basic types of tangos — the Spanish Tango and the Argentine Tango. The basic structure of the Spanish Tango is in 4/4 with a quarter notes on the first beat followed by an eighth rest on the first half of the 2nd beat followed by two quarter notes in each measure, whereas the Argentine Tango is in 4/4 with three quarter notes followed by 2 eighth notes per measure.
To complicate things a bit, the Spanish Tango sometimes has a two measure rhythm, with the 2nd measure consisting of eighth, quarter, eighth, quarter, quarter.
All this plus many other rhythms are covered in detail in Rhythm Piano.
A harmony is a series of notes in combination, played simultaneously. Listen to your favorite songs, and pay close attention to the back-up vocals when they’re being sung along with the lead.
Can you hear how the two vocal melodies differ in pitch? That’s harmony, and it’s highly possible that those back-up vocalists were chosen because of their strong ability to harmonize. Singing a harmony, or rather picking one out on your own without written sheet music, is an almost inherent musical skill that many singers would die to possess.
But harmony isn’t just the province of singers; it’s found in every single area of music. Any time a sound is layered on top of another sound and those sounds match each other in rhythm and melody (but not pitch), a harmony is created.
Harmony is made of intervals, and as such, it can be considered dissonant (scratchy, uncomfortable, like playing an E and an F at the same time) or consonant (pleasing or smooth). What makes a harmony pleasing or unpleasing, however, is somewhat relative. In medieval times, only octaves and perfect fifths were considered harmonious, and any harmony that deviated from that was generally frowned upon. In modern western music, though, nearly everything is considered to be harmonious by someone. Fifths are still very popular in modern harmony but are now used in the most unlikely of places; heavy metal music, for example, frequently uses perfect fifths in the vocal harmony to create an eerie effect when layered on top of the more dissonant instrumentation.
Harmony, in addition to being consonant or dissonant, can also be subordinate or coordinate. Subordinate harmony, the tonal harmony used most frequently today, is a series of harmonies that are based on each other. The harmony moves in such a way that a resolution is somewhat predictable; you can hear this type of harmony in modern pop music, musical parts that flow very easily into each other and don’t leave the listener baffled as to the turn the song has taken. On the other hand, coordinate harmony is a series of harmonies that operate independently of each other. They do have some common relation, of course, but don’t typically move toward a goal, or predictable resolution. Renaissance musicians often used this type of harmony, and it’s capable of producing rich and moving textures within a piece of music.
So what is a piano player to do to harmonize a tune with chords that sound good? In other words, how do we match a left hand chord to the melody at any given point in a song?
It sounds compliated, but it’s really not. You just need to know the “family chords” of the key you are playing in, and then ask yourself “into what other chord will this melody note fit?” You’ll come up with a few matching chords that will give a new flavor to an old song.
For a great downloadable course in harmonizing, check out “How To Harmonize Any Tune
With Beautiful Piano Chords!”
A musical tritone is an interval of three whole tones (whole steps) or six half tones (half steps). Simply put, a tritone is an augmented fourth or diminished fifth, depending on the key. A tritone is typically created by adding an accidental, but it’s found naturally on the fourth and seventh degrees of any scale. In a C major scale, for instance, the tritone would be found by playing the F and B simultaneously.
Tritones are significant because of their ability to create a heavy, uncomfortable dissonance. It’s so uncomfortable, in fact, that it has been referred to as the devil’s interval and was strongly discouraged during the Baroque period — a time when the pleasing sound of perfect fifths ruled the day. But despite its rather nasty stigma, the tritone has the power to be pleasing and even somewhat consonant when used correctly. Because it’s one of the most moody and easily personified intervals, the tritone is frequently used to foreshadow a heavy resolution.
Additionally, the tritone is helpful to jazz musicians who employ a technique called “tritone substitution.” This substitution is possible by playing a dominant seventh chord that uses a root a tritone away from the original dominant seventh. Because the interval pitches are the same, the chords become interchangeable, thus giving the musician a bit more freedom to explore possibly melodies and harmonies during an improvisation.
Jazz isn’t the only type of modern music to use the tritone, however. Though it was frowned upon in the early ages of western music, dissonance is far more acceptable today; in some cases, it’s even what draws an audience to a certain piece of music. The tritone can be found in nearly every area of modern rock and pop, but it’s exploited most often in heavy metal music that prides itself on sounding eerie or evil. Metallica and Black Sabbath have used the tritone to wondrous effect, and one of Jimi Hendrix’s most famous songs, “Purple Haze,” is based almost entirely around the dissonant chord. The well-known 17-minute song “Inna Gadda Di Vida,” by psychedelic rockers Iron Butterfly, also used the tritone during an extended keyboard solo as a way to break the glory of a series of perfect fifths.
I use it a lot in my playing because it provides a perfect “half-step slide” into the next chord if it is a 4th above or a 5th below the chord I’m playing.
Most of us will never come close to creating the sounds we hear the great jazz pianists such as Oscar Peterson, Dave Brubeck and many others make, but it sure is fun trying. I’ve played jazz piano all my adult life — not very well compared to those guys, but good enough to amuse myself and entertain friends and make a few bucks.
If you’ve always wanted to learn to play jazz on the piano but never had the time or the money…or worst of all spent endless amounts money that you really didn’t have on lessons that were supposed to teach you but left you even further back than where you started,
I’ve definitely found that someone who is going to help you do it.
Check him out at “How To Play Jazz Piano”
When sight reading a piece of sheet music it is easy to lose your place in the score if you need to look down at your hands. Try to not look down, but if you must, don’t move your head — just do an eye-flip down at the keys and back up. That way your eye sockets stay pointed in the same direction, making it a lot easier to find your place in the score again.
But piano sight reading is more than a matter of the eyes; it’s a matter of understanding what you are seeing. If all you see is a mess of black notes on white paper, you’re in big trouble. But if you can see intervals, chords, scales, patterns and so forth, you’ll be much further down the road in piano sight reading.
Which is a good reason to get well grounded in music theory!