Time, Tonality and Harmony
We all want to improve as musicians, but it can be hard to identify clear ways to improve. Just starting to practice on a regular basis can help you enormously, but it can also be a real challenge. Many times it’s hard to decide what to practice when you finally sit down with your instrument, right? We are all on the quest to become a better musician.
Part of the challenge is knowing what is most important to practice each time you sit down. How can you use your practice time to improve as a musician on a consistent basis. To address this, we each have to learn to reflect on our playing and knowledge and to turn that reflection into action. But regardless of whether you are a beginner or a really advanced player, there are some aspects of being a musician that always matter and can always be improved on. You can use these areas as a structure to start thinking about and analyzing what you can work on when you’re practicing. Here are some of the most important ones to me.
Your Sense of Time
At the very foundation of all music is time. You can think of time as the heartbeat (or groove) of the music, and rhythm as the dance that happens from that beat. Every rhythm you play is just a way to dress up the heartbeat underneath everything. How deeply and accurately you feel this underlying heartbeat determines how strongly everyone else will respond to the music. When you really know the heartbeat, your music becomes undeniable. You can often know when you have it, because the crowd will feel compelled to get up and dance.
Think of time as the heartbeat (or groove) of the music, and rhythm as the dance that happens from that beat.
The most important aspects of time to develop are your sense of the beat and its subdivision. We all can count the main beats of a song (think of the drummer counting off “One! Two! Three! Four!”) but do you know how those beats are subdivided? You can usually tell by listening to the drummer’s hi-hat part. Are they playing eighth notes? Sixteenth notes? Triplets? Is the subdivision straight, laid back or played on top of the beat? Is it swung?
Trick #1 – When you sit down to practice, try to think about the subdivisions happening in the music you love and create exercises that help you play them. Start simple. Play your scales or strumming patterns with quarter notes, then with eight notes. Do that for a week and then try sixteenth notes. Start with a slow tempo and ease into it. After a month or two of exploring subdivisions by twos, try exploring subdivisions by threes. Try some triplets. Take your time, have patience, be in the moment and try to think systematically as you create various exercises for yourself. You will probably find that you will stumble on musical ideas you like as you do this. Enjoy exploring them as soon as they come up. When they bore you, go back to your exercises.
Your Sense of Tonality
I cannot tell you how many times I have been in a rehearsal with someone who does not have a clue what key they are in. It’s critical that you know this, because everything you play comes from a key whether you know it or not – and if you don’t know, you may find yourself being that guy in the band who seems to have five heads.
Don’t be that guy in the band who seems to have five heads.
There are two things to know about the key you’re in. First is the tonal center. This is the note everything is organized around. When someone says “let’s play in A major” – they are telling you that everything they are about to play is organized around the pitch “A”.
Second, when they say “major” they are telling you the particular type of organization they are using around the pitch “A”. In this case, they are using the major scale (which is a series of whole and half steps) as a pattern for organizing pitches. The result is a tonality – a set of pitches organized around a central pitch (“A” in this example).
Incidentally, this is why scales are so important. It’s not enough to understand the idea of tonality – you need to be able to play it on your instrument. Scales are just specific instances of tonalities.
Trick #2 – When practicing, consider killing two birds with one stone by practicing your scales with specific subdivisions you want to improve on. For instance, you might choose one scale a day to practice with eighth notes for a week. If you practice every day of the week, you will be much more comfortable with seven new scales and your sense of eighth note rhythms will be much deeper.
Your Sense of Harmony
Once you know the tonality you are in, you can use the pitches and interval relationships inside it to create harmony. Harmony is created anytime you make the listener hear two or more pitches at the same time. You can combine pitches however you like, but we all tend to hear these pitches in similar ways (which we call harmonic function). The ways we hear groups of pitches and how we name them varies. I recommend starting with roman numerals or nashville numbers and the triads associated with them inside of the tonality you are working in.
Trick #3 – In any major key, there are seven basic types of chord function (since each basic type of chord in a key is built on a note in the scale). These chord functions are described with numbers that correspond to the pitch in the scale they are built on (if you build a chord on the first note in the scale, it’s called a 1 or I chord – but if you build it on the second pitch in a scale, it’s called a 2 or ii chord). If you are in nashville you write this function with arabic numbers (1, 2, 3, 4, etc.), but they are called “Nashville Numbers”. In most other music contexts, we use the classical theory system that uses “Roman Numerals” (I, ii, iii, IV, etc.).
You can use these naming conventions to identify and make chord progressions. In C major, chords 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 and 7, respectively are C, D-, E-, F, G, A- and B diminished. Once you learn these chords in C major, see if you can find them in other major keys you know.
A Final Thought:
Once you have found a few things to work on in each of these categories, take the time to practice them each time you pick up your instrument. Organize your practice sessions into a routine so you don’t have to decide what to work on each time you sit down. If you can get into regular routine that address each of these three areas, I guarantee that you will find yourself improving and be well on your way on The Quest to Become a Better Musician.