Know Your Chord Vocabulary

LadyDpiano: How To Play The Piano Without Sheet Music

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I wrote an article awhile back called, "How To Play The Piano Without Music."

Looking for tips on how to memorize music? Playing without sheet music is possible. Here are my own challenges and triumphs.

A group of us musicians were asked to play for an outdoor event at an amphitheater right by the ocean. The morning began with a huge downpour and we were frantically drying wet music scores with a hair dryer. Needless to say, it was quite challenging. What did I personally learn from the experience? Memorize your music! Yes, you can insert sheet music in plastic sleeves and that would be one way to succeed. However, it's fun just to go to Guitar Center and play a few memorized tunes in front of anyone who will listen. Try playing Happy Birthday for someone at the piano by memory.

1. So, why memorize music?

Playing without sheet music is very liberating.

Of course there's no need to memorize music if you don't want to. As a musician, I choose to memorize to avoid uncomfortable situations like music blowing off my stand when playing outdoors. Especially performing a night gig and the light bulb goes out on your music stand, surrounded by total darkness in the orchestra pit.

If you have been doing your homework during your practice sessions and you are familiar with the set of music, then you're not locked in to reading just the music notes with having to turn pages as well.

You will soon discover new ways of music flowing since you're eager to play without music.

2. Steps to help you memorize music.

If you're playing boogie blues or rock and roll, learn the various left hand patterns in the 12 bar blues form. Notice a couple of phrases and see if the second phrase answers the first.

When I'm reviewing a song, let's say it's a ballad, I first determine the keynote and play around and find the melody in that particular key.

If you're given a lead sheet, remembering chord progressions is the key to memorizing the song that is built on recalling the theory that you understand. Analyze the structure of the piece.

Now memorizing note for note is another ball game. Honestly, it can be more difficult for others than a youngster playing a memorized piece at a recital. In my opinion, the key to memorizing sheet music is through repetition. Also, try to remember if your hands are going in opposite directions or playing separately. Note tricky fingering as well.

I suggest taking small sections of music and repeatedly going over a few lines. We call this chunking and chaining. Please be patient. You may find recording or using flash cards to quiz yourself helps boost confidence in playing licks to a certain measure.

Laying down a rhythm pattern, programming drums, jamming in garage band or just using a metronome for a classical piece can keep you on track with skills to remember a song. Listening to a phrase of music indeed works the brain for short-term memory. Keep at it daily. In the beginning, I would open my music, then close it and try to play what I pictured.

3. Why these steps will help.

Practice, repetition and patience, a win-win formula, but truly there is no magic pill to take in memorizing music. Playing with other musicians for years and having that experience helps in knowing how to play certain songs well without sheet music. I'm thinking the biggest factor of all is choosing to memorize a song that you know and love will make it much easier for you to learn. You're on your way!

 Duane Shinn talks about using Fake Books like so many musicians do. They know their chord vocabulary. They add chords to the melody line. Here's a good one that I recommend that has tons of pop songs,  The Ultimate Fake Book for C Instruments

You've just got to know chords. So, I'm talking about:

 Root of the Chord

In chord symbols, the root tells us what note is the root of the chord. In an E7 chord, the E is the root.

Quality of the Chord

Quality tells me if the chord is major (maj), minor (min), diminished (dim), or augmented (aug). In a Emaj7, the maj ells me that the E chord is major (happy sound.) To continue, Em means the chord is a E minor chord (sad or mysterious sound). Eaug (E+) means that the chord is an E augmented chord. (sounds like a train.)

Chord Extensions

The extension is written after the quality of the chord, showing if the chord differs from a triad, like an 6th, 7th, 9th, 11th or 13th. So a C9 is the C chord including the 9th note above C, which is D. A C6 chord is the C chord including the 6th scale note above C, which is A. This part of chord symbols is not always shown; if there is no indication of an extension, the musician is to assume that the chord is a triad.


Sometimes the alteration is usually but not always expressed. This is the "notes" section in chord symbols; it gives the musician any specific (and sometimes irregular) instructions for playing the chord and is always written in parentheses after the extension (or the quality, if no extension exists). For instance, (no fifth) would tell the musician that the chord is to be played with the fifth tone left out. Sus – (suspension), means to play the 4th scale note instead of the 3rd. A minus sign means to lower (flat) a chord tone, such as C-9 which means to flat the 9th of the chord. Now a plus sign means to raise (sharp) a particular chord tone. 

I hope you enjoyed these tips and I want to recommend a product that I have purchased myself from Jermaine Griggs. The audio CD course, Chords 101 and 102 will help you create bigger, sounding chords... the best inversions to choose and so much more. You'll be playing dozens of seventh chord voicings and learning about what chords strongly pull together. Learn the power of tonic chords and and other scale tone degrees.

*affiliate links in post* 

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 "The beautiful thing about learning is that no one can take it away from you." B.B.King
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