Playing Pop, and (all that) Jazz: Chord Chart literacy

A cliché I used to find myself confronting as a young musician in the mid-late 80s and the 90s was the idea that the world of pianists divides into the classically trained and those who can read chord charts. It shook the foundations of many a musician’s world that I had a B.Mus. degree  and I could still read a chord chart. To be fluent reading a ‘chart’ while also being able to play the Pathetique seemed to be about as musically transgressive as it was possible to be. Needless to say I found the fuss rather ridiculous and just wanted to get on with making music.

In 2000 I started presenting professional development seminars for piano teachers and when I would ask “who can read a chord chart?” maybe 10% of the teachers at the seminar might put up their hands. Eleven years on and that percentage has almost flipped: I estimate at least 75% of piano teachers these days tell me they are perfectly comfortable reading a chord chart, and up to 99% say they understand what the chord symbols mean (even if they wouldn’t be comfortable performing from a chart).

This is an amazing cultural change.

And it’s a grass-roots change.

No one is telling piano teachers they should acquire this skill, at least no one in a professional sense. Piano exams still have no compulsory chord chart reading component (beyond maybe a perfect cadence in a sight reading exercise) apart from the niche ABRSM Jazz Piano exams, and while theory exams now allow chord symbols as answers a knowledge of chord symbols is not compulsory. So piano teachers don’t need to know this in order to prepare students for exams.

And neither do piano teachers need to demonstrate a capacity to read a chord chart in the process of gaining a teaching diploma, membership of a teaching association or certification from a professional body.

I think piano teachers know how to do this because piano teachers think it’s important. For some teachers that might mean that since 2000 they have put in the effort to learn how to play chord symbols and how to interpret the nuances of the different chord indications. For other teachers, however, playing from a chord chart has always been a part of their pianistic experience, albeit outside their official piano lessons. My generation is now just getting into its 40s, and most of us have grown up fluent with this notation. And of course we think it’s important – it’s how so much music we’ve spent our time playing is notated.

It’s also about the state of play of musical style and music history. For a while there in the second half of the twentieth century we were (albeit reluctantly) buying into the notion that music had moved ‘beyond’ tonality. So here we are in 2011, and it turns out that the common practice major-minor tonality has truly been and gone, but tonality in a variety of other permutations rages on. A significant number of serious, high-end composers have been working with post-major/minor tonal language for some decades, and it is within tonality that some of the most interesting recent compositional trends have emerged.

This grass-roots change regarding chord charts also reflects a different approach to teaching, both from teachers and from students. Whereas once upon a time teachers would be universally disdainful of the idea of teaching their piano students how to play popular music these days piano teachers conscientiously trawl through all kinds of music looking for material that will connect with their students’ interests and will inspire students to practice harder (or at all) and to maintain interest in piano lessons during those inevitable rocky months (or years) in early adolescence.

Students will also bring to their lessons music they’ve been asked to play at school with the school band or accompanying a singer, music that is primarily notated by way of chord symbols. Even if the teacher does not feel quite up to the task, the message is being heard that this notation is an integral part of pianistic literacy.

And I think that’s about where we as a profession are up to: we’re convinced it’s important, and we’ve been developing our own skills and knowledge, but on the whole we’re not quite sure how to systematically go about teaching our students anything much beyond how to figure out which notes are indicated by a chord symbol. And when we do teach our students anything about chord symbols it’s not really part of a coherent teaching plan beyond covering the basic major and minor chords.

So where to from here? Here’s a quick (and certainly not comprehensive) wishlist, some things I think students need to learn in order to be genuinely fluent at reading ‘chart’, and in no particular order:

1. Students need to learn to think around the geometry of every chord. This means being able to voice the same chord symbol in a myriad of ways and textures. This means being able to think through each inversion at lightning speed, and to be able to team a right hand inversion with a left hand note (maybe or maybe not the root). Without this skill there is no fluency.

2. Students need to learn to think of notes as common points in chords so they can easily pivot from one chord to the next: this kind of thinking is far more valuable than knowing the chords that are ‘in’ a key. So we need to invert the diatonic principle: don’t think about which chords are in the key, think about which (piano)keys are in the chords….

3. Students need to be able to audiate (aurally imagine) the chords they are about to play: they need to be able to predict what the next chord should sound like and measure what they hear against what they expect. This is important for reading to be more than simplistic ‘decoding’.

4. Students need to be able to think through scale degree, or in less classical language, students need to be able to think through the relationships between the chords they are playing. An example of this is the circle of 5ths: students who are familiar with this circle will be able to create V-I or IV-I (or I-V/I-IV) relationships without much thought at all, in any key. The more complex a student’s understanding is of the possible relationships between chords the better their realisation of a chord chart will be.

5. The huge variety of 7 chords are the lifeblood of the enterprise. Until students are fluent performers of these chords, in a variety of permutations, they will not be fluent chart-readers.

What else would you like to add to this list? And do you think that teaching chord-chart reading should be part of piano students’ curriculum?!

22 thoughts on “Playing Pop, and (all that) Jazz: Chord Chart literacy

  1. Students should definitely be learning this – the piano repertoire features a huge amount of jazz and popular music (chord reading) and to deny students of learning this skill is similar to omitting Mozart’s alberti bass-line (or something like that).

    I take several high-school aged jazz/popular large ensemble bands and am always saddened when the pianists in the bands don’t know how to read the chords and on top of that their sight-reading skills to read the suggested dots are not quite up to scratch – though find me any lower-high-school aged student who can sight-read grade 4 perfectly on the first go (another story).

    Their teachers are extremely good and well-respected, but for some reason it seems to me that chords get missed in their lessons… or maybe they are left for later.

    At any rate, if a student could read the chords and know what to play from that, they wouldn’t necessarily have to read the suggested written notes (which are usually pretty lame arrangements anyway) and could get on with being part of the rhythm section, making a groove and thus making music.

    • I think the profession is at the point of recognising it’s important and not knowing how to implement a coherent teaching program. There is no culture of ‘teaching’ chord chart reading – people have just picked it up for themselves, one way or another. That is going to have to change…. And pianists are notoriously terrible sight readers! It’s all that playing alone….

  2. On the sight reading issue, I teach performance at a uni whose music dept mostly sees pop/rock students and I am absolutely floored by the way those pianists can sight read. All the grounding in chord symbols seems to allow them to see the chord shapes within all the notes. Not something I’ve ever been able to do fluently.

  3. I had 21 students (from 8 to 10 years old) do their Yamaha Grade Nine exam in November, which included playing a two-handed chord progression by ear and improvising an accompaniment for a previously unknown melody. I’d like to see more students learn this valuable skill! The Yamaha method actually teaches chord playing ability – by ear and by improvisation – right from the early stages.

  4. Definitely, chords are scales, are voice leading, is harmonization, plus rhythmic versitillity is improvisation, is composition . Just ask Bach or Beethoven, or Chick Corea, or Thelonius Monk, George Shearing had a good hand for this , and Oscar Peterson also.

  5. Great post on chord reading! I’d love to hear your thoughts on what to do next…in other words…after the student has a grasp of the chords, how do they use them? We’re all familiar with broken chords, alberti bass, etc, but how can we introduce some of the unusual rhythmic patterns that occur in jazz and pop?

    • Ah – such an interesting question! I feel that rhythmic patterns emerge from voicings, or at least rhythm cannot be separated from voicing: the way the notes split around the keyboard allow rhythms to emerge or prevent some rhythms from being performed… This is the physical angle on the issue. Then there is the issue of how students acquire rhythmic knowledge, and I would think that it is by listening to various rhythmic patterns in performance that students will gain a rhythmic repertoire to apply to their chord repertoire. This is particularly important when chord charts have no rhythmic information.

      In other words, I think students need to learn rhythmic possibilities for realising chords without reference to notation – it needs to be taught by rote and/or by ear.

      I don’t think that students find these rhythmic patterns at all unusual; in fact, these are the quite usual patterns of their musical lives (away from the piano!). What is unusual for piano students is that they are permitted to realise the score (chord chart) in a myriad of ways without any one realisation being ‘wrong’.

      But to answer the practical aspect of your question: I’ve not yet worked out my preferred manner of introducing rhythmic patterns, almost certainly because I’ve been beginning working with chord charts with my students so late in their development that this hasn’t been a major issue (the student quickly, and independently, picks up rhythmic patterns). But maybe also because voicings tend to imply rhythmic possibilities? This is my instinctive response here…. I shall think this one through some more!

      • This is such an interesting topic! I love all the comments here. Elissa, would you consider doing a video on this topic? I know I could use more direction when it comes to teaching with chord charts. In some ways, I feel like I’m learning along with the students as far as this goes.

  6. Thanks for this excellent post. Do you have recommendations for teaching materials & resources both for students and teachers alike who would like to become more chord-chart-literate?

    • Sadly I don’t have specific books or resources to recommend for working with students, but there are some well thought-through books teaching at an adult level. My current favourites for teachers/adults to get up to speed on jazz/chord notation (from a vast field of possibilities):
      1. Modern Jazz Piano: an intermediate guide to jazz concepts, improvisation, technique and theory, by Sarah Jane Cion, published by Hal Leonard.
      2. Exploring Jazz Piano, by Tim Richards, published by Schott
      3. Jazz Piano from Scratch: a how-to guide for students and teachers, by Charles Beale, published by ABRSM
      Each of these comes with a CD.

      As far as working with students, I’ve not come across anything I think is appropriate for children that also covers the vast range of chord-reading possibilities. There are piano methods that do teach I-IV-V7-I shapes in each key, but that’s a tremendously classical chord sequence, and that pattern rarely appears in a chart. But there are many books I’ve not yet discovered, so my ignorance might simply be a reflection of the limitations of my print music shopping experiences….

      • Ian, the Aebersold catalogue has a huge history and loyalty in regard to many instruments, but as regards piano I think there could be better resources. The ABRSM has a whole Jazz syllabus which is a carefully designed learning, teaching (and assessing!) curriculum that is a better fit with piano teaching and learning culture, for example. What it comes down to as regards the Jamey Aebersold resources is that they were a complete breakthrough for learner instrumentalists wanting to improvise – JA lined up brilliant musicians to record the backing tracks and this meant the most mediocre students were suddenly accessing top quality ‘support’ while they explored melodic lines, rhythmic riffs, harmonic geographies…. And that really is brilliant. All kinds of instrumental teachers have incorporated these Jamey Aebersold resources into their teaching program, but not piano teachers – and I think there’s a lot to be unpacked as to why that is so.

      • Really enjoying the discussion here!
        I’m not sure how relevant it might be to keyboard players, but I know of an app that has been invaluable to me as a windplayer, classically trained but with an interest in jazz. Check out “iReal b” (formerly iReal Book) at the iTunes store
        This iPhone/iPad app is great for improvising over chord changes, either your own you can create or standard progressions you can access from other members through the forum.
        Although I’ve never needed to, piano players can remove the piano from the rhythm section play-along so they are able to play with bass and drums!
        Once players are at the stage where they have the theory background (or before?) I hope this suggestion helps with chord reading, improvising, sight-reading, ear training, etc.

  7. Thanks for interesting post Elisa.

    > Piano exams still have no compulsory chord chart reading component (beyond >maybe a perfect cadence in a sight reading exercise) apart from the niche ABRSM
    > Jazz Piano exams

    I just wanted to point out that the AMEB’s CPM (contemporary popular music) keyboard course includes sight reading from a chord chart. It’s a great syllabus; I wish more teachers were aware of it.

    • Good point, Paul! That the CPM Keyboard syllabus is a “Keyboard” syllabus, rather than a “Piano” syllabus, is telling, perhaps, in this regard… Teachers who use CPM absolutely love it – I should have included a reference to it in my post.

      See also below, the comment about the Yamaha system teaching reading from chord symbols. It’s interesting how approaches to teaching that presume at least the potential for playing from a non-piano keyboard seem to prioritise teaching chord chart reading.

  8. I absolutely think that it’s vital to teach chord charts because there’s such a wealth of music that children and youth can learn from tab sites for the songs that they’re interested in. Some additional points from my perspective teaching piano and composition in the past:

    – being able to see the chord structure of a work allows a student to see the form of a piece in easier blocks, in an architectural sense. Chord progressions and transformations of those progressions allow conceptual ideas that can be harder to grasp on a melodic level.

    – Understanding the interplay of the chord progressions and melodic and rhythmic structures allows a student to hear the intent of the composer in a richer manner.

    – Chord structures are very “portable”. Once you’re fluent with chords, it allows the learner to take a piece and begin to improvise and compose over similar structures and/or different styles and genres.

    – By approaching a work from the harmonic perspective, learners can begin to hear how other instruments might fit into a different arrangement of the piece. It opens up new possibilities for learning orchestration with extended harmonic colouration.

    A great post Elissa. Fantastic to hear of the huge change among piano teachers.

    – Ian

    • Thanks Ian! Love your list! I’m interested in your first comment about chord chart literacy enabling students to learn music from tab – I think this is true, but I also think that once students are chord chart literate they will find they can learn music simply by listening to it, without needing a chart.

      Kids tend to enjoy learning by ear so much more than learning from a chart. (Maybe adults not so much?!)

      On the other hand, a chart is memory aid, plotting out the shapes to be incorporated into the performance.

      But I should add a disclaimer: I have never understood people buying sheet music for pop songs when it’s so darn easy to just play them!

      • I think there’s a lot of work to be done to teach musicians how to *hear* a chord and then recognize it, from a chord in isolation to basic and then advanced chord progression. We spend so much time focusing on the notes when there’s so much more to be learnt from music as interlocking structures evolving over time.

        From my experience teaching kids & adults to play from charts – I think once they overcome the fear of the lack of dots on the page, they all have found it very liberating. It’s harder to play a wrong note when there isn’t a note on the page. (-;

        – Ian

  9. You offer such great advice here! Your tips–especially No. 4 above, learning to identify chords by ear–can impact students’ musicianship in ways that could serve them for a lifetime of music making. Please keep up the great work you’re doing on this blog!

    Bob Woody

  10. Great post! I think students should definitely lear to read charts, and it should not come hard to them if they have the proper music theory training to go along with their studies. Through their music theory learning, they should have been learning about chords, tonic notes, and should be able to learn quite easily. Good luck!

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