Author Archives: azimmerman

Body of The Blues

By: Aaron Zimmerman

“Blues” usually refers to one of two things, a scale or a chord progression.

The bones

The chord progression is 12 measures long, hence the name “12 bar blues”.  Here is the progression, with a roman numeral marking the beginning of each bar and a dash indicating the continuance of that chord.

I - - - I - - - I - - - I - - -
IV - - - IV - - - I - - - I - - -
V - - - IV - - - I - - - I - - -

You can here this progression in work in the above song. It starts when the lyrics come in at 0:55.

0:55 (I) - - - 0:58 - - - 1:00 - - - 1:03 - - -
1:05 (IV) - - - 1:08 - - - 1:10 (I) - - - 1:13 - - -
1:15 (V) - - - 1:18 (IV) - - - 1:20 (I) - - - 1:23 - - -

The meat on the bones

The blues scale is the following notes (in the key of C major).

The Blues Scale

The Blues Scale

This scale goes hand in hand with the blues progression. You can play each note of the scale with each chord of the progression. That is, if you are improvising using nothing but blues scale notes, you don’t have to think as much about the changing harmonies, and instead can focus on the melody you are playing. In the John Mayer song above, when he plays the fill in riffs and the guitar solo starting at 1:54, he is using the blues scale. Notice how the notes he is playing doesn’t change with the harmony.

The skin that holds it together

The most important thing in blues, and any improvisation, is time. The idea of a steady pulse is critical to holding the ensemble together. They don’t have music, all they have is a chord progression, and they jam on top of it, using a steady beat as the mechanism of staying together. You can hear the strong pulse in John Mayer’s recording above. The beat is heavily accented with bass, drums, and guitar.

The clothes and cool hats

The blues progression is like a vanilla cupcake hot out of the oven. It is good, fantastic even, but when enhanced with some frosting, filling, or whatever goodies you prefer, it is still better. The tune above uses a slight variation, using the bII chord on the fourth beat of each “I” measure.

Jazz players like to make things more complicated, so he progression ii -> V -> I is often sprinkled over the basic blues progression, turning it into the “jazz blues”

I - - - IV - - - I - - - V - I7 -
IV - - - IV - - - I - - - VI - III -
V - - - IV - - - I - vi - ii - V -

In addition to the ii -> V -> I at the end (wrapping around to the top), the end of lines 1 and 2 also use this progression. But their target key – the I they are moving toward is the IV and the V chord, respectively. Here’s a classic example of the jazz blues.

Common Chords

By: Aaron Zimmerman

A chord is multiple notes played together.  We name chords based on patterns that the component intervals form. These patterns, common chords,  are the building blocks of harmony. Mastering chords lets you play almost anything by ear, and will greatly enhance your ability to appreciate music.

I’ll break down the most common chords, using three sections, Triads, Seventh, and Contextual Chords.  Fair warning, the contextual chords get a bit theory heavy.


The common triads are the workhorses of harmony.  Pretty much any song can be harmonized with these four, especially major and minor.  You’d miss the color and subtlety of other chords, but you can play most any song with major and minor. Triads are made of two thirds, one on top of the other. Thirds are also classified as Major and Minor, so to avoid confusion, when referring to an interval, I’ll use a single letter, M for major, m for minor. When referring to a chord, I’ll write out Major or Minor. These four triads are the possible combinations of the two types of thirds.

Triad first third second third outer interval
Major M m fifth
Minor m M fifth
Diminished m m tritone
Augmented M M minor sixth

Comon Triads

Common Triads

Major and Minor are considered stable, consonant, whereas diminished and augmented are not. Alert systems such as train whistles, police sirens, are often based on these latter two chords, as they are dissonant and attention grabbing.  Major and Minor chords are used as the basis for most of functional harmony.  See this post for more.


Seventh chords are those that include a fourth note (when compared with triads), a seventh above the root of the chord.  Like the above triads, they are based on stacked up major and minor thirds.

Chord first third second third third third
Major M m M
Dominant M m m
Minor m M m
Diminished m m m
Half Diminished m m M

Seventh Chords

Seventh Chords

The Major seventh chord is used as a tonic chord, a more colorful version of a I chord.  It is often used in pop and jazz.  The first chord heard in John Lennon’s Imagine is a I chord, the fourth beat of the first measure, this chord extends to include a major 7th.

Perfect Authentic Cadence (PAC)

Perfect Authentic Cadence (PAC)

The Dominant seventh chord is used in place of a plain V chord in much of western music.  The second and fourth notes of this chord resolve to the first and third of the I chord, in what is knows as a Perfect Authentic Cadence.  So, the C Dominant seventh is the V of F major, and the E resolves to an F, the Bb down to an A.  This harmonic movement is perhaps the most common in all of music.  It is used at the end of many pieces as a way to resolve any harmonic drama, landing the piece in a clear final key.

ii - V - I

ii – V – I

Jazz is built around the chord progression ii-V-I.  The V chord is the dominant used above, and the ii is a minor seventh.   C minor seventh is the ii chord in the key of Bb major.  The progression to the right demonstrates the full ii-V-I in the key of Bb major. The Diminished Seventh chord is a symmetric chord – if you add another minor third on top you are back where you started. This makes it harmonically ambiguous, the C diminished 7 is the same note for note as the Eb, Gb and A. It is a close relative of the octatonic scale in that regard.  In fact, the octatonic scale is often called the “diminished” scale for that reason.  The lower half of a Half-Diminished Seventh is the same as the fully diminished, but the top note is a half step higher, fitting nicely into many jazz progressions.


The above chords were objective, interval based definitions.  These chords are different, they are more context based.  That is, note for note, they could be classified as something else.  Used in a specific context, they have other names, and more importantly, other functions.  So rather than base the chords off of a C root as above, these examples are chords, as they would be used in the key of C Major.

Neapolitan Sixth


Neapolitan Sixth

This is another name for an inverted flat second chord.  In the key of C Major, that means a Db major chord, inverted once, (making F the lowest note).  It resolves to a V chord (G, in the key of C Major).  It is used in the song “Do you want to know a secret” by the beatles.  The second time the word “really” is heart at the beginning, it is on top of a neapolitan chord that resolves to the V.

Augmented Sixth

Augmented Sixth Chords

Augmented Sixth Chords

An augmented sixth chord has the interval by the same name as its outer interval, with a third above the root as well.  In this plain form, it is called an “Italian” augmented sixth.  If we add the second degree of the scale (D in C major),  it becomes a “French”, and if we add the flat third (Eb), it is called a “German”.  The Italian is enharmonically equivalent (it has the same pitches) as a dominant seventh chord.  The difference is that it resolves to the V of the tonic.  The chord above would resolve to a G chord, the V of C major. Used as a dominant chord (Ab7), it would resolve to a Db major chord.


Picardy Third

Picardy Third

A picardy third is when a Major third is used to end a piece that has been in minor key.  It was used a lot in the renaissance, as a major third is a more mathematically pure interval than a minor third.  So this makes the major third more consonant, and more appropriate for the end of a piece.  More about math and acoustics in a future post!

Secondary Dominant

Secondary Dominant - V of V

Secondary Dominant – V of V

A secondary dominant is a dominant seventh that is borrowed from another key.  The most common usage would be borrowing from the V key – so the secondary dominant is the V of the V.  In the key of C major this means a D Dominant Seventh, resolving to a G (the V), which in turns resolves back to the I.

Muse – Take A Bow

By: Aaron Zimmerman

This is an ongoing series of posts called “Music Theory Rocks”, for an intro to the series and some music theory fundamentals, check out this post.

One of the eye-openingly cool things about music is the circle of fifths. A fifth (often called a “perfect” fifth) is 7 half steps. Moving by fifths up or down creates a circle that touches every note before starting over at the note you began with. If you start on a C and go up by fifths, the notes you will play will be:

Moving Up by Fifths

Moving Up by Fifths

As you move left to right in the above series, you add a sharp to the major scale that starts on that note.

Key Sharps
C Major no sharps
G Major F#
D Major F# C#
A Major F# C# G#

The inverse of this is also true, as you move right to left, you subtract a sharp (or add a flat).

Key Flats
C Major no flats
F Major Bb
Bb major Bb Eb
Eb major Bb Eb Ab

Both of these patterns will lead to the same place, and then back around, hence the name circle of fifths.

Circle of Fifths on Wikipedia

Circle of Fifths on Wikipedia

The circle of fifths is featured in Take a Bow by Muse. This piece takes a single chord progression and modulates it repeatedly downward through the circle of fifths.

Take A Bow

Take A Bow Chord Progression

This chord progression features an Augmented triad, represented with a ‘+’. This triad is formed with a major third and a minor sixth from the root. The only other chord used is the minor IV, which is only one note different from the I+.  This is a stable, easy to follow chord progression, hovering around the I chord, the lowest note never actually even changes. As the piece moves through keys, this simplicity helps the listener maintain a sense of continuity through dramatic key changes.  If it were a more complicated progression, the piece would feel scattered, confusing, rather than dramatic and sweeping.

The piece is organized in two large sections separated by an interlude. The first section features the above progression modulated 6 times through the circle of fifths, starting in D Major, and ending in Eb Major. The interlude picks up in Eb and ends up solidly in F Major. The second section picks up in F Major and goes all the way through the circle of fifths to B major, where the piece ends, just three steps in the circle of fifths from the D Major the piece started in.

Here are the elapsed time marks in the piece at which modulations occur, the new key, the number of times the chord progression sounds before moving on, and any notes.

time key times notes
0:00 D 2
0:23 G 1
0:34 C 2 Vocals
0:56 F 1
1:07 Bb 1
1:18 Eb 1+ Vamps a little bit on the end
1:40 Interlude See notes on interlude progression
2:13 F 2 Second time guitar comes in
2:35 Bb 1
2:47 Eb 1
2:58 Ab 2 Vocals back in
3:20 Db 1
3:31 F# 1
3:41 B 1
3:53 CODA

Types of Scales

By: Aaron Zimmerman

In this post, I’ll list and briefly explain different types of scales commonly used in music today.   I’ll break them into 4 categories, Common, Symetric, Modal, and Other.

Common Scales

Common Scales

Common Scales

Major is the best known scale.  The key characteristic is the major 3rd (E) and a seventh that is a half step down from the root (B). It is a pattern of whole steps W-W-H-W-W-W-H.

Natural Minor is identified by lowered third, sixth, and seventh (when compared to a major).  Natural minor keys share key signatures with the major chord that is 3 half steps higher.  That is, A Minor has the same key signature (no sharps or flats) as C Major, the note 3 half steps higher.  A Minor is the relative minor of C Major.  Eb is the relative major of C Minor (above).

Harmonic minor is a natural minor with a raised 7th degree.  In a minor key, we usually use a major V chord to create a stronger V-I cadence.  In C minor, the V chord is G Major (with a B natural, even though B is flat in the key signature).  This creates a clash between a melody using the natural minor scale, and an accompaniment playing a major V chord.  So the harmonic minor scale addresses this by adjusting the scale to be what the harmony expects.

Melodic Minor is a comprise between the natural and the harmonic minor scales.  When descending, the scale is identical to a natural minor scale. When ascending, the 6th and 7th are both raised a half step (from the natural minor).  This allows for smoother voice leading (no jumps in melodies that move up and down the scale), while maintaining compatibility with harmonic progressions.

Symmetric Scales

These scales are based on symmetric, repeating patterns of intervals.  It is the asymmetric-ness of the major and minor scale that give it a strong sense of tonic, of a “home” key.  As these scales are symmetric, they do not have a strong tonic.  If you start a C Major scale in the middle, after a few notes, it is still clearly a C Major scale.  Whereas, there is no “middle” to a symmetric scale, wherever you start, you start.

Symetric Scales

Symmetric Scales

The chromatic scale features every note.  It is made up entirely of half steps. Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Flight of the Bumblebee” makes heavy use.

The whole tone scale consists of only whole steps, so it contains 6 notes.  There are two whole tone scales.  That is, the whole tone scale that starts from C is the same collection of notes that starts from D.  Likewise, C# and D# whole tones scales share the same pitches. Stevie Wonder’s “You Are the Sunshine of my Life” uses an ascending whole tone scale in the introduction.

The octatonic scale is formed by alternating half steps and whole steps.  This leads to a scale of 8 notes, hence the name.   You can further classify an octatonic scale by whether it starts with a whole step or a half step). The introduction to Radiohead’s “Just” uses a whole-half ascending octatonic scale.

Modal Scales

modal scales

Modal Scales

The concept of modes comes from ancient greece, where modes were given names due to regional associations.   Today modal scales are used a lot in jazz.  When improvising over a given chord progression, it can be helpful to play the notes from a mode whose notes go well with a particular chord progression.

Dorian is a natural minor scale with the sixth raised one half step.  The key distinction between dorian and minor is that a dorian mode will have a major IV chord, whereas minor will have a minor iv.  (In C Dorian, you have a F Major chord, whereas in C Minor, you’d have F Minor).

“Billie Jean” by Michael Jackson is an example of a dorian piece.

Phrygian is a natural minor with a lowered second degree.  It is featured in this piece “Phrygian Gates” by John Adams.

Lydian is a major scale with a raised 4th degree.  The Simpsons main theme song is an example.  Listen for the raised fourth degree, it is the second note you hear, on the first half of the word “Simpsons”, and again the third note of the wordless melody

Mixolydian is a major scale with the seventh lowered a half step.  It is characterized by the presence of a flat-seventh chord rather than a diminished.  In C Mixolydian, the VII chord is a Bb major, whereas in C Major, it is a B Diminished.

Gun’s N Roses “Sweet Child of Mine” is predominantly in Mixolydian.


Other Scales

Other Scales

Pentatonic is more of a classification than an actual scale.  Taken literally, it just means a scale with 5 notes.  However, two pentatonic scales have emerged that, without further qualification, ‘pentatonic’ probably refers to.  One sounds vaguely major, the other minor.

The first two lines of the folk song “Oh Susanna” use the pentatonic scale.

The blues scale is featured heavily in the genre of the same name.  It is used extensively in blues improvisations, as each of its notes can sound consonant with the 12 bar blues. Pretty much every blues piece uses this scale, here’s Clapton with “Crossroads”, jump to 1:28 for the guitar solo

Mumford and Sons – I Will Wait

By: Aaron Zimmerman

MumfordAndSonsI Will Wait is a rock-bluegrass song in the key of Db major.  Give this song a listen, and while you do, consider what about it you like.  What about it is memorable?  How would you describe it to a friend?  Music theory is the attempt to standardize answers to these questions.  See this post for more info about music theory.

When I listen to this piece, the thing that jumps out at me are the different “riffs” that make it up.  A riff is a musical idea, a piece of music that is reused.  Each riff is a few chords, and maybe a melody that sits on top of it. Then these riffs are put together to form the song in its entirety.

To make them easier to compare and discuss, I’ll assign each riff a capital letter.

A – Intro

0:00, 0:48, 2:59

The first time this riff is heard there is no melody, but it is included here for the sake of completeness.

The most notable feature of this progression is that it has two more beats than we would usually expect.  This piece has a time signature of 4/4.  That means that there are 4 pulses grouped together to form one unit of time.  Most music written in 4/4 time would utilize riffs whose length is a multiple of 4, such as 4, 8, 16.  The extra two beats in the middle create a slightly off-kilter sensation when you first listen, like you lost sight of the landmark you were using to navigate.

B – Verse

B - Verse

0:18, 1:30, 2:28

A sus chord is one in which a note is SUSpended from the previous chord.  In this case, a Db is suspended from the I chord on top of the V chord.  This Db is a fourth above the new chord root, an Ab.  Traditionally (I.E. Bach), this sus4 would resolve down to the third (a C in this case).  But in rock music, the sus chord has become accepted standalone.

C – Chorus

C - Chorus

1:08, 1:59, 3:59

The melody outlines a descending Db major chord, moving from the 5th degree of the scale, to the third, and then sliding down to the 1st.  The harmony mirrors this pattern, starting on the I chord, moving up to the iii, and then up to the V.

Interplay between melody and harmony

Interplay between melody and harmony

D – Bridge

D - Bridge


Like the into, this progression plays with rhythmic expectations, holding the lyric “hands” a little longer than you might expect.  This makes the “paint my” seem like the end of the measure, and at the same time seem like the beginning of the next measure.  The notation of this is not important (you could count it either way), what is interesting is the ambiguity, the tension.

Overall Form

If we consider A’ to mean the introduction material with lyrics, the overall structure of ideas is:

A B A’ C B C B A’ D C

With the sections identified, we can look for higher level patterns in the piece.  How did M&S put these ideas together, and why?  After looking at it a few different ways, what seems to make the most sense to me is using the chorus as the delimiter, it signals the end of a musical “paragraph” made up of the riff “sentences”.

The idea of a chorus is that it is familiar material that the listener can “relax” during, it is easier to keep up with a song when part of it keeps coming back. Choruses lend to sing along, pub-crawl type songs, because the chorus can be picked up quickly and everyone can join in when it comes back around. The chorus is the high point of the song, the third and final iteration is a clear climax.

A B  (intro – verse)
A C  (intro – chorus)

B C (verse – chorus)

B A’ (verse – intro)
D C (bridge – chorus)

Usually with a “verse chorus” song, we would have “intro, verse, chorus, verse, chorus, bridge, chorus”.  But that’s not what we have here.   Each iteration of “verse-chorus” is slightly different. The first one prefaces each with the intro riff, the last separates the verse from the chorus with the intro and a new “bridge” riff. And the middle version is as expected.

Ultimately theory has one purpose:  to make music more interesting to listen to.  So, does it make I Will Wait more interesting to label the C section as a chorus?  I think so, it makes the song easier to understand,  appreciate, and discuss.  But what makes this song more interesting than other rock songs, (perhaps what makes it more popular…?), is that it doesn’t stop there.  Great composers didn’t take a form and play fill in the blanks – they redrew the lines.

I will wait is more fun, because it strikes the balance between keeping us on our toes, with rhythm and form unexpectedness, and keeping us satisfied and comfortable by bringing back the same material, and having a good time to boot.  It is like a movie with a plot twist. “I see dead people” makes you remember the movie.  And rhythmic inventiveness, experimenting with variations on verse-chorus, makes you remember the song.

What do you think makes the song memorable?


photo credit: Anny Turolla via photopin cc

Scale Fundamentals

By: Aaron Zimmerman

What is a scale?Scales

Ask an adult who studied piano about scales, and they will likely roll their eyes and scowl.  Scales bring boring repetition to mind. We tend to think of them the way football players think of push ups. “That’s three wrong notes in a row, drop and gimme F# Major!”

But this is unfortunate. Scales are our friends, they make music easier to understand and learn.  Scales are one of the building blocks of music.

A scale is a collection of notes, usually formed by a pattern of intervals.  The scale is named by the note it starts on, and the pattern the intervals follow from there.    The “Major” pattern goes:

Whole, Whole, Half, Whole, Whole, Whole, Half.  Screen Shot 2013-06-18 at 5.23.51 PM

If you start this pattern on a C, you would play all of the white notes, yielding the C major scale.  Stay tuned for a follow up post that will go into detail on other scale patterns.

From a practical standpoint, music is full of actual scales.  Once you can play scales, you can play most Beethoven and Mozart.  Ok, there is a bit more to it, but not much really.  Page after page will just be variations on playing a scale up and down.

Learning to play scales

4 note scalesPhase 1 – “Four finger” scales.  A few months into lessons, after basic concepts like rhythm, counting, etc, are mastered, students can begin playing one octave scales, with the notes split between the hands.  So, using C Major as an example, the left hand plays “C, D, E, F” (starting with the 4th finger), and then the right hand plays “G, A, B, C” (starting with the thumb).

Phase 2 – Start thinking about scales as patterns, not just notes.  This is emphasized by the observation that you can move the root of a scale up a fifth, and play the same notes you just played, with the middle finger of your right hand playing a half note higher than previous.  That is, take the notes from C major, play them starting on a G, only raising the third finger of your right hand a half step.  And this can be repeated through the whole circle of fifths.  The inverse is also possible, move the root down a fifth, and now lower the thumb of your left hand a half step.

Phase 2

Phase 2

Phase 3 –  Start playing scales 2 octaves, hands together at a moderately slow tempo.   Usually this is somewhere in the late beginner, early intermediate stage, whenever it is technically possible to cross fingers.    From there move quickly through the scales, not worrying about perfecting the fingering or perfectly smooth playing, but rather emphasizing the scale as a pattern in and of itself.  The starting note doesn’t really matter.

Phase 4 – Play scales 4 octaves at a time, at a moderately fast tempo.  Emphasize smoothness in crossing over fingers, play all notes with a consistent, solid tone.  Introduce variations like playing in triplets, playing staccato to keep it interesting.  Part 2 will give some more examples on variations to try.

Scale Finger Patterns

No piano fingering is one size fits all, but there are well established scale fingerings that will probably work the best.  With 2.5 simple rules, remembering when to use which finger is easy:

1) Never play a black key with your thumb

2) Play in groups of 3 and 4

2.5) Try to minimize the number of cross overs

Try it, it really is that easy.  Scales that include a lot of black keys are the easiest because of rule 1.  If you only have 2 white keys, you know right off which keys your thumb will play.  Note that this is only true for 7 note scales.

Wrap up

Scales lend themselves to warm up sessions.  They are not technically challenging (at least not after a few years of practice), and they are a good pivot point for your brain and your fingers to shift into music mode.

But don’t think of scales as just for warming up.  There is a theoretical side to them that makes them an integral part of any music education.

Keep an eye our for part 2, wherin I will give details on different types of common scales, and suggest some ways you can vary scale practice to keep it challenging and engaging.

photo credit: JohnGoode via photopin cc

Music Theory Rocks

By: Aaron Zimmerman

Music Theory Rocks

Music theory sometimes gets a bad rap.

People tend associate music theory with tediums like naming notes, labeling chords, and determining form.   These are good skills to develop, they help answer questions about music that come up frequently.  But they are not at the core of music theory.

Music theory is an attempt to answer a simple question:

Why is this music good?

This is a different question than what makes music good.  That is a rabbit hole I’ll not venture down at the moment.  Rather, lets first just assume that a given piece is good, and try to figure out why.  What worked for this symphony?  What made this rap song memorable?  Theory is observations about music that has been created.  We learn about chords, scales, harmonies, because these form the basis for almost every piece of music we encounter.  When someone discovers a new way to make good music, we label it, share it, and discuss it.  Music evolves over time, as innovators discover new ways to create it.  Music theory is a reaction, a formalization of these discoveries.

Music theory is context, vocabulary, and enjoyment.

Most people can identify the chorus of their favorite pop songs.  This is an internalization, a labeling, of something they like in music.  Verse-chorus is a form, a pattern for organizing musical ideas.  It is an easy form for the listener to identify. There is a chorus that is always the same and a verse that is the same except for the lyrics.  By giving this pattern a name, we create three advantages:

Context –  We can identify where we are in the song, we can understand how the music will flow.

Vocabulary – We can talk about the song together – “I really like the chorus of that song”.  “I like American Pie, but it has way too many verses”, etc.

Enjoyment – We can identify what we like in music, and compare one piece to another.  A lot of music is an aquired taste, you have to develop a base line theoretical understanding of that music in order to appreciate the beauty therein.

Music theory changes how you listen.

If you listen to a pop song that doesn’t follow verse-chorus, it might take longer to appreciate, it might feel a bit awkward, and the end result could be something you like or something you don’t like. The more music you listen to, or study, the greater experience you will acquire.  The more music you have experienced, the larger your vocabulary, the more context you will have from which to appreciate a new piece you listen to, and the more enjoyment you will get from music of all kinds.

Music Theory Rocks

Along with other posts about teaching and learning piano, I’ll post an occasional analysis of a popular piece of music.  I’m not really sure how to define popular music, so I’ll just stick to the self-evident definition of “music that people seem to like”.

The purpose of the analysis is to think about why people like the piece in question.   Along the way I’ll try to point out core music theory concepts where they apply.  I’ll also be forced to use some of the jargon, I can’t explain what a scale is in every post, etc.  If you need a refresher on some basics, check out this post.

photo credit: rockfingrz Photography via photopin cc