By Scott Houston
One consistent comment I hear from students in my classes and viewers of my TV show is: “Scott, this whole topic of correctly counting rhythms in the melody of a tune gives me a headache!” Well, here is the explanatory aspirin.
Don’t worry about reading rhythms, because you shouldn’t play things exactly as notated anyway. There, that was easy, huh? Let me explain.
Play that tune! Assuming we’re discussing any and all nonclassical styles of music (which is the milieu in which I “do my thing”), the hard reality is that counting feverishly and playing every melody note exactly as written will do nothing but make you sound like a corny amateur sheet music reader. Instead, you want to sound like a polished professional piano player, right?
I’ve never once heard a professional pianist out working a gig playing a melody as though he or she were playing with a metronome and counting feverishly. Have you? And if you had, would you ever go hear them again?
Probably not, because it is B-O-R-I-N-G.
Instead, you want to play a tune’s melody the same way you would whistle it, hum it, or sing it. In other words, freely and with some human element introduced. That’s something that written rhythmic notation can’t capture.
If you want to hear something played exactly as notated let your computer do it. That’s not making music, that’s just robotically reproducing someone else’s already written recording of music. It’s about as human and emotional as a cold rock. In a lead sheet like pros use to learn tunes (a melody line with chord symbols), it is understood that the rhythmic values as written are just a guide, not to be played verbatim.
“But Scott, [I hear you asking] what if I’ve never played the tune? How do I figure out the rhythm of the notes in the melody?” Ahhh … good question.
For now, ignore that you haven’t played the tune before. Instead, the pertinent question is: Have you ever heard the tune before, or do you truly have absolutely no idea what the tune sounds like? If you have no idea what it is you are sitting down to play, then your point is very well made and what I am saying here is nonsense. You will have to figure out how to count feverishly. Good luck …
But I’ll bet 99% of the time you do, in fact, know the tune already. That’s why you want to learn to play it in the first place, right? It’s not like you run up to your piano very often thinking “Oh, goody, goody! I just can’t wait to sit down and play this tune that I have absolutely no idea what it sounds like!” Of course not … Instead, you might remember a tune from your past as you flip through a fake book, or hear a tune on the radio that makes you think “I’d love to learn to play that on piano!”
So my point is, you already know the tune. You just haven’t played it on a piano yet. Guessing that you aren’t accomplished at playing by ear yet, you’ll probably want to find the melody line in a lead sheet to see what the note values are. (For example, first note is a C, then a D, followed by a G, etc.)
But, assuming you can hum or sing or whistle the tune, the rhythmic value of the notes you’ll already know in your head. Even better, what you know in your head will be more authentic and sound better than the written rhythmic values anyway!
So don’t let counting and rhythms keep you from playing a tune you want to learn how to play. Just play it like you hear it and you’ll be well on your way towards making music instead of just reproducing music. Have fun!
SCOTT HOUSTON is host of thePBS show the Piano Guy. learn more about his piano method at www.scotthouston.com.