Saturday, May 21, 2011

Chords, Part II

In my March 2011 post I described how I teach the major and minor triads, by their physical "shape." By doing this, the student is able to play many simple songs in any key, with melody in right hand and chords in the left. They have learned these chords without needing to know a great deal of "theory" or even how to read music notation. They are still playing melodies by ear. I want them to have the ability and satisfaction of playing a lot of material early on in their lessons.

Next I show them inversions, which are the triads with the order of the notes re-arranged. It is essential the student learn these with good hand position/fingering, using the same ones for that inversion on any triad, regardless of whether it is on black or white keys. Doing this with eyes closed will ensure that the hand really knows the shape of the inversions, rather than depending on eye to find them, which is just too slow for real-life playing. With the feel of the inversions well in hand, I show what I call "close position," where you are playing the I chord (e.g. the C major chord if you are in the key of C) in root position, and the IV and V chords (e.g. the F and G major chords, respectively) in the closest inversions. You now have an easier way to harmonize songs using these three chords, as you are not jumping back and forth between root positions.

Next we need to learn the two other types of triads, diminished and augmented. Before doing this, we have a session on understanding intervals, and how we define or "measure" them in our musical system. Now we get into a bit of the "theory" that we skipped earlier.

One of the big stumbling blocks to people's understanding of chords, harmony, and musical theory in general, is the misconception about the terms "major" and "minor." Most people who are even a bit familiar with music (classical, pop, jazz, or whatever) have come to associate the word "major" with a brighter, happier kind of sound or mood, and "minor" with a darker, more somber, sad or mysterious sound. This association is pretty universal and no one can really explain why these particular relationships of frequencies affect our emotions the way they do -- one of the wonderful mysteries of music! But the terms themselves do not mean happy or sad, bright or dark. MAJOR means big, and MINOR means small, simple as that. A MAJOR triad is so named because its first interval is a MAJOR (larger) third. A MINOR triad is so named because its first interval is a MINOR (smaller) third. If the student doesn't understand this distinction, it will be devilishly hard to really understand 7th chords (4-note chords) and other complex chords (9ths, 11ths, 13ths).

Here's how we construct all four kinds of triads:
(The first interval is from the first note to the second, and the second interval is from the 2nd note to the 3rd, building from bottom to top, as we do in everything in music.)

MAJOR = major 3rd + minor 3rd
MINOR = minor 3rd + major 3rd
DIMINISHED = minor 3rd + minor 3rd
AUGMENTED = major 3rd + major 3rd

Notice again that the first two are named for their first intervals. Diminished is so named because it is the smallest triad, augmented because it is the largest.

Many people learn diminished as "take a minor triad and lower the fifth" and augmented as "take a major triad and raise the fifth," which of course gives you the same result, but it is a bad system, because it forces you to find chords as a two-step process, rather than just know how each one is built and find it in one step.

The student will practice finding and playing all four kinds of triads on all 12 keys. I absolutely do not use any written out chord charts or books which show the actual notes, nor would I let the students write the notes out themselves. This would be like giving you a fish but not teaching you to fish. If you simply refer to a chart which shows you exactly which notes to play, you don't necessarily understand the system. Without this understanding, you will have far too many things to remember. (There will be 48 unique triads, and over 60 unique 7th chords to remember, as opposed to just knowing a few basic formulas.) Learning about chords and playing them from symbols in actual music is the best way to learn the basics of theory, in my opinion.

The student can now play songs from fake books, where the melody is written out in standard musical notation, which I have been teaching them along with the chords and playing by ear if they didn't already know it, and the chords are written in symbols. This is a fun way to learn and play, and gives them the ability to play music that might be beyond their reading ability at this point. They can play any song which uses all the kinds of triads listed above, in any key. They have not yet learned 7th chords; that will be the topic of my next post.