Monday, March 21, 2011

The Other Circle Of Fifths: Thirds

We've talked about the circle of fifths and it's many uses here before. There is another circle that exists in music that you need to be aware of. It's the answer to many other questions in music as well as the answer to any chord in music. It's the circle of thirds and it's so important that it needs to memorized.

Here it is: C  E  G  B  D  F  A ( C  E G etc.)

That's it. Memorize it. It's very simple yet it contains all of the chords used in music. It's also the foundation of every arpeggio and scale that you'll come across. It also contains every other chord progression that isn't covered by the circle of fifths. If fact there are only three movements in music: a second (or seventh), a third (or sixth), or a fifth (or fourth). These can all be chromatic or diatonic.

Chord Chemistry 101

Ok, "How is this every chord known to man?" you may be asking. Well all chords are constructed from thirds. There are chords built on fourths and some with 'added' notes but we'll come to that. Every chord is initially built from thirds and then altered from there. To know what the notes are in any given chord, simply start with that note and go in thirds. Of course you're going to have to take into account the key you're in. For example, if you're in the key of E, the E chord will be E  G#  B  D#  F#  A C#. That's it. If you want to change any of the notes, change it, then make that part of your chord name (e.g. EMaj7#11 = E G# B D# F# A#). So you start on the root and climb in thirds. In the E example above we're looking at the root, third, fifth, seventh, ninth, eleventh, and thirteenth. They all work this way. Not all chords will have all of these notes in it*, but this is the basic foundation.

*Not all notes need to be in the chord; some are 'more important' than others. For example, you usually include the 3rd and 7th since these really define the chord (i.e. major/minor, dominant 7th/major 7th) and the altered extensions. Some extensions, like the 11th in dominant chords is usually left out; others like the 3rd and 7th mentioned above, may be the only notes played. Remember, these aren't hard and fast rules, and can be changed at any time. These are just guidelines.

A Scale Is Just A Linear Arpeggio

One thing that may be a be a bit of a mind bend (at first) is that a scale is just a linear way of looking at a chord. You will come to see that scales and chords are interchangeable and different ways at looking at the same thing. If you look at the notes in a CMaj7 chord and then you look at the C major scale, you'll see that they are almost identical. Improvisers will look at a scale and see the target notes (i.e. notes of the chord) and passing notes (auxiliary notes not found in the chord). Some music (like bebop) was founded on the idea that you could improvise on the upper extensions of the chord and not on the chord tones themselves. A game changing idea at the time.

So What About Those Fourths?

Even though there are chords built in fourths, and others with a fourth or second added, they're still built from this basic chord chemistry. That is, the basic chord is still a C major or D minor (or whatever) but then instead of voicing the chord in thirds, you voice it in fourths. You still name the chord the conventional way (i.e. according to the method listed above). Therefore a chord built on fourths will still be named according to the traditional way. Other chords, like added and suspended chords work in the same way. In fact, once you know the chemistry behind how these chords are built, you can come up with a ton of varieties of your own. The best thing about this is once you've come up with some great chords, you'll know how to name them properly. Again, just use the circle of thirds to figure out what your chord is called, then name it appropriately.

Advanced Arpeggios

Since the circle of thirds is great for chords, the same holds true for arpeggios. Arpeggios are made up of the thirds that we mentioned but once you get into some extended harmonies and altered chords, those arpeggios can get quite hairy. This is where our circle of thirds comes in again. Instead of trying to play all of the notes of the chord, try building the whole thing in thirds. That is, start with the triad and continue climbing from there. You'll find that you end up playing other triads over top of the original triad. This is where polychords come from. Polychords seem really confusing at first but once you've done this exercise a couple of times, you'll see who effective they are. Once you see that for example playing a D major chord over a C major triad automatically becomes a Maj 13 with a sharp 4, trying to incorporate one of these chords into your playing won't be such a problem. This works on many levels. Just go up the arpeggio and see how many triads pop up. Get to know these. Some players rely on these when it comes to altered and extended harmonies because you end up playing new harmonies based on basic triads that you've been playing for years. Don't forget that when improvising, playing around with these extended triads may bring a whole new level to your playing.

Chord Progressions in Thirds

Remember we talked about the ways that chords move. Aside from the fifth movement which we talked about before, there is the second and third. Once you get used to the sound of roots moving in certain intervals, it becomes a lot easier to discern chord progressions and even single lines. When listening to a chord progression, listen to the roots and try to guess which interval they're moving in. Is it seconds (stepwise)? or is it fifths? If it isn't one of the these, it will be our thirds. Some famous chord progressions move in thirds. Anytime the root moves to it's relative minor, it's a third movement. Anytime you hear the famous rock I to bIII, it's a third movement.

E to G is used in millions of rock and blues songs.
So is the E to C (down an third) movement.
Any I to vi or iii is a third movement.
A C#m G Bm is a famous pop progression.

Just to Start

As you can see from the examples, we've just got started on thirds and third movements in chords. The same goes for the chord theory mentioned above. Memorize this circle just like you've memorized the circle of fifths. You'll see these coming up again and again in many things you do. When you have them on the tip of your tongue, it becomes easy to rifle off chord tones, progressions and arpeggios without much thought at all. And that's what we want; we want it to all become automatic.

Sensorium 1 - Dublin - March 11th, 2011

S E N S O R I U M was a weeklong festival of new music from Irish and international artists featuring workshops, talks and a series of concerts. It included everything from electro-acoustic works and audio visual displays to improvisation, performance art and contemporary dance. The goal of Sensorium "is to show co-creative musical works in a structured curation intended to stimulate multiple senses and challenge the audience’s attention through changing aesthetics and perceptions".
see: for the programme for the week

Sensorium was curated by Judith Ring, Angie Atmadjaja and Emily Kalies

I attended the Sensorium 1 night on friday, March 11th and really enjoyed the variety of works that were presented. This was a really well produced show.  It was a show that did indeed challenge ones attention as the works were adventurous in content and in placement in the performance space. I was really looking forward to this show, as I was very taken with the aims of the festival to present to audiences works that stimulated multiple senses and with works that challenged aesthetics and perception. I was not dissapointed.

The placement of the musicians in the middle of the space and the audience on each side was great. The space was for the musicians and it meant the audience had a more intimate view of the musicians at work. There were a variety of music works and audio visual works and each work tied really well thematically with the next.  From body percussion, performance, audio visual works to electroacoustic tape pieces and interactive electronic improvisation, there were many flavours of pieces presented.

There appeared to be a common thread amongst some pieces as they pushed the boundaries of a music instruments timbre (MATT POSTLE – Extended A440 improvisation (10min, circular breathing) + Saliva Piece – Trumpet improvisation) or where electronic music competed and blended with real instruments (Judith Ring – “My one’s bigger than yours” for double bass (Malachy Robinson) and cello (Kate Ellis) was as visually interesting as it was aurally, an interesting diagonal placement of the two musicians, the piece was really absorbing as cello and double bass timbres merged with samples of the instruments to create a riveting electronic track .  A piece that I really liked was ENDA BATES – new piece for Hexaphonic guitar + two percussionists (Enrico Bertelli and Simon Roth)   - the placement of guitartist in the middle of the space and the drummers to each end meant the music and musician fully filled the space. I enjoyed the repetitive rock riff as it played out in time.  I was struck that I like to repeat pieces of a tune I like and listen again and again  - so to hear a rhythmic riff play out for a long duration I enjoyed. The incredible composition that was created via interactive technology and live improvisation by Jonathan Nangle was beautiful (JONATHAN NANGLE – ipad interactive electronic improvisation), hard to believe that this piece is crafted in real-time and each time he plays the system he built with the ipad, the piece will be different and never be the same.  To create such beauty with such chance procedures is incredible.

My visual music work, a collaboration with composer Linda Buckley - Silk Chroma was presented as an audio visual work - it was great to see it played out in this concert, even though there were no live performances, I felt strangely nervous as the visuals played out on screen to Linda's incredible evocative sound track.  Two other video works were shown - EMILY KALIES – “noitcelfeRReflection” - voice (Suzanne Fatta) and visuals.  The impact of closeup shots of the singers face in various poses was striking.  A really beautiful section about that is not a flattering angle with cut ups of shots of leg poses was really clever.  Theo Burt's “Colour Projections” – a live interactive audio-visual piece was a treat.  The structure of the work was clever as was the interaction of sound with events taking place on the screen.  The simple use of orange and white was really refreshing.

My husband Cyril and daughter Bébhinn really enjoyed the show too, they came with me.  Even though, this would have been a quite challenging show for them, we talked about some of the pieces for days after - and Bébhinn in particular was very taken with how one can play sound from an instrument that is not what you would expect.  For me this was nothing new but for her it was a revelation. Cyril had some interesting philosophical observations, that I meant to write down, but should get him to write down for me.  He discussed the composing of time and how at work with most of the pieces was this grapple or fight with time.  Interesting!

I came away from the concert thoroughly refreshed and looking forward to the next sensorium next year!!!

The full list of artists works shown on the friday Sensorium 1performance can be seen at: and at

Sunday, March 20, 2011

The Musician's Most Important Skill

All too often we talk about how to practice and perform. You might think that the most important skill a musician could have is great dexterity or, a great imagination, or maybe even great creativity. Where these are important, that there is one skill that is the foundation of all that a musician must do. It's our memory. Memory isn't just used by musicians to remember tons of songs; it's used in every aspect (improvising, composing, performing). Musicians must remember songs, chord progressions, fingerings, lyrics, scales, idioms (licks), performance notes (dynamics, inflections, phrasing, breathing, etc),  recording techniques, engineering facts, song forms, theory, stage moves, gear settings, recording settings, software applications, etc. And this is just the musical applications! This doesn't include any of the marketing, PR, business activities that we have to do on a daily basis. Memory even comes into play in our ear training because ultimately, the ear is using our memory as reference point for all of those chords, intervals and sounds.

It's All In The Repetition

As a musician, the same exercises and drills are repeated over and over again throughout your lifetime. There's a good reason for this. Repetition is simply one of the best (if not the best) way that to learn. Of course all musicians know this, since this principle is shoved down our throats from our first lesson...Did you practice? Did you go over all of the stuff we talked about? Did you do your scales for the millionth time? Did you practice your rhythms (that you've memorized)? We all know that practice makes perfect and the essence of practice is repetition. For some reason though, we don't apply this principle to other areas when we know how effective it is. For example, a lot of musicians will work on music theory, different styles, new chords, new scales etc. but they don't apply this repetition technique. The best way to retain a new scale/chord/technique is to repeat it over and over until it's second nature. There is the proper application of new material which we've talked about before but, for simple retention, repetition can be one of your most effective weapons. Use it daily. One of the most effective things about teaching is the fact that I can enforce this simple technique every week when I see the student. If you're practicing on your own, you're going to have to reinforce this on yourself. Ask yourself what you did the last time you picked up your instrument. What did you do last practice?  Did you practice what you had started? Did you do a little everyday or did you just go through it once? Make sure you do this every time you sit down to practice.

The Four Point Review Method

Once you've learned a new skill, read a book or had a lesson, one of the worst things you can do is just go home and forget about it. Even leaving it until the next day isn't a good idea. There is a method of reviewing material that will go a long way in absorbing and memorizing new ideas. Every time you come across something that you want to retain and use in the future, go through this learning regimen.

Step 1 - Input: Like mentioned before, it's not enough to simply read or scan the information that is presented. You must engage the mind immediately. Get into the mindset that you're going to immerse yourself in the task at hand. It's the same with learning almost any new skill, the more your mind is engaged in the technique, the easier it will be to retain and use that information. You engage the mind by asking questions, repeating important facts out loud, making notes, circling and highlighting important points, and most of all, summarizing what you've just learned. Let's look at a couple of those in detail.

Engage First

The most important thing about trying to remember facts and ideas is to engage the mind in the first place. This may seem obvious but you have to be working the brain a certain way right from the beginning to make sure that the facts are retained. It's like trying to remember somebody's name when first being introduced. It's important that you go through a couple of simple steps or you may end up paying attention to the color of their shirt instead of remembering their name. Simply reading something or passively skimming over it is ineffective in retaining information. Reading and skimming over material are only effective when you've engaged the mind in the right way. It's all too easy to just read over something without remembering anything. How many times have you ended up reading the same paragraph over and over because your mind was elsewhere? This happens more often than you think. Try this: read over some material, or a couple of blogs or a couple of articles like normal. Just read them like you normally would, don't do anything different. (You might try harder to retain info this time because you know whats coming next). Now close whatever material that you had open and try to remember what you've just read. How much can you remember? If you've read a dozen blog posts, how many do you remember? Do you even remember the titles? How about the pictures? How many of those do you remember? Because we consume so much information in a day, we start to consume our reading material like our television; as a casual observer.

The Non-Casual Observer

Now we're going to take the same material but this time we're going to engage our mind. Keep in mind that this isn't something that we usually do automatically so we're going to have to make a conscious effort. There are a number of ways to retain information, to learn and to be able to recall it at will. Numerous books have been written on the many ways of doing this. There are ways to retain lists, physical surroundings, technical information, graphical information etc. Most involve using all of your senses in one way or another. Others try and figure out how you process information and use that to your advantage. Do some research on these and try them out. You may find one works better for you than others. The way you learn is usually a personal thing and one method doesn't apply to everyone. We'll look at just one way to help us retain all that we read.


When you first get the material, give it a quick once over. That means if you have a book or even a chapter of a book, go over the entire thing at once. Go to the end and see what you're supposed to learn. If it's a scale or theory, look at the final examples to see what the point is. By doing this, you're getting an idea of the overall thought process right from the beginning. You'll notice that in some books, there is a summary at the beginning of each chapter as well as one at the end detailing all that was covered in a couple of sentences. You should be doing the same thing when you start with any new material. Second, get rid of any other things that may be on your mind. It's a standard thing to close your door and turn off any distractions when really getting down to work. There's a good reason for this. You want to do this every time you sit down to learn. Except don't stop at just that. Try and shut off your mind too. Empty your mind of any other thoughts if possible. That's why it's good to get an overall view of all of the material when you start, it gets your mind into the task at hand. Try and keep this focus. We lose concentration easily and quite consistently. Keeping focus is a skill that must be learned and worked on. Third, keep an internal dialogue about the material at hand going on. Why is don't like this and not that? Why do this at all? Is there another way? How do I do these things? By keeping your mind engaged with this dialogue, it'll be easier to keep focused.

Step 2 - Organization

We've talked about having a separate method of collecting ideas and putting things together for your practice sessions. I use a binder that I put all of my notes in, reference material and practice schedules. When learning new material, it's important to have a place where you can make notes but also be able to come back to. Remember the review is going to be really important. Get together a notebook or use your favorite method be it a laptop or anything else you use. It's important that you have some organization to your notes. That way, when you come back to them, it's simply a matter of going through a quick review. Looking for notes, forgetting where you put something, or not understanding what you've written will just get in the way. You can make notes any way you like, just make sure you do them. This is something that we lose after we leave school. Notes are great for organizing things in our mind and reviewing what we've learned. Retention is difficult without these. Also, try and make time for a review everyday. After a while the reviews will be less often but it's important that you're consistent with this. We know that the best way to learn is by repetition. Make it so the repetition is effortless. You simply go to the material everyday, and review. I'm not just talking about organizing the written material but organizing your time.

Notes and Mind Maps

One great way to engage the mind and try organizing things in your head is to create notes and mind maps. Mind maps can be used for anything...even music. It's about how you put it together. Once you learn some new facts, put them together in a mind map and see how they all connect and make sense. Mind maps are really just another way to make notes. Instead of having lists though, we have a graphical representation. This is more like our brain functions so it's more effective than long lists and straight text. Mind maps also use keywords which are another great learning tool. I find that any type of graphical reference always helps. Mind maps have a standard way they are put together. I follow this but also have tons of other notes and diagrams I make to understand. Tests have shown that material is retained much better when it is written by hand as opposed to typing or other input.


Like mentioned above, it's important that the material is reviewed consistently. This is one of the most important parts of learning. It's the reason why I'll go over the same material again and again with my students. That means having a schedule and going over all of the material everyday. It's important to go through these steps every time you open your notes.

Step 3 - Review

Of course there is no retention without review. That means not just going over the material but going over it consistently and making sure that you understand what you're learning. Go through the same mental processes that you went through when you first learned the material. The consistency of review is important also. When you first learn something new, it's important that you do a review almost immediately after learning. That means if you've learned something is a classroom, do a review that day when you get home. This is the most important review of all of them. Just doing this will increase your retention and understanding tenfold. Go over all of the material you learned that day. This doesn't have to take hours, a half hour will do. Just make sure that you engage your mind like you did when you first learned the material. Once you've done the first review, you can wait until the next day before you do another. Do this review like the first. Once you've done these first two reviews, you're well on your way to retaining the info. You can wait a couple of days before doing another review but don't wait longer than that. After doing all of these reviews the first week, you can just do a review once a week for the next month, you should be able to retain all of the information this way. Once you've done the first month, you should only need to do a review once a month. I try and go over all of the material once a year. If you have tons of songs and an extended repertoire, you may have to tweak your review methods depending how much material there is. Remember that if material isn't reviewed often enough, it will have to be relearned when the time comes.

Don't Just Regurgitate

It's usual for most people to review material simply by reading over it again. There are more effective ways to remember. One is the mind map method mentioned earlier. Another effective method is to create quizzes and/or try to recreate what you've learned. This means taking the ideas learned and try to write down and explain all that's been covered. Once you've gone over the material, go back over it in your head. What's the general point? What was learned? Are there new definitions and terms to know? Did you understand what you read? Is there something that you didn't understand? If there was, write it down. You can come back to that later. Once you've gone over the material, close everything, take a short break and then give yourself a small test. All you need to do is write down, play and explain what you just learned. By putting it in your own words, it will help with not only your retention but your understanding also. Music can be confusing, by putting things into your own words, it helps create your own understanding of the material. You'll find most musicians have their own opinion about quite a few things in music. This is because we've all taken the same concepts and organized them and made them our own.

Focus and Engage

You can see that once again we've just touched the surface of what we can do to use our memory better. There are a couple of techniques here that you'll want to use again and again. The better you get at retaining information, the better you'll  get at remembering songs, fingerings, scales, chords etc. This sort of technique will permeate all of your playing and make you a better musician overall.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Nocci Composer

Experimental Audio Visual Live Performance

Nocci Composer - Website Works Page


Work - Night of Experimental Avant Garde Music, New York

Nocci F 02 from visualicious on Vimeo.

See also:
Nocci | Chika Live Set, Music Composer Nocci, Visual by Chika