Music as a Language | How to play piano by chords, ear & heart – 1. Intro

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The Chord-Piano Method

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This is the first of a 7-part intro-series on how to play by piano by learning music as a language – the piano couture approach. access all the lessons in this series by
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Hi Everybody! What’s up?

In this first lesson of my brand-new, “how to play piano – the Piano Couture way” I will explain and exemplify the concept of “Pop-Piano” (piano by chords). How music is a language and how approaching it like that will simplify, clarify and immensely speed up the learning process.

A video of me explaining and exemplifying this concept is below the text. For best understanding and retention, I advise to both read the text and watch the video.

This course will set you right up to truly understand how music works. It will get you playing anything you want by ear – without ever needing sheets.

Whether you’d like to be able to just sit down at the piano and play your favorite songs by heart, figure out by yourself how songs are played, play in a band, improvise, accompany yourself or your singer friend, write your own songs or just use true musical insight to be way faster at picking up and remembering music, this course will be the first step to lead you there.

It will make you “see” music, feel music, understand and speak the language of music.

MUSIC is a language

This is my “flagship” metaphor. I like to use it to explain how I envision music. How I see it in my mind and am able to translate what I feel to the keyboard and express myself by playing anything I want.

There’s many reasons why music is best approached like a language, the first of those is because music is obviously very auditorial. It’s an expressing-listening type of thing – just like talking.

Second of all, I’ve found great success in clarifying my non-conventional (hence the “hacking”) approach to learning piano and music by taking a similar approach as when learning a new language.
First learn how to speak before you can read – first learn a few words and build some simple sentences to get moving, playing – and neglect things that are both, for the moment, irrelevant and confusing. Another upside to this is retention: it’s way more fun to start executing immediately and learn as you play, in stead of focussing on boring grammar rules.

To illustrate – Whether you like to envision yourself as a baby (fun! and advised if you currently only speak one language) or when you started picked up a second language later on, let me ask you this:

Did you first learn to speak a few words, even form a few sentences with those words, or did you first learn how to spell and read…? (I wrote a more elaborate, illustrative story about this, which you can find in my free ebook “Bare Essential Keys to Harmony” – a complimentary free download that comes with this free intro course, get it here – on page 15)

Since the score for “first learn to speak a bit” is probably close to 100% I’m going to assume you’re on my side and can hopefully relate to the fact that, on some level, this is actually a little strange.

Why?

Well, when we’d get technical and de-constructive, words are actually not the most basic form of language.

SUB PARTICLES, COHESION AND LEARNING BY DOING

A more basic sub-particle of words, would be letters. But you won’t learn about those until you’re about 4 years old.

When learning a language, you seem to sorta fall right in the middle of the matter, in stead of starting at the “start.”

However, NOT starting at the most basic sub-particle level to learn a new skill, is something that tends to work quite well for a lot of skills and something that I’m a big fan of.

I’m not alone.

A lot of times, in stead of starting to build it up from the ground, it works way better to first toy around a bit with an executable form of the new skill, to get a taste and feel for how it would work if you’d learn more.

Speak a bit before you can spell, play a bit before you can spell.

Selection – tackling the things that make up the foundation, the root, the most used and most useful parts of a new skill first. What is the effective dose – the 20% that will get you to knowing/getting/enable you to perform 80% of the skill you’re learning.

TALKING MUSIC – WORDS vs LETTERS

The strange thing is that although music and language are so comparable that they are actually almost the same thing (music is a language) 99% of the time, piano isn’t taught in this way at all. It usually starts at the super basic sub-particle level of “spelling” also called: sight reading – the regurgitation of those lines and dots on paper that you’ve undoubtedly seen.

Now I’m not saying sight reading is bad per se, in fact it can come in handy… sometimes. I am saying I find it an absurd place to start learning the musical language. (On top of that I think it is superfluous and unnecessary to learn at all, but that’s a different story.)

Since it’s a bit like reading letters and learning difficult grammar rules, when you’re just starting out and this is how you’d get taught to play, it’s not very motivating at all. Nor effective.
After already spending way too much time on learning sight reading, for the first few years all you’ll be able to do is read and regurgitate those letters (notes) one by one. Spelling.

Imagine someone – a child for instance – that’s only just learning how to read, reading out the word: “keyboard.”

“k,” “e,” “y,” “b,” “o,” “a,” “r,” “d.” … “keyboard!” Nothing wrong, just not very fluent, right?

Tell the same child (or even someone that doesn’t speak English) the word “keyboard” – be kind and repeat it for them slowly – then ask him/her to repeat after you and: voila.

To get to playing some actually good sounding music using sight-reading, would in fact mean that you’d have to get faster and faster at reading and spelling, until you reach a level where you’re fast enough to stick all those single letters (single notes) together and form actual words, sentences.

Another often seen downside is that when the lines-and-dots paper is removed, the student can’t for the life of him seem to remember how the piece was played again…

Not very effective. Not very fun too.

Chunking & encoding – THE EASE OF REMEMBERING blocks & SIMILARITIES

This is also going to be illustrative for those of you that can already read sheet music but are interested in learning how to play by ear.
Have you ever noticed how much easier it is to remember a large number – for instance a phone number, when you “group” the numbers in stead of trying to remember every single number?

754675647592

Looks like a hard number to remember.

Now look at this:

7546 7564 7592

Three groups that start with 75 – then just remember 46 and 64 (note that those are 4 and 6, and then 6 and 4; if you need more aid remembering the order of those two – from low – first the 46 – to high – then the 64) and finally just one “random” number: 92 (the highest of the 3 “suffixes” and is actually 2×46), stick ‘em all together and there’s your long difficult number!

It gets even better with language:

o – n – e  – g – l – l – e – a – n – u – a – c – g – p – e – t – a – l – c – n – n – u – a – g – r – i

Can you remember all of those letters?

How about when I tell you to remember this:

conceptual language learning

Same letters ?

Or – on the more “macro” aspect – like this:

Arms – Couch – His – The – A –  On – The – In – Man – Dog – Slept – The – With

Look at those words for 3 seconds (read them once) and try to remember all of them.

Hard?

How about now:

The man slept on the couch with a dog in his arms.

CHORDS – MUSICAL CHUNKS

This is very similar to how easy remembering music will be when you approach it through chords. Seeing it as groups with similarities that you know and putting them in context.

Therefore, in stead of starting with reading and “spelling” single note letters, I like to start with “speaking” the more word like chords.

It has many advantages, remembering, learning, grasping context and just understanding everything way better; yes, even when we’d get to spelling with single notes later on.

PLAYING THE PIANO LIKE A GUITARIST

Apart from linguists, also guitarists have found this to be a faster, easier, even better way. (More elaboration on page 30 of “Bare Essential Keys to Harmony”)

That’s why in my methods I like to refer to our 6-stringed fiddlers quite a lot.

Like it or not: guitarists have found a better way to tackle and play contemporary music. They don’t learn to play music via a single-note, sight-reading approach, but by first learning Chords.

Ever saw someone strumming that guitar and everybody singing along to the tunes he knew by heart? Chord magic in action.

The upside is that we can learn from them. Steal from them.

CHORD MAGIC

Whereas single notes are like letters, chords are like words, including advantages like:

  • They immediately sound like they should: full and meaningful
  • They are the building blocks that make up the language and re-appear in many different “sentences” (tunes), forms and contexts
  • This means that you can re-use every chord in other songs that it occurs in. Learn it once, use it forever, indeed, just like a word
  • Like with words that you know, not only will you be able to say them (play them), but also will you start to recognize them if somebody else plays ‘em, allowing you to understand what someone else is playing (and copy him/her, if you’d like, to learn how to sound like your favorite artist)
  • Like with all languages, there’s easy “basic” words, intermediate- and difficult words. Then we have similar options as with any language, like mixing ’em up to make up grammatically easy- to super challenging sentences and don’t forget the fact that we can speak with different accents, intonations, colors, volumes and other ways of expression.

This way, chords are the building blocks, the foundation to express yourself with music.

Sounds good? Great, ‘cause just like guitarists, learning chords and how to play with ‘em is exactly where we’ll start too.

In the video below, I’ll show you how this and all of the above actually takes form and sounds on a piano.

Have fun!

Cheers, Coen.

MUSIC AS A LANGUAGE | How to play piano by chords, ear & heart

Concept Tutorial


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COUTURIANS

Find the rest of this 7-part intro course in the Couturians’ Lounge | member area

As a Couturian you get access to this complete introductory series on piano by chords, ear and heart including:

  • Additional handouts (.pdf) with chord pictures used in lessons
  • MIDI files (where applicable). Learn the value of MIDI files here.
  • The audio-only file for when you want to learn on the go (“listen to learn” is golden, as Piano Hackers know)

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