“So Jim,” you say, “is this really the way you personally go about writing music? You arbitrarily pick out a chord progression, block out a simple structured melody, arpeggiate the bass in an up-and-down flowing pattern, and then modify the melody to make it more interesting. Really?”
No, that is not what I do at all. Here’s the real deal so far as what I seem to do. I go through the sounds available to me and flip through them hitting a note or two on each one. Eventually one will speak to me and and my hands will automatically hit a few notes that sound exactly right. I don’t even know what this means, but the phrase or riff of notes will be “true.” I will play that group of notes, that melody or rhythm, and I will do it over and over again until I know it. Then I wonder what would come next, what would answer it, and when the first bit finally tells me it is suddenly and obviously there on the keyboard and in my hands and it has doubled in size. The seed thus grows and subjectively I am watching, not doing and not reasoning. When the idea has grown to adolescence I then wonder what would go along with it if it does not seem complete by itself. And I search for another sound until something seems to fit and the process continues like that until no more ideas come or it just feels complete.
But that is not where I started. I started at age 3 in a toy store where I was drawn to a toy piano. I didn’t know what it was but I was mesmerized by it. My parents were unable to distract me from it as I stood there riveted and awe struck. They showed me toy weapons, toy trucks, balls, dolls, anything but that most expensive item in the toy area of the department store. I wouldn’t look at anything else. I didn’t ask to have it. I couldn’t speak and I couldn’t move. My parents couldn’t afford it, but they ended up buying it for me anyway.
[My first piano in the corner of my living room, complete with bust of Beethoven and candelabra.]
By the fourth grade I was studying at the Detroit Conservatory of Music, strictly classical stuff. Pop music of any kind never interested me apart from the early children’s songs I was taught as a beginner. I remember playing The Marine’s Hymn at approximately 90 miles per hour in the neighbor’s basement who happened to be a professional acoustic bass player and he asked me, “Why do you play that so fast?” I didn’t have an answer, but that was the first worthwhile music lesson I ever got, the notion that there was a proper tempo for a piece of music. I didn’t get that before then, back in first grade.
The first pop music that captured my imagination was Black Sabbath, something about the power and rawness of it all. It wasn’t Bach or Mozart, but it was alive and compelling. That was at age 16.
I started college late, about age 22 and started out minoring in Music with a major in Psychology and also a minor in writing. As I went through my freshman year I looked over the requirements for a minor as compared to a major in Music and I discovered I wanted to take all those classes for the major so I got permission from the music school and changed my music minor into a music major. I got through it easy enough.
A number of years after graduating college I was talked into joining a classic rock band. It was like I had no clue whatsoever how to play in a band. I had been doing music solo my entire life and here I am about 30 years old, accomplished in classical music, and I couldn’t really do anything at all with that band. It was a whole new education in learning music by ear off records and also learning how to improvise and create parts for songs that had no keyboard part on the original recordings. It was a ton of work and worth every bit as much as my formal education. They taught me and I taught them and the whole thing became something magical. With them over a ten-year period I performed live shows for money a little over a thousand times.
And then I damaged the thumbs in both my hands. It doesn’t show, but I tore some soft tissue inside at the base of both thumbs doing heavy lifting work and that damage doesn’t show up on x-rays. I couldn’t play at all and had to quit the band. I didn’t do anything with music for seven full years.
I’d performed with Martha Reeves, members of Bob Seger’s Silver Bullet Band, David Gilbert — lead singer of The Rockets, and a host of “One Hit Wonders” from Motown. As I was walking away from it all I had an offer to audition as a formality before joining Rare Earth as a permanent replacement for their keyboard player who was quitting to enjoy raising a family. It hurt not performing for a couple weeks and I just went about other things and trying to get by at work with limited use of my hands. I managed to get by.
I leave out much more than I include throughout. I’m retired from GM. I started writing music as a casual hobby in 2006. It is still just a casual hobby. I teach piano with just a few students because it keeps me in touch with the basics. Most recently I have retrained my hands which are now functional but I will never be the keyboard player I once was; I have healed as much as possible and have to be careful not to move my thumbs in certain ways.
I can’t gift you a lifetime of study and performance experience. I can’t teach you how to listen to a sound and let it tell you how to hear what it wants to do. You have to go out and learn how to play for yourself. I am putting together my own understanding of how music works and how to create it based on my experience in a way that some will be able to follow and others won’t. I’m making some of this shit up as I go along, but I’m doing it with the voice of formal education coupled with a wide variety of well-rounded musical experience.
Is this hard and am I going too fast? Sure, if you are a rank beginner. But you don’t have to keep pace and you can get some novice piano books to bring yourself up to speed and maybe even take some lessons to get your fingers working properly on a physical music keyboard. Poking at a physical instrument is not something you can entirely replace with a freeware music processor like NotePad.
But I digress. The truly difficult part is that I am, for all intents and purposes, speaking to a blank wall. I see the page hits, but I can’t see what you are and are not getting. So this is all very much like I am writing a book more so than teaching a class. It is the nature of the beast.
Next time I will indeed continue on with our little assignment for making a passage of music with the I – vi – IV – V chord progression. It is such a gem of a simple circular pattern. Last time I mentioned the song “Stand By Me.” As I puttered around with the chord progression myself I kept falling into playing “Unchained Melody” by the Righteous Brothers.
So there’s another of the monster hits using I – vi – IV – V. There are many many others. I’ll have to use a different feeling bass clef accompaniment than I have been using so far just to avoid falling into that ancient classic. Next time, I promise, we start playing with it.