you’re a keyboard or piano player, chances are you’ve taken piano
lessons from a private instructor or maybe even gone to a music
school to further yourself. As a private instructor who has also
taught for years at an accredited music school, I’ve had a
firsthand look at students of all levels and ages, and have noticed
quite a few deficiencies across the board. In this column, I will
discuss what things traditional music lessons get wrong, and how you
can correct them, no matter what stage you've reached in your
There are several issues that
I see with a lot of students, many of whom are years into their
studies: the inability to understand or articulate basic music/chord
theory; the inability to improvise or free play; inability to
transpose music easily; the inability to see patterns in notes and
chords; and the inability to play melodically rather than just
There are a couple of ways
that traditional music lessons fall short, and cause these
inadequacies. One is that music teachers often teach
notation without teaching the music theory behind it.
Think of notation like Latin (an ancient language) and think of music like
math (a concrete set of numbers and formulas). Because traditional
music teaching is all about making you fluent in notation, it’s
akin to teaching you how to do math in Latin without teaching you how
to actually understand math—or even that there is such a thing as math to learn.
Plus, by being locked into
notation, you are tied to a rigid document that from which few
musicians will diverge. What if, in order to have a conversation, you
had to pull a script out of your pocket and read it as is? Not only
would you not be conversing, you’d be inflexibly tied to the text,
speed, and dynamic. Reading notation has nothing to do with
understanding music at its base. It merely turns you into a
phonograph needle. Playing music as an intuitive language that can
convey your own personal expression and catharsis? Priceless.
Traditional music instructors
also tend to emphasize how everything is different based on different
shapes, rather than examine the commonality of the numerical formula
I was a beginning student, learning all the different scales and
chords was overwhelming. It seemed like there was so much material, I
didn’t know if I could remember it all. That illusion of difficulty
discouraged me from continuing with lessons because I figured I
wasn’t cut out for being a pro. What I didn’t realize at the time
is that, though each of the 12 keys is shaped differently, we are
still playing one numerical formula based on seven notes starting on the 1, which is whatever key we are in. The seven basic numbers have a
sound, and that the order of the numbers—and most importantly the
sound of those numbers—stays the same, regardless of the different
I didn't see that, as far as
basic major and minor triads, there is one of each in each of the 12
keys, making only 24 basic chords that exist, period; that all those
sixths, sevenths, ninths and elevenths, plus the sus chords,
augmented and diminished fifths, and even your b2/b9
are just additions or tweaks to those triads, like frosting on the
cake. And if you really learn how to bake the cake instead of getting
lost in the frosting, you can learn your way around the entire chord
matrix and develop a complete grasp on the art of interpreting,
writing, and speaking music—all while developing your ears’
ability to hear those numbers and use them to begin singing with your
In order to stabilize the
foundation of your musical knowledge, let’s re-affirm these five
1. The beginning of the
alphabet is ordered A-B-C-D-E-F-G.
Music uses these letters in the same order. These letters have not
only a sound but also a multitude of relationships and patterns based
on scales, modes, and melodies.
2. The beginning of the number
line is ordered 1-2-3-4-5-6-7.
Music uses these numbers in the same order. These numbers have a
sound but only one relationship based on their order.
3. There are only 12 keys and
24 basic triads. The more you play on/with them, the better you will
be at using them.
4. The piano is a percussion
instrument. Therefore, you are a melodic percussionist who can
practice anywhere, not just on the piano.
5. We get rusty at reading
notation but do not get rusty at understanding. Once we understand
something, we can only build upon it.
When you were a child, you
learned the alphabet and number line and you were able to understand
they were unchanging, concrete formulas that formed a foundation for
a lifetime of conversing, counting, and understanding. If you give
the same consideration when applying them to music, you’ll open up
a world of expression, imagination, and fun!
In the next “Key of One”
column, we’ll learn how to build your knowledge of chord theory and
maximize your use of inversions. See you next month!
Robbie Gennet is a touring keyboardist, guitarist, longtime Keyboard contributor, and educator at Musicians’ Institute in Hollywood, California. His book, The Key of One (Alfred Music) outlines a thorough method for understanding music without learning traditional notation. You can get it at alfredmusic.com, and take private lessons from Robbie at thekeyofone.com.