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Black Influences. Learning keys by rote.

Posted by WayneConrad on Friday, September 27, 2019

The banjo has very deep black roots, both musically and culturally.  The farther back you go in banjo history, the more black the sound.  We don't know, and can't know, what the banjo sounded like before its music was first recorded, on paper, in the first banjo tutorial books in the 1800's, but when you play the music in those books, its rhythms are more complex, more African, than banjo music today.  I love the richness of African rhythms, and one of my favorite parts of the banjo is that the echo of those rhythms still runs through our instrument today.  Those rhythms grab me and make me feel alive.

I also love classical music.  It has its own, different richness, more intellectual, and relies on feats of musicianship that take my breath away.  The subtlety and power of a masterful performance gives me the same feeling of wonder as when I look up at the night sky and ponder the vastness of the universe.

For some reason, the black music I love has not had a deep influence on the classical music I love.  I assumed it was just racism, but according to Joseph Horowitz, the answer is much more complex than that.  I won't attempt to summarize it here.  But perhaps you may enjoy this interview with Mr. Horowitz on NPR, as I did:

Why Is American Classical Music So White?

I've been using my morning walks to memorize the notes in each major key.  This has been a toil of many months that is starting to bear fruit.  My goal is to be able to know instantly, for any major key (e.g. A):

* How many sharps or flats? (e.g. A has three sharps)
* What are the notes in the key (e.g. A B C# D E F# G#)
* What are the IV and V chords? (e.g. D E)
* What is the vi chord? (e.g. F#min)

This has been heavy lifting mentally, because I'm doing it all in my head without pencil and paper or textbook or web page.  At first it was very slow, hard work to figure out what the notes are in a major scale.  In a 30 minute walk I would only get through a few keys, and by the next walk I would have forgotten them and need to figure them out again.  But now I can name off the notes in each key two or three times in a 30 minute walk.  More and more, they are coming to memory instantly without me having to think about the circle of fifths or count half steps in my head.

This is helping me at the ukulele jam I've been going to.  If someone calls a song in F, I know that the IV is Bb and the V is C, without having to count out half steps or look it up.  This is incredibly useful, and makes all the work worth it.

I think most musicians end up knowing this, at least for the keys they play in the most.  It's just that my memory is very poor, so learning from experience is not always effective.  I sometimes need a more organized effort to pound knowledge into my poor brain.


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