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Playing By Ear –  The Major Key Framework and Chord Progressions

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Welcome back! In our previous posts, we delved into playing by ear and shared valuable techniques for learning songs efficiently. Today, I will explore the power of understanding the Major System. This system will provide you with a solid framework for organizing what you hear, allowing you to learn songs effortlessly. Get ready because, in this post, we will break down the various components of a real song, demonstrating the practical application of the Major System to enhance your musical skills.

The Chromatic Scale

The chromatic scale is a fundamental concept in music theory that encompasses all 12 pitches within an octave. Unlike the major or minor scales, which consist of seven notes each, the chromatic scale includes every possible pitch, both the white and black keys on a piano keyboard. It is called "chromatic" because it derives from the Greek word "chroma," meaning color.

Understanding the Major System

Let's begin by demystifying the Major System. Did you know that there's a single pattern that governs the relationships and chords within any major key? It's true! This pattern remains consistent no matter which key you're playing in. This is where the Major System steps in, offering a structured method to comprehend the major scale and the chord qualities derived from each scale degree.

Let's start by demystifying the Major System. Instead of overwhelming yourself by trying to learn all 12 keys right away, it's important to focus on mastering this single pattern first. After all, it's much easier to learn one thing at a time. Did you know that there's a consistent pattern that governs the relationships and chords within any major key? It's true! This pattern remains the same, regardless of the key you're playing in. That's where the Major System comes in, providing you with a structured approach to understanding the major scale and the chord qualities derived from each scale degree.

Since the chromatic scale consists of all 12 pitches within an octave, there is a major scale pattern that can be built starting from each of these 12 tones. Each major scale follows the same pattern of whole steps and half steps, but the starting note determines the key. This means that by utilizing the major scale pattern on different starting notes within the chromatic scale, we can create 12 distinct major keys, each with its own unique set of notes and tonal characteristics.

Extending the Chords

Now that you have a solid grasp of the major scale and the triads built off of them, let's take things a step further. When we build chords off the scale degrees in 3rds, we create triads, consisting of the 1st, 3rd, and 5th scale degrees (135). Triads form the foundation of many songs and provide a harmonically rich backdrop. However, we can extend these chords further by adding the 7th scale degree, resulting in seventh chords (1357). Seventh chords extend the triad adding a more complex sound. The seventh chords built off of each scale degree are represented under the triads in the Major System diagram above.

Perfect Pitch vs Relative Pitch

Before we dive into the practical application of the Major System, let's briefly touch on the distinction between perfect pitch and relative pitch. Perfect pitch refers to the ability to identify and reproduce any given musical note without a reference point. On the other hand, relative pitch is the skill we're focusing on, which involves understanding and recognizing the relationship between notes and chords based on their context within a musical framework. Relative pitch is a learnable skill that can be honed through practice and training, and it is the key to unlocking the secrets of playing by ear.

The Song - Slow Dancing in a Burning Room (John Mayer)

Now that we've covered the foundational concepts, it's time to put them into practice. Let's revisit the step-by-step process of learning a song that we explored in our previous blog post. Armed with the Major System and an understanding of chord extensions, you'll approach learning a song with a fresh perspective. By recognizing the chord progressions, identifying the chord qualities, and understanding their relationship to the major key, you'll be able to decode and play songs with precision and musicality. Referencing the song we started breaking down in the previous post, we'll continue our journey together, dissecting the various elements and applying our newfound knowledge to learn the song more efficiently.

First things first let's set the context of the song as outlined in last week's post.
Tempo: 67bpm
Key: E Major

Song Form

This step is often overlooked, but it holds the key to unlocking your ability to quickly memorize songs and expand your repertoire. I just scratched out this chart on GoodNotes on my iPad in one pass. It doesn't have to be pretty, this one sure isn't. So it doesn't take long, but it provides a tangible understanding of the song's structure, allowing you to grasp the length of each section and develop a strong sense of its overall composition. By focusing solely on the form, without considering the chords, you can streamline the memorization process and effortlessly learn a multitude of songs. Follow along with the song and refer to the chart. Take note of how most sections consist of 4 or 8 measures, creating a familiar and predictable pattern. However, in this particular song, the chorus deviates slightly with a length of 4+2 measures. Embracing this understanding empowers you to anticipate the end of the chorus, eliminating any surprises and enhancing your musical fluency. Print this chart out and you're ready to add chords as you figure them out.

Chord Progression / Root Mortion

Listen to the recording of the intro provided above, and let's use it as our guiding example. The goal here is to identify the bass notes at each chord change. Pause the recording at different points and challenge yourself to sing the bass note and find it on your guitar.

In the given example, the bass notes at the chord changes are C#, A, and E. Referencing the E Major chart provided earlier, we discover a vi-IV-I chord progression. If you were to play a C#min - A - E progression, you would instantly recognize that it's the correct sequence. Now there are other options but the first choice was that the chords were in the key and the bass was playing the root at the chord change and that was the case. The alignment of root and bass motion is apparent in this case. This step holds immense importance, and if you commit to consistently reducing it back to the Major System pattern (chord progression in roman numerals), you will witness your ear becoming sharper and more attuned with each practice session.

Now, proceed to fill in the rest of the song chart, relying on the context of the song and your growing understanding. Take on this challenge and let me know how you fare.

Initially, it may seem like a substantial effort to unravel a song when you can easily turn to YouTube and have someone show you the way. However, my friend, there is immense value here for those seeking a different goal. If your aim is to evolve as a guitarist and musician, this skill is absolutely essential. Over time, you'll begin to perceive the entire musical context in one listen through. As I listen to this song, I can effortlessly hear the chord progression as I chart it out. In fact, with most songs, I no longer need to pick up my guitar to grasp the form and chord progression. This approach streamlines the learning process, narrowing down the possibilities, and allowing me to focus on the specific licks that are being played. Trust me, it significantly shortens the time it takes to learn a song.

So embrace this crucial skill, my fellow guitarist and musician. The effort invested here will pay off in ways you can't even fathom. It will transform your the way you approach music, granting you the ability to perceive songs with a newfound depth and understanding. Keep practicing and going to the song context first before learning the licks and watch you ears open up to new possibilities.

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