Thursday, September 8, 2011

It Ain't All That

"Congratulations on your retirement, Lee. We're both so happy for you."


"Gosh, you're only 59. You've got plenty of time to do whatever you want. The possibilities are unlimited. You can do anything!"


"So, what are you going to do with yourself?"

It was 25 years ago. A large gathering of business colleagues and family members wishing my dad a bon voyage as he sailed into retirement.

During the cocktail hour, I was introduced to people with whom my dad had worked over the last thirty years. At dinner, I heard war-stories about the good old days when my dad and his colleagues would change the world of telecommunications.

After dinner, corporate big-shots took turns at the podium roasting my pop. His friends conveyed their envy and spoke of all the opportunities that awaited him. My dad delivered an amazing farewell speech.

As people spoke of the limitless opportunity that awaited my dad, I got excited for him. He was young. He had plenty of money. He had nothing that depended upon him being here or there. He really could do anything.

However, my excitement wasn't shared by my dad who appeared more and more like a deer in the headlights. The idea that it was all up to him now, that he could do anything he wanted, that he was free of structure and dependents, was terrifying.

This morning, as I thought about my dad retiring, it occurred to me that, when it comes to unlimited potential, there are fundamentally two types of people: those who are inspired and those who are overwhelmed. Although the impact is significant, the difference in process may be minor. It's simply the recognition that being able to do anything, doesn't mean that you have to do everything. It doesn't mean that you must evaluate everything. You needn't even pick the best thing. You just need to pick something.

I don't mean to cavalierly dismiss all the other things or to suggest that you not thoughtfully consider your choices (though in some cases, not thinking so much might be an improvement). It's just that there are very few decisions in life that are permanent. Even ones that seem permanent at the time they are made can be remade or unmade. Knowing, really knowing, that you can decide one thing today, and then change your mind tomorrow is freeing and the perfect companion to unlimited potential.

Sometimes it's impossible to know what your ultimate decision would be until you've made some other decisions.

Take the piano, for example: eighty-eight keys with unlimited potential to produce music. Over the years, I've got to point where I can play pretty much any song that I hear in real-time. Someone wants to sing thus and such, they hum a few bars and we're ready to perform.

The thing is this, although the piano has unlimited potential, 99% of all music composed since its inception explores less than 1% of the potential.

Consider all songs written in the key of C. The key of C has seven notes: C-D-E-F-G-A-B.

Each note defines a chord. To play a chord, you simply pick a note and then simultaneously play it along with the notes two-steps and four-steps above it (every other note). For example, to play a C chord, you play C, E and G. To play a D chord, you play D, F, and A, and so on.

The key defines whether or not the chord is major, minor or diminished. The first chord of the scale (the one built on the first note) is major, the second and third are minor, the fourth and fifth are major, the sixth minor and the seventh diminished.

This is the case for all the major keys, each key has seven notes. Each of the seven notes has an associated chord. Since there are twelve major keys, there are only eighty-four possible chords (twelve times seven). However, since the patterns of the chords are all the same regardless of the key, many musicians learn them in terms of their position within the scale. The chord built on the first note of the scale is simply the "one" chord, the chord built on the second note of the scale, the "two" chord, and so on. These are often notated in roman numerals. I, II, III, IV, etc.

To play any song in any major key, all you need to know is seven chords, not eighty-four. Most pop songs don't use all seven chords, just three: I, IV and V.

Some songs use II and VI. Fewer use the III chord.

Although the potential is unlimited, you can get by with just knowing a few basics.

As you play more, you'll encounter chords that don't fit. However, even these behave according to a relatively predictable pattern. There are chords that are "outside" the key, i.e., they use notes not found in the major scale. Most of the time, these chords are the major versions of the II, III or VI chord which within the key are minor. To make a minor chord major, you just raise the second note by one half-step, e.g., D-F-A becomes D-F#-A. The use of this technique is even less frequent than the use of the II, III and VI chords.

There are some cases where you composers make the major chords (I, IV and V) minor by lowering the second note by one half step, e.g., F-A-C becomes F-Ab-C. These occur infrequently.

Although you have unlimited potential in those eighty-eight keys, you can play 90% of pop songs by knowing thirteen chord patterns: seven basic chord patterns plus a variation on six of them.


Some songs seem more challenging because they change keys in the middle, but it's still all the same patterns. Once you got the basics down, you can learn all sorts of variations that make the music more interesting, but they're not required to get started.

You simply combine unlimited potential with a simple, progressive approach.

I guess it's by limiting the unlimited potential that we unlock it.

Funny, that.

Happy Thursday,

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