Chords have always intrigued me.

At times, it would have even been fair to say that I was obsessed with them. Trying out different combos, different ways of moving from one to another, seeing how each chord was a portal to a whole new harmonic space, how each chord behaved like lighting to change the mood.

This wasn’t a theory book obsession.

This was sit-at-the-piano-and-use-your-ears-and-heart-to-figure-it-out stuff.

Trying things in this key, then that, and noticing how different transpositions of the same chords created different challenges to the performer, and how the geography of the keyboard made some patterns more obvious and some patterns less obvious, depending on which chord you started on.

Pushing a pattern as far as if could go, then one step further, to find out what happened when the chords fell off that harmonic edge.

Pulling it all together to rearrange hymns at church and songs at school.

Using the growing number of options I literally had at my fingertips to become a better song-writer (I made up my mind I wasn’t a 4-chord song-writer, around the time I was 7!).

Then, one day, in my 20s, when I’d been teaching piano and theory for more than a decade, I had a friend of a friend approach me for lessons; she wanted to learn how to play like me.

And “like me” turned out to mean “able to use chords to do whatever it is you do that makes you sound like you!”

I knew what she meant, but I honestly didn’t know how on earth to deliver that knowledge as a teacher.

Her questions started me off on a quest that led to me:
• composing and publishing educational piano music;
• advocating for a repertoire-rich approach to piano lessons (the 30/40 Piece Challenge);
• creating repertoire collections that used contemporary diversity to frame the rich canon of pedagogical literature;
• working with the Australian Examination Board to develop a beginner level repertoire collection and assessment option (P Plate Piano) that prioritised exploration and discovery – still unique in the world of music performance assessments!

and, now

• creating an experience for pianists (teachers, songwriters, anyone!) to explore how chords actually work (in any genre), unbounded by 19th century-Western European theoretical rules of what’s right and wrong in music, and not restricted to a 4-chord vocabulary!

I’ve called it a Chord Challenge – but the challenge isn’t a performance challenge (and it’s certainly not about theory!).

This is a challenge to perception, preconceptions, and to the beliefs we don’t even realise we carry into our engagement with chords.

Three times now I’ve offered a “Major edition” Chord Challenge, where all the challenges explore what happens when we play with major chords only.

And for the first time since last February, I’m about to run the “Minor edition” Chord Challenge! Needless-to-say, it’s based completely on minor chords, and itt’s a bit fascinating how quickly things get weird when you play only minor chords…

This Minor Chord Challenge starts in just a few days (May 17!), and if you know how to play the minor chord in every key, you’re perfectly qualified to join in! (and I’d love to have you be a part of it!)

Click here to see more.

3 thoughts on “Chords

  1. Hello Elissa I love chords! At the moment I’m fascinated by Sergio Mendes’ song “So Many Stars.” I love the way the Brasil 66 perform it. The chord changes are subtle, and not particularly noticeable in the mix. I also like the Cleo Laine/John Williams’ version where you get to hear the chords more prominently. I have a Real book copy of the music, which I find hard to read with all the #this and flat that additions! When I look carefully at it and attempt to play it, the movement from one chord to the next is often just by a note or two going up or down a second. And half way through the verse, the chord changes create another rising melody. Are you enjoying better health this year? I hope so! In Music David McKay

    Sent from my iPad


  2. Is this chord challenge about to be done on a PC rather than a phone? I find the phone is way too small for my eyes so use the PC most of the time. Also can you postpone the start of the challenge? I have a really busy week and wondering about starting next week or maybe that is not possible.

    • Hi Lenore!

      The whole thing can be done on ANY device you want – PC, iPad, print out the pdfs and do it from paper!

      If now isn’t a good time, it’s not a good time. I ran the challenge in January, and I’m sure I’ll run it again in the future, some time.

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