Wulf's Webden

The Webden on WordPress

Dots or Chords?

There’s a joke that, if you want to shut the guitarist up, you just need to give them the sheet music. Something similar works on pianists – keep them quiet by expecting them to play from a chord sheet. The subject came to mind in a discussion I pitched into on the Worship the Rock forum this morning, with a church director of music asking for ideas on how to provide pianists with suitable scores.

I suspect the reason the joke finds some basis in reality is that many pianists learn how to perform from written music in a relatively formal framework while guitarists more often learn by jamming around and start from chord shapes without having a clue how they fit on the stave. Influence and blindsides from musical background applies for many instruments and even within subsets – I’ve met violinists who freeze up when asked to jam and fiddlers who can’t follow the dots to save their lives.

One of the places where musicians from formal and informal traditions come together is in worship bands. This creates the challenge of different members of the group wanting their music dished up in different ways. In my present setting, we largely use a collection of books called Songs of Fellowship, each of which has a basic piano part including melody and chords. It isn’t perfect but it has provided a good meeting ground. However, as the collection of books grows older and we develop a better projection system, allowing use of songs outside the lyric books in the pews, we are starting to draw on a wider range of sources and thus shifting onto ground where those who rely on following dots are at a disadvantage.

Creating bespoke parts can be very time-consuming. Last night I worked up a simple bassoon part for a young player who is going to join us for one song on Sunday. That probably took an hour or more from composing the part to producing a PDF to email out. I think one of the other contributors to the discussion was on the right track by suggesting software like Band in a Box (BIAB) as a tool to autogenerate a stylised keyboard part from a chord progression. iReal Pro would be another contender – I’ve just started using that this week as it seems all the other jazz musicians in my area have standardised on it. Primarily it allows sharing chord charts and quick transpositions when the singer wants to shift the key but it can play accompaniments in multiple styles and, as I understand it, generate MIDI output.

However charts are produced – sofware, online sources or manual composition – they have got to be used in the context of the whole band. Putting it harshly, if the pianist is just going to mechanically play the dots, you have to wonder if it wouldn’t be better just to use a tool like BIAB to replace them, cutting out hours of work and allowing a change to a different style with the click of a button! I think the average pianist (or other dot-dependent) would benefit from spending some time working on (a) letting what they hear from the rest of the band influence what they play as much as the dots and (b) building the skills of playing from chords and even entirely by ear. Likewise, those from a less formal background would benefit from learning how to read, spell chords and understand harmonic structure.

That means developing the skills needed to build bridges (I’m with the Pope on wanting bridges, not walls); worthwhile but also demanding work.

Comments are closed.