How to Play Popular Music (101)

Let’s be honest: All of us got started playing an instrument to learn a handful of songs we really like.

Sure, we want to be able to play lots of other things besides that; but it was a song you loved that made you think, “It would be so cool to be able to play this on my piano (or guitar, violin, sax, etc)…”

For me, there were two songs. One was “Take it Easy” by the Eagles. The other was the old hymn Amazing Grace.

What were those songs for you? Let me know in the comments section (I’ll have to approve it though to make sure there isn’t any foul language or anything though). Here’s how you can get started…

I can play any song I hear on the radio. And you can, too. At least, you have the ability to, whether you know it or not. Sure, there are some songs that may take a little more figuring, but for the most part, pop songs are built on very simple principles that even novice musicians can grasp. This post will talk about chords, so applies mainly to those who play guitar and keyboards. I’ll talk about melody instruments at another time.

You may have heard the phrase: “three chords and the truth.” I believe Harlan Howard, a country artist originated that phrase when asked what real country music was. Well, country and pop music share a commonality in that you really don’t need much more than three chords to write a song. You can even get by with two, if you’re creative. Most popular songs only use 4 or 5 chords. So, just learn those chords and you can play the song, right? Pretty much. Let’s dive in.

I’m going to assume you have a basic understanding of major scales. If not, look them up ( and learn how they work. Basically, a major scale is a collection of notes in a specific key. Those notes are used to form the chords and melodies of songs. Every key has 7 notes. If you’re in the key of “C,” the notes of the major scale are: C D E F G A B. So where do we get those 3 chords to write our songs?

A chord is a collection of three or more notes played at the same time. The simplest chord is called a triad, which is three notes, and consists of notes that are spaced in intervals of a third. That’s fancy music lingo meaning you play three notes with one note in between each. So, starting on C, you’d skip D, and play E, skip F and play G. C-E-G is a triad, a major chord starting on C. A “C major chord.” This is easy to see on a piano, so maybe find a piano and sit down with some triads. Even if piano isn’t your main instrument, you’d benefit from understanding it.

Every major scale is built on the same combination of steps, whether half or whole. The pattern is always: WWHWWWH (W=whole, H=half). This pattern allows the chords based on each scale degree to always be the same quality, no matter what key you are in. The pattern of chord qualities (whether major, minor, or diminished) is: major, minor, minor, major, major, minor, diminished. This means, if you start on C (or whatever the first note is in the key you’re playing in), a triad built on C will be major (C-E-G). Move up to D, and the triad becomes minor (D-F-A). Start on E, and it’s minor (E-G-B), F is major (F-A-C), and so on.

How do we apply this to pop music? Check back next time….

Learning to read music

lenkaolenka asked: In order to teach student to read we use different presentation of Grand Staff

Posted in Reading Music by David. 21 Comments

How many music producers cannot read sheet music?

Aaron asked:

I want to be a music producer when I grow up, but I can’t read sheet music that well. This hasn’t stopped me however; I have successfully written music before. I just need to know which music producers cannot read sheet music, and how far they have gone in their career. Is reading music a limiting factor? I understand the basis of reading music, but if you gave me a sheet of music with complex rhythms, I could not play it. Just give me some names of music producers that I look up in depth. Oh and if it matters, I like producing electronic dance music.

Posted in Other - Music by David. 1 Comment