4 Reasons Why the Keys are Your Best Friend for Learning any Instrument

Most of us have seen or heard of musicians who excel at playing multiple instruments including the keys.  From John Lennon (The Beatles), John Paul Jones (Led Zeppelin), to Eddie Van Halen, all of these artists and several more either regularly performed including the keys, or they were a significant part of their musical upbringing. So how can we wrap our heads around the multiple talents of these great artists?  Let’s begin to scratch the surface by looking at today’s music education.  At first, learning piano in conjunction with another instrument may sound like a learning overload or waste of time to, say, an improving guitar or saxophone student.  However, doing so can actually accelerate his/her musical growth and understanding…and make playing even more fun!  Here are the reasons why:

1.     Viewing all of the notes consecutively

In contrast to most instruments, the piano gives all learners the ability to see several octaves of the musical alphabet right in front of them.  So, it becomes easier to internalize how scales and chords work together, by seeing all of the notes they are comprised of in order from left to right.

2.    Improving eye/hand coordination, finger dexterity

Playing piano demands a good amount of movement with both hands over a large area as learners improve.  As scales and songs are learned by using both hands, this translates very nicely to several string and woodwind instruments, strengthening the fingers to hit the right notes more effortlessly.

3.    Interval training, chord progressions

The piano allows learners to see the distances between notes, or what we call intervals.  The feel of a piece of music and how it sounds is produced from this concept of intervals.  Multiple notes with different distances between them will produce major or minor chords, extended chords, etc that are all clearly visible on the keyboard.

4.    Allows for easy musical interaction within home

Piano in itself is accessible to playing notes immediately without having to learn a specific technique to playing.  The keys are easily compressible, and 2 people can sit on the bench and play it at the same time if it is close to full size.  This is inviting to the family atmosphere, as learners can show their family what they are learning with more clarity, and invite them to join with simple melodies, even to accompany other instruments in the home.

Hopefully these concepts can be helpful for families exploring ideas for involving music education in the home. 

- Written by Travis Palladino, Founder & Director of Music Flow LLC

The Metronome: Slow it Down, Learn it Faster

Aspiring musicians of all levels enjoy learning new songs from our favorite artists.  For the most part, these songs are comprised of a number of different chords and melodies that we believe we can play, each on their own.  However, the other half to music involves time, the art of placing all of these chords and melodies into the exact positions they need to be in sequence relative to a timescale.  So, you may be at a point where you know how to play several chords and/or scales, however it is difficult to comprehend how to play fast enough to the speed of the songs and artists you are trying to learn.

Instead of getting frustrated that we can’t play fast enough, there is a helpful tool we can use to improve our technique and build confidence in keeping up a rhythm.  The aforementioned metronome is the answer, with the ability to set regular ticks at an adjustable rate in beats per minute (bpm).  The metronome dates back to the 9th century, later patented in the early 1800’s as the tool we are familiar with in current times.  It is now available most commonly by way of electronic application for several types of devices.

Before applying the metronome to a song, it is important to keep in mind the time signature of the music.  That is, we need to determine how many beats are in a measure, and what type of note gets the beat.  To do this, listen to the song and tap your foot to each beat. If you find yourself tapping 4 times in a repeatable fashion, then most likely the music is in a 4/4 time signature, also referred to as common time.  In this case, there are 4 beats in a repeatable measure of music, where the quarter note receives each beat.  However, this is not always the case although it is the most common (There are loads of helpful articles and youtube videos on time signatures out there if you would like to explore further).  

Once the time signature is determined, a metronome app can be set to the same time signature so we can apply it to the music we want to perform.  Then, this allows us to slow down the music to a rhythm where we are currently comfortable playing the instrument.  Now that the rhythm is slowed down, we can set personal goals to gradually increase speed until we can reach the full speed of the song.  This method gives more structure to learning and brings what was initially incomprehensible to more gradually attainable.  And it is fun to challenge yourself with a new speed (tempo) of playing each day (in beats per minute - “BPM”).

Personally, it wasn’t until I started applying a metronome to my practicing that I realized my playing rhythm needed some work.  Although my guitar chord changes and solos sounded great in my head, when placed against the metronome at slower speeds the truth started to surface that something was a bit off.  I would invite musicians of all levels to explore this great tool in practicing further, and here are a few ideas on some starting points:

For Beginners:     If you are within your first few months of playing, then you are probably still learning a few basic chords and/or scales.  The metronome can assist with these.  For example, with guitar or piano, we can take the basic beginner chords (G, C, D, E, A, etc) and practice changing from one to the other in time to the metronome.  For instance, set the metronome to 50bpm at 4/4 time, and try to play a different chord you know on beat 1 of each measure.  Be sure to let the chord sustain itself for at least 3 beats however.  Once this confidence is gained, increase the tempo to 60bpm, and so on.  Once you are able to change between chords at 100+bpm, you will be well on your way to learning some basic songs.

For Intermediate Players:     Make a short list of those melodies or solos you’ve wanted to learn.  Pick one and determine the time signature and speed with your metronome.  On the first part you want to learn, listen to the record first several times, then on your metronome cut the tempo in half with the music off.  Now see if you can hear that portion of music in your head at the much slower speed.  Using your tablature or whichever learning method you have, play with the metronome at this slower tempo until it is locked in with confidence.  Then gradually increase the speed towards full rate, each time making sure you have it under your fingers.

For Advanced Players:    Take that favorite solo you’ve been working on, slow it down with your metronome and see if you can determine the rhythm.  This would mean to determine each note value in each portion of the solo you are trying to learn.  Take the first measure, and see if you can plot each note value sequentially with a pencil and paper.  I.E. if the first measure was consecutively sixteenth notes in 4/4 time, we can write:  “1 e & a 2 e & a 3 e & a 4 e & a” as the rhythm (keep in mind to brush up on your time signature knowledge if there are any triplets involved).  Now see if you can both play and say each note in time with the metronome, gradually increasing speed.  This will enhance how “tight” your playing will sound in time, increasing your rhythm skill.

- Written by Travis Palladino, Founder & Director of Music Flow LLC

7 Notes that can take you (almost) Anywhere

(for intermediate musicians)

Trying to learn how music is created can be intimidating to many aspiring musicians with any instrument.  In our favorite songs we hear hundreds if not thousands of progressive notes and chords that are played and wonder what it must be like for the musicians we hear to have every single one under their fingers.  In turn, many of us find comfort on the musical plateau of mimicking chord progressions and riffs/melodies from these artists without daring to understand how and why everything works harmoniously together in their songs.  

What if someone were to tell you that most all of the music you listen to could be broken down to 7 notes, and if you could wrap your head around just these 7 notes that you could crack the code to the thousands of chords and melodies of virtually all of your favorite artists?  This may sound overly simplistic, but the reality is that the reason all of these notes seem to work together perfectly in a song is because they are considered diatonic, meaning that of the same scale.  These scales can be boiled down to 7 notes at most, and many times just 5 or 6 of the seven notes are used.  

We can refer to this musical code as harmonization, that is to say the way in which chords and melodies are developed off of our 7 note scale.  For instance, let’s take the major key of C, where one of the first scales you may have learned was C-D-E-F-G-A-B (the key of C is a great scale for reference because there are no sharps or flats, however any root note can apply here).  So what can we do with these seven notes?  Let’s start with chords:

Chord triads (3-note chords) are developed from the root note, the 3rd, and the 5th of their scale.  Beginning with C, and staying within our scale notes above, we can call this our “I” chord of the C-scale.  The root note would of course be C, with the 3rd note as E (major 3rd interval), and the fifth note as G (5th interval). 

I.     C-E-G = 1, maj 3rd, 5th (C major chord)

Let’s take this same method and start with the 2nd note of our scale, D.

II.    D-F-A = 1, minor 3rd, 5th (D minor chord)

And so on…

III.   E-G-B = 1, min 3rd, 5th (E minor chord)

IV.   F-A-C = 1, maj 3rd, 5th (F major chord)  * notice how the scale is continuous back to C for the 5th interval

V.    G-B-D = 1, maj 3rd, 5th (G maj chord)

VI.   A-C-E = 1, min 3rd, 5th (A min chord)

VII.  B-D-F = 1, min 3rd, diminished 5th (B half-diminished chord)

With just these 7 notes, we just created 7 chords from which hundreds if not thousands of progressions can be developed. Again, the reason all of these chords work together in these progressions is because they are all diatonic.

Without getting too far ahead of ourselves for this entry, grab your guitar and play around with these chords and see for yourself how you can create music from these chords of all sorts of styles and different feels.  And better yet, find yourself a jam buddy or instructor to interact with you on these chords while coming up with leads and melodies using these 7 scale notes.  Here is a common position (1st position) for the scale of C major on the guitar for those who are just starting to learn soloing scales.  If you are on the piano, you have it easy… just hit the white keys!

For many of us, this new world of harmonization may sound a bit too academic to start jumping into, however it is actually very intuitive and fun when learned in the right manner.  There are many great instructors out there who have the ability to get this harmonization method under your fingers within the context of the music you love.  This is incredibly motivating, because once you crack the code to this music you can begin to use it as an empowering influence and create your own progressions and songs.  The more artists of whom you gain an understanding, the more influences you have and the more diverse and unique your music can sound!  This hurdle in understanding harmonizations truly leads to what is referred to as infinite learning, where new territories of music can be conquered every week for as long as you would like to build your musical empire.  If this sounds like a journey you would like to embark on, then it may be the right time for you to find a creative instructor in your area to start it with you!

- Written by Travis Palladino, Founder & Director of Music Flow LLC

Music - Your Brain's Favorite Superfood

Have you ever listened to your favorite song while driving down the highway with the windows open and felt unstoppable?  Do you find yourself singing or humming a tune at times during your daily routine while completing tasks?  Have you ever started playing your instrument and lost track of time in a state of energized focus?

Most all of us have experienced a state of mind similar to at least one of the above occurrences.  So what does this mean for our lives?  Well, there is actually a good reason for why we are able to reach these states of focused "flow" when engaged in music:  Technically speaking, music is jet fuel for your brain.

When listening or playing music, brain function is significantly expanded by way of enabling other sections of the brain involving creativity and emotional response.  Specifically in children, music has the ability to improve motor and speech skills in conjunction with learning pitch and rhythm recognition.  Based on the science, it is not much of a surprise that when they grow to  high school age, students regularly involved in a music activity score on the SAT an average of 63 points higher on verbal and 44 points higher on math than students with no music participation (1). 

When adults participate in musical activity, connections in the brain are forged that improve focus at work and provide an increased feeling of presence in family life.  Lower psychological stress and lower heart attack rates are also found as a result of playing an instrument.  Cognitive ability decreases with age for many people, but music has been shown to significantly offset this decline as well.  Learn more: NAMM Foundation Article

So in light of these studies, why has participation in the arts significantly declined over the past couple of decades in our American schools?  This is a subject to which there are varying opinions and arguments on the political end, but the end result is that we have collectively lost site of the incredible value that music has in impacting our lives.  When we have a few moments of free time, many of us are now typically more concerned with flipping TV channels or playing on our smartphones for temporary enjoyment rather than engaging in a creative activity with a lasting impact.  There are plenty of distractions that take our valuable time away from our creative development, however the good news is that with our current technology and accessibility, a musical connection is only a step away.    All it takes is a starting point action to reconnect your brain with music in your local town by going to a live performance or picking up a musical instrument.  

Best of luck in your music journey!  Tell us what you think if you get a chance.

Check out a few more details here on a particular brain study in Finland:  ScienceDaily Article

NPR article on the effects of musical training on motor and speech skills:  Brain on Music Article

    - written by Travis Palladino, founder & director of Music Flow LLC

(1) College-Bound Seniors National Report: Profile of SAT Program Test Takers. Princeton, NJ: The College Entrance Examination Board, 2001

Soloing Like the Greats

(for intermediate & advanced levels)

So you've been learning songs and playing some solid rhythm guitar and basic soloing riffs for some time now, and you're trying to muster up the courage to step out of this comfort zone and start bending some strings.  There are plenty of solos out there to help get you to that next level, but let's start with one of my favorites.  If you have ever been a fan of Pink Floyd, you might have recognized David Gilmour's uncanny ability to produce guitar solos with long-ringing powerful notes that seem to sing their own song over the accompanying chords.  For those looking for a good starting point on soloing like one of the greats, I might start looking at the intro to "Shine on You Crazy Diamond (Parts I-IV)", the first song on the legendary album Wish You Were Here.  Glimour plays his intro solo from 2:10 - 3:35 in this song, and if you have some ability to bend strings, grab your electric guitar and get started breaking this one down.

Chord progression is:  Gm - Dm - Cm - Gm - Dm - Cm - Dm - Gm.

The key of this solo can be said to be G-minor (or the relative minor key of Bb major).  Check out the tabs from UltimateGuitar.com.  The solo is comprised mostly of the minor pentatonic scale (1, b3, 4, 5, b7), while also adding the 2nd interval as well to expand the solo, adding a bit more color.  The standard minor pentatonic position can be considered as such with the root on the 6th (low E) string, and can be transferred to any spot on the guitar neck depending on the key.

** Be sure to consider the "2" interval as well for this solo (not shown above) **

** Be sure to consider the "2" interval as well for this solo (not shown above) **

So, if we transfer this position up to the 15th fret of the guitar neck, this will allow us to play the majority of the solo without moving our hand position much at all.  Practicing this solo will provide some great ear training for bending notes to their final tones.  Watch out for the bend at 2:34 where Gilmour takes his root (1) all the way up to the b3 which is a 3-semitone bend (it's OK to take breaks for sore fingers).  

For those more advanced players, see if you can decipher how Gilmour outlines each chord with his soloing here.  I personally love the final Gm landing note at 3:27, with a high b3 right when the chord hits, then involving the 5 and the b7 before resolving to the root to end the solo.  This one is really involved in minor blues influence as well with the I-V-IV progression as some of you might catch.  Enjoy!

- written by Travis Palladino, founder & director of Music Flow LLC

Let us know what you enjoy most about Gilmour's style and if you've applied any of it to your playing.