Sunday, July 31, 2011

How To Play Anything

Reading music is a major part of playing the piano by ear.  Ideally, you want to look at any lead sheet with chords and make your own arrangement.  The Ultimate End Game is to quickly interpret and play any song that is written; familiar or not.

The best music in your future is stuff you don’t know.  You can only go so far as a musician until you master this skill so focus on  learning it well, early in your training. 

How Do You Figure Out Songs You’ve
Never Seen or Heard Before?  

Suppose you pick up a jazz REAL book that has about a thousand songs with lead lines and chords.  Besides playing chords, there are two things required to figuring out a song;

Counting and Reading a Composer's Intent.

Within the pages of a score (or  even a simple lead sheet) there are many signs of intent to size-up.

Does it appear fast?  Is it easy to count?  Is the beat-note tempo in line with the verse meter?  Do the lyrics affect melody phrasing?  How fast should it be?  Is there something unique?  Why is it in 2/2 vs 4/4?

My membership into the Hidden Universe lets me evaluate composer intent in seconds.  I’m always looking for unique, creative streaks but overall, once you read thousands of pieces you see a lot of the same intent over and over.

Where to Begin?

The tendency is to locate and play songs in the book that you already know but that’s a very small percentage of the overall book.  Of the songs you know, you may not like them or they may be in hard keys to play.  However, as you page through the REAL book you see lots of songs in C, F and G that you could play if you only knew how they went.

This is where most people stop because it just seems too hard.   Well, get over it!  Everything's hard when you don't understand it.  Study and master counting and take command of this crucial skill.

Make Up Your Mind 
 To Be a Good Musician

That means you don't run at the first sign of adversity.  If you want fast progress, follow the Yellow Brick Road and master counting. 

Fake books contain the best songs ever written; jazz and popular standards; songs that have stood the test of time.   

Those are the songs you want to learn.

Most people, however stop before they start because of poor counting skills. There comes a time, after bypassing all the songs you don't know, that it becomes obvious to you that really, you don’t know anything about figuring out written songs.

When you master counting, the entire musical world opens up to you.  You realize it is the key to figuring out anything and unlocks a limitless musical library

All You Need To Know 

Counting is a limited discipline in either half or quarter beats.  The following equation is where it begins and ends:

One Beat is counted: 
1 + (one-and) or 1e+a (one-E-and-uh).

That’s it!  The big secret.  Spend an afternoon studying music pieces that you know and don’t know and figure it out.  Take the time to school yourself in this master skill now, early.  Explore the questions you have along the way.  Find answers that satisfy your questions.

While rhythms are endless, the equation 1+ equals 1e+a is the full science you need to concentrate on.  When you actively look, there comes a point when the light goes on and everything falls into place.

Chords PLUS Counting 

Playing chords to your own arrangement is part of it but you won’t be able to go anywhere until you figure out how the song goes.  That means you have to be able to play an accurately-counted, one-note melody line of the song with your right hand.  That’s a REQUIRED skill.

Once you’ve got the one-note rhythm and melody down in your head, all you have to do is add chords and voila, a song is born.  You must learn to count accurately as a second nature.

To fly high you can't get there by winging it.”


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, July 25, 2011

Play Piano Like Guitar

The most amazing concept you can apply to learning to play the piano by ear is one simple realization.

You Can Play The Piano 
Just Like The Guitar

If you think that is obvious knowledge, it is not.  Those words are simple and unbelievably powerful.  I’m not the first to say them but am certainly the most emphatic.  It's mind-expanding and heart-palpitating to think you can learn to play the piano as well as you might the guitar in so little time. 

There’s no beating around the bush.  Applying this concept is a major game changer for piano players and hopeful students.  The very fact that you know that you can play the piano like guitar gives you immediate direction and purpose.

This is a revelation since music has always been taught the most complicated way possible.  We’ve become indoctrinated to think that “complicated” is the only way it can be done.  The paradox is, the  “complicated way” is much easier to understand if you learn the “easy way” first.

Captivity vs. Freedom

 There is no comparison of outcomes for two approaches that are so different.

• The standard method, you are totally dependent upon reading music to progress.

Sight-reading, scales and fingering exercises are never-ending means to improvement.  

They’re important yes, but those skills do not teach you to understand chords, structure and how to play music without written music.  You need to look elsewhere for that.

• The chord method approach, you learn to play chords and songs with or without music.

“Chords,” in this case means the basic major and minor chords and their inversions; a level called "Command."

There are 24 chords with 33 different fingering positions between them.  What stands between you and freedom is 33 different fingering positions on different parts of the keyboard.

When you concentrate on chords you learn quickly.

Goal Driven

Command is a level that is goal driven and gives you freedom that can be measured in results.  As you focus on learning chords you can’t help but learn to play well.  You can only get better and your results will improve.

Quick progress comes on the guitar or piano when you play chords first and start the building process.  Theory comes later.  It’s a stark truth of Command and there is no wishy-washiness to it.  Chords first and theory later.

You Have To Get Out Of Your Own Way

There are many levels of playing that limit peoples’ progress.  The play-by-ear skill is hard to define without knowing what to look for.

It clearly starts by practicing chords exclusively and taking FULL charge of learning them until you get it.

Taking FULL responsibility is the problem.  You’ve got to concentrate on the goal for a couple months and resist the urge to tumble back to the comforts of what you already know.  Keep your eye on the prize.  Force yourself to learn in this area.

Use written music to follow chords above the staff but don’t read the notes; just the chords.  Chord-out songs one after the other and develop a “can-do” attitude.  You’ll start recognizing patterns and shortcuts in no time.

Give up the notion of practicing something a million times to get it right before moving on.  For learning chords, that’s counterproductive.

“Moving On” To The Next Song
Messes With Your Mind

We are programmed to think that the next song we learn should be harder.  That follows the standard lesson approach of “graduating pieces” and presents us the biggest challenge we face starting the next song.  We’re all afraid of the next song!!!  It’s the unknown that magnifies our fright and tells us the next song has to be a bigger challenge.

That’s the wrong way of thinking.  Reality says the next song is just like the one before it.  It has chords and rhythms like all songs.  It is generally and structurally the same across the board.

Play As Many Songs As Fast 
As You Reasonably Can

There’s no time to waste spending a couple weeks learning just one piece.  Play your own chord arrangement of that song and get on to the next one.  Turn a lot of pages in popular songbooks and move quickly from one song to another.

Can’t play something?  Work on it a bit and then go on to the next song.  Try it again tomorrow.  Don’t read the music, learn the chords.  Look at them.  Memorize them.  Analyze them.

Saturate yourself in materials and -good or bad- start playing hundreds of songs NOW.


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, July 17, 2011

And It Was Good - Composer Intent

I took a play-by-ear hiatus and visited Mount Rushmore in South Dakota.  It took Mr. Gutzon 14 years to blast out the rock and chisel the faces.  Then, they were done.

Just think about the day he made that final decision.  Realizing finality-of-task, he looked at his work and, in His best image as a mortal man he declared it was good. 

“Yeah, that’s good.”  he said.

Knowing When You’re Done

It's the same with musical composition.  The same song can be written with any time signature at least a dozen different ways.  Some ways are easy to count and follow and others are not.  Some do not capture the feel of the song at all.  The same song written in 2/2, 4/4 or 6/8 may say the same thing but some time signatures don’t express obviousness as well as others.  It’s a judgement call.

The composer has to find the happy medium that discloses -in the most obvious manner-  how the song goes.  There are dozens of variables in composition that conflict with each other and the composer has to be the referee.  It’s a tougher call than you might think.

Any Time Signature Can Be Used
To Write Any Song.

How can that be?  It just is.  Music is in-motion in space and time where a series of  4 triple-beats (in 12/8) is equal to 4 beats (in 4/4).  A beat is a beat.  This is another way that music is infinite.  It's the hidden universe where any time signature can be used to write any song.  

When you see something numerically opposing or confusing, ask yourself what the composer is trying to say.  You’ve got to learn to look for intent but first you’ve got to be aware that intent always exists. Intent is just somebody’s opinion.  Now, consider the dozens of ways a song might have otherwise been written. 

This is what Chopin is talking 
about when he says 

“Simplicity is the highest goal . . . achievable when you have overcome all difficulties.”   

 It’s the challenge a composer wrestles with to lay out his intent in the most obvious manner for all to see.

The goal is to compose in an infinite world of choices, in the ultimate quest to say exactly what you mean.

How Do You Know When You’re Done?

You just know it.  It’s just like the last part of a puzzle that snaps into place.  Once you get all the disciplines to work together in harmony, everything comes together into one defining moment of expression. 

“Yeah, that’s good.” you say.


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, July 12, 2011

One-Dimensional Thinking In The Music Galaxy

Throughout taking standard piano lessons, we are piece-mealed music theory at the rate and order that the teacher thinks best.  When you end lessons, you may grasp some theory but overall, lack the full picture because you don't have all the pieces to the puzzle.

It's a puzzle that you cannot see without first having all the pieces laid out before you.  Once you have that, it is much easier to put that puzzle together to see the full picture.

But nobody thinks about the full picture
when they teach theory.  

Everything is a one-dimensional fact; delivered without any insights into motion.  However, music is not one dimensional!   All theories interact in concert.  You cannot realize those relationships by studying any one theory in and of itself.

There is an underlying river of motion beneath the surface that organizes all the moving parts.  For example:

Time signatures show the intent of a composer that most people don’t even realize is there. 

Written songs use note size-scales that give a good indication of implied speed.  Recognizing that innuendo is the skill of a play-by-ear master.  That's how they can interpret thousands of songs they’ve never seen before in fake books.

Then, there's counting.  

You must learn to count notes like an expert until you “get it.”  You “get it” when you can easily play a one-note melody line of a song you’ve never seen before; another skill of the play-by-ear master.

If you think what a seasoned musician knows is too vast for you to understand, you are wrong.  In the end, everything distills down to simplicity.  Even the most complex of concepts is rooted in one simple relationship of notes or another. 

Approach learning theory on a multi-level understanding with a higher goal in mind.  A pro's knowledge may be vast, but the categories are well-defined and limited.  Once you know those categories you have a proper syllabus to base your learning quest.

Always focus on inter-relational concepts beyond music theory.  The one-concept-at-a-time approach is flawed in that it doesn’t give the whole picture, reveal the end result or show the working machine in motion.

As far as I am aware, there is no inclusive goal to teach music theory as a unit in motion.  However, to become an expert quickly, you’ve got to be able to see this particular light.

You’ll never ever see it with one-dimensional thinking. 


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