Archive for the ‘Skills’ Category
When I set out to learn the piano, I wanted to do it as fast as humanly possible. What better way than to lock myself in a room for seven full days and remove all distractions? For me it was a step out of the 7:00 to 5:00 business busyness to focus on a single task in an experiment of human will and focus.
This event required a great deal of preparation, getting a week off of work, exercising my hand muscles the week before, booking a room, scheduling the piano tuner, and getting help moving my million pound piano. I did everything I could think of to be ready for this event, removing all distractions including phone, TV, and access to the internet.
I now know what’s humanly possible in 7 days.
After all of this, I ended up not feeling a sense of greatness, but a sense of smallness. Honestly I felt selfish, and somewhat disappointed that I didn’t get as far as I expected. I imagine much like the people at the tower of Babel, I thought anything was possible, but it turns out I’m just a regular old man like everyone else.
Resources from the video:
- Micah Schultz obviously did an amazing job with this documentary, and was awesome to work with. He can do anything, but specializes in short films, music videos, and documentaries. If you need a video he comes highly recommended. Find more of his stuff at Graveltooth.com.
- If you are tired of my clunking and want to hear the real Clair de Lune as it’s supposed to be played, go to Piano Society’s Debussy page. It’s not uncommon to cry 😉
- Special thanks to David Huggins piano tuning. http://pianotuningsbydave.com/
- If you’re looking for a vacation spot, AirBNB is the way to go. Brenda and Val hosted the house I stayed in and were super hospitable, so if you’re looking for a sweet relaxing spot in Colorado Springs you should check it out.
- If you’re interested in Spaced Repetition, you can hop over to the Wikipedia page for SR, and be sure to download the computer flashcard program Anki. It’s the software I used to learn 2000+ Kanji in 2 months.
- I would not have gotten as far as I did without Paul Barton’s piano lessons on YouTube. Thanks Paul!
- You can download the full recital on SoundCloud here. We had to edit out a bunch in the video so it wasn’t too boring. Please be gracious of my many mistakes! Thanks also to my good friend Sven Johnson for taking care of recording audio during the recital.
If the King loves music, it is good with the land – Mencius
On the mellifluous musical journey to magnificent mastery of the guitar, everybody wants to learn uber-sweet songs on the way. I still remember the first time I tried to learn a song by ear. It was Black Dog by Led Zeppelin, and as you can imagine – I failed miserably. It’s not exactly the first song you want to try learning on the guitar, but I kept at it and eventually got it down, but not without a lot of pain and woe. The problem I had when starting out wasn’t so much the mechanics of the guitar (fingering, strumming, etc), it was figuring out the music theory. Beginners might not believe me, but fingers learn chords faster than brains understand theory. The notes on the fretboard were a kind of mystery to me. I always wondered why one sequence of notes sounded great, and a different one sounded awful. How come people were always using the same set of chords together? How do they know when to use this chord or that chord, and how do they know what notes sound good when played together? The mysteries of the music world didn’t reveal themselves instantly, but rather came through persistence. This article is designed to help you figure out that song that’s been plaguing you, and in doing so, gain a better understanding of music in general.
There is no 10 step method for figuring out songs, but I hope I can give some pointers that will hopefully point you in the right direction. This article is directed toward beginners and intermediate guitar players, but experts might still be able to gleen a few good ideas.
Some people might suggest learning easy songs when you start out, but I don’t like that idea. Why would you learn boring stuff so that you can get to the good stuff? That doesn’t make sense does it? So don’t worry about the songs you “should” be learning, or the songs that you “need” to learn in order to get to the fun ones – ’cause that’s just plain ridiculous. You’ll get tired of playing your guitar faster than you can say “Celebrity Marriage.”
Start with your ears. Listen to the song at least five or six times before you even start trying to figure it out. The goal is to be able to sing or hum the entire guitar part in your head. This is important because the next step is to go and check out the tabs, which are notorious for being dead wrong. If you can’t hum the song, don’t ever plan on figuring it out with an instrument.
The next step in stellar song p0wnage is getting the tabs. I have a love-hate, dualistic relationship with internet tabs, and anyone who’s ever used them can understand why. Tabs, like I said before, are often very wrong. But why? Why are they always so out-in-left-field-picking-the-daisies-and-otherwise-nonchalantly-soaking-up-the-sun? Because the people who write them are brought up by seedy looking parents who make them live in the basements of dirty houses where every day is Halloween.
Okay, to a large extent, I’m joking (can you tell?). But the truth is, the dictionary on my computer keeps wanting me to turn these “tabbers” into “stabbers”. Who knew? Anyway, moving back to serious, tabs can be very helpful in figuring out songs. This is because stabbers, though often wrong, will often be right, and this is to be highly praised. They have done much of the grunt work for us (for free!) in figuring out songs. This will especially true if the song is a popular one, because then more people have figured out the song. If more people have figured out the song, you have a better chance of finding a skilled stabber’s tab. This should be the platform from which you launch your song learning attack, but take care to use your ears. If something doesn’t sound quite right, then it most likely isn’t, and you’ll have to figure it out yourself.
Finding the key
The second step in figuring out a song is to find the key. This is sometimes called the root or tonic, and in a way, the note which everything in the song rotates around. So how do we find the center of the music universe? If you’ve got some experience under your belt (i.e. you know your scales), then this will be much easier. The first, and often easiest way to figure out the key is to look at the first note played in the song. 90% of the time this will be the root note. With tabs and the first note as a guide, you can find the root of 99% of the songs out there. Just as a rough guide, most songs are in one of the following keys: E, Emin, G, C, C#min, D, A, Amin, and F.
After finding the root note, you want to find the key to the song. Now, key and root are closely related, so try not to get them mixed up. The root note tells us only one thing: the note which acts as the center of gravity. The key however, tells us the root note and if the key is major or minor etc. I’ve included some charts and stuff below that might aid in understanding this stuff a little. Basically, you’ve got two keys: major and minor (there are others, but they aren’t used very often), and these keys define the notes in the scale. At the same time, they define the chords that are assigned to each of these notes. So what this means for us (once we figure out the key) is we have a kind of guide or basic structure for figuring out songs.
To find the key, start with your ears again, and decide if the song sounds happy or sad (nothing to do with the lyrics, everything to do with sound). Use this as a rough point of reference and start messing around in the major and minor scales below while the song is playing, using the root note as a reference. Happy songs are often major, and sad/dark sounding songs are often minor. Monkey around with notes in the minor and major keys until you can figure out which one it is. It will most likely be one of the two (major or minor), where one will sound good and one will sound bad. If not, search the internet for something called “modes”, which might help you out.
Finding the Chord Progressions
Now that we’ve got the key, we can begin figuring out the chord progressions. A chord progression is the sequential movement of chords in a song. Aside from a few simple-type songs, you’re going to find that songs are built up of different sections: Chorus, Verse, Bridge etc. – where each of these different sections have distinct chord progressions. Our goal is to define these sections, and then figure out the chord progression for each one.
It’s snowing outside. I mean, its stellar coming down out there. Like a thousand diamonds it is. I know this has nothing to do with figuring out songs, but Beethoven’s third piano concerto is blasting out of my computer, the snow is raging just outside the window, and I’ve got a cup of hot chocolate here next to me. Just wanted to share that with you. Life is good.
Play the song over a few times and try to pick out the bass line. Don’t worry about majors and minors and 7ths and 9ths and all that jazz just yet. Just the bass – avoiding all the flourishes. You’ll find that the notes are usually in the key of the song, which should really help in deciphering them.
Usually it’s not too hard to solve the bass part, but you might run into something called transposed chords, which can really throw you off. When you feel like you know what the chord is, but the bass note just doesn’t seem to match, then they’ve probably used a transposition. A very common example of this that I’ve seen is G/B. The guitar and other instruments will be playing the full G chord, but the bass sticks right to the B, thus making the G chord not so strong. Transposed chords make it tough to figure out what’s going on sometimes, but it really pays off when you do.
The next step is to work out the chords that are associated with the bass notes you just figured out. Like I said before, each of the notes in the scale has a chord assigned to it.
Use this as a rough guide to figure out what chords are played in the song. You’ll find that the more songs you figure out, the more intuitive you get about what chords are played. When I started, I was surprised by the amount of similarity between many of the songs I learned. I kept thinking “How unoriginal!”, but then later came to the realization that these chord progressions have been in use for hundreds of years by hundreds (or thousands) of people. I don’t feel so bad anymore about stealing someone’s progression. You can get away with it quite easily actually: just call them one of your influences.
Another thing you’ll find is that genre’s have their own special “flavor” of chords. Rock and metal use power chords heavily. Pop and folk stuff will often use full open chords utilizing 7ths to create tension. Then Jazz jumps out like a rebellious child and ignores all the rules using everything under the sun. Each of these styles of music have patterns and chords that they tend to stick to. Once you get accustomed to the style you develop a sixth sense about what’s going on under the hood, thus making you a more intuitive guitarist.
Some other hints for figuring out songs
An often overlooked tool for figuring out songs is video media. Things like music videos and recordings of live shows are a really good resource that I think many people overlook. A few days ago I was getting clobbered by this Mute Math riff in the song “Typical”; I just couldn’t figure it out, and I knew it wasn’t complex. The many tab renditions I found were close, but not one was perfect. Half an hour or so I sat down at this one lick. Then I decided to look it up in the good ‘ole me-tube, and watched real close, and figured it out right away! Don’t underestimate the value of pictures ladies and gentleman.
Another good tool is slow-mo. Audacity is a free tool that will do it, but I think you can figure that one out yourself.
Epic. That’s what I want, really. I just want one or two really epic songs. I want the next Hotel California, or Stairway to Heaven, or Bohemian Rhapsody. I mean, it’s not too much to ask for is it? I keep on working so hard to write music that blows people’s minds, but it’s just not working. Everything I write just isn’t good enough. I’ve been a mild perfectionist my entire life, but lately it’s becoming a bigger monster than ever.
So I’ve been experimenting with a solution that I think may help solve my rampant perfectionism.
You want a three hundred page book? Start with one crappy page a day.
You want a 480 ft tall pyramid built from 25 ton limestone blocks? Start by moving one block.
You want 10,000 screaming fans? Start with five or six.
You want to write an epic song? Start with one word.
And don’t feel guilty about being small! I haven’t written a blog post in more than a month, but you won’t hear me whining or apologizing profusely about it. I know I could be doing better, but if I beat myself up about it then I get depressed. And if I get depressed I beat myself up (or down rather, down to inaction). So do you see the vicious cycle we get ourselves into here? It’s quite simple not worth the effort. What is more, I’m not writing this blog to get famous or make tons of money, I’m doing it to get myself out there. I’m doing it because I know that most projects don’t die from undernourishment, they die from complete starvation. The simple act of removing your guilt and doing something, however small, will take you a long way.
You’ll find that as you take that first step, as you get yourself moving, you create momentum that often helps to carry you to places you couldn’t have ever imagined. Often times, you only need to go into your room, shut the door, and put the pen or guitar in your hands. Nothing else. Woody Allen says “90% of life is just showing up.” Don’t force yourself to write anything at all. Even better, try your hardest to NOT write anything. I bet you can’t do it. I know I can’t. It’s practically impossible for me to sit with a guitar in my hands and NOT play it. If you are passionate about your music, you’ll know what I’m talkin’ ’bout Willis.
Don’t worry about trying to be “as good as” that guy, or that girl that you admire with a passion bordering stalker (you know who your’s is). Don’t even try to emulate the styles of The Greats, because they obviously understood something that most of us don’t: The Greats were great because they didn’t copy anyone else. If they did, would they be that great? Stop comparing your skill and your talents and your creativeness and your hair and your skin tone and your vocal chords and your chord progressions and your shoe size and your bank account and your fan count, to them. You’ll always be left wanting.
On a final note, learn to be completely engrossed in the moment – letting the “magic music” that “makes your morning move” come to you. Let go of everything outside your little space. There are very few things more freeing than releasing the unjustifiable and luxurious expectations to which we chain ourselves, and when we give them up we find it easier to create.
A few years ago my girlfriend invited me to a barbecue in her backyard. Her uncle brought a Gibson acoustic from the ’50s or ’60s, and was playing all these nostalgic backwoods guitar tunes. He must have played 10 or so songs in a row with perfect execution, no mistakes, and remembered all the verses of every song just as easy as buttering bread. It wasn’t really my style of music, but he was nevertheless exploding my mind to pieces. I was amazed at how he was able to remember everything so easily. Then my girlfriend blurted out “John plays guitar, and he’s pretty good too!” The lofty Uncle Gibson himself proceeded to hand me the guitar in eager expectation “Let’s hear it then son!”
Now I had been playing diligently for about 3 years at the time, and *thought* I was pretty good. I could play just about anything (aside from wicked fast solos), was writing music all the time, and my band had won first place in the talent show the year before. I knew I was no virtuoso, but I seriously thought I was a “good” guitarist. Funny how pride sneaks in unnoticed huh?
So he handed me the guitar, and I was lost. I knew riffs, and played the riffs; I knew parts of songs, played parts of songs; I knew some interesting solos too, and played them but fumbled horribly. I realized that I couldn’t play a single complete song from memory. It was one of those points where reality hits your right smack in the face, knocks you on the floor, and yells “Wake up you big ugly bloke!”.
From that point on I decided to commit myself to memorizing complete songs, and developed a strategy to accomplish this. A few years after that incident, I spent some time in Japan studying Japanese and learned some seriously intense methods for memorization which helped to refine my strategy for memorizing songs. This strategy will work for any type of musical memorization. May it be complex lyrical landscapes, piano concertos, intensive guitar solos, drum parts, or anything else, you can memorize it and feel more confident playing in front of others.
OBB’s Strategy for Memorizing Songs
When you learn a song for the first time:
- Correctness is key. This is especially important for difficult parts of a song, where we often have a habit of “letting things slide”. Don’t settle for those “fake” books they sell in stores just because they’re easier.
- Use mnemonics and emotional triggers for vocals. Lyrics by themselves can be difficult to memorize, but our brain often remembers better when we associate them with other, “outside” information if you will. For me, I’ve noticed the most difficult part of memorizing lyrics is the first part of verses. To combat this, I often use mnemonic tricks and emotional triggers to help my brain remember. This might involve acronyms or stories with an emotional plot involving the lyrics. I’ll give an example: In The Beatles song “Hey Jude” the verses are all very similar, and I kept mixing them up until I assigned a mnemonic (in this case, just a single letter) to each of them. Taking the first letter of the key word in each verse, we can make BAD (Bad, Afraid, Down). Needless to say, I don’t have problems remembering it anymore.
- Practice the harder parts more often. Our tendency as humans is to go through the path of least resistance and play the easy parts of a song. You have to make a conscious effort to play the hard parts more often.
- Practice until you can play the song completely through without any aids. Then stop, and do the same thing tomorrow. Maybe you have the time to play it more, and maybe even the willpower, but if we’re talking about efficiency then more practice won’t do you any good at this point. Why? Read the next number.
After learning for the first time:
- Memories fade quickly, but get stronger over time with practice. The first time you learn a song, your memory of it will fade quickly. Very quickly, as in – completely gone the next day – quickly. But thankfully our brains will strengthen that memory when we practice again the next day. This is why practicing a song 100 times in a single day is actually not very productive … unless you have a show the next day. You’re much better off practicing 20 songs one time than one song 20 times.
- Make a list of songs to practice. Not only does your brain forget parts of songs, but it forgets that you even learned a song in the first place. I’ve been in jam sessions with other people, and they started playing a song that I knew, but I had completely forgotten about it for years! What a waste! I could have been playing that song all these years, but it got lost in the abyss. So here is what I do, and you can do the same if you want, adapt as you see fit: Make a list of songs that you know in their entirety, and use this as a guide for practicing. Go through the list and play each song one time, but no more. If you encounter problems, solve them quickly. Have those solutions close at hand too – internet, song books, tabs, lyrics, whatever. Do whatever you need to get the song back to correct. If you do this I promise (pinky swear if you want!) you’ll get more out of your practice time.
- Continue to practice the difficult parts more often. Pursue those leeches like a rabid wolf! You are the predator not the prey. Don’t let difficult or confusing parts continue to get the best of you. Sometimes it’s not even a skill issue; you can play the part easily skill-wise, but something is just strange in the tempo or you keep forgetting what comes next. These are problems as well and need just as much attention as the (quote-unquote) “difficult” parts.
- There are few valid excuses for being old. (If you aren’t old, then disregard this comment. Ha ho, apologies to old people for the blatant nature of my comments.) Studies have shown that old brains have just as much spunk as young ones, and even the dumbest brains show extremely good resilience. You keep forgetting stuff because it happened a long (and getting longer) time ago, NOT because your brain is getting fried like scrambled eggs from old age. Repeat the tasks you once did, and it will all come right back like a flash, Scout’s honor. Don’t blame age when the real problem is lack of practice (or lack of proper practice methods).
- I was a Boy Scout for like 2 months. That counts doesn’t it?
- Don’t use crutches when your legs are good. I’m talking about lyric sheets, tabs, sheet music, fake books, and playing to your stereo. They are not necessary. You don’t need them. Learn to deal without them because they won’t always be there to lean on. And besides, what would you think if your favorite artist came up on stage with a big book full of music and lyrics, and instead of making eye contact with the audience, he was looking at his music every … second … of … the … entire … show? Lame, is it not? Granted, crutches are necessary when you are starting out or forget something, but they are a means to an end – that end being full on memorization.
For those who need a more intense memorization plan (Lyrics Only):
Look yourself into something called SRS (Spaced Repetition Software). This is something that I used to study Japanese and other things, and I still use it almost everyday. SuperMemo is the original SRS program – complete with some great articles about memory and SRSing, but it’s quite old and costs money. So, I use a different program called Anki (Japanese for “memorize”), and it does virtually the same thing as SuperMemo at the cost of ~ free (無料だよ！). Using SRS, cloze deletion and some mnemonics you can memorize songs at the highest level of efficiency and effectiveness.
Memorization can be a seriously difficult task for some, but I feel that I’ve address solutions for just about any problems that you might encounter. These solutions are not an excuse to practice less, but a way to practice better. In fact, I feel like this should make practice more fun for some people since you get more time for learning songs, and a strategy for remembering them at the same time. Remember, the goal here is to have the songs written on your heart and not in some song book. Hopefully you don’t have any more excuses for not memorizing your songs, but if you do, post a comment below so I can (probably) prove you wrong. Also, do you have any other tips for remembering songs? Tell me about it, I’m eager to hear what angles other people have taken to tackle this problem.