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So I've been playing piano for a little over a year now, completely self-taught. I've actually been progressing fairly quickly. Just to give you an idea of where I'm at, I just finished learning all of Words Left Unsaid and Overcome by David Nevue. Right now I'm in the process of learning Monday by Ludovico Einaudi (about halfway through this one) and When the Hard Rain Falls by Nevue (just started this the other day, only about a minute into it).

I'm wanting to work my way into composition though. I'm struggling with all the music theory, however. I understand what it all means. I know how keys and the circle of 5ths work, I know how to build my major and minor scales. I have a decent understanding of chords (I know how inversions work, chord progressions, etc.).

My issue is that I just blank out once I'm actually at my piano. I have to really sit and think about how to play a scale. I can't just start playing chords in a scale on the fly. I know practicing all of this is the key to nailing it all down (because lord knows I've been reading like crazy already), but my issue is that I really don't have any idea how to sit down and practice this stuff. It's just been a frustrating experience so far. I get so excited when I'm reading about it because I understand why everything works the way it does, but then lose that excitement once I actually try to apply anything.

Any advice for me? I know I need a teacher, but financially it's just not an option right now.

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Been there, haven't done that (so to speak). I have been at about the same point as you describe with every instrument I know how to play. Probably because I was exposed to the basics very early in life and have remained interested in music theory ever since, I have accumulated a good bit of "book learning" about scales and modes and chords and harmony and voice leading and all that stuff. All to precisely zero benefit when I'm sitting at the piano (or holding a guitar or a fiddle for that matter).

The good news is, in my experience piano is by far the best instrument on which to develop an applied grasp of harmony. It's all laid out there in front of us, linearly. But that and a buck twenty-five buys a soda pop. It is still a tough set of skills to develop.

I'm convinced, for what it's worth, that the thing that's always held me back is an inability to hear chord progressions or even chord colors/flavors/whatever you call the difference between a C-diminished and a Cmaj7 chord. I've tried tackling "ear training" in terms of learning to distinguish intervals and such in isolation and got halfway decent at it. But you can play me a ii-V-I followed by some other three-chord progression and I'll be darned if I can pick which one is the ii-V-I. If I can't hear a given (simple) progression and imagine what note is coming next, there's no way I'm going to be able to make them up on the fly while sitting at the piano.

It's frustrating. For a few months I was working with a teacher and we spent a fair portion of lesson time on just these issues. I was just getting the end in sight of my first assignment which was to learn a certain voicing of the ii-V-I progression, working my way around the circle of fifths. But then my teacher moved and my job changed and I totally got derailed on it. But that approach is basically outlined in the Mark Levine "Jazz Piano Book". Look for the part early on showing the circle of fifths and then there's an excellent set of exercises built around the tune "Just Friends". If you want a teach-yourself-from-a-book approach to very basic applied harmony at the piano, that's as good a starting point as any.


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Unfortunately, the only way to learn scales is by practicing them. The more you practice them, the faster you will learn. I would say that for composition you do not need to know all 12 major scales, and all 12 minor scales. I would start with the most common ones--C Major, F Major, G major, Bb Major, D Major, A minor, E minor, D minor. Just look at the circle of fifths and start with the keys that don't have more than 3 flats or sharps (although eventually you will want to know them all).

Also, work on major and minor triads and their inversions--you've probably read about them, but they should be a part of your daily practice if you want to be familiar enough with them to compose. Go from the base chord to Inversion 1 and inversion 2, and then back. You can do it in 3 note or 4 note chords. You may also throw in broken chord exercises (breaking the chord so you play one note at a time, first in the base position, then in inversion 1 and then inversion 2, then base, but one octave higher, and back down again).

This is the only way you will truly be able to know the scales inside and out, and the chords that go along with them.

Obviously, this is a long process to learn all of the keys, major and minor. I would suggest, in order to get going on composing as soon as possible, that you pick a key to compose in--I would choose F major or G major, or if you want to compose in minor either A minor or E minor--and just learn that scale very well. Know the tonic, dominant and subdominant and the relative minor, and all their inversions. Once you know these, I think you should be able to put together a composition in that key. Eventually, you can start learning other important chords, like the major 7th in the tonic, the minor seventh in the II chord, and the dominant 7th in the V chord.

Books can only take you so far. You actually have to play and practice to get the understanding of the scales and chords and the technique to play them at will. I hope this helps rather than discourages you.


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Well I actually lucked out a bit, when it comes to ear training.

I can actually already play a little bit by ear naturally, without ever training for it. I can listen to piano songs and play parts of it without ever looking up the sheet music. Nothing incredibly complicated, but I can usually at least find the key of a song within a few minutes of playing around with it. I am mostly able to memorize music I'm playing after going through the sheet music once. Anytime I make a mistake, I'm usually able to figure it out and correct it by ear rather than look at the sheets. There have even been a few times I've just looked at the first few notes and built the rest off of it.

I can just do that without thinking about it though. The frustrating thing with it is that I can't apply that to composition either. Without having that starting point, I just can't seem to build anything, if that makes sense.

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Originally Posted by Cookie74
Unfortunately, the only way to learn scales is by practicing them. The more you practice them, the faster you will learn. I would say that for composition you do not need to know all 12 major scales, and all 12 minor scales. I would start with the most common ones--C Major, F Major, G major, Bb Major, D Major, A minor, E minor, D minor. Just look at the circle of fifths and start with the keys that don't have more than 3 flats or sharps (although eventually you will want to know them all).

Also, work on major and minor triads and their inversions--you've probably read about them, but they should be a part of your daily practice if you want to be familiar enough with them to compose. Go from the base chord to Inversion 1 and inversion 2, and then back. You can do it in 3 note or 4 note chords. You may also throw in broken chord exercises (breaking the chord so you play one note at a time, first in the base position, then in inversion 1 and then inversion 2, then base, but one octave higher, and back down again).

This is the only way you will truly be able to know the scales inside and out, and the chords that go along with them.

Obviously, this is a long process to learn all of the keys, major and minor. I would suggest, in order to get going on composing as soon as possible, that you pick a key to compose in--I would choose F major or G major, or if you want to compose in minor either A minor or E minor--and just learn that scale very well. Know the tonic, dominant and subdominant and the relative minor, and all their inversions. Once you know these, I think you should be able to put together a composition in that key. Eventually, you can start learning other important chords, like the major 7th in the tonic, the minor seventh in the II chord, and the dominant 7th in the V chord.

Books can only take you so far. You actually have to play and practice to get the understanding of the scales and chords and the technique to play them at will. I hope this helps rather than discourages you.


Oh no, this isn't discouraging at all!
Like I said, I would love nothing more than to sit down and practice/learn all of this. I just really didn't know where to start with it all. This is helping me more than you realize, trust me!

Music theory is extremely interesting to me, and I love listening to original compositions. Being able to write stuff like others I hear has always been my main goal from day 1. I'm one of the few that doesn't find all the technical stuff behind it boring too, so I'm actually LOOKING FORWARD to getting past just understanding it, but learning to apply it.

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Brent mentioned Mark Lavine's Jazz Piano Book. I think that's an excellent book if you want to play and compose jazz. It gives you plenty of exercises to practice. One of the first is to play ii-V-I progressions with simple voicings until you get familiar with them in each key. It's a lot of practice, but it would definitely help. Not sure if you are interested in jazz though.


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I love playing (I'm an experienced player) but do not particularly enjoy the technical part of practicing where you work on scales etc. (It doesn't end; you keep learning more theory, scales, etc.). What I do is this. I spend about the first 5 or 10 minutes of each practice session on the technical stuff I don't like. That's it. Then, I get the reward of working on a piece of music. That's the way I get myself to work on stuff that is good for me but not much fun. People here will laugh at 5 or 10 minutes a day of scales, Hanon, etc., but I make progress and when I sit down each day, it's mostly all fun!

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Before my lessons ended around Memorial Day I had gotten pretty good at doing my ii-V-I around the circle of fifths and being able to call out each key change right before I playing the ii chord. Not real fast but I could go through them at a reasonable speed without hesitation. And I could do the next exercise in the Levine book of playing a "good" voicing of each chord under "Just Friends" (also extended that to a couple of other tunes/chord progressions).

Anyway, in the ensuing 3+ months that has mostly gone out the window from disuse. But I'll swear when I'm playing written out arrangements in my sheet-music books I sometimes catch my fingers going ahead and moving to the next chord before my eyes have reached it on the page. I'm pretty sure it's when the arrangement is sticking to some real basic series of voicings that fit in those templates I was learning back in the spring.

So it tells me if I would just get back into drilling on those basics, it might be surprisingly soon that it starts trickling down into my playing. Or maybe it already has.

Last edited by Brent H; 09/19/12 03:18 PM.

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Originally Posted by dbush2765
So I've been playing piano for a little over a year now, completely self-taught. I've actually been progressing fairly quickly. Just to give you an idea of where I'm at, I just finished learning all of Words Left Unsaid and Overcome by David Nevue. Right now I'm in the process of learning Monday by Ludovico Einaudi (about halfway through this one) and When the Hard Rain Falls by Nevue (just started this the other day, only about a minute into it).

I'm wanting to work my way into composition though. I'm struggling with all the music theory, however. I understand what it all means. I know how keys and the circle of 5ths work, I know how to build my major and minor scales. I have a decent understanding of chords (I know how inversions work, chord progressions, etc.).

My issue is that I just blank out once I'm actually at my piano. I have to really sit and think about how to play a scale. I can't just start playing chords in a scale on the fly. I know practicing all of this is the key to nailing it all down (because lord knows I've been reading like crazy already), but my issue is that I really don't have any idea how to sit down and practice this stuff. It's just been a frustrating experience so far. I get so excited when I'm reading about it because I understand why everything works the way it does, but then lose that excitement once I actually try to apply anything.

Any advice for me? I know I need a teacher, but financially it's just not an option right now.


So your struggle is more how to practice what you know rather than learning theory?

I think you might just be overwhelmed with information and you might be psyching yourself out.

Since you seem to understand the theory etc. I would start by doing scales in order of the circle of fifths, plus the chords withing that scales, arpeggios etc. It might help to pick up a good scale chord etc book such as this one:
http://www.amazon.com/Complete-Scal...amp;keywords=scales+chords+and+arpeggios

or this one:

http://www.amazon.com/The-Classic-S...8&sr=8-1&keywords=fjh+scale+book

It will at least give you some structure when sitting down at the piano.

Just take a deep breath and start at the beginning. I have a feeling that once you get started things will progress rather quickly for you. just need need to get over the "mental" barrier.


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Just remember one principle, it's more useful to be able to play a limited set of scales (or chord progressions) automatically without having to think about what you're doing than to have memorized every scale (or chord progression) ever written but be unable to play them in real time.


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Yeah, I can definitely tell the mental barrier is the biggest hurdle right now. I've always learned things quickly, and it seems like this has been no different so far.

It is quite a bit of information overload though. It's just hard to figure how where to start with it all and figure out how to retain everything once I start, mostly.

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Start simple and build on that. I only learned a scale when I had a piece that I wanted to write in that scale. It helped to have the Renaissance era word descriptions for the mood of each scale. I then wrote out the notes in that scale, and practiced it a bit. Then I would play some basic triad chords in that scale.

When I compose, I might tinker around in a scale, and do some simple chords around the melody line. Again, start simple. As you learn more, you can add complexity. Start composing in the most popular scales such as C, D, G major. Only after writing a short piece in each of those scales branch out to the less popular ones.

If a person can't do basic triad chords in C major, or D major, go back and practice a few more. Many popular songs are built on three or four chords. Those that have more than that, can often be simplified down to 3 or 4 and still sound okay.

If a person has to think, write out the thoughts, and play that notation back to yourself. That might a workable process until you learn more.


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About a month ago, I accumulated several resources that teach and/or drill such mentioned theory topics in a single thread/post (from learning to read music to understanding seventh chords to introducing/intermediate jazz improvisation) - see it here: Music Theory 101 Thread

Learning theory is like building a sports stadium; you first start out with nothing, proceed to build a complete, albeit empty stadium, and finally slowly fill the stadium with various different sections, generally one at a time. Make sure you take the time to properly and completely construct each section before adding/building onto ones that first require a stable foundation (most important rule in music theory).

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Originally Posted by Kymber
So your struggle is more how to practice what you know rather than learning theory?

I think you might just be overwhelmed with information and you might be psyching yourself out.

Since you seem to understand the theory etc. I would start by doing scales in order of the circle of fifths, plus the chords withing that scales, arpeggios etc. It might help to pick up a good scale chord etc book such as this one:
http://www.amazon.com/Complete-Scal...amp;keywords=scales+chords+and+arpeggios

or this one:

http://www.amazon.com/The-Classic-S...8&sr=8-1&keywords=fjh+scale+book

It will at least give you some structure when sitting down at the piano.

Just take a deep breath and start at the beginning. I have a feeling that once you get started things will progress rather quickly for you. just need need to get over the "mental" barrier.
I am in a similar situation. I bought the first book mentioned above, and a theory book recommended here. I was reading the theory book at times I couldn't get to the piano, or at night before bed. I could just about handle triads in a key, but then there was an explanation of diminished, augmented, maj7, etc. chords and I was a bit blown away. I could look at the chart on how to make them and do the exercises, but I couldn't remember anything. So I gave up for awhile.

Then the other day I had a lesson, and since I couldn't use my left hand (my wrist is injured--tendonitis I fear), I suggested to my teacher that we do some scales, chords, and theory. She looked at the book and basically said I didn't need to go beyond the triads at this point. We went straight to the scales, chords, and arpeggios book and started playing. The cadences in particular were helpful and fun.

My assignment for the week is to practice C major scales, cadences, and arpeggios (if it doesn't hurt my hand--we're trying to avoid tendonitis in the RH!) and Em, since that's the key of the piece I'm working on now.

I can't really say it's working yet, but my hope is that it will cement some of the book-learning on theory that I've done. I think it's really important to hear how the different chords sound. The theory book I'm working from is Edly's. There's an explanation of what each chord is for/how it sounds (I'm probably not explaining this well, I don't have the book here with me). Like such-and-such chord is unsettled and pulls you back to the tonic. That sort of thing. My teacher really liked this. She thought this is much more important, at this stage especially, than knowing what a Cm7b5 is.

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For me, this is the best book ever. It has everything and is so easy to understand. I have no idea why the price tag, as mine was new at $45.00, but take a peek!

http://www.amazon.com/How-Music-Rea...words=how+music+really+works+wayne+chase

Here's the website:

http://www.howmusicreallyworks.com/

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Once a book is out of print it is suddenly worth a fortune. That's when you should sell it if you have one. Soon it will be back in print and will have a normal price again.


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Just wanted to give a bit of a status update.
Been making really good progress on this! I actually went out and bought a whiteboard a few days ago and pinned it right above my piano. I wanted to focus on Eb Minor and G Major keys first, so I wrote the scales up on the board, as well as each chord in them, as well as writing out which ones were minor, major, etc.

I'm getting a lot better at hitting the inversions of a lot of the chords, though progress is a bit slower on that end.

I've been trying to mess around with writing my own stuff as well. I just can't come up with anything though D:

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Originally Posted by dbush2765
Just wanted to give a bit of a status update.
Been making really good progress on this! I actually went out and bought a whiteboard a few days ago and pinned it right above my piano. I wanted to focus on Eb Minor and G Major keys first, so I wrote the scales up on the board, as well as each chord in them, as well as writing out which ones were minor, major, etc.

I'm getting a lot better at hitting the inversions of a lot of the chords, though progress is a bit slower on that end.

I've been trying to mess around with writing my own stuff as well. I just can't come up with anything though D:


That's terrific!

Well just play some chords until you hear some that you like...that's a song. Just keep doing that and follow your ear.

I made a chart with the top 12 chords for each scale that are commonly used in songs. If I can find the electronic copy I will send it to you. It just might help as a guide.

Keep up the good work.


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That would be great if you could find it. No worries if it doesn't pop up though!

I've been doing a decent job at coming up with some chord progressions and the like. The trouble has been with the melody lines. I'm sure those will come with time though. Although any advice from those already writing melodies would be much appreciated as well! smile


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