When it comes to learning to play the piano we often think that a good knowledge of music theory is essential – but is this really true when it comes to learning how to play boogie woogie and blues piano?
You may have heard many times over the years how lots of famous artists couldn’t read or write music, but were able to write and perform legendary songs – but how true is this?
Let’s delve into the debate and get down to the nitty-gritty of what really matters when it comes to learning to play blues and rock n roll piano…
What is music theory?
If you were said to have a relatively good knowledge of music theory for the piano, then you would probably be able to read music fairly well and understand most of the terms and signs, like Forte, Piano, Allegro, 4/4 and so on. But music theory can go much further beyond that and get far more complicated at the highest level.
Like any subject in life, you can learn the basics and get a good grasp of the foundations – but there is always an extremely higher level that can be attained through hard work, dedication, college and university, degrees etc.
If you want to know all there is to know about music theory, then you can of course study this officially and gain qualifications, but this would only really be needed if you were looking to teach or perform at a really high level – typically in classical music.
When would you have to learn music theory?
I used to play classical a lot in my earlier years, and that was mainly because I decided from a young age to take my classical grades with the Associated Board of the Royal Schools of music.
There are a total of 8 grades and in order to be able to take the examinations for grades 6-8 you have to take a grade 5 level music theory exam. So if you were not interested in doing all of the grades, then you wouldn’t actually be required to learn theory in order to pass the practical exams – however it would make things easier if you still did study music theory.
When it comes to learning classical piano, music theory is quite important if you want to completely understand what you are reading and playing. But is this the case when it comes to learning how to play blues and boogie woogie piano?
Are there any famous artists that couldn’t read music?
Having scoured the internet for quite a while to find out, I couldn’t get to the bottom of this. My initial thoughts before I opened Google were that there must be someone out there that didn’t learn how to read music, like Little Richard maybe, Fats Domino, or Jools Holland. But I just can’t find anything at all – Jools Holland can by the way!
My guess would be that there are many people out there that play great blues piano but can’t read music, but on the whole, I would says that most people can. Learning to read music to play the piano tends to be quite common when compared with other instruments like the guitar.
Piano is just one of those instruments that gels better with reading music, so learning to read is often part of the process – whether you take lessons or learn to play on your own from a book. Most people who learn to play started learning from an early age, and learning to read music and gaining some knowledge of music theory is pretty mandatory, so again, the majority of people who have learned to play the piano at some point in their lives have had a brush with music theory.
I would love to think that someone like Jerry Lee Lewis never learned any music theory at all, but I really don’t think this is the case. When playing and performing with a band on stage, you really need to have at the very least a basic grasp of musical keys and chord progressions.
Should you learn music theory to play blues, rock n roll and boogie woogie?
This is just my opinion, but I would say that yes – you should!
But, and this is a big BUT (insert joke here) – you do not have to spend years and years studying and taking exams in music theory in order to play blues piano. The structure of this style of music is much simpler than classical music, and doesn’t require anywhere near the same kind of knowledge in order to master it.
That’s what I love about playing and teaching blues and boogie woogie piano – it isn’t as hard as what you might first think. Classical music for example can be very difficult and requires thousands of hours in order to achieve a good level, but blues piano can be learned within a few months to a good standard.
I do think that anyone learning this style of music (or any style) should learn to read music to a basic level. This will always make things much easier, and this isn’t something you have to spend hours and hours studying as you can pick it up as you go along. My online tutorial videos can teach anyone to play blues piano solely from just watching the videos, and although I do provide the sheet music as well, it isn’t essential to start playing today.
I get a lot of feedback on my online tutorial videos from people that say they couldn’t read music to begin with, but are now able to follow some of the notes as they watch the video. Most of these people started out with no intention of learning to read music, but realised after a little while that they’d picked some knowledge up without even realising it!
Learning to read from sheet music is not as hard as most people think, and I could teach someone to read music within 30 minutes. One of the great things about learning blues piano is that you can start in the middle of the piano and focus on just a handful of notes to begin with – and this will still sound fantastic!
Some of the greatest piano blues songs are quite simple, and don’t take a long time to learn. One of the main reasons I’ve always been drawn to blues music is the simplicity of it, and how easy it is to enjoy and listen too. If you have any reservations about learning how to read music and playing blues piano – then don’t!
There’s no time like the present…