Sunday, June 21, 2015

Block, Broken, Marching: Love those Chords!

Quick Reminder: What's a Chord?
Photo courtesy of Facebook user Sara Young

By now you're very familiar with the Red, Blue, and Yellow triangles your Let's Play Music teacher uses in class.  Triangles have 3 corners to emphasize that a chord has at least 3 notes heard together. (Yeah, when you graduate from LPM you will learn chords with more than 3 notes.)  

Block Chords
So, if a chord must have at least 3 notes, one straightforward way to play it is to strike all 3 notes simultaneously.  Your ear hears all 3 sounds merged together into one sweet creation: the block chord. Block chords can sound very strong, loud, and powerful in songs. Or they can sound rich and deep.

One of my favorite things about Let's Play Music is when my 5-year-olds sing and play "Old Paint" at the very begging of 2nd year. It's their first time on the piano and they already sound loud, rich, and complex because they are playing chords AND overlaying with the melody of their voice. It sounds SO GOOD from day one.  This is very motivating and the students want to sit down and play for hours!

When reading chord maps in year one, we touched each triangle as the entire chord was played on the beat.   We generally consider all chords played on the harp as block chords (students strum all notes in one swift movement, or at least they try to!)

Block Chord Ear training: Listen to this sample of block chords playing.  The first activity is just like ones we do in class to help students distinguish when we change from one chord to a different one.  The second activity is for to practice identifying which chords are heard in a pattern.  Ear training practice helps our students recognize cadences in music they hear every day, all around them!

Reading Blocks: Since music is read from left to right, notes that are stacked on top of one another are played at the same time.  Learning to recognize the familiar shapes of block chord structures, and teaching the hand muscles to quickly play them is a great skill that all Let's Play Music students graduate with.  As we mentioned in our post on note reading, musicians look at notes and chords in chunks.  You may scrutinize one note of the chord for accuracy, then let the shape of it guide your hand to magically perform the rest of the chord!

By graduation, students will have no trouble playing block chords all over the keyboard, like these.  If you ARE a third year student, what color are these chords!? (The answer is at the end of the post!)

Broken Chords
So, a chord has three or more notes.  A delightful variation is to play the notes one at a time instead of all at once.  Broken chords can change the feeling of a song into something delicate and lilting when played piano and legato or give a sharp and spicy impression when played forte and staccato!

A fabulous word that means 'broken chord' or 'notes of a chord played in sequence' is arpeggio.  Nothing beats having your five-year-old approach a guest over at your house, and announce, "I'd like to play you some arpeggios on the piano, for your listening pleasure."

In the first year of Let's Play Music, we played songs like "On Top of Spaghetti" to practice with broken chords.  Although we did use a chord map, we tapped each corner of the triangles while listening to the accompaniment to emphasize that we are hearing each note of the chord separately (broken chords.)  

Arpeggio Ear Training: Broken chords (arpeggios) are used in Let's Play Music ear-training just as often as block chords.  It is often easier for the students to figure out which chord I am playing if they can hear the notes one at a time, hearing the individual notes and intervals between them.  If I play a block chord and the student can't identify it, I usually play broken style and they can recognize it.  In each of these tracks, can you tell which chord I play? 

Reading Broken Chords: Just like you read a book left-to-right, you play the notes from left-to-right one at a time. You'll get excellent practice with songs like "Lullaby." Because arpeggios are so common, composers often write a block chord and put the arpeggiate symbol next to it.  It just means 'spread this out' and is a handy way to save paper if you write a lot of broken chords. If you want the chord to be played top-to-bottom, add a downward arrow to the symbol.

Some delightful variations that will be very useful in composing music are fun to experiment with now (why wait!?).  After playing the 3 notes of a chord, why not repeat the first note again an octave higher (shown above)? Play the arpeggio going up and then back down! Fancy!  (You'll have to use fingers 1-2-3-5; that's tricky!)

Looking for another way to add a fourth beat? Play the broken chord and then replay the middle note. This can really spice up an accompaniment.  Red, Blue, Yellow, and Red chords in broken style:

There's no need to play a boring bug-bug-bug-bug rhythm.  Take these notes and add a calypso rhythm to make your composition even fancier! That's what what you'll see when you play "Tinga Layo".

Marching Chords
In Let's Play Music we highlight one more fun way to play chords: Marching style.  Like a mixture of block and broken, the chord is played in two beats.  First play just the lowest note of the block, then play all the others. Voila! You've got some marching chords.

You can play around with marching in your own compositions.  Mix up the rhythms or repeat the low or high to create some cool sounds.  In third year we'll also play marching by having the right hand and left hand alternate for a marching sound.  Can you play this cool composition I just made completely of red chords?

Have Fun with Chords
Photo courtesy of Facebook user Juliane Wolf
Now that you know the secrets of block, broken, and marching chords, you can change the way you play songs!  In Let's Play Music classes, we train complete musicians. That means students understand how songs are put together, have the power to improvise the way they play what is written on the page, and can compose their own music. 

So give it a try! Go play with chords and create something new! 

Block Chord Reading Quiz Answer:These chords shown are shown in different inversions.  They are: Red, Red, Red, Blue, Blue, Yellow, Yellow, Red. Or you could say I, I, I, IV, IV, V, V, I.  You must look at the key signature to be sure that the first block chord is a I (Red)! Our 3rd year students are so smart!

-Gina Weibel, M.S.
Let's Play Music teacher

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