Playing Piano ‘by ear’

The following video demonstrates how to get started ‘playing piano by ear’. The topics include:

  • Becoming familiar with the keyboard: 5 black notes, 7 white notes.
  • Learning the C Major scale: C,D,E,F,G,A,B
  • Learn to play 4-note ‘7th’ chords by playing ‘every other white note’.
  • Learn to ‘invert’ chords.
  • Learn to play chords with your left hand and improvise a melody with your right hand.

Guidelines for a ‘Sideman System’

This post details and specifies guidelines for “Sideman System”. A Sideman System is any system that abides by a philosophy that ALWAYS puts the Musician in complete control of his/her performance. That is, it is the the user’s performance that dictates and controls the system. A well-designed Sideman System will NEVER take control away from the musician and attempt to ‘drive the performance’.

There are literally hundreds of “user performance features” that a good Sideman System must recognize and abide by. Here are just a few examples:

  • volume variations
  • Pause, Halt and Resume
  • Tempo variations
  • ‘Feel’ (amount of ‘swing’, legato, staccato,…)
  • Time Signature
  • Chords (from three-note chords to chords containing extend scale degrees such as 7th, 9th, 11th, altered dominant, and even ‘rootless’ chord)
  • Chord Voicings (there are hundreds to be analyzed)
  • Bass Notes that accompany chords (such as FMaj over C)
  • Chord Progression (eg. II-V-I)
  • Key Signature
  • Various combinations of LH Bass, Chords and RH soloing.
  • Chord Arpeggiations

When a Sideman system accurately captures all this information, it can then use this information to ENHANCE the user’s performance – NOT LEAD IT. Possibilities include such performance enhancements as:

  • Bass accompaniment
  • Chordal accompaniment
  • Percussion accompaniment
  • Guitar accompaniment
  • Brass and String accompaniment
  • Melodic accompaniment

A key feature of a Sideman System is that the only ‘input’ required is a MIDI performance. As such, there is no requirement for physical controls such as buttons, switches, sliders, LEDs, displays, or menus – only MIDI IN and MIDI OUT are required. This system can be used either for personal use or as part of a professional setting. It is also ideally suited for the Visually Impaired (VI) pianist.

None of a Sideman System’s generated accompaniment is “canned” or “pre-recorded” – but rather generated in real-time in response to the user’s performance. A trivial example might be when the performer ‘pauses’ his playing: all accompaniment should likewise ‘pause’. Or if the performer plays an unrecognizable chord (aka ‘bad chord’): all chordal and melodic accompaniment is silenced and suspended. Modal accompaniment that depends on the user’s Key Signature is immediately silenced and suspended when a Key Signature changes or is ‘lost’.

The software included in the Sideman System from Pro-Piano predates the MIDI 1.0 specification published in 1983. This software is written in C (using the ‘gcc’ compiler) and will run on any Linux laptop (or even an inexpensive single board computer (SBC) such as the Raspberry Pi). It will work with any MIDI piano (such as the Yamaha MX series, which includes an internal Tone Generator). For those who prefer the superb voices of a high-end Tone Generator, simply connect Sideman’s MIDI OUT to the tone generator of your choice.

Chord Notes and Scale Degrees

In this lesson we discuss how the notes of a given chord are defined, relative to the chord root, in terms of scale degrees. We use a C Chord and the C Major Scale to demonstrate this.

Scale Degrees

We know that every chord has a ‘root‘. When we talk about a C Chord, the root is C. An F Chord has as its root the note F.

Using the Major Scale of the chord root (for example the C Major Scale for a C chord) enables us to define each note of the chord in terms of Scale Degrees. Playing notes of the major scale beginning from the root gives us the following scale degrees:

  • Root (C)
  • second (D)
  • third (E)
  • fourth (F)
  • fifth (G)
  • sixth (A)
  • seventh (B)
  • eighth, or Octave (C)
  • ninth (D)
  • tenth (E)
  • eleventh (F)
  • twelfth (G)
  • thirteenth (A)

Some of the notes in a given chord can be flatted or sharped (lowered or raised by one semitone). This occurs most commonly with the third, fifth, seventh, ninth and eleventh. As these notes are flatted or sharped, their names become as follows:

  • the ‘third’ (E) is called a Major Third, a flatted third (Eb) is called a Minor Third.
  • the fifth (G) becomes a flatted fifth (Gb) or sharp five (G#).
  • the seventh (B) is called Major Seventh, the flat seven (Bb) is called the Minor seven.
  • the ninth (D) becomes a flatted nine (Db) or sharp nine (Eb).
  • the eleventh (F) becomes a sharp eleven (D#).

We end the lesson by playing three chords:

  • F Major seven with an added sixth and ninth
  • G minor seven with ninth and flatted fifth added.
  • F Major seven with an added ninth and sharp eleven.

Two Halves Make A Whole (Repost)

Two Semitones equal a Whole Tone

In this lesson we add two new words to our musical vocabulary: a Semitone (or ‘half-step’) and a Whole tone (or ‘whole step’).

These two words are used to describe the ‘distance‘, or ‘interval‘, between any two notes. The smallest interval possible is that between two notes which are immediately next to each other (no notes in between), and this interval is a called a semitone, or half step.

The interval between two notes that have a single note between them, for example C and D (with one black note between them) is two semitones (or two half-steps) which is that same as one whole tone. Thus “Two Halves Make A Whole” – get it?

Why do we need to measure intervals between notes? When be start playing multi-note chords, it is the intervals between the chord notes that DEFINE the chord type.

The Magic 12 (Repost)

In this lesson we explore the piano keyboard with our left hand. There are only seven white notes and five black notes that we need to locate and learn. We discuss how the group of five black notes are arranged into a group of 2 and a group of 3. We learn to scan and find these five black notes (‘Home Position‘) in order to locate Middle C. We then slide our hand down from the five black notes to land with our little finger on Middle C, and then play the seven white notes C, D, E, F, G, A, and B. At this point we can play all twelve notes of the piano (the Magic 12). The ability to find Home Position and Middle C is extremely important because it prepares our left hand for playing jazz chords in a range just above Middle C.

Constructing 4-note ‘Seventh’ Chords (Jazz Chords)

Four-Note ‘seventh’ chords

In our previous lesson we constructed 3-note Triad chords. The simplistic sound of a triad might suffice for some genres of music, but Jazz most definitely requires the more complex coloring of chords containing more than three different notes.

The minimum requirement to be considered as a Jazz Chord is a 4-note chord. When the fourth note is added three or four semitones above the top note of a triad, the triad becomes what is called a ‘seventh’ chord. The notes of chords constructed in this manner referred to as:

  • the ROOT
  • the THIRD
  • the FIFTH
  • the SEVENTH

Just so you can hear the difference between triads and ‘seventh’ chords, listen to me first play the triads in the key of C from our last lesson:

Now listen to these same chords played as ‘seventh’ chords with a fourth note added on top:

You construct these ‘seventh’ chords by simply adding one note on top of a triad. Take the C triad for example. We started with C as our root, then added notes by skipping white notes: play C, skip D, play E, skip F, play G. Repeating this we skip A and play B. This gives us a C Major Seven(th) chord.

Think about this C Major Seven chord:

  • we know that the root of this chord is C.
  • we know that the E note is two whole tones above the root.
  • we know that the G note is seven semitones above the root.
  • these intervals for the E and G notes DEFINE a ‘Major’ chord.
  • by adding the B note we created a C Major SEVEN(TH) chord.

Up to this point we have considered INTERVALS as being the distance between two notes by counting semitone or whole tone steps between the two notes.

But now we want to consider a more convenient method for describing the relationship between each note of the chord and the root note. To do so, we introduce the terminology “second”, “third”, “fourth”, “fifth”, “sixth”, “seventh”, “octave”, “ninth”, “tenth”, “eleventh” and “thirteenth” (there is no “twelfth”).

Let’s demonstrate this using our new C Major Seventh chord in the key of C. Starting from the root note C, we name the white notes above C as follows:

  • D is the “second”
  • E is the “third”
  • F is the “fourth”
  • G is the “fifth”
  • A is the “sixth”
  • B is the “seventh” (thus the name C Major ‘seventh’)
  • C is an “octave” above the C root
  • D is the “ninth”
  • E is the “tenth”
  • F is the “eleventh”
  • A is the “thirteenth”

You might have noticed the duplication above the octave note. The usefulness of this will become clear shortly.

The Basics of Chord Construction (Triads)

In this tutorial we begin our study of Jazz Chords by building seven triads in the key of C.

Triad Chord Construction

Before we start, let’s review a few topics:

  • Chords are built upon a single ROOT NOTE. For example, a C chord will have a root note of ‘C’, a D chord will have a root note of D, …
  • All of the notes of a chord are constructed relative to the chord’s root note. For example, a C major chord contains the notes C, E and G. The root is C, the E note is four semitones above the root, and the G note is seven semitones above the root.
  • Triad chords are the simplest of chords in that they contain only three notes. Jazz chords typically contain a minimum of four notes and as many as seven notes.
  • The INTERVAL between any two notes is determined by the number of semitones or whole tones required to step from one of the notes to the other note. The interval between the notes F and A is four semitones (or two whole tones): F to F sharp, F sharp to G, G to G sharp, and G sharp to A.
  • When constructing chords in the Key of C we use only notes from the C Major Scale: C, D, E, F, G, A and B.

In the key of C we have seven possible notes to choose from for the root of a chord. The possible chord roots are therefore: C, D, E, F, G, A, and B.

In this lesson we use the little finger of our left hand to play the chord root.

Now let’s play the seven triads in the Key of C by:

  • placing your little finger on the root note.
  • with your middle finger and index finger, play EVERY OTHER white note above the root. Using C as our root note, the middle finger plays E and the index finger plays G. Note how we ‘skip’ the D and F notes.

We can now play all seven triads by sliding our left hand position UP to the next note in the C Major scale, construction the following triads:

  • C,E,G
  • D,F,A
  • E,G,B
  • F,A,C
  • G,B,D
  • A,C,E
  • B,D,F

In the next lesson we will examine the relationship of each chord note to the chord root, by noting the INTERVALS ( in semitones or whole tones). It is these intervals that define the chord as a Major, Minor, Dominant, or Diminished chord.

Naming the Five Black Notes

In this lesson we use our knowledge of SHARPS and FLATS to name the Five Black Notes on the keyboard.

Naming the Five Black Notes

Recall that the terms SHARP and FLAT relate to two notes that are a SEMITONE (half-step) apart:

  • The upper note is the SHARP of the lower note.
  • The Lower note is the FLAT of the upper note.

Notice that every one of the five black notes has both:

1) a white note a semitone BELOW it, and
2) a white note a semitone ABOVE it.

The result of this is that every one of the five black notes is BOTH:
1) the SHARP of the white note just below it,
2) and the FLAT of the white note just above it.

With your Left Hand in ‘HOME’ position on the five black notes, let’s determine the TWO names for the black note under your little finger. Since this black note is one semitone ABOVE the C note, we can name it ‘C SHARP’. And since this black note is also one semitone BELOW the D note, we can name also name it “D FLAT”.

Why do we need two names for each black note (C SHARP is the same note as D FLAT)? We’ll find out why when we learn about KEY SIGNATURES, but if you can’t wait: depending on what key signature is being played, either the SHARP terminology or
the FLAT terminology will be used. Just remember that “C SHARP” is the SAME

Let’s use the same procedure to name the other FOUR black notes, by noting the
white notes that are a semitone above and below the black note. When we do this, the five black notes have the following names, starting with the little finger and continuing up to the black note under your thumb:


Congratulate yourself because with some practice we will no longer need to refer to the black notes by which finger plays them. You will know that “F SHARP” is the black note one semitone above F. And that “B FLAT” is the black note one semitone below the note B. That is very exciting news.

Basic Concepts of Jazz Piano

In this short audio tutorial we review the musical concepts that we have learned so far. With a solid understanding of these concepts and their terminology, visually impaired (VI) piano students will have no difficulty grasping more advanced jazz concepts to come. The list of topics reviewed include:

  • Locating and using the five black notes to can find Middle C.
  • Playing the notes C,D,E,F,G,A,B and C beginning from middle C.
  • The Octave.
  • Semitone and Whole Tone intervals (half step and whole step).
  • The C Major scale.
  • Sharps and Flats.
  • Introduction to chords: the C Major Triad.
  • Looking Forward.
Basic Piano Concepts