Charting by ear – An example

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Happy Valentine’s Day…

I have a concert coming up this weekend with Nathan Prisk at Grace Baptist Church in Dacula, GA. This is the first time we are doing a full concert together with his new music and that means I need to learn it. I got around to starting on it yesterday.

You might wonder if he has any music written down for accompanists. After all, he recorded a CD of these songs. But no, as a matter of fact, he doesn’t have anything of the sort. The pianists he used in the studio either never had charts or threw them away after they finished. For most of the songs, all I have to go on is the CD itself.

So how do I go about doing this? Well, the first thing I want to do is make sure I have the form down as well as the keys. For me, the form is the number of verses, how they fit together, the length of the intro, interludes and endings and key changes. For example, here are my notes from a typical song.

I Sing The Mighty Power of God
4 bars
Verse 1
4 bars
Verse 2
Key change over 2 bars
Verse 3
Slow down last phrase

There are two more important things I need to know: the overall style and the harmony. However, keep in mind that I am not interested in really copying either. Since I am accompanying a soloist, I can pretty much do whatever harmony I want. And while I will follow the general idea of the textures the original studio pianists used, I am not really interested in learning what they did note for note.

There are a few exceptions however. Based on what Nathan actually sings in a few places in this particular song, I know I need to pay attention to the chords in those places. One of them is the key change between verses 2 and 3. The key change is not normal and Nathan actually sings through it.

Here is a clip of that spot in the song starting with the phrase before the key change and ending after the first phrase in the new key. Listen carefully to what is happening.

Key change

If you are like me, you don’t instinctively hear the chords in that modulation. So what I did was get out my trusty Edirol and loop that part of the song until I figured it out. I knew the modulation was from F to G but what Nathan is singing there is in neither key. Once I learned his line, I knew he was in F# and that made perfect sense. The modulation sort of occurs in two half step moves: from F to F# and then from F# to G.

Here is the full mod: F – G#m7 – C#7 – D7 – G. If I were going to explain it, I would say it is a ii7 – V7 progression in the intermediate key and then a half step move up to the V7 in the new key. Clever…

The only other place I am concerned about in regards to harmony is the ending. As you probably know, endings is where songs fall apart. If I possibly can, I want to do endings as close as possible to what the singer is used to.

Here is the ending of the song. Listen especially to the harmony used on the last note he sings.

Ending

The harmony here is a little complicated but not too unusual. I recognized it right away because I have heard it a lot over the years. It is a bVI7 – bVII7 – I progression.

So, my plan will be to wing that song except for those two places where I will use that exact harmony. My notes I actually use that night will look like this probably.

I Sing The Mighty Power of God
4 bars – light syncopation
Verse 1
4 bars
Verse 2
Key change over 2 bars (  F – G#m7 – C#7 – D7 – G )
Verse 3
Slow down last phrase ( Eb – F – G )

That is about all there is to it. As I have said many times, this is much easier if you can do it with a player that has loop capability and better yet, some kind of slow down feature.

By the way, if I have the option of getting printed music, I always will because that is much faster than charting by ear. I did get music for two of his songs and while he sings them in a different key, it was easy to adapt them. I simply charted the songs by chord number. Once you reduce chords to numbers, transposing is simple: you just play them by number in the new key.