Who do you ask in your band when you’re stuck on a couple of the chords for a tune you’re learning?
The drummer? Cue the sound of gratuitious drummer jokes.
The singer? Some singers have got a good grasp of harmony, but there’s a lot of good singers out there who get by strictly by ear and don’t even know how to stack thirds to make a chord. They can tell you if something’s right or wrong – but not why.
The bass player? For all the drummers out there we should throw in some gratuitious bass player jokes.
No, the go-to guy in this situation is sometimes the guitar player, but mostly it’s the keyboard player. And if you’ve got access to both, the keyboard player is usually the guy who knows the harmony precisely. Not that it’s a C7 chord. But it’s a C7 chord with a G in the bass. Or with a 9 stacked on top. Or whatever.
And will give you chapter and verse on inversions if you have the temerity to ask about it.
So why do keyboard players have the best ears?
If you can get your hands on a Beginner’s Course for Piano you’ll find the answer within the first few lessons.
Like any course of instrumental instruction, the first few lessons are filled with basics. How to sit at the piano. What angle to hold the arms. How to strike the keys. How much force to be used.
And then will come the first basic exercises for the piano. Playing five notes starting from C with the thumb and fingers of the right hand. Doubling it with the left hand.
And then extending the range of the hand with thumb under technique.
How does this make their hearing of music superior to other musicians?
It’s what comes next.
Somewhere around Lesson 4 or 5 will be a simple practice piece – so simple that if you or I sat down with a keyboard and the course we could get to it within 60 minutes and play it after a few run throughs without any problems.
But this practice piece will contain the keyboard player’s secret ingredient – different parts for two hands. And often the left hand will contain a chord that’s maybe sustained, while the right hand plays a melody.
And the secret’s right there.
Playing a chord with one hand. Playing a melodic and/or rhythmic figure with the other hand.
What’s so secret about that? Keyboard players have been doing that for centuries?
It’s no secret.
But it might as well be. Because nearly all musicians will defer to the keyboard player when questions come up about keys, or chord progressions, or modulations.
And it’s also no secret that the MD of most bands is a keyboard player.
The keyboard player’s secret is in his training. And his practice.
A good keyboard player might spend 5 years, or 10 years, or more, on learning his instrument. And for the bulk of the time he spends practicing he’s using two hands.
So he’s always hearing chords as well as dealing with melody.
So after 10 years he’s played a Major 7th chord like a gazillion times. And minor chords. And 7th chords. And minor 7th flat 5 chords.
And he knows what they sound like intimately. If you take him away from his instrument and play a chord and ask him what type it is, he’ll know.
Because he’s heard that chord a gazillion times. He owns the sound of it. He’s intimately familiar with it in a way that the majority of us harmonically impoverished bass players will never be.
But learning to recognize chord sounds can be learnt, right?
There are courses at music college that deal just with ear training. There are books out there that will help. Software programs that can drill us.
But the important point to remember is that this takes time.
And taking these courses costs you time away from your instrument – whereas the keyboard player was able to develop this magical hearing ability that we all envy as a by-product of his daily practice.
And that’s what we’ll look at in the next article. How bass players can model the practice behaviour of keyboard players to make their musical hearing better at the same time as they practice their bass