Great posts. I play a a guitar but, unlike the some here, i’ not professionally trained. So it better to listen to them rather than me. But, i’ll tell you my experiences which may be of help and hopefully, they will correct any wrong things or misunderstandings I have about music.
When I first got a guitar I had nobody to learn from so, I went out and bought four books. It was just before compact discs came out so, the first book had a record to teach tuning the guitar in. The record was more like a plastic bag in thickness and not a proper thick piece of plastic. I really hated tuning the guitar with a passion but, at the same time, I really wanted to learn.
Soon, I had learned a few basic chords. I say soon, after two years using the same books I could probably play about twenty songs badly. It was a solid electric guitar and stayed in tune well though, luckily for me. This is something I grew to notice is a major stumbling block in learning. Really poor quality guitars or poorly strung classical guitars will go out of tune fast. The untrained newbie has particular problems in recognizing this as the string loosens so slowly it’s hardly noticeable as the sound is nearly the same.
After two years of trying to teach myself from these four books, I had pretty much given up hope. The books were really expensive, didn’t have many songs in, weren’t in the correct key when compared the the original song and always sounded wrong but, I didn’t understand why. The books with plenty of songs were really expensive and there wasn’t much of a supply of them locally anyway as I lived in a small town.
One day, I was moaning about this in the pub and really didn’t want to give up but, getting frustrated with the same old songs and not progressing was really getting to me. Half the songs i’d never heard of and I made it my business to find these songs so I would have more to learn.
Then, it came as something of a shock to me that, my regular drinking mates down the pub played the guitar. Five of them all had played the guitar for years and they were a decade or more older than me so, I didn’t know about it from school. They never discussed instruments as far as I remember but, they did play together sometimes at their flats. They all kept their instruments hidden away to protect the from dust and damage so, even though i’d been to all their homes, I had no idea.
If it wasn’t for this freak chance, I would have most certainly given up hope. Learning songs you don’t really know or like isn’t exactly motivational. Books seem better now but, I don’t buy them. I copy the television or compact disc.
How ? I spent an awful lot of time with my mates at their own homes from this point on. Normally I would just meet them in the pub but, I couldn’t waste this opportunity from people who could help me.
First of all, I was taught some songs I knew and liked. They were equally simple to the ones in the books and the chords were familiar. I didn’t know all the chords at this point so, my mates gradually added new ones one at a time to give me less to learn.
Soon, I was staying up all night. Literally playing one song non stop. Over and over. This did my mates heads in a bit but, they tolerated it because I was showing such an interest. It probably helped that I appreciated how good they were.
Still I was confused how they could all so easily play along to the theme tune of anything that came on the television or stereo. After I was well practiced with all most commonly used chords and a few more which I had previously found difficult, they told me about something called a three chord trick. This was like a revelation to me. Suddenly, playing became a lot easier.
I could take songs from those books that weren’t in the right key and convert some of them. They may not be right but, they sounded better. I didn’t really understand why and it bothered me.
I made up a chart after a while because I noticed a pattern. I drew the letters of the major chords like this to see if it would work. I did it without technical understanding so, it was a little off. But, the general principle helped me a lot in the understanding of converting musical keys.
Looking at the chart, this felt like another revelation. I felt like i’d made some great discovery. Obviously others could do it but, I was happy to have worked it out, or at least part of it. If the top one was the key, say in D, and I knew the chords, I could looks at the matching chords where the top letter is C and transpose a song into the key of C. I don’t know to this day how it is done by a professional.
Soon after this, I was intentionally practicing converting songs I knew and liked, into keys where I didn’t like playing the chords. Usually the uncomfortable ones or uncommon ones for my level of playing. Like flats.
I highlighted the chart so I could convert most of the chords as a glance but, some of them had flats/sharps. I realized that even though I had very little understanding or experience of flats and sharp, I could work out where they should be. It was tricky because I hadn’t learned bar chords properly and was just getting into that. A barchord is like an octave thing on a piano to me.
I already knew some basic scales from the books so, after learning the bar chords, it helped me to actually understand or feel what was happening. I never really played many notes like this until this time. I found individual notes quite straight forward and boring to play. I was learning to do what my mates had done and realized that I could use these scales in different keys because they had taught the bar chords. After doing that, the key itself would stand out. I would then look at my chart, and know the key and the two most likely chords and most likely minor that would go with them. I didn’t do this through technical knowledge, I did it because I noticed a regular pattern of a certain minor coming up with certain three chord tricks.
So, after that, as long as I could identify the key from playing scales up and down the fret board until the whole scale went with whatever I listened to, I would have a fair idea of a which of the chords to play.
This must be what my mates had done. I don’t know how they learned it and some of them had proper training so, maybe it was explained to them or, maybe, like me, they just resisted the temptation to smash the guitar up in frustration and just noticed a few patterns and things.
After this, I soon become confident that I could play a scale along with most things. Not that I sounded great because I didn’t. What I did have was some confidence that if I practiced, it now seemed possible to progress and learn whatever I wanted.
Today, I rarely pick up the guitar but, if I do, the first thing I do is to tune it in. I don’t use a tuning fork or a pitch pipe though and I don’t claim to have perfect pitch. However, as has been said already on the thread, I can recognize certain keys on certain instruments now.
In my head, I hear the Pogues. The Pogues frequently play in the key of D so, I call up a Pogues song in my head, then I copy it to the D string on the guitar. After that, I use the D string to tune the other strings.
Also, another thing I noticed is that, prior to this, I had a pitch pipe. Blowing the G note on the pitch pipe happened to give me a strong reminder of the song Mother by Pink Floyd. For a while, I would hold the pitch pipe in my mouth, and just blow the G note through most of the song as I played the now tedious and easy chords. By now the the chords of that song are simple to me and I don’t have to look and what I am doing or even think about it.
Regarding what’s being said about natural perfect pitch, I have wondered about it for years. My thoughts are this. We instinctively recognize warning or danger sounds and we hate them. We love musical sounds and the regularity of rhythm so, we are drawn to it. Having spent a ridiculous amount of time repetitively playing songs, what I have noticed is something about the way I tune a guitar or, more importantly to me, the key I choose.
I did not make some conscious decision to tune with D. Logically, I would think that most lessons and songs I learned were in C and my first tuning fork was in C. No string is in C and even though this didn’t really pose a problem, I didn’t really like doing the tuning from there.
The next most common chords to me were G and D in that order. I often played in G but, found the A awkward so, would avoid the key of D. I could probably tune a guitar in with G now but, I never do it.
The reason I think is one of familiarity due to a lot of repetition but also something elsre. I love certain sounds and if I pick up a guitar, I will probably play them first. I love to pick and I have terrible time keeping but, really I don’t care. I spent a long time learning Norwegian Wood by the Beatles and I happened to learn it with a D. It’s not the D note I don’t think. Some days I would put a capo on and turn that D into and E or whatever else.
This became noticeable and irritating to my friends who wanted a bit of variety. Luckily for them, I was going through some of my fathers tapes listening for the odd song I might want to learn directly from the tape, by ear. Being proficient at playing Norwegian Wood, when I heard a song called Colours by Donovan, it jumped out at me. I knew the same chord shape was used because the pattern of notes is so similar. Unlike a piano, the chords on a guitar are not ‘in a straight line’. They sound different.
I still didn’t understand how and why a chord was constructed but, I felt there was some logical way of working it out and, since a piano is set out in a straight line, I took up piano lessons to learn how to create chords.
Seven lessons later, I was fed up and quit. It was going to be ages to find the information I wanted and the teacher wasn’t going to tell me until I was ready. I was back to playing basic songs I hated but, I had at least learned what the notes meant. In the six-months of compulsory music lessons in school I had no idea why I had to remember EGBDF or FACE and the whole six months was a waste of my life. We weren’t even allowed to play the instruments.
I told my mother. She worked in a library and got me a book. Bang, it was perfect. It explained how to construct minors, suspended fourths, etc. It made sense and what was once complicated suddenly seemed simple. To understand at least.
Soon, I was saving for a keyboard. I had no desire to learn the keyboard or piano before, only to help with the guitar. I figure a keyboard wouldn’t do me any harm, I could use it as a pitch pipe, practice my understanding of chord construction and get good on the guitar.
Then, when I got a second hand keyboard, I put it up and put a music book on the stand. The book contained the chords already so, it helped me save time thinking allowing me to look at my fingers using familiar chord sequences from guitar songs. Then, my mother came to see it. My mother had done piano lessons as a child but, she lost interest. I had never heard her play a piano in my life and at this point I was in my early twenties. She got up to grade four I think. I’m not really sure. Always we had a piano in the house and it had never been played because it had been out of tune, since before I was born.
So, you can imagine my astonishment when she randomly flipped my book open and it landed on an Elvis song when she started playing. She was playing every note, playing them perfectly without looking at the keyboard and taking her hand off to change pages. i was gobsmacked and kind of angry that she hadn’t taught me some music basics. I had no idea what piano grade levels reflected in terms of how good someone was and always assumed she was a complete novice.
She never touched it again. Now, like my mother, i’ve pretty much lost interest. The challenge seems to have gone. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t mean i’m good. I’m not. I suppose i’m average and i’m nowhere near a trained classical guitarist. I did ask about lessons recently for classical guitar but, paying £20 a lesson shocked me out of the idea.
Strangely though, I love a particular pattern in music which, like the D chord shape, I use a lot. I am terrible at time keeping but, I love to pick with my fingers so, this makes keeping time easier because the sounds are pretty constant. I don’t even find this repetition boring. I don’t care what the key is either. If Mozart or Metallica come on the tv, I will copy them with a scale to find the key and start picking my regular old rhythm along to whatever it is with both scales and chords.
It’s never the same and I don’t try and copy it exactly, just make the sound I like go along with what i’m listening to.
I also bought various cheap instruments over the years. Harmonica’s, Jaws Harps (Jews Harps), Tin whistles. Always in the key of D.
At one point I got a saxophone. I learned one or two scales from a music book and the main one, in key of the instrument, was getting stuck in my head as did the Pogues but, I soon gave up. The deep sound of a tenor saxophone carries a lot further than I realized until, one day, my mother came home from work and knew I had been playing. I had put it away five minutes before and she had walked home. That’s how far the sound carried so, I felt it was unfair on my neighbours. Even though they hadn’t complained.
Something I am interested to know is, what the grading represents. I haven’t wondered this since i’ve been on the internet. Is there a list of songs or music that could be allocated to each grading to give me an idea ? Like level one - Song, level two - song.