This page was last modified June 29, 2015

Starting with the basic building blocks

The proper place to begin and how to do it. DO NOT RUSH THROUGH THIS STAGE. Your goal is to be able to play and harmonize (by ear), twenty to thirty simple songs, in all 12 keys.

The process is the same in each and every case: DO NOT REFER TO ANY WRITTEN SHEET MUSIC, fake books, or otherwise someone showing you what notes to play. In every case, you will LEARN THE MELODY AND CHORDS BY EAR.

  1. Learn to play the melody correctly by ear. You may listen to a recording if you need to.
  2. Figure out which is the primary key the song is in. There are 12 major keys.
  3. Learn the seven basic root-position triad chords in the left hand for that key.
  4. Learn the seven basic root-position 7th chords for that key
  5. .
  6. Learn the basic sus4 chords for that key.
  7. By ear, figure out the correct, "first-pass" (top level) harmonization for the melody using basic triads only. You may listen to an audio recording to help you, but only when you get stuck.
  8. By ear, fill in the basic structure by inserting additional triads, seventh chords, or sus4 chords between the chords of the top-level structure.
  9. The goal is generally one or two, but in rarer cases four, chords per bar.
  10. Practice the melody in the right hand, with left chord accompaniment, until you learn the song.
  11. Come back to the same song a few days later and practice with both hands (melody in RH, root position chords in the LH) until you can play it again proficiently. Repeat every couple days with this song until you don't have to "think" about it and you can successfully play it all the way through with little to no "trial and error."
  12. You may work on other songs in the meantime while doing the above two steps.

Once you start becoming proficient in the above, you may start transposing your songs into different keys as follows:

  1. Play the song (both hands, melody + chords) in the key you learned it in.
  2. Now transpose it to the two keys on either side of the circle of fifths (adding and subtracting a sharp/flat)
  3. Repeat the above on a handful of songs. Practice each song until you play it proficiently in all three keys. Then take a break for a couple days. Then come back to the same songs. Repeat until proficiency improves.
  4. Once you are at proficient level in three keys for each song, pick one song, transpose it in its entirety around the whole circle of fifths. Practice until you get tired.
  5. Step away for a day. Come back to that same song, again practice it around the entire circle of fifths.
  6. Take another break for a day or two.
  7. Come back, repeat.
  8. Once you gain some proficiency in one song around the circle of fifths.
  9. One you gain proficiency in one song around the circle of fifths, pick another song and repeat.

Song list

Apply the above procedure on a selection of folk tunes, Christmas melodies, children's melodies, as follows:

  • Happy Birthday
  • Mary Had a Little Lamb
  • Twinkle Twinkle Little Star
  • When Johnny Comes Marching Home Again
  • When the Saints Come Marching home

Some of these songs are just simple two- or three-chord cadences. Others are a bit more complex. The value in learning them by ear is that you learn the fundamental harmony upon which even more complicated forms of music are based.