This page was last modified Sep 5, 2013


Learning to make music

First learn harmony

If you want to learn to make music, learn harmony first. You may take other paths to becoming a musician, but all paths lead to knowing harmony, so you might as well learn it first and possibly save yourself time and potentially frustration, and prevent incorrect knowledge along the way.

If an instructor or a book does not tell you how to identify avoid tones, or does not explain the importance of the i, iv, and vii tones in the key, it is really doing a disservice to you.

My books

I've written one series of books, and am putting together a second series, that teach you how to be a musician. I do explain those things, and a lot more. Although written from the pianists point of view, the principles are valid for all instruments, and so I recommend them no matter which instrument you play.

The first series is a complete course in harmony. It is called Understanding and Implementing Harmony on the Piano. It starts with the simple foundations of diatonic harmony that form the basis of all popular music and builds from there to teach you how to improvise, reharmonize, voice chords and incorporate rhythm.

The second series so far consists of a single slim volume that takes a different approach - rather than supplying theory it simply shows you what to do on the piano with minimal discussion to get in the way of your learning process. Please see Cocktail and Jazz Piano Techniques.

There's tons of music learning books out there, but none like mine. My books include many key, important things you won't find in most other places. Learning to improvise and to play jazz is generally accepted to be a "trial by fire" type of ordeal - you are expected to pay your dues through years of struggling and trying to figure it out on your own; but it doesn't have to be such a hit-and-miss proposition. Music is a structured art, and the most beneficial way to learn it is through structured guidance.

A lot books beat around the bush, offering little in the way of substance or practical suggestions, and the few that don't are too esoteric and cerebral to be of any use. That's not the way you should be trying to improve your musical skills. Such books completely miss the point: the point of being a musician is to perform - in other words, to gig - and any music book worth its salt is going to help you make big strides to achieving that goal, or to improving yourself if you are already playing out.

The proper goal of teaching music is to provide enough explanation so that you know what you're doing, and to provide enough exercises (and the proper kind of exercises) so that you can play and ultimately be able to remove the thought process from playing so that music becomes a language in its own right for yourself. This is what good instruction enables you to do.

Please see my "How to Teach Music"

Please my explanation of Why I wrote these books

Next learn to improvise

Improvisation is the ultimate musical ability and is also the thing that baffles a lot of musicians. Most end up being content just learning a pentatonic scale, but you can learn to do more without suffering too much. A little knowledge empowers you to express harmony and harmonic change through the improvised line. What you get is a more expressive, sophisticated solo.

Learning how to improvise is not hard, but often the approaches to teaching it do not do a good job. In your quest to learn, you will encounter quite a bit of misinformation about improvisation:

  • it cannot be taught (false)
  • you can only learn it by playing by ear (false)
  • it involves scales (false)
  • just play what you feel (false)

My approach to teaching is to explain musical structure in a clear manner and to provide the proper kinds of exercises for imprinting it in your ear and your muscle memory. Improvisation, after all, is a structured art and it has to do with harmony, hence "Understanding and Implementing Harmony".

What is improvisation?

Improvisation is the linear representation of harmony. Sometimes the harmonic changes implied by the improvised line are very fast, but it's harmony nonetheless. It's the linear or melodic representation of chords and chord changes. But it is not scales. The "chord-scale" theory that so many people are taught is not a good way to approach it. Chord-scale theory fails to account for the fact that not every tone in a scale is appropriate for a particular harmony. You are told nothing of the avoid tones, which is an essential part to improvisation.

In reality, not all tones are appropriate to play on a particular chord. Some tones corrupt the harmony. There are rules about which tones fit and which don't. Scales are just the framework from which a subset of tones are taken in order to establish a particular harmony (chord). Thinking in terms of scales tends to confuse matters because it places equal importance on all the tones in the scale, which is not good. In addition to the avoid tones, improvisation has to do with identifying certain tones as focal points. This has to do with the chord changes and the tonal center of the song.

The hard and slow route is trying to learn on your own by "hunting and pecking" on the keys. A better route is a more structured one that involves the following steps:

  1. learn how to harmonize melodies (ie create chord progressions to fit the melody)
  2. learn which tones are appropriate for each chord
  3. learn to identify the "pivot tones" which are those focal points that ground a harmonic passage against the tonal center of the song

These steps are not difficult, but most music courses do not teach them.

All this talk of structure - what's the use? Don't we just want to get out there and jam?! Well, that's fine, but don't dismiss importance of structure in music. Perhaps you feel that it hampers creativity, while in fact the opposite is true. By learning the structure, you develop a stronger ear and are therefore able to express yourself more readily. All competent musicians and improvisors play highly structured music.

If you are having difficulty learning how to improvise on your own, you will benefit from good instruction, such as the kind provided in my books.

In my book, I analyze many solos (piano, guitar, sax, trumpet) and show how each piece of a solo corresponds to a specific harmony (chord). You will learn how competent soloists weave between chords, sometimes using only two or three tones to imply a particular chord before moving to the next.

Me and My Buddies

Please see this page where you can find some online lessons, and listen to some music from buddies of mine.