Thursday, February 24, 2011

Matrix Theory - What is a Beat?

Play by ear fans, could there be any more of an obvious question than this?  I hear some groaning  “We’re not in kindergarten anymore, ya know.  A beat’s a beat, alright?”  Okay, you may be on top of this but right now we can't assume anything.  Let's delve into your full understanding and clarify a few things.  The conversation usually follows this line of reasoning:

Me:     “How long does a beat last?”
You:   “It varies in speed.  It depends . . .”

Me:     “Depends on what?”
You:   “How fast the song is.”

Me:     “How do you know how fast the song is?” 
You:   “I know the song.  I’ve got the record.”

Me:     “What if you didn’t know it?  How would you know
             how fast to play it?”
You:   “I suppose I’d guess.”

Me:     “Based on what?”
You:   “I don’t know . . . maybe the size of the beat note?”

Me:    “Let’s explore that.  Comparatively, if the beat note is represented by
            a half, quarter or eight note (2/2, 4/4 or 6/8), which beat-note
            will be the fastest?

You:   “The eighth note in 6/8.”

Me:     “That’s a good guess.  Why do you say that?”
You:   “It’s a smaller note and just looks faster.”

Me:     “Okay, so, what’s a beat?”
You:   “I’m not sure I really know.”

Matrix Theory

See how this non-clarified 101 concept is the cause of so much uncertainty?  You cannot allow simple questions like this to go unchallenged.  In no uncertain terms, you must understand what a beat is.  But just try to get a straight answer somewhere.  Here it is. 

There are 3 things you must know:

The Fact:           

Regardless of the size of a beat note (2/2, 4/4 or 6/8) in our example above, they are all the same in duration.  No one beat note is faster than the other.  In this way, a beat is a beat.  All beats are equal in time and space.

How Fast Is It? 

A beat is a reasonable time frame that pulses evenly.  1/8th of a second is not a reasonable pulse nor is a 5-second delay. “Reasonable,” as a benchmark of speed, is about 1 second.  Forget about the note size or the time signature.  A beat, as a concept, stands alone at approximately 1 second.

The Impression: 

Your perception that the 8th note is to be played the fastest is not all wrong.  You unwittingly may be picking up on something that’s not so obvious.  A composer that uses a lot of 8th and 16th notes in a song may be visually inferring to you that the song is to be played faster.  With every piece of music you look at, the composer relays a subtle message regarding implied speed.  Some do it better than others.


•  A song is written in 2/2 with a lot of half notes. 
        Does this look fast or slow?  Slow. 

•  A song is written in 6/8 and is black with 8th and 16th notes. 
        Does it look fast or slow?  Fast.

So when you consider what a beat is, you must temper your understanding between the fact that all beats are the same and your impression of speed that is being inferred by the composer.  Between those two things you will find the optimum pulse on either side of 1 second.


Joseph Pingel is a pianist, teacher and musicologist.  Click here to get the free companion book to this blog.  See his other sites at and 

© 2011 Keyed Up Inc

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Matrix Theory - Keen Insight

When I play the piano, my understanding is a matrix of theoretical concepts I call “Matrix Theory.”  These concepts -by themselves- are idle, but when fused with other concepts, erupt into something different.

On a 101 level, combining and altering meters of poetry and music creates one such fusion.  Tempo, pitch, meter and rhythm are the combined vegetables of musical soup.

But when I say “Matrix Theory,” I mean something completely different.  Music theory is generally taught in a way that focuses more on the fact, than the application.  For example, take the definition of a major scale: 

               “It’s a series of 8 notes that begins and ends
            on the same note with half steps at the 3rd 
            and 4th and 7th and 8th intervals.  All the 
            rest are whole steps.”

Music majors view this “fact” as sufficient and so obvious there’s really no reason for further explanation.  They’re too hip.  When asked, they can recite the definition on demand while totally missing the concept beyond the fact.  The major scale is the cornerstone!!!  It’s worth a LOT of study.  When you truly comprehend the magnitude of all the musical disciplines rooted in the major scale, that’s when you look down on music as an observer of theory-in-motion. 

It is the “Conceptual” behind the facts
that makes up “Matrix Theory”

There are many quandaries in music whose answers are cultivated through Matrix Theory.  I’m not going to explain things here but, these questions and facts are some of the biggies:

     • What is a major scale?
     • What is a beat?
     • What is the difference between 2/2 and 4/4?
     • Any song can be written with any time signature.
     • To read music well you must think like a composer.
     • Think numbers, not alpha tones.
     • Major and minor key signatures are the same.
     • 1-4-5 dominates in music numerology.

Now you, my smart reader, may think you have a handle on these things.  You might even disagree.  Be aware, however.  Every one of these questions has a 101 answer for which you may be too hip.  Stand by.  We’ll get around to discussing them in due time.

In the meanwhile, tell me your experiences.


Joseph Pingel is a pianist, teacher and musicologist.  Click here to get the free companion book to this blog.  See his other sites at and 

© 2011 Keyed Up Inc

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

The Hidden Universe of Music - 3 Doors To Open

When you play piano by ear, your mind tends to follow the facts.  The melody line, chord progression, dexterity and rhythm may all be factors of your attention. 

It is when you get beyond your 
shortcomings,  that your mind 
starts thinking of other things. 

You must embrace looking at every key as numbers from 1-8 instead of their alpha, tonal equivalents.  There are 12 keys with 8-note, alpha scale orders which means you must keep track of 96 notes to memorize all 12 keys.  That's a lot of detail and unfortunately, what most people do.

Compare that to the 8-numbers philosophy.  You understand any chord, scale, progression and theory with 8 numbers only.  It's a single, unifying concept that gives you command.  When you understand one key, you understand them all. 

Door #1

"Numbers Organize 
Your Musical 

That's the sign on the main door to the Hidden Universe.  This door has the most locks to undo before you can enter. 

Lock #1 requires you to know the basic major and minor chords for all keys; 24 chords and their inversions.  It’s a specific goal that takes some time to learn. 

Lock #2 requires you to learn basic music theory (circle of 5ths, notation orders, figuring the key, etc).  You can’t expand theory into the Hidden Universe without first understanding Real World basics. 

Lock #3 opens the door.  It is the freedom you feel by having mastered locks #1 and #2.  At this point, your proficiency to play the chords is good and your mind is clear on basic theory.  When you’re not preoccupied learning the basics, the door opens and you step in.

The Hidden Universe is real, not just some made-up metaphor.  Highly experienced musicians operate on a different wavelength that most people don’t even know exists.  When you see unbelievable talent in improvisation, it’s more than dexterity; it’s a special something that you can’t quite put your finger on. 

That musician is performing in the Hidden Universe.


Joseph Pingel is a pianist, teacher and musicologist.  Click here to get the free companion book to this blog.  See his other sites at and 

© 2011 Keyed Up Inc

Monday, February 21, 2011

The Hidden Universe Of Music

To play by ear on the piano to a blind man is the only way to play.  George Shearing died last week.  Born blind, he rose to became a force in jazz.  NPR radio did a tribute to him with Terry Gross conducting the interview.  The whole interview is 15 minutes during which time

Mr. Shearing gives a 1 ½ minute master class
on one of the most important,
hidden concepts
in music. 

Open the Terry Gross interview below and drag the timeline to the time stamps shown below.

11:00 - 12:40        An observation on the lyrics of Send in the Clowns.

You probably don’t know that you’re looking for this information but this  is DEEP and reaches further than you can imagine.  It is my duty to point out key concepts like this when I see them.  They’re rare to find and very specific to what you need to know. 

14:15 - 15:08        Talks about the Lullaby of Birdland lyric.

The hidden universe is continued, with another related insight into the vastness of musical space and time. 

All musicians should pay very close attention to this concept.  You might glaze over it and think “What’s the big deal?”  The simplicity of this concept is a door that opens into a dimension of music theory beyond theory.  It gives you a glimpse of a hidden universe that only the most enlightened musicians can see. 

If you can’t see it yet, it’s not because it’s not there.


Joseph Pingel is a pianist, teacher and musicologist.  Click here to get the free companion book to this blog.  See his other sites at and 

© 2011 Keyed Up Inc

Thursday, February 17, 2011

The Embarrassing Question

My piano teacher at 14 was our next door neighbor, Mrs. Bohn.  She was a concert pianist with strong, shortish hands and medium pointy fingers.  She smoked cigarettes heavily and drank Coca-Cola like it was going out of style.  She was a big woman with a confident, outgoingness to match her very loud husky voice.

One day Mrs. Bohn came over to retrieve one of her kids from a playdate.  Somehow we got huddled around the piano and my mother, who was pretty good, was playing her three standards: The Blue Danube Waltz, Over the Waves and Jubilee March.  Mom also had some music she couldn’t play that was way too hard.  “Black with notes!” she’d say.  We got Mrs. Bohn to let her hair down and take a stab at these ridiculous pieces. 

She wasn’t perfect but oh my, what a talent at sight-reading and proficiency.  It was an impromptu concert / dog and pony show in one and I think she enjoyed giving the performance.  We certainly enjoyed it and were a very appreciative audience, clapping and carrying on. 

Many years later, during a vacation back to St. Louis, I spoke with her about my fledgling discoveries and writings.  I was young, mid-20s and good but, in her eyes, still green.  Then I asked her the embarrassing question.

“Do you know how to play by ear?” 

She paused to consider it but didn’t really answer one way or another.  Her response was something along the lines that she ‘loved playing classical music and that’s where her heart was at.’  I think that’s fair.  When you have that caliber of skill it must be exhilaration with so much classical out there to love.  Playing by ear wasn’t important to her.  I think there are a lot of people who play advanced classical that feel that way too.  It’s just a different world.


Joseph Pingel is a pianist, teacher and musicologist.  Click here to get the free companion book to this blog.  See his other sites at and 

© 2011 Keyed Up Inc

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Chords and Numbers On Piano - Video

When you play by ear you have to keep track of where you are at all times.  Chords change from key to key but the numerical order of the progression always stays the same.  Provided you think in Numbers (instead of Alpha characters for the chords, notes and progressions), you'll be better able to play a song in any key.

You are only dealing with 8 notes for each scale and those are the notes and chords you must concentrate on.  While it may take a while for this concept to sink in, it is probably the most important aspect of playing by ear.


Joseph Pingel is a pianist, teacher and musicologist.  Click here to get the free companion book to this blog.  See his other sites at and 

© 2011 Keyed Up Inc

Friday, February 11, 2011

Piano Quitters Snobs and Wanderers

I am not a critical neopiano-teacher when it comes to standard piano lessons.  I don’t teach that way but certainly endorse standard lessons for those that want to play classical music.  Classical’s tough and requires regimented training.  I have nothing but respect but we’re losing lots of people along the way.

Guessing, I’d say that 95% taking standard lessons are highly-advanced pianists, students and professional musicians.  They’re way over the hump of beginner lessons.  The number of pianists that make it beyond beginning lessons is only a small fraction of those that started out in the beginning.

It’s those beginners that concern me.  Quitters and wanderers who take 2 years of lessons and then quit forever, usually because classical music is not their passion.  It’s as simple as that.  There’s no Google search, but I’d guess the drop-out rate for beginner piano lessons is 95% (and probably more).  By any industry’s definition, that is a dismal retention rate and indicative of a problem. 

You can’t let 95% of well-meaning people 
drop out without teaching them 
what they want to know.

Trouble is, they’re taking claaaaaaaassical lessons when what they really want is Rock Star lessons.  Shout from the Heavens and let it be known, ALL ROCK STARS KNOW THEIR CHORDS!!!  There is no way around this fact.  Beethoven to Beatles, that fact never changes. 

People, I believe appreciate the hard work and effort of the virtuoso but are not so dedicated to excellence themselves in music.  They just want to have fun, know how to get around and sing a few songs.  They want to play by ear and not take lessons forever.  That reality is here. You have to learn the basic chords and some very specific theory.  Nothing cryptic about it.

Everybody should learn how to play by ear.  It’s a benchmark level of understanding and applies to classical students as well as everybody else.  It’s a science. It’s got rules.  It’s got prerequisites.  You either know it or you don’t.   The science is the same for beginners and advanced alike.  It is apart from whatever degree of proficiency you may have.  All levels are in the same class (but some will understand it quicker than others).

If you play classical, then playing by ear will improve your sight-reading at least 10 times.  If you don’t play classical, then you’ll learn what most classical people don’t know.  Whatever style you play makes no difference.  There is only music.


Joseph Pingel is a pianist, teacher and musicologist.  Click here to get the free companion book to this blog.  See his other sites at and 

© 2011 Keyed Up Inc

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Reading Sheet Music By Ear

I love vintage sheet music and have been an avid collector for about 10 years.  The songs, eras, composers, lyricists, themes, shows and so much more draw me into that world of old paper.  I’ve amassed a large collection of over 5000 popular sheets from 1900 through the decades. I have a great deal of interest in the Public Domain.

What drives me musically is to grab about 100 pieces out of a big box and play them in an afternoon or two.  All the while I sight-read and play by ear at the same time.  “Hows that work?” you ask.

Most sheet music is moderately difficult from one song to another.  When a tough arrangement comes up, I might glaze over parts and simplify things around the given chords.  This is music.  You can do anything you want as long as you keep things going forward.

The play-by-ear factor of reading music lets you look at music, read the chords above the staff and play what you know is written.  It stands to reason if you know the chord, you don’t have to read what’s written. 

All the while I’m mining my collection for memorable gems that stand out from the rest.  When I find one, my heart sings -like a rush- with joy.  I’ve gathered together a very interesting collection of those exceptional songs and will make them available through downloads as things progress here. 

What kinds of music are you interested in?


Joseph Pingel is a pianist, teacher and musicologist.  Click here to get the free companion book to this blog.  See his other sites at and 

© 2011 Keyed Up Inc

Monday, February 7, 2011

The Ultimate Endgame In Music

What’s the ultimate endgame of playing the piano by ear?  When do you know that you’ve arrived?  What represents the plateau level that defines all musicians of different styles and abilities as being “up there?” 

I think it is the ability to easily read on paper (and play) a song you have never heard before.  To take in the time and key signatures, and interpret the rhythm and tempo to produce the song as it is meant to be played.  Not necessarily complicated arrangements, but rather intuitive interpretation of just a one-note melody line and chords. 

“Sounds more like sight-reading, what’s this got to do with playing by ear?” you ask.  A lot. 

Too many musicians live in a vacuum of familiarity.  The only way they can play a song is by first hearing the recording.  That’s following your ear and of course, encouraged.  But you can’t stay there forever.  To grow, you must reach beyond your comfort zone of familiarity and start exploring. 

There are billions of songs on paper and just one little-old-you to explore them.  If you limit your playing only to songs that are familiar, you miss out on one of the great hidden joys of playing music.  It is the realization that the best songs you want to play are those that you do not know

To find those songs -those rarest euphoric rides of beauty and genius- you’ve got to be able to quickly size up and play by ear most anything that is set in front of you.  I think that’s the ultimate endgame. 


Joseph Pingel is a pianist, teacher and musicologist.  Click here to get the free companion book to this blog.  See his other sites at and 

© 2011 Keyed Up Inc

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Play LOTS of Songs

Playing the piano by ear is predicated on one having a desire to play a LOT of songs.  Once you get a bunch under your belt, you discover firsthand how everything starts to come together.  But to get a “bunch,” you have to have a source.  Mine was old 45s.  Let me tell you a story.

In 1974 I started collecting 45 rpm records at garage sales.  I’d ask if they had any old 45s, to which “mom” would say “Let me go inside and take a look.”  She’d often reemerge with a stack of 100 or so, left by her son when he moved out.  “I don’t think he’ll mind.” she’d say.  I knew otherwise but I wanted them so remained silent (as I handed over a five-dollar bill for that stack of black gold).

For the record, I want to apologize to all those sons and daughters that lost their records to me.  Your moms didn’t know how important they were to you.  My collection grew to over 4000 records and provided me with lots of songs I wanted to play.

This is a major concept for you to understand.  Playing by ear takes on many forms, one being having the written music to which you make your own arrangement.  Trouble is, you never have the music for everything you want to play.  For the majority of songs, you’re going to have to figure them out and write them down.  It’s work and a challenge -especially in the beginning-  when you don’t know your chords very well.  Just keep going.  It gets easier with practice.


Joseph Pingel is a pianist, teacher and musicologist.  Click here to get the free companion book to this blog.  See his other sites at and 

© 2011 Keyed Up Inc