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You have a student learning from scratch for say 3 months.
They can strum through 3 or 4 songs and they have learnt a
few scales and licks. Then one day they ask:
"How do I work out which chords go best with
each other if I'm trying to write my own songs?"
'Great! a creative student who is really keen to
And proceed to give them the answer:
'Well in each key you have a series of chords harmonised
by taking the notes of the major or harmonic minor scale and
building upwards missing out every other note as you go. This
gives you a series of chords of particular types like major,
minor, seventh, ninth etc and putting these chords together
in a sequence that accounts for cadences and key centres and
in some cases key modulation ........"
You stop because your student has just slid off his chair
and is lying in a semi-comatose state on the floor!
My Golden Rule Number 4 says:
Take care to teach the elements of music theory in the correct
Some older, wiser and more experienced tutor might answer
the same question like this:
"Well actually that's a very complicated question
and you're nowhere near ready to learn that sort of thing
There's a whole lot of things wrong with an answer like that
too: It invalidates the student, makes the subject sound hard
and will put them off from asking questions in future.
I recommend this approach:
"That's a good question and it's great that you're
already wanting to write your own songs"
Validates the student and encourages their creativity and
their willingness to ask questions.
"To understand how chords fit together we will have
to do a bit more basic music theory work first. I'll be happy
to get you started on that today if you like"
Student nods enthusiastically
"Let me see, we've already covered the note names
of each open string. We need to cover three more steps to
get to the subject of chord sequence construction."
You're mapping out the size of the task for them. The idea
is to harness their enthusiasm by putting it there that the
goal they are interested in attaining (ability to write songs)
is achievable, but that it will mean them applying themselves
to learning a logical sequence of contributory subjects along
"Okay. So the next step we need to cover is called
the Chromatic Scale. Right, take a look at this piano keyboard....."
The chief point of this article is this: You can't really
understand chord sequence unless you understand harmonisation.
You can't really understand harmonisation unless you understand
what a major scale is. You can't really understand the major
scale without first understanding the chromatic scale. And
this is what we mean by correct sequence.
Teach the chromatic scale first, then the major scale, then
you can begin to talk about key signatures, chord construction
Only then can you really begin to cover the subject of how
chords fit together in sequences. The subject of music theory
is tricky enough even when taught brilliantly. When taught
out of sequence it becomes quite literally impossible to grasp.
I strongly recommend you sit down and write out a list of
all the elements of music theory that you can think of and
then arrange them in order of correct sequence from a teaching
point of view.
That's quite a task in itself! Here's
what I came up with when I tried it..
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