How to Play Any Song on Any Instrument




Introduction: How to Play Any Song on Any Instrument

There are only twelve notes in (western) music. That's all. Just twelve. Furthermore, most songwriters only ever use sets of seven out of the twelve. And, the sets of notes they choose are almost always chosen with the same formulas. VERY SIMPLE Formulas.

If you can learn where the twelve notes are on your instrument and master these simple sets of notes, you can play along with most songs you hear. Of course this is a life's work (not an hour's) but with a little knowledge you can start to play along RIGHT NOW! I'll prove it in the final step of this presentation.

The term "Key" is important in music. The "Key" unlocks the secret of the piece. The key is the main note (root) of a piece and various other notes play roles harmonizing and making melodies with it. Get to know keys and songs you've heard will start coming out naturally. So much music is made of the same basic building materials. Learn the building materials and you'll be surprised at the buildings you can copy.

Step 1: Find All Twelve Notes on Your Instrument.

There are twelve notes or pitches (or tones) we work with in music.

We represent seven of these sounds with these seven letters:

  • A, B, C, D, E, F, G
  • We call these natural notes

The other five sounds, we describe as half way between the natural notes.

  • A#/Bb, C#/Db, D#/Eb, F#/Gb, G#/Ab
  • “#” is a symbol that means “Sharp” or "higher than"
  • “b” is a symbol that means “Flat” or lower than.

So, halfway between A and B, there is “A Sharp” also called “B Flat”

There is a picture above is of where the notes are on a guitar.

Now: Find all twelve notes in at least one register on your instrument.

Here's an index of fingering charts of common band instruments.

Instruments tuned in Eb and Bb will need to transpose to play with the recorded materials in this presentation:

  • Eb instruments play a key one and a half steps lower
  • Bb instruments play a key one step higher

Fretboard image courtesy of:

Step 2: Intervals: Know the Distance From Any Note to Another.

Each note of the twelve is described as one half step from the next in the line.

  • One half step from A is A#/Bb

Two half steps is a whole step. There are twelve (basic) intervals. Each has a name.

You should be able to figure out

  • What note is any amount of half or whole steps away from any other.
  • What that interval is called.

Musicians use collections of notes based on intervals that sound good together.

Try This:

  • Play a note:
  • then another that's four and one half steps from it (Major 6th)
  • then another that's two and a half steps from it (Perfect 4th)
    • What television network theme do these three notes play?

Step 3: Formulas

Chords are notes that are played at the same time. Scales are played in sequence. Below are formulas for three types of chords and the major scale:

  • There are three basic types of chords: Major, Minor and Diminished
    • Major has a root note (R) plus:
    • a note that is two whole steps away (Major Third)
    • and one that is three and a half steps away (Perfect 5th)
      • Example: G, B, D
    • Minor has a root (R) plus:
    • a note that is one and a half steps away (Minor Third)
    • and one that is three and a half steps away (Perfect 5th)
      • Example: G, Bb, D
    • Diminished: R, Minor Third, Tritone (three whole steps)
      • Example: G, Bb, Db
  • Major Scale
  • R + 1 + 1 + 1/2 + 1 + 1 + 1 + 1/2
    • Example: A, B, C#, D, E, F#, G#, A

Now you should be able to figure out the notes in any major, minor, and diminished chord and the notes of any major scale!

Step 4: OK, Let's Figure Out Twelve Major Scales

Goal: Figure out the following major scales:

  • C, F, Bb, Eb, Ab, Db, Gb, B, E, A, D, G

The above graph will help you:

  • Use the formula in the top row of the graph and the twelve notes (listed here) to make scale patterns
    • A, A#/Bb, B, C, C#/Db, D, D#/Eb, E, F, F#/Gb, G, G#/Ab
  • Use capital letters and symbols for flat (b) and sharp (#)
  • When deciding between two names for the same note, use the letter name that completes the seven letter musical alphabet. Notice how in the fourth position on the F scale “Bb” completes the set of seven letters. Calling it “A#” would have resulted in two A letters On the Gb scale, we actually need to call B natural Cb to complete the set.

Print this graphic and fill in the notes of these keys.

Now you have sets of notes that sound great together and you're ready to start practicing.

Step 5: Start Now And


Play with them. Make patterns you like with the notes. Play them back and forth. Up and down. Play them SLOW. Play little rhythms on each note.

  • It's kinda like frisbee. You learn a basic throw and catch. Then as you get good you add to the ways you can do it. Forehand, backhand, behind the back, between the legs, etc. THIS IS FUN.

Click here for Ideas about how to do scale work

Click here for a test of all major keys

Now: Make a recording of twelve major scales. They don't have to be perfect or fast or everywhere on your instrument. Remember, the goal was to play with any song. If you know the notes of every key, then you have that capability.

Step 6: Scales and Chords

Watch what happens when you harmonize a scale.

  • In this case we see the F major scale starting from 3 different points: the root, the third, and the fifth degrees of the scale.
  • The resulting columns of notes are chords you saw in the third section of this instructable.
  • Just a capital letter indicates a major chord:
  • A lower case "m" indicates minor
  • A little circle or "dim" represents diminished.
  • Roman numerals indicate the numerical place of the chord in the scale.

Musicians take turns playing progressions (repeating patterns) of chords and making melodies using the notes of the scale. It's all the same seven notes (either horizontal or vertical) so it all sounds good together.

Question: Look at the vertical stacks in this image. What intervals do you see when you stack a scale this way?

Step 7: Now, Figure Out the Chords in All Keys

In the second row write out a key (start with C)

In the third row write it out from the third note on

In the fourth row write it out from the fifth note on

In the fifth row write out the root of the chord you've made

  • Hint: It's the same as the note in column two.

Repeat for all of the scales that you wrote out and started practicing.

Yes, print this diagram twelve times if you must!

Step 8: Now, You Guessed It, Play Them


Find the notes on your instrument and play the three note combinations you are discovering.

Be creative and have fun like you did with your scales.

Now: Look at the video for ideas for how to practice chords in a key.

Step 9: OK, Now Play Along

AND, RIGHT NOW: With just one or two notes of a key, you can play along with a song:

Here's an experiment: Listen to Neil Young "Heart of Gold" on youtube. Make sure your instrument is in tune and then play the note (concert) G as you listen. Make little "drum beat" type repeating rhythms that go to the beat. It sounds pretty good doesn't it?

If that was easy add these notes : (G), A, B, D, E.

OK, sounds good? easy? add a C and an F#.

You're jamming with Neil.

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    7 years ago

    good information for beginners.. thanks..


    Reply 7 years ago on Introduction

    Happy to help. Thanks for the comment.