Understanding the Number System for Piano
Whether you're a relatively new musician or an experienced piano player, you should always be on the lookout for a new technique or method to add to your piano-playing arsenal.
In this article, AIMM instructor Steven Yelich will teach you the secrets of the number system so you can easily play most of today's pop music on the piano.
Steven will guide you through a unique method of interpreting music that will make playing popular music easy!
About Steven Yelich
Steven Yelich holds a bachelor's degree in music and a master's degree in jazz. He has been teaching for over ten years, and he is currently the bandleader and rehearsal director for a party band.
Today he's going to show you how easy it is to play popular songs on the keyboard using the number method.
Check out the videos below, along with the supplemental highlight transcriptions, so that you can conquer the number method.
Table of Contents
- Build A Basic Understanding
- Why The Major Scale Is Important In Pop Music
- Chords I III And vi
- Hold Your Own With The Number System
- More Examples of The Number System
- Mr. Brightside
- Thinking Out Loud
- Learn More With Steven
Build A Basic Understanding
To get started, you're going to use letters of the alphabet to refer to keys on the piano.
Start with A, which is the one that's most of the way through our group of three, and count up the alphabet until you repeat yourself.
Once you repeat yourself, you've reached an octave. An octave is eight notes apart; it's a unit of distance between two notes.
The musical alphabet goes from A to G.
The major scale is critical when you're learning modern music, or any music really. The major scale you will work with today is C major, which is introduced because there are no sharps or flats. You only deal with natural notes.
Why The Major Scale Is Important In Pop Music
A major scale is a group of notes that give you a series of chords. Those chords are what make up the harmonies of the songs you hear on the radio.
On the C major scale, C is the most important note.
The most important note on a scale is often called "tonic."
To play the chords, you play a note, skip a note, play a note, skip a note, and so on. That seems to be the formula we love to hear.
We love hearing things in thirds, so one, three, five. When you put that together, you have a root, a third, and a fifth.
You may notice this chord sounds "happy." That's the stereotypical word we use to describe major chords.
If you turn it into a minor chord, you can hear the change in character and change the chord quality. It almost sounds sad.
You want to use capital letters and lowercase letters to indicate whether something's major or minor. If it's a capital letter, it's major, and a lowercase letter is minor.
You're going to use roman numerals, so i means 1, ii or II means two, and so on. You may also notice what looks like a little degree symbol, a small circle in the upper right.
In music, that symbol refers to a different chord quality. It's not major, and it's not minor. It's diminished. Diminished doesn't sound particularly happy or sad. It just sounds diminished.
However, major scales are essential in pop music.
Pop songs, rap songs, blues, country, jazz songs, and any music you can think of make very heavy use of the major scale.
Maybe not in the way you learned the major scale in elementary school, but in the sense that the chords derived from the major scale are out together to make the song we love.
Chords I III And vi
To dive into the number system, let's look at I, III, and vi. These chords happen in sequence all the time.
For example, there's a Meghan Trainor song, Like I'm Gonna Lose You, where those chords follow each other.
Another song is Kiss Your Past Good-Bye by Aerosmith.
When you learn these basic chords, the only problem you'll have with leaving the key is knowing how and why you can do that. In the musical world, rules are meant to be broken!
The goal is to teach you that a major scale, though it seems like something boring you learn in elementary school, is really something you have to understand if you're going to write or perform modern western music or pop music.
Another excellent example of the I, III, and iv chords following each other is Don't Stop Me Now by Queen.
Hold Your Own With The Number System
Once you learn these major scales and the number system, you can perform with a vocalist, a bassist, maybe a guitarist and some brass instruments, and hold your own as a keyboard player because you can play the harmony that goes along with the tune.
That's how quickly you can get from zero to 100.
But, it should be emphasized that being a fantastic musician isn't something that happens overnight.
You have to dedicate yourself to something like an AIMM program and spend a lot of time with your instrument. There is no substitute for time spent with your instrument. By the way, if you're looking for something newer or better, check out our article discussing the 5 best electronic keyboard brands.
More Examples of The Number System
Now we'll look at a few more examples of songs that bounce between one chord and another.
First, Sunday Morning by Maroon 5 is exclusively a ii V I.
There are a few songs that do a I and ii, and one of the most popular is Valerie by Amy Winehouse, the very fast version.
It has a very distinct rhythm, but the chords just vacillate between I an ii.
Now, for those of you with a little bit of experience, you probably saw that I was doing something other than just root thirds and fifths.
We can go beyond that, but the way you should start practicing is by looking at tunes where you can get away with just playing root thirds and fifths and playing it along with the recording.
Now we'll take a look at a few specific songs and examine them. Believe it or not, Mr. Brightside by The Killers uses the same principles we've been talking about.
I know many of you think that it isn't and that it's just heavy distorted guitar and everything else.
But if you've been paying attention so far and listening to the pitches, you'll realize everything we've discussed fits nicely into the song.
Thinking Out Loud by Ed Sheeran introduces a new concept to us called inversion.
Take a look at what we have in Thinking Out Loud, A, C, E, and G. It's a i chord. If you take the C and move it up an octave, you still have a C, E, and a G, so it is still a C major chord.
It looks different, so we call this an inversion. An inversion is just where you flip something over.
You can take a set of voices, you haven't changed what the voices are, you just moved one to a different spot.
It looks different visually, and it sounds a little bit different. Other examples that Steven utilizes include Shout, Love Yourself, and Shut Up and Dance.
Learn More With Steven
As you can see, if you can grasp the roman numerals and the number system, you have the opportunity to learn and understand so many songs. If reading this article and watching the videos inspired you to pursue additional education, that is great to hear!
There is no substitute for time with your instrument. And while you're spending time with your instrument, why not spend that time somewhere you'll be inspired and educated?
The Atlanta Institute of Music and Media offers the following programs for keyboardists:
- Music and Technology Associate Degree: Keyboard Concentration
- AIMM Performance Certificate: Keyboard Concentration
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