June 5, 2007


by Chris Randall

So I decided to expand my keyboard vocabulary a little bit this week. (To put this in perspective, if it was word vocabulary we would be talking about, I'd be stuck why the fuck there are three different ways to spell "there".) Since I am an entirely self-taught musician, and can hold my own on any instrument you don't have to blow in to, I have a fairly well-traveled road for teaching myself how to do something that has served me well for three decades.

In the modern digital age, it takes a bit of a new spin, as I can actually dissect things and get to the "why" of them, rather than just puzzling out sheet music, an intensely boring thing. So, what I do is pick a song (say, for instance, "One For My Baby"), go find a General MIDI file of it that doesn't completely suck (harder than it sounds), load it up in to Logic (which is better for these sorts of things than Cubase, IMO), and proceed to figure out the parts. Then I put my own spin on them, and essentially learn the entire song by rote.

On the plus side, even though I've learned the song by rote, and am thus no more than a trained monkey, all the elements of that song, including some truly massive chords, work their way in to my musical vernacular, and reappear or not as appropriate. One big minus is that I have a hard time transposing a song on the fly; I know three different inversions of an Am7 chord, but I couldn't play any of them a half step down if my life depended on it. Nor could I add or subtract notes just because I thought the chord needed a little sauce or whatever. Nor can I immediately come up with transitional chords (which is annoying.) If they weren't in the MIDI file, I generally don't know them.

Jesus, this story is getting long; you are no doubt wondering if there's a point anywhere in the foreseeable future. Well, sure. I was listening to some old Ron Carter today, with some extremely soulful gospel piano work courtesy of Gene Harris, and I decided to learn gospel chords. I know that there's something added or subtracted from a typical chord progression to make it a gospel chord progression. However, I don't know what that _something_ is. In my search on the tubes of the Interwebs, I discovered a rather unsettling fact: the people that take the time to write about gospel piano on the internet are not Ray Charles. Neither are they Aretha Franklin. They are essentially Pee Wee Herman. To wit. It's like if Sonic State were run by the Lollipop Guild. I think the entire gospel piano industry is run by that fucktard that has been putting perfect pitch ads in Keyboard magazine for the last 30 years. (Bonus points if someone scans the picture of him with his high school muse that appeared in the mid 80s issues; I think that picture speaks volumes.)

So the question of the day, if I could stop digressing, is two-fold:

1. How do you teach yourself to play specific songs if you can't sight read? (Laptop jockeys, I love you like brothers and sisters, but this one isn't for you...)

2. Is there a good readable source of information on the internet about why gospel chord progressions sound different than the same progression played by a jazz or blues player? Is it specific inversions, or a consistently added note?



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Jun.06.2007 @ 1:45 AM
CR, I am a bit puzzled by this...you are clearly a really sharp guy. There is absolutely no reason you couldn't learn all the conventional fundamentals of keyboard/western-diatonic harmony in the equivalent of, let's say, one school semester. I can recommend some decent texts if you're interested. Chords played in a gospel style will have characteristic voicings, not unique-to-gospel chords, and in fact sussing them out by ear is probably the best way to go. I bet you know a lot more than you realize, you just never imbibed the relevant technical vocab or made enough of the more pertinent neural connections regarding theory. It ain't rocket science, it's weeeeell within your capabilities. Also, some harmonic stuff is easier on guitar, some easier on piano, strictly from a physical standpoint as well as literally seeing relationships between things, don't discount that. All that said, as a composer your most important tools are your ears. To steal the joemeek ad copy, "if it sounds good - it is good." That was undoubtedly Igor Stravinsky's dictum as well, and you can bet he didn't learn the chords from the Rite of Spring in any school. They arose completely out of the creative dictates of his refined aesthetic sensibility. This is the same as what any electronic musician does who erases the presets and starts from scratch.

Jun.06.2007 @ 2:15 AM
I've been known to throw a track into my DAW and slow it down half speed to figure stuff out. I also find it useful to learn to hear if a chord is built on thirds or more "open sounding" fourths.

If you were interested in reading lots of little black dots on lines I would recommend The Jazz Piano Book by Mark Levine. Lots of great voicings in that one.


Jun.06.2007 @ 2:25 AM
Sometimes i go note by note with the help of a chromatic tuner. The perfect pitch ads are a helpful source as i sing the notes into the tuner, rather than play the song thru the tuner. That's why i have such an ad in my studio with that picture of the biggest smile of a guy who can sing in tune.
You can always put it into melodyne, to see the notes.

Jun.06.2007 @ 2:26 AM
1. I can sightread, but the best way to learn songs is by ear if possible. Its a huge pain at first, but ultimately it develops into being able to transcribe music very quickly. Also a little scale/ chord theory helps to fill in the blanks or make educated guesses about what the chord might be.

2. I have some experience working with gospel bands (I'm a bass player) and the best I could say is that harmonically, the chords tend to be written as a triad over a bass note almost no matter what. Also that bass note will often not be the root of the chord as it usually is in jazz and blues. So you get a lot of chords with the bass playing the 3rd, 5th, or sometimes 7th or 9th of the chord. Also there is a lot of chromatic bass movement. Frankly the whole style can get really complicated. But at any given moment the harmony can usually be reduced to something like Bb major over an F bass note moving to say F major over F bass and so on. Lots of slash chords as opposed to jazz which is mainly using root position chords extended out to the max like GBDFAC#E. I wish I could explain it better, but it's not a strong point in my keyboard playing. Also it is hard to find info or learning materials. I think most of the people that play gospel learn it in church directly from other gospel musicians by rote.


Jun.06.2007 @ 3:54 AM
Chris Randall
Moyashi, you caught me out. I tend to underplay my abilities a lot, so that I'm not forced in to situations where I embarrass myself. Obviously, the fact that I'm competent on over a dozen instruments (counting all keys as one) and as good as any pro should be on three, and have made a living making music, to say that I don't know how to play would be understating the matter quite a bit.

That said, I've tried to get in to theory many times since I took up music as a profession, and quite frankly, it just doesn't hold my interest. One of the problems of essentially being your own boss for decades running is that you aren't always capable of developing the drive to go outside your comfort zone. I have that Mark Levine book, and I've never got past the introduction. Of all the theory books I have (a couple dozen, I guess) the only one that sees any use is this little paperback:

link [www.amazon.com]">link [www.amazon.com]

I'm actually on my second copy, because the spine broke on the first one and it came apart. It is well-thumbed.

I do see the point about playing to see chord relationships. While I'm a better keyboard player than guitarist (perils of being left-handed but playing right-handed) I can see note and chord relationships on the guitar much easier, and I have an easier time coming up with progressions and transitions on guitar. Unfortunately, because I'm left handed, I can't play very fast. But my left hand is all over the place, and since I have an octave-and-a-4th stretch, I can make some pretty silly guitar chords. Too bad I can't actually strum them in time. ;-)



Jun.06.2007 @ 4:58 AM
Well, "there are many paths to enlightenment," right? In art, at least, the ends justify the means, as long as nobody gets hurt. ;-)
If you want to play gospel-style, I'm sure you can make it happen one way or another.
Hey Oregonians, I'm in Tokyo right now, 13 hours ahead of my normal Brooklyn time. A couple days ago a docu ran on national TV here about Portland's pro-environment policies, including aggressive measures to reduce car traffic in the city and increase bike use. The Japanese commentators were amazed to find Americans "behaving sensibly," but that's another story. Any thoughts about the merits and implementation of Portland's policies? Superficial or serious, etc? Send me a private message, to not hijack the gospel thread. Thanks.

Jun.06.2007 @ 7:15 AM
A couple things I've noticed about the little old piano lady playing hymn music:

1) Since it's all about supporting the singing masses, the vocal melody drives the chords. The vocal note must be played as it's being sung, so chords have to adapt. They are always in scale, ie. A, Bm, C#m,D,E....

2) lot's of arpeggios

also try:
Agape' Christian Books
Hawthorne Boulevard, Portland

go to church and steal a hymnal, HA!


Jun.06.2007 @ 8:08 AM
Highly highly highly highly recommend a book by a great jazz theory teacher Mark Levine called simply "Jazz Piano". You can get it on Amazon. Takes you really deep if you want but the first 1/2 of the book just takes a simple standard like "Just Friends" and shows you how voice chords and start to add extensions for color. This book opened up my ears considerably and I think it will hit exactly what you're after.

Had a great bass teacher once who made me buy a bunch of Oscar Peterson records and transcribe not only Ray Brown's lines but also try to work out OP's voicings. That was great as well. The Gershwin Book record is the bomb for that.


Jun.06.2007 @ 8:22 AM
Spalky's comments on Gospel are good, but Dale's are wrong. As a leader of jazz church services, I can say a few things about gospel style piano playing.

As Spalky mentioned above, a triad over the bass note is how each chord should be voiced. You will want to avoid 7ths, 9ths ... etc, with the exception of dominant 7ths, which can be added to taste.

Also, the harmony should remain simple (I, IV, V, maybe VI). Traditional African American Spirituals (the roots of gospel) almost never contain chords other than I, IV and V. You CAN expand to more complicated harmonizations, but it has to be working off a base of I, IV, V (for instance, in C, you could play a D as a root note to a IV chord).

Finally, to get a feel for how this adds up, you should take a look at a few Traditional African American tunes. Off the top of my head:
Fix Me, Jesus
Precious Lord (Take My Hand)
Wade In the Water
Peace Like a River
Guide My Feet
Over My Head

Hope that helps.


Jun.06.2007 @ 9:04 AM
I highly recommend the method of slowing it down and learning it by ear. You can do this in your DAW, but if you are going to be doing it often, some software like the amazing slowdowner

link [www.ronimusic.co...]">link [www.ronimusic.co...]

will make your life much easier. It is very convenient, reasonably priced, and operates in realtime, so you don't have to rerender whhen you want to change the speed or the pitch.

Most of the tunes I have learned in the last few years are from a variety of traditional styles, and slowing the audio down with software has helped a whole lot. These styles are impossible to transcribe anyway. You could make a transcription accurate to the demisemiquaver, give it to a world class classical musician, and what they played from that sheet music would be a shitty, soulless, ghost of the original, like Aaron Copland or some shit.


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