I had a very intuitive way of introducing a basic chord sequence (I-IV-V) to one of my adult piano beginners the other day. I thought I’d share this with you. If you’re using a series of piano tutor books, it’s usually mapped out for you when to teach about harmony, and a chord sequence is usually shown in a popular folk tune. But how do you go about it when you’re not using one of those traditional tutor books. Especially with student with no previous music learning experience, it’s important not to cram too much information when they’re still trying to get around the keyboard to play simple pieces.

In one case, I’m using Christopher Norton’s American Popular Music, Repertoire Book 1. This student of mine never had any music learning experience before and now after a year on, she can learn short easy pieces on her own with some analytical skill to tackle them in the most economical way she could manage, she can also hum the melody along whilst playing and can identify a tonic note within the pieces. The other day, I saw her struggling to put the hands together when the left hand notes are changing every bar. These changing notes happen to be the root notes of the primary chords in the piece. Now, I say this is the perfect moment to choose to show how harmony works as part of making the learning process of the piece more meaningful. I started by posing a question, “if you were to choose 3 important notes from the left hand, which ones would you choose?” To guide through to the answer to that, we tried the following:

1. Checked whether she knew (internalised) the piece by asking her to hum the melody; for the first time by following the notes in the score, then for the second time with eye closed.

2. Memorised the left hand notes and their order & positioning; open 5th on D – single note G – single note A, then back to open 5th on D.

3. Combined 1. & 2. with eye closed. Sang the melody (no playing) whilst playing the left hand note(s). But had to aurally guess when to change the left hand note(s). This is for learning to let the ear anticipate the harmonic changes.

Once she managed to get it, putting hands together was no problem any more because she could guide her hands aurally. Now, the notes in the score became just a guide to follow the music she’s playing.

Then, I revealed that these changing notes play quite an important role to create different colours and moods in the piece, which is called harmony. It’s hard to ‘hear’ what harmony actually is with just one or two note(s) in the left hand, so we turned each one of them into a triad (in root position). A little knowledge about scale and its tonic note is necessary here to be able to introduce technical names for scale notes (not all, but those that are useful to explain the most important): Tonic – Supertonic – Mediant – Sub-Domiant – Dominant and roman numerals (I, II, III…)… Then we tried this:

4. Applied 3 triads (Dm, Gm & Am) to the melody singing that
we covered in 3.

5. Created our own melody by improvised ‘singing’ whilst playing the chord sequence in the left hand: Dm – Gm – Am – Dm.

6. Tried 5. in the key of C major as well to experience the difference between major and minor tonality; C – F – G – C. (She identified it as sounding like church music)

She was slightly hesitant about improvising to start with because she didn’t think she could do it. But when she found out that the left hand chords can actually guide her ear to find the notes that she thinks could work and they naturally come out in her voice, she tasted for the first time what it’s like to create something of her own!

Now that she understands how the harmony works within the piece, we took this opportunity to analyse the piece she’s working on and marked with I, IV and V under the left hand chord note(s). Then she could finally answer the question I posed in the beginning, “if you were to choose 3 important notes from the left hand, which ones would you choose?” The answer is: D, G and A. Why are they important? Because they define particular chords and each one of them plays a role of setting different colour and mood to create harmony.

Understanding harmony often helps internalise the music quicker, which often contributes towards economising the time spent in learning the piece and gives learners something more to listen to as they practise.

As you can see, what started off as showing how to practise a certain tricky section in the piece turned into a series of extra useful activities such as aural training, understanding harmony and improvising, which no doubt will be exercised again in the next new piece but this time with some gained knowledge! As a teacher’s point of view, I think I can say that no matter how simple the piece of music is, understanding how the music is written offers enough opportunities to work on a few musical details to make the learning process more meaningful than just connecting the dots on the sheet of paper.

Theory study doesn’t have to happen only on the paper.

Aural training doesn’t have to be something you do just for the exam.

And improvisation exercise doesn’t have to be a separate activity from the currently learning piece(s)!

Let’s discover something new in the pieces we’re learning now and make practising more fulfilling and productive!