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  • Play by Ear in Minor Keys

    Question: Now that Iíve gone through your program How to Play Piano by Ear, I know what chords to expect in most songs ó as long as the song is in a major key. Is there a different set of rules for songs in minor keys?

    Answer: Predicting chord patterns in major keys is a little more reliable than in minor keys. But we can still draw some conclusions about finding chords in minor keys.

    To a certain extent the chords you expect in minor keys parallel their major key counterparts. For example, as you would certainly expect to find the chords C, F, and G7 in the key of C major, you could expect to find the chords Cm, F, and G7 in the key of Cm. In some songs there may be an Fm instead of F (major). But the G chord will always be a seventh just as it is in major keys.

    If the song goes beyond the three basic chords (the I, IV, and V), there are a few other chords you could expect to find with a certain amount of predictability. As in major keys, you could find the minor and seventh qualities of the II chord. In the key of C minor those chords would be D7 and Dm. In addition ó and this is where minor keys are different from majors ó you could expect to find the three basic chords (I, IV and V) associated with the relative major key of the minor key the song is in.

    Thatís a mouthful, so to explain by example the key of Cm could have the I, IV, and V chords of the key of E flat major, the relative major to the key of C minor (i.e. Eb, Ab, and Bb), and they all have the potential for being played as dominant sevenths (Eb7, Ab7, Bb7).

    The way to tell for sure ó use your ear.

    OK, weíve created another question. What do we mean, exactly, by relative major (or relative minor for that matter)? Perhaps that question is better left for another session. But hereís a hint. The relative minor of a major key (as well as the relative major of a minor key) use the same key signature. E-flat major is the relative major of the key of C minor, and vice versa. They both have three flats in their key signatures.

    As you know we go into great detail about how to determine chord progressions in our course How to Play Piano by Ear. But minor chords are an exception to the basic rules.

    In addition to what Iíve told you here, there are some specific chord patterns that are unique to minor keys, but I wonít go into them right now. Sounds like a great topic for a future One Minute Lesson.

  • More Confusion about Inversions

    QUESTION: Iím a little confused about how the chords are supposed to be played based on the key of a song. For example I was playing a chord ĎC7í in the key of C, but when I went to play another song in the key of F the ĎC7í chord finger positions were different. My question is: Based on knowing the finger positions of the basic chords (Majors, Minors and Seventh) in the key of C how do I know where to place my fingers for these chords when the song is in a different key?

    ANSWER: There are two topics here. First, what key does the C7 chord belong in? In actuality, it can be in many different keys. Arguably, it can be played in all keys. But it primarily belongs to the key of F. Itís the ďdominantĒ chord of the key of F. Yet itís regularly found in the keys of C, Bb, Ab, Eb, and less often Db. In the other major keys, the C7 is found much less often.

    The second topic deals with the different fingerings. What you are probably seeing are different inversions. An inversion is a chord that has the same notes as another chord, but the notes are played in different order. Since a C7 chord has four notes, any one of the four notes could be the lowest; thus you have four different ways you could arrange these four notes. The notes would be the same four, thus you would still have the C7 chord, but since they are constructed differently, they are in different inversions. When you see two different ways to play a C7 chord in a book, what you are no doubt seeing are two inversions of that chord.

    Now hereís the good news. You only have to learn the C7 chord (or any chord for that matter) one way. One inversion. You can use that one inversion anytime you have to play that chord, no matter what song, no matter what key.

    That sounds simple, doesnít it? Well yes, itís a simple strategy for beginners. But as you mature as a piano player you will want to start learning other inversions of the various chords. Ultimately you should learn and use all of them.

    There are too many reasons why you need to do this to mention here. But my advice to you is not to worry. Just learn one or two inversions of each chord you need for the time being, and have fun playing your favorite songs. When you feel a need to grow, let inversions grow with you.

    If you are a beginner to the piano, you can just ignore the bass note in the slash chord notation. To a beginner the Bb/C would mean simply to play the B flat major chord and forget about adding the C bass to it.

    What bass note do you play when you see just a regular chord instead of a slash chord? The root.

    When using strategy #4, you may notice when your left hand leaves the root in the lower region of the keyboard to play the chord in the center section, you leave a noticeable sound gap. This gap can be filled by using the sustain pedal BRIEFLY. Just hold it down long enough to fill the sound gap. Release it as you strike the chord.

  • Key Changes and Modulations

    QUESTION: What exactly does it mean to modulate a song? Is it the same as changing the key? If not, whatís the difference?

    ANSWER: A modulation is a key change. All modulations are key changes, but not all key changes are modulations.

    First we must differentiate between modulations in classical music versus modulations in popular music. In classical music a modulation is a temporary change of the pieceís key. In early classical music pieces typically modulated up a fourth or a fifth, before returning to the original key. A good example would be a Bach fugue. Any Bach fugue. Itís important to note that in classical music the decision to modulate is always made by the composer, not the performer.

    In pop music itís entirely different. Here, to modulate means to change the key of the song during the performance of it. And the decision to modulate is often in the hands of the performer or the arranger ó rarely the composer.

    Modulation is often used for a dramatic effect. Traditionally in pop music a performer may choose to modulate by raising the key a half step or a whole step. Technically the key change can go anywhere. But in practicality a dramatic modulation must go up not down (otherwise it wouldnít be dramatic) and it goes up just a minor or major second, not a fourth or fifth (otherwise youíd be out of the vocal range of a singer).

    Also in these situations, unlike in classical music, the modulation does not return to the original key. It either stays where it is, or it may modulate up again for more effect.

    The best way to understand modulations is by noting various examples. One example of a single half-step modulation is found in Kenny Rogersí TheGambler. You find a whole step modulation toward the end of Olivia Newton-Johnís Let Me Be There.

    The Bobby Darin recording of Mack the Knife modulates up a half step every single verse. Barry Manilow is known for multiple modulations as well.

    Sometimes pop songs will modulate back and forth if there are a male and female vocalist trading verses. The excellent Verve album of Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong gives great examples.

    The ability to modulate a song on oneís own requires the pianist to have good skills in playing in all keys plus the knowledge of how to change from one key to another.

    Do not confuse modulations with internal key changes. The Jerome Kern song All the Things You Are technically travels through at least five keys before ending in its original key. These key changes are designed by the composer ó not the performer ó and they are not permanent. The song eventually returns to the original key. As such we donít tend to refer to these temporary changes of the tonal center (or key) as modulations.

    By the way most vertical pianos and some baby grands have a pedal (usually the one in the middle) that sustains only the bass notes. You might want to experiment using this pedal. Almost nobody does.

See Also:

Piano Keys
Piano History
Piano Tuning
Piano Strings

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