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Become a Musician

I originally published this blog post under the title:  “Play Piano by Ear”.   But (after reading numerous comments on a subsequent post called ‘Finding the Chords’) I came to the conclusion that I had (inadvertently) HIDDEN this instalment.  So (on August 7th 2020) I changed the title.

In order to become a musician (or – to grow as a musician) you need to do more than just practice.  You need to understand Song Structure … and Chord Patterns.   And you need to know HOW to practice.  That is – you need to DO music … but (while doing it), you need to know what to pay attention to.

This essay is intended to get you going.

I do happen to believe that the most efficient way (to make this beginning) will be to put your hands on a (functional) piano keyboard    and play it / (employ it as a Teaching Aid).

Solve this problem (that is – GET yourself in front of a piano) … and I’ll tell you what to do next.


But first let me share with you some of my own ‘back-story’.


By the fourth grade I could (spontaneously) make up harmonies to songs that we sang in school.  I began singing in the (adult) church choir when I was about eleven. I loved many of the songs that we sang around the campfire (in Scouts).   I sang in the school choir in Jr. High and in High school.

Also -(for a couple years in high school) a friend of mine and I were a folk duo.  We sang folk songs [and Beatles songs] and accompanied ourselves on guitars. I usually sang harmony. We got some gigs and we had some fun.

I got a lot of joy from singing.  So, as I was about to graduate from high school (and go to college) I considered majoring in Music.  But as I contemplated doing this, I felt as though I was standing on the edge of a deep dark pit. (Music is, after all, quite mysterious)  It seemed like, if I committed to Music, I would have to throw myself into this “pit” … and (honestly) this put me off.


I entered a Liberal Arts program in college and took some choral electives, eventually ending up in the concert choir.  And, as I had begun playing guitar in high school, I continued to study music informally, on my own. 

As I continued to play (and sing) in college, I came to realize that the chords used to accompany a song …. exist as a Pattern – and so can be transferred to another key, while keeping the pattern intact.


[an Extra]:  It is not easy to build a guitar, but it is not difficult to build a gut bucket (a home-made string bass – made from an inverted (steel) wash tub, a broom handle (or stick) and a piece of braided nylon cord.  I would make such an instrument sometimes … and play it. You raise the pitch of the note by increasing the tension on the string (by pulling the stick away from the tub, with your foot on the rim of the tub, opposite the stick).  Of course it’s funky (not ‘respectable’) to look at … but, if played well (which I could do) it does a good impersonation of a real stand-up bass.  [Years later … watching the string vibrate one day … I realized – ‘this is an exquisite instrument’.]   Anyway, it’s fun, it’s cheap … and it’ll give you a “bottom”.


I continued to ‘study’ music and song structure (& chord patterns) over several decades.  And eventually I understood music enough … such that if I could have been in possession of these understandings when I first stood on the ‘edge of the pit’ … I think that pit would NOT have seemed so dark and foreboding … and maybe I would have jumped.


You see – by the age of 18, as I first dared to ‘peer into the pit’, I knew that even if I should become an ‘accomplished musician’ (quite able perhaps – to play any piece you might care to put before me) … a ‘well-oiled music machine’ … that that would NOT be enough for me.  I knew that I needed (not just to be able to PLAY music) … but also to UNDERSTAND it.

As Annie Dillard says – “we have been as usual asking the wrong question. It does not matter a hoot what the mockingbird on the chimney is singing. The real and proper question is: Why is it beautiful?”

Even then I knew I was a philosopher … and that I would require a philosopher’s enquiry into the nature of music.  I wanted to feel the music with my soul; and I wanted it (to the extent possible) to make sense intuitively.  I knew that a mechanistic approach would NOT satisfy me.


I do not claim to know the Path of Formal Training.  I do not know what it’s like to ‘become a musician’ by going down the Formal Path.  But I can now say some things about the informal path. And I quite suspect – that these two approaches naturally complement and augment each other.  So (it may be that) what I have learned may be of use even to a musician who DID go down the Formal Path.


It seems to me that the core of what I have learned about Music: (song structure and chord patterns) is really fairly simple.  It doesn’t amount to all that much. And yet it is powerful. Do these few things, and (if you have normal pitch and rhythm … and you love music) you will become a musician.


If you can sing a song (especially if you can sing it beautifully) – you’re a Singer.  If you can ACCOMPANY (on an instrument) someone else (or yourself) such that your accompaniment makes them sound good – you’re a Musician.  And my assumption is that you’d like to be able to accompany YOURSELF as you sing a song.  And my suggestion for an instrument is – the PIANO. The keys are perfectly laid out in order.  And (not trivially) you do NOT have to PRACTICE on the piano … just to play a chord.  The first time you try to play an F chord on the guitar, you may think:  “I’ll never be able to do this.”  It isn’t TRUE of course; you CAN learn to play it, but you have to practice.  But with a piano, you just have to know what to DO to play a given chord.  (And of course – EVERYTHING gets better with practice.)


You will notice that a piano keyboard is laid out (in a repeating pattern) with white keys and black keys.  Imagine for a moment that this were not the case. What if all the notes were identical in appearance. It would be very difficult, would it not – to orient yourself on such a keyboard?  (Be grateful for the way it is.)


You may as well know – that any note you choose to play will have a certain frequency.  [the A below middle C is 440 hertz (440 cycles per second) … world-wide]  So – the A below that will be HALF that frequency – which is 220 Hz … and the one above will be of TWICE 440, or 880 Hz.  And this pattern holds true for any note, anywhere.  This is the relationship of notes an octave apart.


Also you should know – that as you move up the keyboard, note by note – all the intervals are equalregardless of whether you’re moving from a white key to a black one, black to white, or white to white.  The intervals are all the same; and this (one note to the next) interval is called a “half-step”.   Each octave is divided into 12 (equal) half-step intervals.

All the white keys on the keyboard are (thought of as being) lettered, sequentially, in octaves  –  A, B, C, D, E, F, G … then you’re in a new octave, and you start over.  Seven letters for seven notes.

I think we should admit that the word “octave” is slightly confusing … as it means – “8” … even though there are only seven (different, solfa) notes.  This is because when we play (or sing) up the keyboard – all the notes of an octave, we WANT to hear the Do at the beginning … AND AT THE END AS WELL.  Our ear simply REQUIRES THIS.  (TRY getting away with just playing seven notes … and you’ll see what I mean.)


So (beginning on C  – the white key just to the left of a ‘two-group’ of black keys) – if you play all the white keys in order) … you will recognize the solfa scale.  And the black notes show you the structure of the solfa scale:  that is – FIVE of the intervals are whole-steps … and the other two (between Mi & Fa, and from Ti to Do) are half-steps (as there is no black key in between).


You may as well acquaint yourself with the black keys.  If you play them (starting with a 3-group) you will hear them play (as you run up the keys) an abbreviated version of the seven-tone solfa scale:  They go: Do, Re, Mi, Sol, La, Do.  Five notes. This is called the Pentatonic Scale, as it has five tones. The tune(s) to ‘Amazing Grace’ and ‘Shortnin’ Bread’ (for example) are pentatonic.  Mmm?

I want to say something to connect the piano keyboard to the standard way of writing musical score:  The C (note) in the middle of the keyboard is called ‘Middle C’. The treble clef (of musical score) is depicted as being a considerable distance from the bass clef.  But here’s the truth: There is really only a single line missing (undepicted) between the two clefs … and this (undepicted) line … is Middle C.


And, by the way, the difference between a man’s voice and a woman’s voice … is (roughly) one octave.  So (by convention) the same notes are used to depict a female vocal part … even though those notes  are really an octave higher than the notes used to depict a (male) Tenor line.

The sol-fa ‘value’ of any note is (much) more important than which octave it happens to be in.



You need to know chords.  And for that you need to know solfa.  The good news is – that you ALREADY KNOW sol-fa. (do, re, mi, fa, sol, la, ti, do) … but you’ll need to make it more accessible to your intellect, your conscious mind; so you might as well learn the hand signs:    (Solfege Hand Signs)


Let’s not pretend  – all these notes are NOT of equal importance.  Do & Mi & Sol … are the most important; and (of these Main Three – Do is the most important).


Do is Home. Songs have no trouble starting on a note other than Do; but at the end of the song (the tune) will always (almost always) ‘come home’ to Do.


So – the C-scale (on the piano keyboard) … shows you the structure of the SolFa scale.  [To play the solfa scale using only white keys, you must begin with C (as Do).] 


 Remember this: The key of C (on the piano) DISCLOSES the solfa scale.


Okay.    Chords:


Just keep in mind that a piano allows you to play any song in ANY key.  But for now (for simplicity / to minimize the need for black keys) we’re going to stick with the key of C (that is –  C   and A-minor)

{I play the piano and the guitar (by ear) … and I use these instruments mainly to ACCOMPANY myself or others while singing.  (When I sing in a choir, I am obliged to make use of [paper] score; and I can sight-read better than most.) But when I play the piano … I do it without any paper.

I prefer playing in the keys of A, C, D, E, & G.  (I will sometimes play in another key, but only if necessary … and with some difficulty.)  And this is the case with BOTH (piano and guitar).

In recent years, I’ve developed a bias toward the key of D.  Quite often it just seems like the Best Key (given that it suits the vocal range, etc.)            Some years ago I was trying to figure out the chords to Mozart’s   Ave, Verum Corpus (a work of extraordinary beauty and grace.)  [When I was 18 or 20 I sang this song with my mom, in church, as a duet.  She sang the harmony; I sang the melody.  It’s a gorgeous piece.]   I tried the key of C, but couldn’t seem to get through it.  Then I tried D (which is the key Mozart wrote it in) … and it worked.  It was much easier.

Anyway, D is a good key.  I don’t really know why.}


Before getting to the nuts & bolts of chords, I want to make one more general statement about chords.  Eventually I realized (and it’s quite a surprising discovery, really) – that a given song is MADE of its chord pattern.

Now, you can ask any sensible person, and they will tell you that a Song is equal to its TUNE.

Well, this is TRUE, of course … even SO … a song is, in its First Essence – its Skeleton … that is – its Chord Pattern.

And what convinces me of this is the fact that you can leave the tune unchanged; but, alter the chord pattern … and you get quite a Different Song.


A song’s Chord Structure  would seem to be of a Higher order of reality than the Tune.


Okay –

Now we’re going to play a ‘C chord’, an ‘F chord’, and a ‘G chord’.


To play a C chord, I put my right thumb on a C … my index finger on the E … and my ring finger on the G.  (A real piano player may tell you a different way, but that’s the way I usually do it.)


You can use Middle C.  Remember? It’s the first white key   just to the left of the two-group of black keys in the middle of the keyboard.  

Satisfy yourself that your thumb is on C … and the other two notes – you do by feel.  You’re now playing a (major) C-triad / a C chord. Your thumb is playing Do … your index finger is playing the Mi … and your ring finger is playing the Sol … all at the same time.

Now play them one at a time and listen to the chord structure:  C, E, G = Do, Mi, Sol.

This is what it means – ‘to play a C chord’.  You’re playing a Do-Mi-Sol chord … with C as Do.


Okay, now the F-chord:  Just lift your hand and move your thumb to the F … and play the same (skip, skip) pattern as before.  (index finger on the A … and ring finger on the C). Now the Do is F (and you’re also playing Mi & Sol relative to the new Do)

Okay?  Now – same thing with the G chord.  You put your thumb on the G (skip, skip) and play the same pattern as before.  Index finger plays B (the new Mi); and your ring finger plays the new Sol (supplied by the D).   This is what it means ‘to play a G-chord’. (G is now Do; and you’re also playing the necessary Mi & Sol relative to that G.)    Mmm?


Now, to grow as a musician, you must keep track of what you’re doing, in the moment.  You must pay attention … but NOT to everything. You just need to know that you’re playing a C chord, (or whatever) … that your thumb is on C … and a ‘C chord’ = Do, Mi, Sol (with C as Do)


You also need to keep track of where you are [that is, where the SONG is] IN THE PATTERN (the chord pattern).  And you’ve already learned one.  C, F, G  aren’t just random chords.  They comprise a pattern. A Music Major will call these chords: Tonic, Subdominant, and Dominant.  A working musician will probably refer to them (the SAME chords) as 1, 4, & 5.


Now, if you’re playing in the key of G, then 1, 4, & 5 will NOT be C, F, & G … they will be G, C, & D.  But we won’t worry about that for now. However, you can be assured – the pattern is exactly the same.


Let’s turn our left hand into a Teaching Aid:  Look into the palm of your left hand. (Level your forearm so that your thumb is pointing up, and your fingers point to the right.  You’ve probably already noticed that you have five fingers. Let’s number them: little finger = 1 … thumb = 5.  Now fold in 2 & 3.   What remains (of course) are 1, 4, & 5. Have a good look at your left hand as you see it right now. Remember it.

This pattern is analogous to the solfa scale.  (Only –  solfa is about NOTES … and the ‘1-4-5-Hand’ is about CHORDS.  But BOTH are key-independent.)


With regard to NOTES:  Do = the root (or Home) … Sol = the ‘high one’ … &  Mi = the ‘pretty one’ –    ( 1, 5, & 3 )

With regard to CHORDS:  the 1-chord (tonic chord) is ‘Home’.  A song is likely to start off with the home chord, but it may well NOT.  However, the song will ALWAYS (almost always) END on the home chord.  The song will ‘come home’.            The 4-chord (subdominant chord) has a feeling (as the song moves from the 1  to the  4) – of development  –  of (dramatic) change.  (“We’re not in Kansas any more, Toto.”)        The 5-chord (dominant chord) has the feeling of tension (or the) need for resolution.      And (of course) the song then finds relief … by ‘coming home’ (to the 1-chord).

The key is (in order to grow as a musician) – that you pay attention to the feelings which the various chord changes produce.  Music is emotion.  Without that, it would be pointless, wouldn’t it?   (So  – pay attention.)


Okay, let’s again play a C-major triad  (1, 3, 5 = C, E, G)


Okay, now play the same chord again, only this time play it with a flatted 3rd.   (instead of playing E for the 3rd, play the black key  E-flat)

Hear that?

That’s a C-minor chord.


The Do didn’t change.  The Sol didn’t change. Only the Mi changed; (it changed to Mey.)


Whether a chord is Major or Minor … is determined by the THIRD.


Now play these two triads sequentially / open them up in time:  C, E, G … C, E-flat, G …

And sing along:  Do, Mi, Sol … Do, Mey, Sol


Only a single note is different (and only by a half-step) … but it makes a huge difference.


The Mi (in the major triad) seems pretty; but the Mey (the third in the minor triad) does not.  It’s somber.   Dark.

Big difference.


Now, let’s describe these two chords – by their respective intervals.  A basic chord is 1, 3, 5 … three notes, and TWO intervals.

How many half-steps are there? – between the Do and the third (Mi)   in the major triad? We can find out  by simply counting the cracks between the keys.  I make it: FOUR. And between Mi and Sol … there are THREE more half-steps.


So – we may describe the major chord (in terms of intervals) as: 4 & 3


The minor triad (Do, Mey, Sol … wherein the 3rd has been flatted) as: 3 & 4.

[Please do not be bothered by the fact that these numbers (3 & 4) do NOT refer to notes or chords, but to the number of half-steps between the notes of the chord.]


4 & 3 = Do, Mi, Sol  = a major chord.


3 & 4 = Do, Mey, Sol  = a minor chord.


ANY major chord … ANY minor chord.   Mmm? (REMEMBER this.)




We’re now going to DOUBLE the number of chords in our (basic) chord pattern.


Before we just had:  1, 4, and 5.

Now we’re going to add the Shadow Chords: (dark 1, dark 4, & the ‘dark 5’)


We already know the relationship between, say, a C-chord … and a C-minor chord.

We know what it SOUNDS like … and we know what the change amounts to.


Our Basic Chord Pattern is about to include, not just the normal 1, 4, 5 chords (C, F, & G) but also the Relative Minors of these chords (Am, Dm, & Em … these are also called Enharmonic Minor(s).


Here’s how you form them.  (It’s always the same!):


Play a C-chord (C, E, G)

Now, instead of flatting the third, we’re going to change a single note … and still turn this chord into a minor chord.  Here’s what you do:


Lift your hand … and put it down again, but with your thumb on the A.


Before the chord was: C, E, G … now it’s A, C, E.     It was major; now it’s minor.  It was a 4 & 3 chord; now it’s 3 & 4 (in terms of intervals)


‘A’ has become the Do … The C (which was Do) is now Mey … and E (which was Mi) is now Sol.


Play these chords (back & forth) a few times.  Get used to the sound of them.  [ C … Am     – – – –         The ‘One’ chord … the ‘Dark One’ ]


You may form the Relative Minor of ANY (major) chord … in just this way.  [Lift your hand, shift down three half-steps, put your thumb on that note, and continue to play what were the bottom two notes, just as before.]


That’s all there is to it.


Do this with your Four-chord (the F-chord) … and you get Dm.

Do it with the 5 (the G-chord) … and you get Em.


But now I have some news for you:  the Dark 5 (Em) MAY be E-minor … but, more likely – it will just be E.   Yep, E-Major.

But whether it’s Em or E-Major … we’re STILL going to call it the ‘Dark 5’ chord.



Hunt up your left hand again … and configure it as before (with fingers 2 & 3 tucked in) …


Now find a light    and a flat surface (such as a table top) … and get your hand to cast a shadow on the surface.  You should now be able to see TWO hands … one – which helps you wash your right hand … and the shadow-hand.  The flesh hand reminds you of the regular chords (C, F, & G) … and the shadow of it is to remind you of the shadow chords (Am, Dm, & Em/E … the ‘dark One’, the ‘dark Four’, and the ‘Dark Five’)


Go use ‘em.


You can now give yourself permission to accompany yourself on the piano.   Just pick a song you know (and like) and see if you can accompany yourself on the piano.


We haven’t yet dealt with  Accidental chords (chords which aren’t part of the Regular Progression, but are used anyway) … seventh chords (and major sevenths) … suspensions … or chord inversions  …   but those things are for later.  

You have a lot to work with already.

You can get a cheap bottom … by simply playing a single bass note – corresponding to the root (the Do) of the chord you’re playing with the right hand.

This is quite easy to do; and it adds quite a bit of fullness to the sound, and for very little work.

You may be able to add yet another dimension, simply by doing a ‘slow pulse’ with your right hand.  [listen to ‘The Rose’;  link at end]


Read the section on Changing Chords … then pick a song, and give it a try.

You find the chords, you find the song.


Remember, we’re not trying to be GREAT on the piano.  We’re just (as Bukka White says) playing the piano till the piano player comes.



Changing Chords

A given song might of course be played in any key.  But if you’re just beginning to learn to play the piano by ear, why not linger a while in the key that’s easiest to play  — C (and A minor).


One of the things going on here is that we’re using the piano to understand Song Structure.  When you’re on your own (i. e., not looking at marks on a piece of paper), you have to GUESS.  You have to guess When to change and What to change to.  So, just keep in mind what you know about chord patterns / (song structure)    and DO something. When you make a mistake, the piano will tell you.  


You are training your brain.  Keep in mind that what you are learning to do  – is to ‘play’ two instruments at the same time  – your own vocal cords … and the keyboard. And sometimes chords need to change rather irrespective of the tune that you’re singing; so be patient.  And be willing to grant the piano Independence from your singing voice.  Quite often the chord will change with the lyrics (on a vowel); but when this happens, it needs to be like ‘two people’ who (right now) happen to be doing something at the same time.  Don’t try to actuate your two voices from a single impulse. Maintain with them (with your two instruments) a regard of independence, autonomy, and equality … (and maybe even appreciation and respect). 


Accompaniment / (accompanying) is a high art; and you are learning to accompany yourself on the piano.  In order to play a C chord or an F chord, you must , of course, know that you’re playing a C or an F.     But to grow in the art of Accompanying (by ear), you must also pay attention to other things.  You need to keep track of Where you are – where the SONG is – at any given time – in the chord progression.  You need to be mentally Aware … and Emotionally aware too. In a given song every chord has a certain Feeling; and when the chord Changes, the change (itself) causes another feeling  (which I call ‘dramatic’). I think that the dramatic component is relatively ‘shallow’ (or simple). But there is a further component to the Feeling associated with the way chords change in a song   which is not in the least Simple. This one I call ‘Emotional’. This component is rooted, not just in the song itself, but in what we believe, what we love, and how we experience Life. It is very spread out.  It should (the way music is emotional) probably be regarded as one of the Mysteries.


Just pay attention.  Use your own feeling-sense.  You will notice, for example, that the 1-chord has the feeling of Home, especially when the song Comes Home (at the end of a musical line or at the end of the whole song).  The change from the 1 to the 4 chord can have the feeling of venturing forth (of going out from Home). The 5 chord can have the feeling of Tension … of the Need for Resolution.  Sometimes, when the song is in the 5, you can feel a Wanting to Come Home. And of course it wants to come home to the 1 (to the Home chord). Normally this is a simple 5-1 event. But when the song comes home through the 4-chord, it will sound Bluesy.  This is definitely a blues move (5-4-1).  

But Feel in your own way.  Just have fun … stay oriented … and pay attention.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

[In this case, at the beginning, you’re hearing the piano/right hand playing an ‘open‘ (that is – a ‘thirdless’) chord.  It happens to be in C … so:  just the C & the G, (no E)]

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