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Piano Facts

  • Where Do Major Chords Come From?

    We’re going to get a little more basic, and examine this scale to chord relationship more carefully.

    We took a look at the C major scale (the old familiar Do Re Mi scale) and saw that it consisted of the following notes.

    C D E F G A B C

    If we take the first, third, and fifth notes of this scale and play them together you get C E G which is the C major chord. In fact, if you play the first, third, and fifth notes from ANY major scale, you get a major chord with the same name as the scale you’re using. To borrow mathematical lingo, the first, third, and fifth notes of the X scale give you the X major chord.

    Chords can be explained in other contexts too. But in my personal opinion, learning the chords as parts of a scale is absolutely the best way to learn them. Why? Because just about anything you need to know about the thousands of chords in music can be explained by using scales.

    If you don’t already know your scales, please start learning about them. The information is readily available so I won’t repeat it here. But scales can be found in just about any beginning music theory book as well as from just about any music teacher.

    As you study scales, it’s best to try to relate the notes of each scale to a numbering system. That way certain principles become obvious.

    1  2  3  4  5  6  7  1 
    C  D  E  F  G  A  B  C 
    G  A  B  C  D  E  F#  G 
    F  G  A  Bb  C  D  E  F 

    In the above table you find three major scales with the number of each scale tone at the top. Reading left to right, the first scale is C major. In the first, third, and fifth columns you find the notes C E G — the notes of the C chord. In the G scale the first, third, and fifth notes are G B D — the G major chord. In the F scale the first, third, and fifth would be F A C — the notes of the F chord.

    This is just a start. We’ll be exploring the relationship between scales and chords further in weeks to come. In the meantime, it would be of value to you as a beginning music student to pick up some information on scales. And learn them. Ultimately, learn all of them. There are a total of 12 major scales.

    Question: Is it a good idea to practice scales by playing them on the piano (like in the old days) instead of just reading about them intellectually? Answer: Yes it would. But if you do, be sure to keep your mind focused on the notes as you play them. Avoid the trap of having only your fingers play the scales while your mind shuts off. Scales are far too important to take them exclusively at the superficial finger level. If you do practice the scales on the piano with your hands, I suggest following a scale book so that you use intelligent fingering. You can find scale books in just about any music store. The one I used years ago was The Virtuoso Pianist, Vol. 2, by Hanon.

    Question: I heard there are other kinds of scales. Minor scales for example. Should I learn them too?

    Answer: Not now. The major scales are by far the most important ones you can learn. They may even be the most important THING you can learn. The other scales have much more limited and esoteric uses.

  • Easy Christmas Songs

    As a special treat for the holidays, we’d like to present a short list of songs that can be played using only a few chords. And at the same time, you’ll get some experience in actually playing by ear.

    The rules are simple.

    We’ll stay in the key of C. When trying to find the correct chord to play with the left hand...

    1. If it’s a two chord song, you will select between C (major) and G7.
    2. If it’s a three chord song, your chord choices will be from among C, G7, and F.
    3. If it’s a four chord song, your chord choices will be from among C, G7, F, and D7.

    For each song, begin with the melody. Using a trial and error process, see if you can pick the single note melody out on the piano. Hint: In every case the first note of the melody will be either C, E, or G. (Remember we’re talking about notes here — not chords. The chords come later.)

    Once you have the melody picked out, you’re ready to start adding the chords. In every song, the first chord will be C which you will play with your left hand. Keep on the C chord until you sense the chord needs to change. When it does, you use a simple trial and error process with the other chords on your list. With a two chord song, there is no guess work. You start with C major, and when the chord changes, it invariably goes to G7. When it changes again, you go back to C major.

    The final chord of each song will be C.

    Ready? Here’s the list.

    TWO CHORD SONG (C major AND G7)

    1. Oh Christmas Tree

    THREE CHORD SONGS (C major , G7 and F major)

    1. Silent Night
    2. Away In a Manger
    3. Joy to the World
    4. The First Noel

    FOUR CHORD SONGS (C major, G7, F major, and D7)

    1. Jingle Bells
    2. Frosty the Snowman
    3. Rudolf the Red Nosed Reindeer

    You may wish to remember that one can play these songs using a greater number of chords to produce a more sophisticated arrangement. But you can always get by for the time being with just a tiny repertoire of chords. Have fun, and Merry Christmas!

  • More About Scales

    Previously, we started discussing the use of the major scale. Since scales are really the basics of all music theory understanding, let’s get the New Year off to a good start by exploring these basics.

    Before going any further I want to clarify one point. When I start talking about scales, I’m sure I’m going to scare off some people who equate scales with tedious classical music studies. So I will go on the record as saying that I am strictly a non-classical, pop piano kind of guy. I do not know how to read music. I never had a formal music education. I’m just a fun time fakin’ it, by ear, rock and roll, country and western, gospel, latin, blues, and boogie-woogie piano pounder who has delusions that some day he’ll actually grasp jazz.

    Yet I worship scales.

    On the other hand I played professionally in bands and as a solo player for a number of years before I learned my first scale. I’m not saying you can’t reach your dreams musically unless you know all your scales. I’m just saying that if you really want to understand what you’re doing, scales are a must.

    OK, on with the show.

    I copied the chart I included last month that showed the C, G, and F scales and their numbered positions. Let me suggest right now that you forget all about Do, Re, Mi, Fa, Sol, La, Ti, and Do and replace those meaningless syllables with 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, and 1.

    1  2  3  4  5  6  7  1 
    C  D  E  F  G  A  B  C 
    G  A  B  C  D  E  F#  G 
    F  G  A  Bb  C  D  E  F 

    Strive to associate each letter name of each scale with its number. In Week 20 we learned that we can make any major chord by combining notes 1 - 3 - 5 from any scale. The other numbers have some significance too.

    For example, add the 7th note of any scale to the rest of the major chord (often referred to as the major triad) and you,ve reading a major seventh chord.

    Word of caution: The Major Seventh chord is NOT the same as the much more common “seventh” chord (which is more precisely known as the “dominant seventh” chord.

    There is a world of difference on many levels between a C7 and a Cmaj7 (called a C Major Seventh). To make a Cmaj7 look at the chart and simply add the seventh note of the scale to the first, third, and fifth. Thus, a Cmaj7 is spelled C - E - G - B.

    The much more common C7 doesn’t even contain a seventh at all. It’s actually the flatted seventh of the scale or B flat. Thus a C7 is C - E - G - B flat. You can still use the scale chart to figure out (dominant) seventh chords. You just have to alter the seventh note by lowering it a half step.

    Thus to make a G7 you add an F to the G major chord. To make an F7 you add an E flat note to the F major chord.

    We’ll delve a little deeper into scales next time.

  • Scales and Minor Chords

    We’ll continue the discussion regarding the association between scales and chords. We saw in a previous lesson that the first, third, and fifth notes from any major scale when played together, form a major chord. The major chord, having just three notes, is often referred to as a major triad. Any three note chord is a triad. Last time we saw that when you add the flatted seventh note of the scale to the major triad, the resulting chord is a seventh, sometimes more accurately called a dominant seventh. Now we’ll see how to make the so-called minor chord or minor triad.

    Referring once again to the scale — any major scale — if you play the first, flatted (lowered) third, and fifth notes together, you get the minor chord. Thus, referring to the chart below, a C minor chord is C, E-flat, and G. A G minor is G, B-flat, and D. And an F minor is F, A-flat, and C.

    1  2  3  4  5  6  7  1 
    C  D  E  F  G  A  B  C 
    G  A  B  C  D  E  F#  G 
    F  G  A  Bb  C  D  E  F 

    If you know all your scales well, you have instant access to minor chords, just by using this formula.

    Important concept: The family of major, minor, and seventh chords constitute the most important chords in music. With one or two possible exceptions, every chord in music is either major, minor, or seventh or will be found in one of those three primary families. There are 12 chords in each chord type, corresponding to the 12 notes in the chromatic scale. Thus, from a palette of just 36 chords, one can play almost any song, regardless of the key it’s in.

    There are, of course, ways other than by using scales to construct and memorize chords. But if you do use the major scale as a reference for deriving chords, there is virtually no limit to your understanding of music theory. If you are a beginner, learn these 36 (12 roots times three chord groups) chords first. They are the most important chords you’ll ever learn.

    For a great reference on scales, look in a music store for The Virtuoso Pianist, Vol. 2 by C.L. Hanon. Practice playing these scales on the piano, using the fingering provided. But above all strive to associate every note within each major scale with its numerical position on the scale.

See Also:

Piano Keys
Piano History
Piano Tuning
Piano Strings

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