Friday, March 27, 2015

What About the Readers Digest Song Books

Recently a subscriber wrote as follows:

Attending your workshop opened up hours of personal enjoyment for me. In addition to playing the songs in your workbook, I found another book that adapts songs to my limited talent, titled: A Reader's Digest Songbook, The easy way to play 100 unforgettable hits. Thanks for developing an understandable teaching method that's transferable to other books.

My reply:
I have always loved the Reader's Digest series. The chords they choose to provide are intelligent, sumptuous, yet don't call too much attention to themselves. And they are fairly easy for an intermediate student to play.

Later I thought my reply could use a little amplification, so here goes.

I grew up believing that a certain song would always have a certain unique chord progression, and that was that. Of course you could transpose (change the key of the song) and end up with entirely different chords. But the chords would always be relatively the same from key to key.

But that's not true, necessarily. Sometimes chord progressions are dumbed down. Extreme example: put the song Misty into a collection of "Songs with Three Chords." By definition those chords would be wrong, but you might be able to make them work with enough forgiveness from your audience.

The opposite extreme is to take a fairly simple song and to feature it with a lot of jazz chords. I've got a fake book full of Christmas songs that does this. Pretty interesting maybe. But not always appropriate. And often not easy to play when sight reading.

The Readers Digest series doesn't succumb to either temptation. I don't think I ever owned any books in the series, but I remember playing from them often. I wonder if they're still around.

The lesson?: There are more than one way to play chords in a song. A book's editors need to choose how sophisticated (and thus challenging) a chord set they wish to use. If you the piano player are going to have the incentive to practice, you should find the chord arrangements that you like. Only you know what those are. So try a few different song book series. Find one you really like. And compare it to a Reader's Digest song book if you can find one.

If you are working out of a three chord book, be sure to get beyond that stage eventually. Unless all you like to play are songs that naturally have three chords in them.


  1. Since about age 5, I would hear a song, shut my eyes and play it. Grandma taught me to read right hand. I have a nephew who plays any instrument who cannot read a note. In many bands, etc in his life. So I am secure there. It was taking your class that I came out of my closet, yes, I can play, just don't give me your sheet music is my response now. And I still hear a song looping in my head, I sit down and try to play it. Often can complete it. My (now adult) kids took guitar lessons, so I can take the chords from their music, add my own right hand and we are in business. Favorites? I am on Peter, Paul and Mary which appeases all generations and music lovers. Watch their YouTube videos and listen to their ranges, find mine. Of course, grew up singing their stuff, so one side of the brain sings which the other side is letting the fingers do their thing. Possible? For it, yes. Multi-tasker. Not nuts!

  2. Please update your website to use slightly darker text. You really shouldn't go lighter than #333. #666 is just too light.

  3. That's interesting. I got started with Peter, Paul and Mary too, only with guitar, not piano. There's was the first concert I ever attended. In Berkeley. Probably around 1963.

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