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Synth Sense

Our beginners' synth column isn't just for tech types, but guitarists, drummers, even roadies too

Do you sincerely want to be a world class classical pianist? Then go rub your head because Synth Sense is for sensible people who want to learn the essentials of keyboard playing. If you're a guitarist, bassist or random fiddler, we'll use your existing musical knowledge to guide you round the notes. At least Andy Honeybone will.

Are you sitting comfortably? Well, are you? Is your big sissy bottom on its stool properly? Almost certainly not. Before we plunge deep into the techniques of ever better keyboard playing, let's look at the simple art of sitting (at the keyboard). It may seem a pain in the... well, any muscle you care to think of below the waist but the correct posture today will pay off in months to come if you seriously want to build up ability, speed and application. Sit like this.

1) The body should be inclined slightly forward (as in the ceremonial Yamaha bow).

2) Keep the shoulders low.

3) The upper arm should be maintained vertically, as if you were fitting a restraining strap around the chest, ready for the funny white van.

4) The forearm should be horizontal, and at right angles to the keyboard (continuing the line of the keys).

5) The hand (palm down) should form a straight line with the forearm.

6) The back of the hand should be held flat, as if your mates have balanced a
pint of beer on each, and gone off and left you.

This is the 'ready' posture. For non touch-sensitive keyboards, striking a key is just a matter of lowering a straight finger, hence the wrist is held higher than the level of the keys. For the piano, moderately loud passages require the wrist to be lower and the fingers more curved, and for very loud passages, the rest is allowed to fall below the level of the keys to prevent rapid detachment from the forearm. It's all a question of convenient leverage.

Having dealt with posture, we can now dwell on the techniques fingering a series of notes, and at least set up some definitions so we all know what we're talking about. Following one note with another involves a fair degree of choice. The second note may be in addition to the first, or maybe the next note in a monophonic melody.

For the latter, the transition between notes may be distinct (staccato - the first note ends before the second begins), or smooth (legato - one note melts into the next). For those brushing up on their holiday Italian; staccato = 'detached', legato = 'bound together'.

In the days of dodgy, ancient, monophonic synths (before the merciful advent of multiple triggering) you had to adopt a severe staccato fingering to ensure a new trigger would be generated for the next note... synths were easily confused. Fortunately, today's technology no longer forces such radical departures from accepted practice.

A good legato is handy for a pianist (to give a sustained note without the use of the pedal) but is of less importance to electronic keyboards where the envelope generators can assist. So now you've been told. And even if you've read between the lines and guest you don't really need to know any of it, we have given you some ammunition to fire at the moaning minnies who swear it's all posing and knob twiddling.

Anyway, what do you expect from a first lesson? You've sat at the keyboard and pressed a couple of notes. If this was private tuition I would have stung you for a tenner.

A midnight sacrifice of old Rick Wakeman albums over a boiling pit is not necessary. Brilliant idea, but not necessary. There are no secret rites behind understanding keyboard playing. It can be picked up and improved on, without wrapping your body in music notation, dipped in bats' blood.

If you already play guitar you're more than halfway there. So that's where Making Music will start, on the reckoning that there are plenty of guitar players, or occasional twangers who know the keyboard music they'd like to make, and just need a hand getting there, without being spoken to like a 12 year old who's lifted the piano lid for the first time.

Chords are chords, irrespective of their origin, and translation from frets to ivories is surprisingly simple.

In fact the keyboard is an excellent device for realising the theoretical aspects of harmony, and although that may not sound a strong sales line, believe me, it's a plus. If all goes to plan, you should be convinced by the end of this piece.

Let's get the obvious out of the way first. Aside from not needing a plectrum, the keyboard has a number of keys, each with one note, and none of them repeated. The guitar, in contrast can produce the same note several times over by different string and fret combinations (you do it when tuning up for example).

But the guitar has limitations. The largest chord can only be six notes wide (you've only got six 'tone generators' - the strings). The musical interval of of a fourth between the strings, combined with the maximum stretch of your hand (from index to little finger) makes close harmonies within chords difficult.

The feeling of tension within a chord is often achieved by these small intervals (like the two adjacent chromatic notes of E and F - a minor second) and they are robbed of the impact when separated by the best part of an octave to form a comfortable fingering on the guitar.

To overcome this last limitation, the guitar player resorts to tricks such as fingering a chord above the fifth fret but leaving an open string within it. In this way the interval between the open string and fretted string can be small without compromising the structure of the rest of the chord.

The guitar is very much a parallel device by which I mean that patterns such as barre chords can be relocated anywhere on the fret board to give a transposed version of the original but with the same character (major/minor etc.).

It doesn't work like that for the keyboard.

Paul von Janko did design an alternative keyboard so that all chords had the same shape, but the fact that you probably never heard of him should indicate the success of his invention.

True physically parallel shapes can only be played on the white notes of a keyboard. The difference over the guitar is that as the shape is moved away from the starting position it flips between major, minor and diminished qualities. The layout of the keys is such that if a constant pattern is applied at different places, the internal intervals will not be constant.

Play the basic keyboard chord shape C, E, G. You should have two fingers free, and they shouldn't be at one end. So let's have thumb on the C, middle finger on E and little finger on G (your right hand, that is). Keeping this shape and moving the whole hand one white note to the right produces this rising sequence: C major, D minor, E minor, F major, G major, A minor, B diminished and octave C major. Points to notice - the components of the three chord trick are all present and have the same fingering.

Taking this shape business a bit further, it turns out that there are other configurations which are constant within a given key for the three chord trick. Try A flat, C, E flat. Use the C major fingering, or swap the index finger for the thumb if it feels more comfortable. Next, start the shape on D flat and then move it at home hire (two semitones) to begin on E flat. There you have it - this time in the key of A flat.

In case you were thinking that every key could be dealt with in this fashion, let me bring you down to earth by describing the last same-shape-three-chord-trick. This is it: A, C sharp, E. Once fingered, repeat the shape starting on D and finally move it up to E. Last but not least the key of A falls within your grasp.

All the chords so far described have taken their name from the lowest note of the chord. They are described as first inversions to differentiate them from other collections of the same notes piled on top of each other in a different order. If you fancy stretching your mind, explore the other two inversions for each of the three shapes described above. For example, play the C major in the order E, G, C and G, C, E. Go through the three chord trick progressions which you should find to your amazement, will still hold up under the rearrangement.

To come back to what I said about using the keyboard to suss chord shapes from a little theoretical knowledge, my point is this: from the above you can see that physically parallel shapes have very limited use on the keyboard and so to cover all chords and their extensions, we must either be able to recall or calculate every individual pattern. Obviously, you quickly commit to memory a repertoire of commonly used chords but if something out of the ordinary in an unfamiliar key is called for it is better to be able to fathom the chord from an understanding of its make up rather than blowing your credibility by reaching for a chord dictionary. More of this later.

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Technically Speaking

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Making Music - Copyright: Track Record Publishing Ltd, Nexus Media Ltd.


Making Music - Apr 1986

Feature by Andy Honeybone

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