Learning to Play Using Chord Symbols

Learning to Play Using Chord Symbols

How do you learn to play from chord symbols?

The best way to get started with playing music from chord symbols is obviously to study with an experienced teacher who will be able to guide your studies in the right direction.

Because of the way jazz and popular music is written down, in a simple looking way using a single melody line and chord symbols, many students mistakenly believe that learning to play using chord symbols should be easier than studying written music notation whose complexity is far easier to see in a very visual way. However, this is not the case.

An equal amount of study is required to become a master of either system.

Learning how to play "by ear” or “from a fake book” on their own will only get students so far and success will more often than not be limited without the proper guidance of a teacher experienced in this style of playing, as indeed it would be studying traditional notated music without the help of a good teacher.

Playing from chord symbols usually means learning how to arrange and compose your own variations of a song based on the harmonic framework of the piece. As with most musical endeavors this does entail much more than may be immediately obvious. Students who attempt this alone will most likely feel like they are in a dark room and they have no idea which way to go to get out. Without a clear direction to go with their studies, students will most likely go in circles and feel that they are not making progress. Knowing what to study next and being sure you are doing the right things at the right time is just as important when studying popular music as it is when studying traditional notation.

Once a basic ability to interpret chords has been attained knowing what to do to improve this ability and to take this study to the next level requires as much guidance as learning more advanced Classical repertoire. A good teacher can point the student in the right direction so they can be sure that they are benefiting from their efforts and much more will be gained from their practice time.

Once a pedagogically correct course of study has been identified things become much clearer and the student is then able to make real progress. If you have tried to play popular music from chord symbols and have experienced only limited success the good news is that it does not demonstrate any lack of ability on the part of the student rather just a lack of direction. You will be surprised how much faster your progress will be given the right type of guidance by a teacher experienced with chord symbols, composition, arranging and improvisation.

This field of music instruction is very specialized and many excellent classically trained teachers have very limited experience of this type of music, which requires a very different approach to learning, and they are therefore not always in the best position to help students interested in studying this style of music. Because they have never studied this style of music many classically trained teachers, who are often top experts in their own field, sometimes do not appreciate the level of study, practice, skill, dedication, commitment, talent and knowledge that is involved in studying jazz and popular music to a high level – they just know that they “can’t do it”.

The difference between learning Classical Piano and Jazz/Popular music

On the surface the difference between learning to play Classical piano and popular music may seem minimal, but while many of the skills and techniques are the same there are some fundamental differences to the approach required to learn this style of playing. In Classical music the notes are written down, however, in jazz and popular music the notes are often not written down. (It is, of course, possible to purchase notated jazz and popular sheet music and learning from printed music may form an important part of developing a student’s stylistic awareness, however, in the truest sense of the word these styles are more often improvised.) Standard notation for popular and jazz music is different enough from traditional Classical music that it is almost like learning an entirely new language. Standard notation for popular and jazz music usually consists of lead sheets which contain only a melody line and chord symbols.

It is usually up to the performer to interpret the chord symbols in a way that is demanded by the style of the particular piece of music being studied. This means that the performer will need to compose or arrange their own version of the song based on the harmonic structure of the music as identified by the chord symbols. The same set of chord symbols may be played using different chord “voicings” and rhythms depending on the style of music being played. In addition to this a skilled performer will know how to play substitute chords and alter the harmonic structure of the music to better suit the required style of the music.

The advanced student will be able to add harmonic interest and complexity to the given harmonic structure resulting in a more sophisticated sounding arrangement and will have mastered the ability to play different lines of music within their arrangement that outline the underlying progression of the harmony. The skill of the popular music pianist is to know how the given chord symbols should be interpreted differently on a piece by piece basis. To be successful the student will also need an advanced stylistic awareness gained from listening to and analyzing a wide range of musical styles. Transcription (writing down recorded music) often plays an important role as too does the development of advanced aural skills and the learning of a wide range of musical phrases and common chord progressions. The student will need to develop the ability to transpose musical phrases and progressions into different keys and develop the ability to immediately play musical ideas on the instrument that they hear in their head.

Experienced performers of this type of music often do this spontaneously without any preparation for a given piece of music however, just as in Classical music, musicians often study pieces of music individually to learn the most appropriate way to play the song. Compositional skills and arranging skills therefore play an important part of learning this style of music and a good course of lessons will include these elements as part of the study. Improvisation skills are also required if the musician is to do this at sight without first preparing a piece of music. Improvisation can be defined as "spontaneous composition during performance".

In order to compose spontaneously during performance a solid understanding of the compositional process is required and experience composing and arranging music in the traditional sense will help prepare the student to apply these skills spontaneously during their own performance. When studying Classical music, as long as the student can repeat the notes that are written on the page and learn how to interpret these notes based on the styles of different composers they will achieve a considerable amount of success. With jazz and popular music this is not the case. In order to play this type of music the building blocks of music must first be internalized before they can be realized. In other words the music must be inside the musician before it can come out. There are no written notes to guide the student and playing in this style will involve trying to understand the basic elements of the music first - before playing it.

While it is advisable for students studying Classical music to also analyze and understand the building blocks from which the music is constructed, in practice the analysis and understanding of a piece of Classical piano music may come after the music has been learned and it is not always essential to complete this analysis and understand the theoretical complexities of a particular piece of music before study on that piece of music can begin, as is required for improvisation.

Theory studies therefore play a very important part of lessons when studying jazz and popular music and may take up more lesson time than they typically do when studying traditional notated music. I strongly recommend beginner students study traditional piano lessons first before embarking on a course of jazz and popular music study. It is advisable for students to have the musical basics in place before moving on to improvisation and chord reading. A strong musical foundation gained from a well-rounded course of traditional piano study will allow the student to gain a working knowledge of jazz and contemporary music much faster.

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