Sunday, June 26, 2011

Bach Was a Hack

Playing by ear is perceived as a hack skill.  You may not be able to sightread a technically-written concerto but still be able to play it by ear.

Knowing chords, you can play anything and that puts you right up there with the top players in the world.  What?  You and Herbie Hancock in the same league?  Maybe not skill-wise but I guarantee, Herbie knows his chords.

Knowing the chords is just your foot in the door to the Hidden Universe - the minimum plateau of membership.

I’m Better Than You

There’s no “who’s better or best” comparison between the classical pianist and the play-by-ear hack.  They both wish for the talents of the other but what they want most are the skills of the hack; to understand the instrument and be able to play by ear.

Embarrassment and Snubbery

A“hack” is one that lacks technical training.  Therefore, it is far easier for the classical pianist to master the hack’s skills than the other way around.

But it’s so embarrassing for some classical players to admit they lack in this area.  They can’t concede to learning anything of value from the rogue musicians on the other side of the tracks.

Instead, they snub and shudder at the very thought of even associating themselves with the word “hack.”  After so much academic breeding, to lower themselves to the teachings of a hack feels somehow demeaning.

Everyday, “Classical Rebels” are shedding their pride to become “closet” hacks. BUT WAIT!  You really don’t have to cover your face!

Bach, Mozart, Beethoven and all the longhairs were hacks too!

Hacks First and Composers Second

Imagine the music scene back then.  You’d go to a Mozart concert and he’d play variations of all his hits.  We tend to romanticize and marvel at Mozart's amazing abilities but how was he any different from the modern day rock star? 

Just like today's solo artists, all he was doing was jamming  an 18th-century-jazz style.  That's all it was, classical improvisation.

The composers of fame were far more than hacks but without that basic command of chords, they couldn’t have written anything.


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, June 19, 2011

The Black Hole in the Music Galaxy

Being able to play piano by ear is more than just playing the piano.  It is a science of numbers that lets you keep track of where you are and where you are going.  You play intelligently because you understand chords and how to put them together.

It really is that easy.  Knowing the basic 24 chords (Command) and how to build establishes a very high degree of proficiency way over and above 95% of all pianists.

When you know the chords, you’re good and you know it.  It's really not such a long ways off with a little focus.  What then?

Improvement is totally up to you.  Command of basic chords is the springboard that you base any improvements.  Command is a high degree of proficiency and knowledge, but really just the beginning of learning advanced skills. 

Chords Are The Great Equalizers

The path to learning chords paves the way to playing by ear; they're one in the same.  No matter how good you are, it's very difficult to play independently if you don't know chords.  Chords are the great equalizers that let all musicians operate on the same plane to create independently. From there, it's all practice and talent.

The Basic Chords Are The Starting Point

This is an absolute truth.  There is no other equivalent starting point to excellence for the masses to aspire to. You don't have to be a concert pianist to be good in the way you want to be good. 

When you concentrate on chords, learning piano seems more natural and makes more sense.  Chords are the most important factor to playing piano, PERIOD!  They are the foundations of all melody and a leading skill that unfortunately, many advanced sight-readers do not possess.

You Have a Lifetime To Learn Theory

You’ll spend your lifetime putting the music theory puzzle together.  It’s a black-hole puzzle that is infinite.  It will never be complete and in itself is the beginning and the end.  Imagine the black-hole puzzle as one that contains the entire universe of music (all melody and sound) and absorbing it into it’s infinite center.   This is a very apt metaphorical picture.

Music Is Infinite But The Border Is Defined

You’ll spend 25 years of searching on your own in the right places to define the border before you can see the Hidden Universe.  As sure as the nose on your face, it is there.

It is the wisdom of the master’s vantage point.

Chances are you can’t see it because it hasn’t yet sunk in.  Once you reach Command over your fingering, the next stop is to discover for yourself the Hidden Universe as quickly as you can.

To do that you must fast-track defining the border (that will otherwise take you 25 years to assemble).  The pros, over time analyze things and sometimes put it together immediately.  Some people instinctively know what the puzzle looks like and how to put it together from the start.  There's an X-Factor here for some.  But most of us need help in defining the puzzle border because we don’t know what it looks like.

However, you've got one great advantage; a picture of the puzzle on the box.  That's a great advantage but you’re still going to have to put it together.  When the border pieces are in place, music makes a lot more sense as you fill in the middle.

Music Is More Than Pitch, Tempo and Meter

We tend to define music as pitch, tempo, rhythm and meter but those are only the outcome of a  musical process; the sound-product of banging a drum or singing a song.  Music is a lot more than what you hear.

Under the surface, all the theories work in concert to put structure to the creation of music expression.  Conscious or unconscious, these interactions occur every time a song is played or written.

Theory is finite but music is infinite!  It is this gray area between the two concepts where the “Hidden Universe” lies.  Take a moment and think about this.  Ask yourself if you can believe there is something more to music than meets the ear. 

The Mind-Set

The“Hidden Universe” defines the Play By Ear Discovery mind-set.  You are seeking an encompassing awareness of musical insights that are years beyond your experience.  If you think it seems complicated, then put things in perspective.  Musical creation is complicated but managing it is simple in the Hidden Universe. 

Do you believe me?  If not, then come and see me again in 25 years. 


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 

© 2012 Keyed Up Inc

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Fly Little Birdy - Start Improvising Music

This is a stark lesson of playing by ear.  When you're done taking lessons and know your chords, you'll settle down on a comfy perch atop your plateau of skill.

You aren’t seeking out advanced courses in styling or other courses and maybe don’t have the time.  You 're satisfied with how you play but know you could be a lot better.  C'est la vie.

What’s Holding You Back Little Birdy? 

See yourself 3 years down the road after learning this now.   An improvisation king you probably are not.  However, at this point you are definitely in command of chords and have advanced skills.  You can play a lot of songs -written or by ear- but may not play with much style.  If you’re not careful, you can stagnate in this state for 20 years.

During stagnation you play all your favorite songs like a juke box without deviation or improvisation.

These personal showcase tunes are your conquered standards that you tend to play over and over again.

Stagnation is the Curse of the 
Play-By-Ear Master

You give up style and improvisation in return for being able to play massive amounts of music without written music.  There's no time to bog yourself down to one written arrangement.  No time!  When you can play your own version of any song, you just want to get on to the next song.

At this point you've reached a high degree of stagnation. It is the stagnation of "sameness to your playing" from one song to the next.  You're good, no doubt but nothing's new.

Like an addict, you hunger for more songs to play, sacrificing style and improvisation for instant gratification.  When you straighten up, you ask yourself why in the world you can’t improvise after all these years of playing?   

I’m Going to Tell You Why

 Despite your skills and knowledge, you have not yet given in to the force of enlightenment.  This force is "one" with the infinite number of variations that can be played with JUST ONE SONG!  Again, one song can be played an infinite number of ways.  Slow it down or speed it up.  Use more or less notes.  Add a different rhythm.  Substitute a chord.  Combine different factors.  Anything!

All music exists in the infinite world of variations.  Improvisation begins with a strong realization of that concept of "infinite variations."  You conclude that if there are a million ways to play something, then why ever bother to play it the same way twice?   

Dig into your conquered standards and start there.  Pull them out fresh, dust them off and vow never again to play them the same way twice.  Your mind begins to expand when you start playing one variation after another of familiar songs.

Take little steps in rhythm, notes and chords and start exploring your options.  Focus in on the freedom you feel to express yourself emotionally.  Let you mind wander to play how you feel and let the music flow.

When you get that “freedom” mindset, it sets the stage for improvising.

Attack all your music like this.  Play anything, any way you want.  Take yourself to the next level and you’ll start to get it.

It's a much bigger galaxy of music out there than you can imagine.

Keep looking.


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