To Mars, The Red Planet: Perfect For The Blues

mars approachHopefully you are enjoying the sensation of musical weightlessness after this past week of improvising! No written notes to hem you in, rather the opportunity to play almost anything you want, whenever you want. Within a few necessary guidelines (like keeping your spacesuit on), you are free to improvise, to create, to express yourself. You never have to play the same thing twice, if you don’t want to.

And now you want to reach higher, try out some other tools in your arsenal.

The next place to explore, the most logical next step on our odyssey is:

Mars.

The red planet. The god of war. The best movement of Gustav Holst’s “The Planets” and the home of Marvin the Martian.

Mars. The planet of strife, of clashing, and of dissonance. This is absolutely the best next place for us to go. Continue reading

Exploring The Music Theory Solar System

Earth to the moonWe talked recently about creating a song out of three basic chords. How simple can you create harmony and still have a functional tonal center?

Let me take you in another direction this week. How can we envision and pigeon-hole every progression that ever was or will be? What kind of structure would we need to wrap our minds around all the possibilities?

We’ve talked about rings of growth representing more and more tonal material, but they are pretty static. We need an analogy that’s more dynamic, more inspiring.

Feels like we’re shooting for the stars. Hey – that’s it! We’ll look at exploring music theory as an ever-expanding set of skills and concepts which we will call the Music Theory Solar System.

Our first goal in exploring this Music Theory Solar System (stay with me) will be to actually escape the earth’s gravitational pull by playing some simple songs with just a few chords. Then we’ll start to improvise lead lines as we explore the moon (I know, sounds a little like PBS. Patience.)

Escaping Earth’s Gravity

Now if we’re going to explore the universe, we’ve got to master some fundamentals. If we don’t, our efforts have no chance of success. None. So we start small and simple.

For this metaphor, I’ll assume you have an instrument (which could be your voice). I will also assume you know how to play to some degree. After all, the Wright brothers knew a little something about mechanical engineering, gravity and physics before they flew, too.

So our first direct effort toward exploring the Music Theory Solar System is to escape the earth’s gravitational field. For the guitar player, this will mean playing a few chords and changing from one to another without dropping a beat.

It means playing clear tones with the tips of your fingers. It means knowing what a major scale is and how to build it.

And it means learning bar chords.

Being able to play a series of chords, that is, a “chord progression” is absolutely foundational. The simplest chord progression to build upon is a I IV V progression. For a more in-depth discussion of this type of chord pattern, check out When You’ve Only Got 3 Chords To Use…, and try a few songs from the list you find there. These are not all I IV V, but most are. And they will be great songs to build on.

These chords will allow you to play simple folk, country, and rock & roll styles. I’m sure there are others. But these three chords are where we start.

So if you’ve got those first techniques learned and you’re playing some I IV V songs (even if you still make mistakes), we can proceed. Next stop: the Moon.

To The Moon

To make it to the moon in this analogy is to add simple melodies over the I IV V progressions you know. To do that, you’ll need to learn a simple scale pattern as a basis for improvising (making it up as you go along). The simplest scale pattern to use? The major pentatonic mode.

One of the early fundamentals is to know how to build major scales (each major scale is a series of 8 tones in a whole-whole-half-whole-whole-whole-half step pattern). We assign numbers to the scale tones so that we are now talking about a major scale as 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8.

The major pentatonic mode is really a partial scale. Pentatonic means “5-tone”, and the tones we’ll use are the 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 5th and 6th. A mode is simply an altered scale.

Now to improvise on a I IV V song, the best place to start is thinking about the major pentatonic mode that complements each of the chords. We’ll use the key of C as an example. The I chord is C major, the IV chord is F major, and the V chord is G major.

When the I chord happens, improvise using the 1 2 3 5 6 1 of I (C), that is, C D E G A C.

When the IV chord happens, we’ll use the 1 2 3 5 6 1 of IV. IV is F major, so the mode will turn out to be F G A C D F.

And when we hear the V chord, G major, we’ll improvise using the 1 2 3 5 6 1 of V, which is G A B D E G.

Record yourself playing a single chord, let’s say C, for 2 minutes. Or if you’ve got recording software, program the chord in and loop it to repeat. Then, listening to that chord, find the notes in the C major pentatonic mode on your instrument, and make it up as you go along. As long as you stay on those 5 letter names, you can’t play a wrong note!

Do the same for F, then for G.

The next step is to combine chords and create progressions. Loop 2 measures of C going into 2 measures of F, then improvise to each chord, making sure to change your mode exactly when the chord changes. Now combine C and G in the same manner, and improvise using the C and the G major pentatonic modes.

Finally, put all 3 chords together in some repeatable pattern. Like one of those 3-chord songs. Making sure you are always playing the mode that matches the chord you’re hearing, improvise your way through the song. Have fun, explore, jam out!

And when you look over your shoulder, don’t be surprised to see Earth in the distance.

Have you escaped the Earth’s gravity and learned to improvise yet? What aspect of it do you find the most fun?

Please leave your comment below, or email any questions you have about improvisation, music theory or Next-Step Musicianship to steve@casetunes.com.

© 2015 Steve Case

10 Progress Questions For The Next-Step Musician

stairs blueEvery so often, it’s time to step back and take a look at our musical progress. We can celebrate those goals we’ve met and decide how best to follow through or maybe reset some of the other ones.

Here are 10 Next-Step Musician questions that will help you do just that. The only presumption is that you are interested in growing as a musician.

1. Do you regularly listen to music that crosses styles and genres? As creatures of habit, we don’t often expand our musical tastes unless we are pressed. If your music is getting stale or too predictable, try a new artist. Find a different radio station. Let YouTube pick something new for you.

2. Can you sing or play music from a different genre than how you started? The classically trained artist will benefit from learning some jazz or pop tunes, while the rocker will find some classical training really helps his chops.

3. Have you considered taking up an instrument you don’t currently play? There are so many instruments to choose from: strings, winds, brass, drums and percussion, ethnic, cheap or expensive, historical or modern. If you’re a guitar player, try the banjo or bazooki. For a flute player, take up the piccolo, or maybe a recorder. For a violinist, try a mandolin. For a trombonist, see if you can master a didgeridoo (complete with the circular breathing).

4. Can you sing melodies and harmonies in tune? Record yourself and listen to your intonation. Need to work on it? And as a second step, can you find harmonies to sing that fit the song? Understanding how harmony works will set you apart as a vocalist, you’ll find opportunities to sing come your way more and more!

5. To what extent have you had musical training? Are you interested in more? Finding a quality teacher/mentor for your instrument or your voice is invaluable. A teacher should inspire you and stretch your imagination, helping you to envision yourself as a great musician and aiding you in finding success with practicing.

6. How well can you sight-read music? So the first question is: can you read music at all? If you can’t, that’s step one. Next is working on singing or playing the music accurately and expressively the very first time you encounter it. Take yourself through some new charts. Look them over in detail before you begin. And once you start to play, don’t stop until the song is over. How did you do?

7. Do you enjoy singing and/or playing with a group? And do you perform? When you have to listen and react as others play, you’ll find a new set of reflexes to train. But once you are able to listen and play at the same time, playing in a group will expand your experience and your thinking. You might play in a school or community band, orchestra or choir, in a club band, on a worship team at church, or in any number of small ensembles. The music will take on significantly different properties from when you only play by yourself.

8. Are you writing music? No matter what level you’re on, try it. Use everything you know about music to figure out a new song, then write it down in a way that you can play it again later. The coolest part is when you find a note you don’t like, you get to change it. You’re the composer!

9. Are you methodically teaching others how to sing or play?Are you ready for new students? If you are interested in teaching, first find a teacher to show you how. The teaching method, as a broad category, is called ‘pedagogue’ (ped-uh-goh-gee). If you are simply showing others how to play certain songs, I’ll call you a helpful friend; but a teacher is someone who will help the student become independent, able to figure out any new song on his own because he has been taught principles and fundamentals.

10. How soon would you like to make strides in any of the above areas? Here’s what really separates the average Joe from the Next-Step Musician (sorry, Joe). Give yourself a date on the calendar to take on any of these questions, then follow through on your plan. If you wait, it will never happen. Now is the time!

Please leave your comment below, or email any questions about Next-Step Musicianship to steve@casetunes.com.

© 2015 Steve Case

When You’ve Only Got 3 Chords To Use…

green triangleHow many songs can you play with just 3 chords?

Probably quite a few. I was half-listening to the radio in the car when I heard Robert Palmer’s “Bad Case Of Lovin’ You” come on. (Doctor, doctor, give me the news, I’ve got a …bad case of lovin’ you.) Really catchy. Fun song.

It’s also a simply constructed song. 3 chords total in the whole thing. Actually, I may have heard a 4th chord in there during the bridge, but I think it only happened once.

So how can you have a song that is satisfying to listen to but only has three chords? Is that really enough? And how often does that happen?

Well, it happens a lot. Here are some you may have heard:

  • All About That Bass (Meghan Trainor)
  • All Along The Watchtower (Bob Dylan)
  • Johnny B. Goode (Chuck Barry)
  • Louie, Louie (The Kingsmen)
  • One Of Those Nights (Tim McGraw)
  • She’ll Be Comin’ Round The Mountain (traditional)
  • Steamroller (James Taylor)
  • Sweet Home Alabama (Lynard Skynard)
  • This Land Is Your Land (Woody Guthrie)

…just to name a few.

It Takes Three, Do The Math

Here’s what’s going on.

Just like your smartphone needs at least 3 cell towers in order for the GPS to figure out exactly where you are (the process of triangulation), it takes 3 chords to inescapably lead the ear toward 1 of them as the focal point, the key center. You’ve got to have at least 3.

If the song is entirely built on a single chord, your ear finds no tonal contrast and no perspective. All it knows is the single chord, and unless the rhythms, dynamics and textures are really interesting, the song will be Boring. Capital B.

And if the song is built using only two chords, you won’t be able to determine which one is the key center between the two. Through other means maybe, like having one chord last longer than the other, or putting one on the strong beats and the other on weaker beats. But tonally speaking, the chords will have equal weight.

So it takes three. Think about basic geometry (and this is about as far as my mathematical prowess goes): how many points does it take to give us perspective, to cause us to see a form? A single point is only a point, and it has nothing to do with anything. With two points, I can create a line segment. But I still don’t have perspective. Which side of the line segment am I on? I don’t know with only two points.

But with three points, I can draw a triangle. Now I can say I’m on this side or that side of the form. I now have perspective.

Three Facets Of The Songs You Listen To

In music theory terms, the three chords that form the basis of a key are the tonic, sub-dominant and dominant. These are the chords built from the 1st, 4th and 5th of the scale, and it’s true of both major and minor keys.

Without getting into the actual mechanics of why this is true (I will in the future), think of these three chords as each having their own feel, their own point of view.

The I chord (built from the 1st of the scale) is the tonic chord, and it is the focal point of the entire song. It’s all about the I chord. No matter how much you play or don’t play that chord, it’s still the main subject of the conversation. And it’s the only chord you can play that will make the song sound finished at the end.

The IV chord (built from the 4th, go figure) is the sub-dominant chord, and it is away from the key center, wanting to go somewhere but it doesn’t know where. It is a waiting chord. Waiting to resolve. All dressed up with nowhere to go.

The V chord (you guessed it, built from the 5th) is the dominant chord, and it is also away from the key center. But because of the way it’s built, it has an inherent tension that needs to be satisfied. It is an expectant chord, it knows exactly where it wants to go: back to the I chord.

Dressing It Up With Other Options

Even when the chords are not I, IV and V, often substitutions can be made. Using relative minors and secondary minors, chord patterns become much more interesting while still absolutely tied to the tonic/sub-dominant/dominant triangle.

Embellish the chords with additional scale tones (6ths, 7ths, 9ths, etc.) and you get more and more color. And you’re still tied to the triangle.

What’s Next For You?

Start listening for the tonal triangle everywhere you hear music. Listen for three different feels from the chords. Look for the triangle in the songs you play. When you start recognizing it, it will get easier and easier to spot.

And all my rambling will make perfect sense.

How many songs can you play with three chords? Can you hear the triangle?

Please leave your comment below, or email any questions about music, theory and next-step musicianship to steve@casetunes.com.

© 2015 Steve Case

Here Comes The New Year … So What?

Me and Mike

Me and Mike

Oh no. Here it is, New Year’s Eve. The end of 2014, and the time when it seems everyone is writing about the past year’s top whatevers and new goals or expectations for the new one.

“So what will they write about on CaseTunes?” you wonder.

What I Could Say To You

Now I could write again about managing your time more effectively this coming year. Make sure you get that practice time in. Don’t waste so much time doing unimportant things. You always find time for the things that are important to you. Yeah, yeah.

I could write about taking your art seriously, seeking out an instructor or a mentor. Not procrastinating, not giving into inertia as you sit on the couch. Disciplining yourself through blood, sweat and tears to do whatever it takes. To take the next step, to develop, to grow. Okay, nothing really new here.

I could write about how great the past year was (and in many ways, it was), listing the high points and benchmarks. But you can do that yourself.

So how can we, at CaseTunes, possibly be of service to you here at year’s end?

By reminding you of the big picture.

Your Unique Work

You are here for a reason. There is work for you to do that only you can do. There is music to be made the rest of us are waiting for.

Do you have a project that’s almost there? Don’t wait for it to be perfect, get it pretty decent, then ship it.

Are you waiting for inspiration? Don’t just wait, go get it. Dig for it. Listen to some different artists or shows, read some new books, go to an open mic night and meet some other musicians to collaborate with.

Are you waiting for someone else to join your project and do the hard stuff, the parts you aren’t competent with yet? Two choices: learn it or hire it. But don’t wait, do it!

Even as I write these reminders to you, you’ve got to know I am preaching to myself. My biggest hurdle in any project is usually my own insecurity, followed by procrastination that quickly morphs into inertia.

But this coming year (starting tomorrow) it is our hope and plan to “ship” several projects that have been in the works, from books to courses. Groundwork has been laid, details have been fleshed out. Now is the time to make things happen! I’ll let you know about each one as it becomes available. Thanks for being in our corner!

In 2015

Fun with our stage on Christmas Eve

Fun with our stage on Christmas Eve

Opportunities are on the horizon to do some amazing things. My wish for you is that you will understand how

important it is for you to make music and share it. Express your heart through your music. Play and sing with passion and excellence, over and over again. When you’re in the zone, in your unique sweet spot, making music work for you, you’ll find great joy and fulfillment. And you will bless others with your gift.

So get to it! We’re all waiting for you!

Please feel free to comment below, or email any questions about music, finishing your project, or next-step musicianship to steve@casetunes.com.

© 2014 Steve Case

The Right Time

Our set design team did an incredible job with the stage for the production, "The Right Time", held at our local high school.

Our set design team did an incredible job with the stage for the production, “The Right Time”, held at our local high school.

In music, timing is everything. Well, almost everything.

Now I know there are many other things to get right in any song: pitch relationships, dynamics, stylistic devices and textures, not to mention lyrics.

And you’ve got lots of room to improvise with each of these musical facets. If you hit a note that doesn’t quite work – hey, it was a passing tone, a neighbor note!

Now the listener might hear the mistake or not. But even if they do, the ear will forgive it pretty quickly as you move on through the song.

Timing is another matter. If you blow the timing – a rhythm that is way out of place, or even worse, if you insert unlooked-for pauses in the music – it’s really obvious. Sounds like you hesitated because you didn’t quite remember what came next. It felt like you were a moment away from the whole train coming off the tracks.

I don’t think I’m overstating it when I say a song’s timing is a really big deal.

Timing in life, however, while most of it is out of our control, is an even bigger deal.

The Right Time

This past weekend, my church presented “The Right Time”, our Christmas musical production for 2014. But what does Christmas have to do with timing? Well, quite a lot, it turns out.

At just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. …God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. (Romans 5:6,8)

God’s timing is perfect. He sent Emmanuel (which means, ‘God with us’) at the perfect time in all of human history to teach us Who He is, to invite us into a personal relationship with Him, and to be the sufficient, atoning sacrifice for all who receive Him. Emmanuel, that is, Jesus Christ, is Himself the relational Bridge for sinful man to cross and find the holy, almighty God waiting for him.

That’s the big picture.

But day to day, we will face over and over again challenges that stretch us. From strained and broken relationships to deteriorating health, from financial worries to choices of morality. It gets overwhelming.

And on top of those challenges, we have our own imperfections that slap us around: our impatience, our ambition, our ego. Often, we don’t understand why we have to wait for, well, anything. Or why circumstances invade our lives that we never wanted and always arrive at the worst times.

And the best thing for us to do in the face of each of these life stresses is to step back, take a breath, and remind ourselves of the big picture.

Stepping Back

Working with a guitar student the other day, I was tangibly reminded of the need for gaining perspective when we’re under pressure. My student and I were jamming to a prerecorded rhythm track, a band playing an uptempo 12-bar swing blues. Sometimes he would play lead, sometimes I would. Back and forth.

But I watched him struggle a little, trying very hard to remember patterns to play while at the same time hearing all this music on the recording. It was hard for him to focus on his own playing while he heard this cacophony happening at the same time from the speakers.

I watched as he would start to play, then stop, let out a long slow breath, then start again. At first, he was discouraged. But then, as we talked through the process, he felt more freedom to let the background track keep going and not play while he figured out what to do next. He would mentally ‘step back’ enough to gain perspective, to remember where he was on the neck and think how to proceed.

And that’s exactly what we have to do when challenges come our way. Step back, remember the big picture: there is indeed a God who loves each of us so much that He sent His only Son, Jesus, to come and be ‘God with us’, our Emmanuel. To show us who we are and offer us life in Him. Mercy and grace like we’d never experienced before.

I truly hope that each of you feel refreshed and inspired this Christmas. Step out and find that God’s got your back. And He is inviting you to go deeper with Him.

As always, you can leave your comment below or email steve@casetunes.com with any questions or comments. I look forward to hearing from you!

© 2014 Steve Case