What Does It Mean To Learn Piano By Chords?
When a person expresses that he or she wants to “learn piano by chords,” what is really meant by this? Well, generally speaking, what is being referring to is a way to approach playing songs by learning to play the chords associated with the melody of a song. Also, those chords are usually made readily available in written form via the use of chord nomenclature (chord symbols).
How does learning to play piano by chords differ from what you are likely to learn while engaged in traditional type piano lessons? Well, to understand this let’s first acknowledge the fact that all music consists of 3 basic elements. They are:
These elements exist, whether we are referring to Beethoven’s Fur Elise, George Gershwin’s Rhapsody In Blue, Bart Howard’s Fly Me To The Moon, or Billy Joel’s New York State Of Mind. The notation of such pieces can differ, however.
For example, here is an excerpt of Beethoven’s Fur Elise:
Within that manuscript is evidence of all three of these musical elements. Let’s specifically place our attention on the harmony.
The segment that is circled here contains members of a specific chord known as A minor. The truth is, even if you don’t know that but are trained to read a piece of music such as this, you can still play it without understanding exactly what you are playing. Why? Well, to put it in simple terms, since you are “playing by notes,” an analysis of the kind of harmony those notes create in conjunction with each other is not necessary. If you play the notes that are there, you’re playing Fur Elise (without going into detail about the rhythm, note duration, dynamics, and other aspects that are beyond the scope of this message).
Here is a segment of Bart Howard’s Fly Me To The Moon:
What we are looking at here is a tiny excerpt of something commonly known as a lead sheet, popular among pop and jazz musicians (less popular among those classically trained players whose playing is limited to “playing what they read”). The term “lead” refers to the fact that the melody of the song (or lead part) is presented on one staff. Above the staff, we have chord symbols. A musician trained to understand and interpret these symbols can take the liberty to present the song in a manner that is not limited to one way. You’ll notice that the melody contains a C and an A. It does not contain the E. However, a creative pianist could really do justice to this measure, utilizing all the chord tones of an A minor chord.
Notice that the first chord in this tune is A minor (abbreviated in the symbol as Amin), the same as the first chord of Fur Elise above. Well, if you were to play Fur Elise at a concert http://pianolessonssarasota.com/learn-piano-by-chords-sarasota-florida/ your playing deviated from exactly how that notation is presented in the music, you would likely be hearing some “moans and groans” and perhaps even some “snickers” from your audience. Why? Because Beethoven wrote that piece a certain way and, throughout the centuries, it’s become universally accepted that a musical piece from that era is to be played exactly as the composer intended. One might say that universities have been erected to train aspiring pianists to preserve this respect for conformity.
So, again, we have two examples of music above that each consist of notes of the same chord. The second example above illustrates that an A minor chord consists of the notes A, C, E. We can refer to these as chord tones. Notice that Beethoven played a little “gymnastics” with these chord tones, in a sense. The accompanying line in the bass clef proceeds as follows:
A >>>>> E >>>>> A
The C is actually skipped, another A an octave higher is played, and we don’t see the C until a little later in the measure. As a whole, the complete A minor chord has been used in that measure.
Here is a key point:
Beethoven knew what he was doing with that A minor chord. He understood the harmony he was using and how it worked in the context of this piece of music. Many people being trained as pianists will simply learn to play that piece in a manner that resembles “dictation” rather than having the kind of understanding that Beethoven had when he wrote it.
Is this a bad thing? No one is calling anything good or bad here. What we are saying is that a significant number of performers are trained to duplicate what’s been done time and time again. They learn to do it very well. Again, this type of conformity is highly supported by the masses, including being nurtured in many institutions of “higher music education” all over the world.
Let’s now take another look at that first measure of Fly Me To The Moon. Given this lead sheet, what would a trained pop or jazz pianist interpret this? Well, he or she would certainly know that the A minor chord is comprised of the chord tones A, C, and E. Not having a “prescribed” way to play that chord (as in Fur Elise), this musician is apt to accept it as a privilege.
Why? Because this lead sheet represents an opportunity for freedom when it comes to how this song can be played. The “gymnastics” with those chord tones is likely to be different each and every time that measure gets played during different performances. You see, a creative player performs from a perspective of freedom, as opposed to conformity. Having an understanding of chords allows such an individual to look at those keys from a much more colorful perspective. You might even say that this person’s understanding is closer in line with the thinking of Beethoven at an even more creative level. However, the “composing” and “performing” all happens at the same time!
This type of creative player can be referred to as an improviser. Yes, this person is performing while maintaining a focus on the harmony, or chords, of the song. So, it’s pretty accurate to say that a person with an improvisational mind set is “playing by chords.”
The topic of improvisation can be elaborated on by taking the discussion beyond the subject of chords. However, the main point of what it is like to learn piano by chords has been acknowledged. Furthermore, those who learn in this fashion play with different degrees of creativity, too. A person can favor certain ways of using those chord tones over others. It’s one of those things that makes improvisers unique in their own way.
Although this is not something you will find too often (for reasons mentioned), let’s take a look at what a couple of measures of Fur Elise might look like in lead sheet form:
It might be interesting to note that an individual who has been trained classically through even the highest levels of reading and interpretation who has not “learned piano by chords,” per se, is likely to feel completely lost if this was to make it on the piano stand. An improviser, however, could “go to town” with it, playing variations that would likely captivate the attention of a listener with an open mind (and ear). Upon doing so, that performer would likely be subject to some of those “moans, groans, and snickers” from classical music aficionados who have been programmed to think a certain way (even though they might actually enjoy what they heard). Should such a stigma be associated with musical works from these periods (or any other)? That is a matter for which many people have formed their own perspectives and one that is certainly subject to opinions that are yet to manifest.
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