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?!