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Lindsey Kuper

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Things I learned from playing the guitar for the first time [Feb. 6th, 2008|02:45 am]
Lindsey Kuper

(So, aside from the fact that one doesn't have to hold the strings down all the way to the fretboard, but rather just enough that they touch the fret, which saves one from having Marianas-sized trenches in one's fingers, which I am the last person in the world to have figured out,) I learned that when I play the piano, I don't perceive a lot of variance in difficulty among any of the chords I might want to play. I hit the keys and the sound comes out. Probably this is partly because I've been playing the piano for fifteen years, but I think it has something to do with the nature of the instrument, too. On the piano, a B Major triad is isomorphic to an A Major triad, right? Same interval vector. You just shift your hand over a little bit without changing its position. "You do too change position." Well, okay, fine, you move your pinkie a little bit north, but the black keys aren't inherently special!1 They're small and black because that's what was convenient for Western tonal music 600 years ago! I'm sure everyone else knew this already, but it's just so interesting to me that we all think of the piano as this entirely compositional-system-agnostic thing, and it just isn't.

On the guitar, a chord change is a linear transformation. (Moving your hand forward or backward a fret, keeping it in the same position, would give you a different interval vector.) Some major triads take more effort than others. In fact, you can hear the tension and strain in my singing voice as I struggle to simultaneously play a B chord that doesn't suck. Luckily, this actually adds to the piece since tension is desirable on the dominant. You just aren't supposed to sound calm and unstrained while singing phrases like, "I love you/It's not just the Prozac talkin'." The chord shouldn't be easy to play, dammit! It all makes sense!

Wikipedia on David Lewin on transformational theory:

While traditional musical set theory focuses on the makeup of musical objects and describes operations that can be performed on them, transformational theory focuses on the intervals or types of musical motion that can be described between the musical events in real music. According to Lewin's description of this change in emphasis, "[The transformational] attitude does not ask for some observed measure of extension between reified 'points'; rather it asks: 'If I am at s and wish to get to t, what characteristic gesture should I perform in order to arrive there?'"

Hell yeah. When I listen to music, I don't so much hear things immediately identifiable as "melody", "harmony", "arrangement", "instrumentation". I hear changes. I hear spaces between things. We need to read this book.

  1. Right? They're just more integers, right? I think this was how I slid through the whole second half of Jazz Arranging.

[User Picture]From: conform
2008-02-06 04:27 pm (UTC)
FWIW, I (being untrained and unpracticed) find hitting arbitrary same-form chords on the piano to be moderately tricky. 15 years of practice at anything will make a lot of subtle and challenging bits totally unconscious.

And much of rhythm guitar play is linear transformations, in the form of barre chords.
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[User Picture]From: lindseykuper
2008-02-06 08:11 pm (UTC)
rhythm guitar play is linear transformations

That's what I'm saying it is. I think what I'm trying to say is that that piano chords are a vector space, and guitar chords aren't. (At least, not for Euclidean geometry. Maybe guitarists live in some differently-described world. I guess that's my point -- I'm not so much trying to say that playing the guitar or the piano is "hard" or "easy" any more than different flavors of geometry are "hard" or "easy". Depends on your point of view.)

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[User Picture]From: conform
2008-02-06 11:56 pm (UTC)
What I meant is that if I play a C major barre: C-G-C-E-G, and shift my whole hand two frets closer to the bridge, I get a D major barre: D-A-D-F#-A.
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[User Picture]From: lindseykuper
2008-02-07 06:36 pm (UTC)
Hm. Yeah. And I guess that guitarists use capos so that they can play with their hand in the same position, but however many half-steps higher. Yeah. I guess that renders my whole point moot, doesn't it? I still think I have a point about the arrangement of the piano keyboard, though.
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[User Picture]From: jes5199
2008-02-06 11:32 pm (UTC)
clearly there's some amount of work doing chord transformations on a piano or else there would be no reason to spend so much time practicing goddamn arpeggios.
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[User Picture]From: lindseykuper
2008-02-07 06:35 pm (UTC)
Okay, so, imagine a world where there are no black keys. The piano keyboard is made of all white, identical keys, each sounding a half step apart. What are the disadvantages of this all-white-keys keyboard? Well, to start, there's no visual indicator of where you are. That's a big problem. But we could easily fix that by coloring every (say) C black, and every G gray. If this were what the piano keyboard looked like, then every root-position tonic triad would be played exactly the same, every root-position ii chord would be played exactly the same, et cetera. Nobody would have to practice arpeggios in every key. Learn them once, and you've learned them.

So why don't we do it this way? Because the keyboard we have now is beautifully optimized for Western tonal music. A triad fits perfectly under a hand. An octave fits perfectly under a stretched-out hand. It's not a coincidence! On the hypothetical keyboard, the intervals that fell most naturally under our fingers would be intervals that sounded discordant to us.
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[User Picture]From: stacy_bird
2008-02-06 08:21 pm (UTC)
Man, I love you. Can we talk music more often? Oh wait, have we talked music and theory at all? I though your house-mate was the only pianist! Daaaaaang! You just made my incompetent people day better.
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[User Picture]From: lindseykuper
2008-02-06 10:50 pm (UTC)
Of course he's not the only pianist. He's just the only good pianist.
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From: (Anonymous)
2008-02-18 09:17 am (UTC)


hey lindsey, good to see you're still maintaining your rockstar pages...

yeah this linear scale theory is exactly what i use on my students. they love it, especially when it comes to switching instruments (guitar, piano, bass, sax, whatever) it's a fantastic way to think of music. it really becomes very intuitive, like you were saying, you think in "spaces between things."

yer old roommate
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