How do the best musicians learn music so rapidly and sight-read complex pieces with ease? The answer lies in these musicians’ ability to recognize harmonies and patterns almost instantaneously, much like the way in which we all read words rather than individual letters. When an excellent musician sight-reads a piece of music in the key of A-flat, for example, he or she isn’t thinking, “I need a B-flat, E-flat, A-flat, and D-flat.” Rather, he or she is simply playing “in the key of A-flat,” and the hands are so used to the notes and chords found in that key that it feels nearly as easy as playing in C major.
But how can one develop this ability to perceive harmonies and groups of notes so easily? Jazz musicians have long ago found the answer- practicing harmonic sequences in all twelve keys. It’s remarkable that these enormously valuable exercises, which introduce the pianist to all the diatonic triads found in a particular key and force him or her to think harmonically, are not widely practiced by classical musicians. These exercises improve sight-reading, memorization and even musicality profoundly.
There are many variations of these sequences, but let’s start with a simple descending fifth, ascending fourth sequence in C major. We’ll begin by playing two chords, a simple Dominant-Tonic cadence:
Notice that the left hand plays the root of each chord.
Now, let’s take these two chords and repeat them a step lower, without adding any accidentals:
Notice that the quality of the fourth chord has changed; it’s now diminished.
Now, simply continue this pattern until you arrive back at C. Practice identifying and naming each chord as you play it.
Practice this pattern with a metronome to ensure that all chords can be found equally rapidly- I’d recommend a speed of mm=60 per half note before proceeding further.
Now begins the real fun. Let’s transpose this sequence to the next step in the circle of fifths, the key of G major. Begin by finding the same dominant-tonic cadence in the key of G-major:
And now, proceed as before, simply adding an F-sharp as necessary, until you return to G:
These sequences are called “diatonic sequences” because they remain entirely within a given key, with no need to add any accidentals other than those already found in the key signature.
Once you’ve mastered the keys of C and G, continue around the circle of fifths until you can play this sequence in all twelve keys. As the number of accidentals in the key increases, it becomes much easier to think harmonically rather than trying to keep track of all the accidentals. Before playing each chord, imagine its sound in your mind and try to identify its quality (i.e. major, minor, or diminished.) Think harmonically as much as possible- the left hand always plays the root of the chord, the right hand alternating second inversion and first inversion chords.
Since these triads are the building blocks of tonal music, practicing these exercises regularly will drastically improve your harmonic understanding and increase the speed at which you learn and process music. There are many more sequences which I’ll explore shortly in a further post.