Do you need to read music to learn jazz or blues piano?

Wassup! Today I’m sharing my reply to a question from a student at Udemy.


Hi, Kent!

This is a two part question; first off, is there anything you recommend (videos, specific techniques, etc) to improve my sight-reading that won’t make me want to shout profanities?

I’ve Googled it obviously, but I’m curious about your opinion, as I enjoy your method of teaching.

Secondly, do you find skilled sight-reading necessary for jazz and blues? In other words, in your professional opinion, can I learn to be a proficient jazz and blues pianist without tackling my fear/hatred of sight-reading?

A little background to help explain the reasoning for my questions – Simply put, I hate sight-reading. Frankly, I’m intimidated by it. So much so, that I’ve ignored it for the 13 years since I stopped taking lessons, and basically refused to use it once I learned a new piece as a kid. I play and compose by memorization and by ear (which drove my strictly classical instructor insane) and in my rebellion and stubbornness, my sight-reading is just…hilariously slow. Everything I compose is in my head, besides recordings. I couldn’t commit my music to paper to save my life, though software helps.

I consider myself a skilled(ish) pianist, but I’m not sure if I’ll ever get over my hangups with sight-reading. I don’t aspire to play jazz and blues with other musicians, though it would be fun, but I want to finally break my dexterity from the grasp of rigid classical, and have the skills to compose what’s been sitting in my head.

Any little suggestions are appreciated at your convenience!


Thanks so much for your questions!  I would like to answer the second part first:  The history of jazz and blues is filled with amazing players and composers who could not read a single note of music, let alone sight-read.  Myself, I can read music, but I am a very crummy sight-reader.  I hope that answers the second part in a nutshell, and I hope it ignites a new passion in you, by eliminating some major doubt about what you can accomplish.

I do recommend learning to read chord charts (lead sheets).  You can be “hilariously slow” at it, but it is a great skill to have.  This involves being able to interpret chord symbols (like C7, Fm, etc). To be a good jazz or blues player, the most important thing is to learn about chords and scales.  If you visit my website,, you will find a review that I wrote about some jazz piano books by John Mehegan.  If jazz and blues is your passion, THIS is the stuff you want to focus on.

Now to the first part. Myself, I have a love-hate relationship with sight-reading.  I am painfully slow at sight-reading as well.  But I really wish I was better at it. I am always resolving to spend at least a half-hour a day reading music I have not seen before, which is, by the way, my best recommendation for improving that skill.  And yet, I do not stick with that resolution. I generally end up improvising, about ten minutes into the session!  In my classical studies I do exactly what you do:  I memorize.  My classmates in college would sometimes ask what my secret was, when it comes to memorizing.  My secret was, I had no other choice!

I hope this helps!


Your answers are beyond encouraging! Definitely not what I expected, and I’m so happy to hear someone with your skill and experience having the same curse/blessing of automatic memorization. I’ve always considered it a hindrance in improving my skills, but a great asset for composing or being able to sit at any keyboard and play something I’d memorized years ago.

I took lessons from ages 6-14, and am now 27 – I let my skills, especially sight-reading, stall after I stopped lessons (due to relocation, not by choice), and though I loved my instructor, he was curmudgeonly and strict, and I enjoyed being able to play without judgement! But without being pushed to learn, it got me stuck in a comfortable Gb rut of composition, and slowly but surely, played less and less when my hands always found their way back to the same chords and scales. Everything just sounded the same.

I wish I knew that Udemy was around years ago, and that the techniques to get the right sounds are such simple additions to what I already know. I’m excited to play again, and have even reharmonized some of my own progressions for practice. My left hand synchronization is still having a trouble staying in time, unless I’m improvising with my right! Haha. Practice, practice, practice will improve that, though.

Thank you for your recommendations, as well! I’ve been looking through your website, and there’s a lot of material there I’m excited to review. My technical knowledge of chord symbols and scales is somewhere in my head, but long forgotten – I have a lot to brush up on to really feel more comfortable. For once though, I’m not intimidated to do so! 

I greatly appreciate your honesty and all the information, Kent – thank you, so much! (and thank you for reading all my rambling thoughts). 


You are very welcome, Tierney. I’m glad you feel encouraged, and that I was able to help!  By the way, I have a course in the works which is all about demystifying chord symbols, and also describes a simple method for constructing any standard chord-type off of any root, without resorting to rote memorization of each chord.  When it goes live on Udemy, I will be sending a course announcement to all students who are enrolled in the Blues Piano Crash Course, as well as those enrolled in “A Study in Blues Piano.”

Regarding the John Megan Books, he also published a summary volume called “Improvising Jazz Piano” which consolidates the material of the original four-volume set.  I highly recommend it.

You mentioned my honesty. I believe the best teachers are the ones who have struggled, thereby finding ways to overcome, which they can share with their students.  Therefore, I am always eager to share my own shortcomings, and to let people know how I either overcame them, or just ignored them, and found another path 🙂



Tetrachords, Scales, and Modes: Answer to a Student Question

Hey there folks, I got some more theory for you today.  Yipee!

The following is a question and answer thread from my YouTube channel, regarding my video about how to quickly visualize any major scale on your keyboard, by using something called the major tetrachord.  First, the original video, and then the Q&A.

Student: Is there something that is just as easier to use to identify minor scales?
Me: Thanks for your question! I will answer in terms of the “natural minor,” although this answer applies to the harmonic and melodic minor scales as well. First of all, the standard minor scales, as well as each of the “modes” of the major scale (dorian, mixolydian, etc), can all be broken up into tetrachords. The bad news is, the lower tetrachord of a minor scale has a different whole-step/half-step pattern than the upper tetrachord. (The cool thing about the major scale, on the other hand, as I describe in this video, is that the lower and upper tetrachords have the same pattern.) You may still find it helpful to break any scale type into two tetrachords. I hope this helps!
Student: Thank you for your reply. Do you have any videos going through each modes (Lydian, Mixolydian etc) and the easiest way to identify them using the tetrachords? Different modes have different patterns.
Me: I don’t have any videos on that yet. When I get a chance I will make a blog post (soon) on, which will give a description of my own approach to memorizing the modes. Meantime, try using C-major as your master reference. Starting there, realize that the modes of C Major all share the same pitches as C-major (the white keys of the piano). That is, Dorian mode of C Major starts on D. Phrygian starts on E. Lydian, on F. Mixolydian, on G. Aolian (aka the natural minor scale) starts on A. And finally, Locrian, which starts on B. Since these are all the modes of C major, they all use just the white keys of the piano. Use these modes as your master reference to building any given mode starting on any note. It helps to attack the problem from several angles. One angle is to break up each mode’s unique pattern into two successive tetrachords. Another is to be able to find the major scale (the parent scale) associated with the mode you want. For example, E-flat Dorian is the “Dorian mode of D-flat Major.” (By definition, they share the same pitches). Yet another angle is to become a master of every major scale and every natural minor. Then learn the modes as distinct variations of either the major or the minor. For example, Mixolydian is simply a major scale with a flatted seventh. This last approach is the one that I find easiest But in different contexts I use all these approaches. As far as the modes go, focus on Dorian, Mixolydian and Lydian. These are by far the most commonly used modes.


Chord Symbols: add2 or add9? (includes my video on using added ninth to chords)

Hi everyone!  I received a question online today (on my YouTube channel), an excellent one, and one which is subject to debate.  The question is in response to one of my videos about using add9 chords on piano.  (A link to the video is included below.)

I thought I would share the thread here:

VIEWER: Isn’t the D in Cadd9 supposed to be an octave higher? I guess I’m just confused as to why it isn’t Add2 instead.

ME: Hi Jordan, this is a very good question, and one that is subject to debate. Technically, the voicing of these add9’s that I am using here are really “add2”. In general practice however, add9 is favored in chord symbols found in sheet music, and is meant to imply add2 or add9, depending on the voicing choice of the player. It’s interesting to note that add9 chords played on guitar have the ninth tone on top sometimes, and sometimes the 9th is not the highest tone, often depending on ease of finger positions. This is also true in a piano player’s choice of voicing. Again, to recap, add9 technically has the 9th as the highest tone in the voicing, as you indicated, but when using chord symbols, add9 is preferred for either one.

 VIEWER: That definitely makes more sense. Thanks for the clarification.
ME: Certainly, your question is much appreciated! Two other interesting points: A very popular, jazzy left-hand voicing for the MINOR 9th chord (as in Am9) — which, by the way, is NOT an add9 chord, because it also contains the 7th (I talk about that difference in the video) — is this, using Am9 as an example: G, B, C, E, where the root is implied, and can be played before or after the first cluster (or covered by the bass player). I bring this up because here you can see that the “9th” is not the top note in that particular voicing. (You might try that out, it sounds very cool!) Another thing: In my full two-handed voicings in the video, such as Cadd9, left hand plays C and G, and the right plays C-D-E-G. On close inspection you will note that the 9th (the D) is actually voiced far above the root (the left-hand C). But that is not mandatory to voice add9 that way, just a certain nice-sounding choice.
 Here is the video lesson which prompted the question:
 See ya soon!

Learn about the Major pentatonic scale, and its cousin, the “Relative Minor” pentatonic (video lesson)

Learn about the Major pentatonic scale, and its cousin, the “Relative Minor” pentatonic scale (a video lesson). The relationship between any major scale (or key) and its relative minor scale or key is explained here as well, in terms of traditional music theory.

Video: Pentatonic scales, Major and Minor

“A Study in Blues Piano” Course Coupon (starts now, offer expires 3/31/2018)


Coupon Expires March 31, 2018* Here’s a handy dandy discount coupon for my “A Study in Blues Piano” on Udemy: Lifetime access for just $12.99. (List price is $24.99.)

*If you missed the discount window, see the bottom of this post for a another link, where you may find this course at a discount as well.

The Course at $12.99 (coupon is automatic)

or use coupon code 88KENT when purchasing.

Please share this with your musical friends!

Expires March 31, 2018 so act now! 


If you miss the coupon window, the course can be accessed using the link below. Sometimes Udemy sets their own temporary discounts, so you could get lucky!

The course at regular price ($24.99) (may be discounted by the vendor)


A Good Way to Learn All Your “Thirteenth” Chords (by Pattern, NOT by Rote)

Hello again, piano people!

Todays’ post is about learning “thirteenth chords” on piano. In this video, you will learn a good way to learn and retain all twelve of the standard 13th chords without resorting to rote memorization.  In my experience,  I discovered early on that learning scales and chords by rote — that is, note-by-note, without any understanding of the patterns they all have in common — is the worst way to go.  Learning the underlying patterns that consistently define all scales and chords is absolutely where it’s at!


More on “Fourth Chords”

Ain’t life grand? As in grand piano?

Here’s a follow up to my recent post about “Fourth Chords.” I made this second video to give more insight regarding how “fourth chord” shapes can be superimposed over various roots, to create refreshing voicings for standard chord types, such as major, minor and dominant seventh chords.  The goal here is to focus on the practical side of putting these shapes into use!

Video: Fourth Chords, Part Two

“Fourth Chords” — Very Useful (Part One)

“Fourth chords” are chords built as a “stack of fourths,” rather than as a “stack of thirds.”An example of a “stack of fourths” would be: D, G, C, and F, where D is the lowest pitch, and the rest make up a series of fourths above that.

The greatest thing about these stacks is that any given stack can be superimposed above multiple roots, to create a variety of voicings for various chord types.

Using the stack mentioned above as an example:

A “Dmin7” chord using the stack D, G, C, and F, results in a nice open-sounding voicing, with an added 11th (the “G” note is the 11th).


D, G, C and F also sounds great over a B-flat root, creating a “Bb69” sound! That is, a B-flat major chord, with an added 6th and 9th. (G is the 6th, and C is the 9th).

And so on…my video here explains this in depth. (Check back soon for Part Two, with more insights on this.)

Understanding “Thirds” – how standard chords are built!

Hi folks!

In order to understand tutorials on piano playing, it is essential that you know some basic terminology from the world of music theory.  So here’s an important video on “major and minor thirds.”

If you aren’t clear about major and minor thirds, you might want to watch this.  Afterward, you can read the rest of this article, using your newfound vocabulary!

Stacked Thirds

Chords are often understood and learned as a series of “stacked thirds.”  For example, a major seventh chord can be seen as the following stack:

Major third, Minor third, Major third.

Let’s look at the CMaj7 (C Major Seventh) chord as an example of stacking thirds to build a major seventh chord from any root.  The notes of the CM7 chord are C, E, G, and B.  Starting from the root C, we can stack thirds to create the chord.  First we pile on the E, which is a major third above C.  Then we put a G on top of the E.  The musical distance (interval) from E to G is a minor third.  Finally, we top off the stack with a B, which is a major third above the G.  We now have a really tasty sandwich!

OK so here’s the vid with some tips on finding major and minor thirds on your keyboard, starting from any piano key.

Questions, comments? Please jump in. Let’s make this a community!