Recently, while helping one of my students choose some new music to learn, I came across a really cool (and free) resource. I had gone online looking for a list of songs that stress the chords in her current vocabulary—I, IV, V, and vi. (“vi” is lower case because it’s minor.) In the key of C, that would be the C, F, G and A minor chords.
And wouldn’t you know, on Wikipedia I found a massive list of songs containing those very chords, in the form of the I V vi IV progression, and its moodier minor-key cousin, vi IV I V. (They’re the same sequence, really, just starting from different places.) The power and beauty of these progressions is truly remarkable, which is why they’re used again and again by virtually every composer or songwriter who takes pen to hand (or sets fingers to keyboard).
What makes the Wikipedia list especially useful is that you can sort it according to Title, Artist, Year, or Progression. So if you’re looking for, say, a song by Beyonce, just click the “Artist” heading and two songs come up under her name. (Including If I Were A Boy, for which I provide keyboard styles in Pop Piano Accompaniment.)
For those of you who subscribe to my courses (not to mention all you others), this list just may come in handy. Oh—and if you haven’t seen it, check out this highly entertaining video featuring a comic medley of many of these songs. Enjoy!
If you first learned about my courses by watching my YouTube video Piano Technique, A Whole Body Approach, you’re not alone. For the past seven years now, I’ve been reminded of its value over and over through the comments it receives (not to mention its over 100,000 views). For example:
“I scrolled through so many videos before this on ‘wrist movement while playing’ before I came across your video and I wish I had found yours first! Thank you for explaining this so simply and humbly! It really made sense!”
It seems so obvious: we play the piano not just with our fingers, but with our wrists, arms, and entire body. What’s more, if we’re interested in learning to play without tension, yet with precise control over dynamics (volume), it makes sense to let gravity do the work, since nature provides all the downward force we need, in perfectly predictable increments.
Now some of you, I suspect, may come to my courses simply to learn what notes to play, as if learning to play the piano is like learning to type: just show me where to put my fingers, please! And my courses do cover that aspect in detail, through my focus on chords and chord theory.
But what has always excited me about DoctorKeys is that I don’t just show you what to play, I teach you how to play. I help you build the sort of technical foundation that will enable you, ultimately, to move in any direction—whether that be the latest sounds from today’s artists and songwriters, or the classics as penned by Bach, Beethoven, and others of that ilk.
So why am I drawing your attention to the Whole Body tutorial now? The reason is its (questionable) placement within the course. You see, when I first uploaded it to Play & Sing, I had a choice to make. (The lesson is in two parts, by the way, only the first of which is available for free on YouTube.) Where should I place it in the sequence of lessons? For a while, that was easy. It went at the top, since you need to develop the right habits from the very first time you touch the instrument.
But later, after adding the 2-part tutorial called “Playing Your First Piece,” I decided that “Piano Technique, A Whole Body Approach” was redundant, since much of its material is explained in the newer video. So I moved it to the bottom of the page, under the heading “Free Bonus Lessons For Subscribers.”
But I sometimes wonder if that was the right move. Certainly, this hasn’t been a major mistake, since ecstatic reviews for the course keep pouring in.
But I do suspect that subscribers might be well-advised to view the original video as they’re getting started. Because it does go into greater detail about arm weight, gravity, and certain trouble-shooting aspects that aren’t covered in “Playing Your First Piece.”
The choice, ultimately, is yours. But whatever you decide, promise me that you’ll begin your Play & Sing adventure by reading the Play & Sing course guide, OK? Many of the questions I receive from subscribers arise because they’re not following the lessons in sequence, perhaps thinking that what I’ve created is an assortment of random lessons, rather than a step-by-step course developed through teaching hundreds of private students over the years.
Haven’t posted here in a while and I feel bad. So to get back on Santa’s “nice list” before it’s too late, here it is, folks: my second longest post ever. A free tutorial, really. Enjoy!
I’ve said it elsewhere and it’s worth repeating: there’s a huge difference between singing a song in a key that sort of works, and singing it in the key that brings out the best in your voice. Clearly, you want to spend most of your time singing notes that are comfortably within your range—not too high or low.
But often (I see this frequently with my own private students) we’re lazy about finding that ideal key. Or maybe we think it’s too hard a task, or that transposing the accompaniment is more effort than it’s worth.
I assure you, it is worth the effort, and I speak from personal experience. Because often, after spending weeks, months—even years—performing a song in one key, transposing (shifting) it to another key has inspired me in ways I hadn’t expected. Suddenly, it’s like: “Hmmm… I’m a better singer than I thought!” Or: “I had no idea this song could work so well for me!”
Now having said that, I need to clear up a common misconception. There’s no such thing as your best key in general—that one magic key that works in every situation.
Nope, songs are different. The right key for you with regard to one song, may be the worst when applied to another. And because of the importance of this subject, I provide tools and tutorials in my two courses to help you with it. I’ll point you towards some of them as we proceed.
Getting to know your voice.
To find your best key for a given song, you need to know two things: your own vocal range, and the range of the song in question.
So if you’ve never given much thought to point number one, try this experiment. Sing a scale, starting with a note (played on your instrument) that’s comfortably in your range. You know: do re mi fa so la ti do.
Can you get from first note to last? (Do up to do.) Can you sing even higher? If so, jot down precisely how high you can go. And take note also of how high you can sing comfortably. Because the very highest and lowest pitches you can reach, may not be notes you want to actually put to use while performing. It’s no fun straining, or singing pitches that end up as mere croaks or squeaks.
After singing the scale in question, try singing downwards from where you just began, and similarly ponder the lower part of your range.
OK—now you know a bit about your voice, and you’re ready to look at some songs.
Now there’s a word you may not have used in a while. It’s Italian (as so many musical terms are), and speaks to a vital concept: while singing a given song, the tessitura is the range of pitches where you will spend most of your time.
For although you’ll want to know the highest and lowest notes the composer uses, those extremes may be used only once or twice—and perhaps in ways that can be worked around. (Though not necessarily. The highest note, for example, may be an essential ingredient of the song’s structure, not to be messed with. To find the truth of the matter for each song you sing, you’ll need to experiment.)
The tessitura, on the other hand, is fixed. It’s essential. And it’s where you’ll be “living” for as long as the song lasts, so by all means, make sure you’re happy there.
How Do Re Mi can help.
Having the melody of a song written out can be helpful, though it’s by no means essential. As I’m looking over the sheet music for something I want to sing, I’ll mark the highest and lowest notes, and also try to get a feel for the tessitura.
And how do I label those pitches? With one of my favorite tools: solfege. (Pronounced: soul-fedge.) That’s the do re mi system we all know from The Sound of Music, though you can use numbers just as well: do = 1 (for the first note of the scale), re = 2, etc.
Happily, solfege is perfect for this task. Because if, for example, the highest note of a given song is mi (or 3), all I have to do is look for the 3rd note of a scale I want to check out as a candidate for singing, and see if it’s in my range. Remember, “scale” is synonymous with “key” in this context. So If I’m singing in the key of B flat, for example, I’m using the notes of the B flat scale, and mi would be D.
At the same time, solfege tells you what note to start singing on in any key, so you can experiment. For example, Amazing Grace starts on so (5). In the key of C, then, I would start singing on G. In the key of F, the melody would begin on C. And so on.
Now usually, I don’t have sheet music for songs I want to learn, just lyrics and chords (as obtainable for free on Ultimate Guitar.com, for example.). In that case, I might listen to a YouTube performance. I can then pick out the tune by ear on the piano, while taking note of high and low pitches, and tessitura—and jotting all this info down in solfege.
Tutorials to help you transpose the accompaniment.
Having gathered this information, the next step is to experiment—to actually sing the song in various keys, all the ways through (with the exception, perhaps, of sections that repeat.) If the song is short, this can be an easy task. If longer, the job gets more complicated.
In which case, since you’ll probably be serving as your own accompanist, it can be helpful to provide yourself with a simple keyboard backup in each key you want to try out. It doesn’t have to be a rich or detailed arrangement. You just need to plunk down some of the basic chords to keep yourself on track, and on pitch.
Looking down the list of lessons for Play and Sing, you’ll find a tutorial called: How to Transpose a Song Using Numbers. The numbers in question are often written as Roman numerals, and serve the same function with regard to chords, that the do-re-mi syllables serve for pitches: they provide a universal way of labelling them that applies to every key.
The list of lessons for Pop Piano Accompaniment includes many tutorials that explore transposition in depth, from a variety of angles:
• Lessons 4 and 5 teach you to build—and help you to practice—the most common chord types in any key.
• Lesson 6, on the Circle of 5ths, gives you a foundation in understanding how keys work, and the larger chain, so to speak, in which each key is a link.
• Lesson 9, How to Play a Song in Any Key (Transposing Made Easier), shows you not just one, but four ways to transpose. (Teaser: one involves visiting a website that does much of the work for you, for free.)
Even lessons 1, 2 and 3 are worth mentioning. By focusing on some great songs that use a single progression (chord sequence)—I-V-vi-IV—they can make practicing transposition fun.
Bottom line, folks.
As you probably know, my courses teach you to be your own accompanist. And one of the benefits of serving that function is that you get to custom tailor an arrangement in a key that showcases your voice at its very best.
So don’t fall into the trap of following the path of least resistance. Take the time to discover, for each song you sing, what that ideal key is. The rewards are simply too great. You may end up with a whole new take on how much fun singing and playing can be.