The importance of the number four

When you start learning music, you are focused on individual notes.  That lasts a long time but at some point, you want to become a functional pianist (able to play real-life music in real-life situations).  It then becomes important to shift your focus so that rather than seeing notes, you see chords.

After you get to that point, it is time to change your focus again.  Now, you want to learn to think more in terms of chord progressions or phrases. 

In other words, over time, you need to start focusing on the bigger picture rather than the minutia.   That is not to say that the way you play each note is not important, but you need to consider each small detail like individual notes in the context of the big picture.

We have talked about this principle at length on the blog in terms of harmony.  I have gone through example after example where we consider reharmonization at the level of chord progressions rather than at the level of individual chords.  In other words, we have looked at ways to change a string of chords rather than just individual chords.

Today, I want to talk about how this principle relates to the form of songs.  The form (how the music is organized) is often not on a pianist’s radar. But if you spend a little time on understanding it, music will become less intimidating and you can learn it faster.

As it turns out, modern music is not as diverse in its form as you might think.  For example, more often than not, typical traditional music (including church, folk, and pop) is organized into 4 bar phrases.  There are many exceptions of course, but if you pick up a hymnal and start counting bars, you will be shocked at how many hymns consist of either three or four 4-bar phrases (12 or 16 total bars).

“What A Friend We Have In Jesus” is an obvious example.  It is 16 bars long, consisting of four 4-bar phrases.  The first, second and fourth phrases are almost identical while the third phrase is different.  Because of that, the song would be considered to have the form AABA.

The significance of this is huge. First, it means that you really only have to learn 8 bars rather than 16.  If you learn the first phrase and the third phrase, you essentially know the song.  Anything you do to the first phrase can easily be done to the second and fourth phrases as well.

Perhaps more significantly, looking at music this way removes the intimidation factor.  All of a sudden, an entire song is reduced to a few melodic ideas and a few simple chord progressions.  If you start looking at music, you quickly will discover that most songs are this simple.

I have no good explanation why 4 is such an important number in the structure of songs but it is.  If someone has a theory, I would like to hear it.  But the 4-bar phrase is so common that if you start focusing on it, it becomes something you just feel.  You don’t have to count it when you playing; you instinctively know when it starts and stops.

So, when you are looking at what you can improve in 2012, you might decide to start looking at music in terms of phrases rather than notes or even chords.  That is true of course even when the phrase is not 4 bars.

You might have missed this series that I did with “What A Friend We Have in Jesus” about a year ago, but here are the links to about 40 minutes worth of videos that discuss how we can approach each 4-bar phrase.

Part 1
Part 2
Part 3
Part 4
Part 5