Like many of you out there, I have literally spent thousands of pounds (and hours) attempting to play the piano & learn music. This has been over the course of a lifetime and though I can hardly play a note, (checking out a keyboard in full view in a shop, is an experience that consistently causes me to squirm), I somehow managed an Associated Schools grade eight?

 I had a brief respite from this depressing cycle when I broke my left wrist in 2007, not touching a keyboard for at least five years.
I have recently taken up teaching English (to Spanish kids) and noticed the similarity between speaking a language and singing. Essentially language is a set of fixed tones; when we can give those tones meaning, we are said to understand the language. I still remember my Dad taking me to see One million BC , which had a simple tonal language used by the proto-Neanderthal tribes.

However, even at that tender age (ok with the help of a lot of ughs & pointing ), I left learning one piece of Neanderthal gibberish “akita” ; over there. This sound happens to be very close to the Spanish (/ai-i/ ) and the Portuguese (/ali-o/).


Anyway, I digress but, I figured out an easier way to help children learn phonetics is by singing, so I contrived to teach them some key English sounds, through some simple well-known pop sounds & rhymes. I still remember Frère Jacques after 50 odd years. Implementing this proved not so easy, as despite the ubiquity of youtube, the lyrics can often introduce sounds & vocabulary, that is difficult, for say a three to seven-year-old. So I figured the way forward was to take some well know Spanish songs & try to Anglicize them.


The problem is that as I have stated, the metre of the two languages are quite distinct: English operates with a iambic two step rhythm, whereas Spanish frequently has six syllable words; you only need to listen to Flamenco to hear the obvious difference. You might think that a simple iambic rhythm would be easy to master, but the Spanish expend so much effort, mastering the sounds & rhythm of their own language, this is often not the case. So to cut a long story short, I thought I need to rejig some songs; how hard can it be? I bought a second hand (Bakelite) Startone Keyboard for €50, which I duly left alone (as is my standard modus operandi)


How to play the piano cover 2002

However, I went home (UK) at Easter; going through my library of music books, searching for my well-thumbed 1974 Boosey & Hawkes School Scales book. No luck there, but fortuitously, I came across “How to play the piano despite years of lessons” by Ward Cannel & Fred Marx also published in 1976 (Hal-Leonard). I had spotted the book on Amazon in 2002, so it had been lying around gathering dust for more or less seventeen years.

There may be trouble ahead

I vaguely remember struggling through, it, but the corny American repertoire like “On top of old Smoky”, “Gigi”, and “Red River Valley” could hardly compete with say Free´s “My brother Jake”, Carly Simon´s “Nobody does it” (beta) or Steely Dan´s “Peg. Let´s just say that the obvious 40´s/50´s baby boomer vintage of the writers shone through (Donald Fagan eat your heart oot).

 The second problem of the book is the folksy “pick up & shotguns” narrative style; there´s a lot of ambling reminiscence about the development of 6th & 7th chords. The only thing lacking are some yee-haws! What is a pinky?

The final problem with the book, is the childlike graphics: The hand-drawn graphics & fake fake sheet notation add to the air of amateurism rather than whimsy. Despite the dense rigour of the theoretical content, you come away with the impression that the book is written for the hard of reading. Additionally, sheet music notation has its own codification enigmas without adding in the idiosyncrasies of hand scripted scores. There isn´t even an index, so you literally need to bookmark everything.

Modern rhymes

Anyway, fast-forward May 2019 and after five years, I still do regular gym bike sessions. To kill the inevitable boredom I decided to re-read the book during my marathon ( 1hr 5m) sessions. I noticed I could skim read large sections as it went through a lot of foundation material: Keys, timing aka rhythm, Chords, inversions, etc.

Stratified atmospheres

The first concept that I found interesting was when they divided the keyboard into different layers or strata, & explained the function of each: for example, the melody is always at the top, where it dominates. Secondly there was the universality of the theory, in that all music, Classical, Jazz, Pop, could all be analysed through a strata paradigm. He uses the oomph pah pah of Strauss against, the more camouflaged bass rhythms (pah oomph pah) used by Brahms in his later piano waltzes, to illustrate rhythmic evolution if not revolution.

Nobody had ever explained that to me.


Furthermore, these strata could replicate an orchestra as the high pitch instruments (flutes/violins) often carried the melody with the cellos & drums doing the heavy lifting at the bottom of the piece. The basic idea was that once you have isolated the top melody in a tune, you could fill in the rest (accompaniment), as long as you knew how to generate appropriate chords and rhythms. The key to this (pun intended) was to determine the key, as once you know this, the progressions are fairly predictable.

Very much as we talk in clichés, we sing musical clichés. These almost mind-numbing progressions, are the one crucial ingredient that the book alludes to but doesn´t really nail, till much later in the book & may have been why I found the book a bit head-scratching (thank god for JazzEdge).

Funnel arrangements:looking for Mr.Goodbar.

So the  funnel is:

1 ) Figure out the melody by singing over the scale in sequence C to C. (this also lets you sing in a comfortable key). Nursery rhymes being often just two or three notes, are particularly suited to children.

2) You can now figure out the key. A long time ago I was told that the 1st note indicates the key. The isn´t often the case, (My brother Jake starts on C (4th) but is in fact is in the key of G) but you will find that the key chord tends to dominate, particularly when ending. (You tend to finish on the key chord).

3) Depending on the key (major or minor) the 4th & 5th notes will tend to be the dominant chord progressions e.g. C-FG. So say in the key of G you would expect plenty of C (4th) & D (5th) chords & maybe dominant 7ths F (natural). In “My Brother Jake” there are plenty of 6th chords (e). The minor chords are the bitter in the sweet (Majors) & tend to add colour. In addition, Jazz tends to feature 9ths (A) & 11ths (C),  diminished & augmented chords. You then need to label the chord progressions for each bar, in classic fake sheet fashion. To make the playing easier on a practical level, you also need to au fait with chord inversions.

4) Add block chords below the melody line (in the right hand) from the key of these progressions. The block chords often underline the progression chord.

Seventh Heaven

I came across 7ths quite late, as they are largely ignored in classical music, I consequently found them quite bamboozling. So I thought I would finally try to nail them.
Conceptually the 7th does what it says; it consists of the root triad (1,3,5) plus the 7th note of the scale. However, the gotcha, is when you see C7 i.e. it´s not the seventh note of the scale; it´s the root chord + a flattened (aka Dominant) seventh.
Take the basic C scale, you will notice that there are a couple of half steps … E sharp is F, B sharp is C. There are no black notes between E and F or B and C. These half steps (3-4 &7-8) define a Major scale. In a Major scale the 3rd to 4th & 7th to Octave(8) are always half steps aka semitones. So the flattened 7th (Dominant) is in fact not part of the Major scale but part of the minor scale. (minor scales have flattened 3, 6 & 7; C = e♭, a♭, b♭).

Is this important? Well Yes. The Dominant 7th has become a standard in song-writing, and we have become used to this slightly bitter minor/Major chord, it is now part of our musical lexicon. So how is the Major seventh written? Cmaj7. This Major chord will sound a little more harmonious, as it is part of the C scale (i.e diatonic). Those little prompting comps(chords) you hear in a Jazz piece are often sevenths, and the dominant sevenths often want to revolve to the major 7th (the unflattened 7th).

5) Most rhythms are 3 or 4 (waltzes are 3, Flamenco often has 12 beats). You can simply add those chords in the bass either as single notes or full triads. More subtly (and swinging) you can replace full chords with arpeggios which move up & down the keyboard, filling where the right hand is quiet (melodies often have gaps). This avoids the bass lines muddying out the melody, hence the eponymous walking bass line. The bass is a big hint what the chord is, as the bass player often reproduces the root bass note of the chord changes. Famous arpeggio styles include ragtime & stride piano, and often you create a countermelody (aka counterpoint). There are also the off beat rhythms like Mambo, or Reggae. One thing I began to appreciate is how sophisticated Bob Marley’s arrangements are with the bass often playing a very hooky counterpoint, to Marley’s Tenor melody.


Well as the above indicates … not really, you need to understand quite a few things; Layers, melody, keys, chords, arpeggios & scales. You also have to know the basic rhythms commonly used (3/4), and believe you me I´ve simplified the narrative.. 
Do you need to know all 12 minors & Majors? Probably not, but you need to know the most common keys, e.g. CFG. The other thing you need a fairly fluid mental acuity with chords; you need to be able to visualise a chord, invert it, and feel out the fingering. This all tends to come, as you write the arrangement, rather than try to work out someone´s else’s, and you become familiar with key hand positions to an extent where you move seamlessly from one to another.

I think anyone who can’t read & write musical notation will really struggle with this book, as there is notation literally on every page (bizarrely unenumerated from the text). This is probably the first book where I encountered counterpoint, and hence I would say it´s not quite the beginners manual it says on the tin.

Tour de Force

 Well after a couple of weeks on the bike, I thought “I kinda get this stratum theory mularky” but realistically, how easy is this to implement? So with the usual resigned trepidation, I finally sat down by my lump of Styrofoam to figure out “My brother Jake” a personal favourite.

Within about 15 mins with no recourse to anything. I had figured out an arrangement of the first line in G. A big clue is the G 4 note arpeggio intro & the standard eight bar song structure. I had always grasped rhythms, so the idea of a counter melody in the bass was not a huge leap.My Brother Jake verse 1 transcription

 Having been unable to play anything without sheet music (& frequently not) I was completely stunned. Maybe I wasn´t the unmusical numpty, as I had thought? After a lifetime this was an amazing breakthrough. I may not have been an award-winning note-perfect rendition, but it was up to demo standard. Whether the key was exactly as the record or not , at least it suited my range.

This amazing development lead me back to reading the book (I´m on Chp21 of 30), with manic zeal: after a lifetime of fruitless endeavour, for the first time, I felt confident of creating music, beyond a single note nursery rhyme on my own …


Last week in school we were ploughing through Vaughn which had a passage about Dog Walking in Central Park? There was a paragraph about a Dog walker listening to music whilst walking the dog. So the question; Was the Dog walker reading? There was the awkward silence, so I hinted to the children “the answer is in paragraph two”. Immediately came a response from my seven yo Don; “What is a paragraph?”. “Good question” I responded and I duly went through the hierarchy of letters, words, sentences, paragraphs. This to me exemplifies the way I (and many) were taught music i.e. just letters & words. No sentences or paragraphs.

Beat it!

Elton John lamented the other day that music had just become beats & indeed learning Pro-tools is probably as important ask knowing a b flat from a council flat, but even in the most repetitious canons (Kraftwerk /Depeche Mode comes to mind), the stratum framework can still be found. Quoting from David Byrne´s How music works, technology has always been crucial to music particularly pop, which constantly demands innovation, but a composition must still pass the Old grey whistle test; can you hum it? So beats are dominant now (indeed I plan to use them for my soundtracks to avoid the plague of youtube algorithmic ads), but the factor he missed out is that pop is also a fashion business; A Beyoncé drum track will always outsell, simply because of the way she looks.

As the Buggles said “Video killed the radio stars”, rather than the drum machine. A few artists (Neil Young, Johnny Cash, Madonna, Donald Fagen) have had career resurrections in their dotage but this is not the norm. The Stones haven´t recorded anything interesting for decades!

End note

It is inconceivable for me to teach English & only cover words & letters. Hopefully, the way music is now taught has moved on from being such an onanistic exercise, dominated by rather sad compulsive obsessives? RIP Doris Day, who I suspect had alot of this already figured out.

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