Learn to fake it

This topic contains 10 replies, has 8 voices, and was last updated by Profile photo of alexx alexx 3 years ago.

Viewing 11 posts - 1 through 11 (of 11 total)
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  • #17779

    One of my biggest tips, particularly for piano players: Get a fake book!

    This really transformed my approach to playing piano and helped me integrate my new ear training skills with my enjoyment of the instrument.

    What is a fake book?

    A “fake” book is a big book of songs. It could be jazz standards, or rock classics, or all the songs by a certain band. The difference from a regular book of sheet music is that for each song you just get:

    • Melody
    • Lyrics
    • Chords

    That’s it!

    This kind of barebones arrangement is also called a “lead sheet” or (if the melody line isn’t given) a “chord chart”.

    There are various explanations for why they’re called “fake books”. A common one is that they were originally published without permission from the copyright holders, so were “fake” in the sense of “unofficial”. I prefer another common explanation, that they’re designed to help you “fake” your way through a song you haven’t really learned.

    What are they for?
    These books are useful for many reasons. They’re often used by session musicians when they need to sit in with a band and play an unfamiliar set list. If you’re a melody-instrument player (e.g. saxophone) or a singer, they’re all you need to learn and perform songs.

    The big reason they’re so useful for ear training is that they’re a starting point for your own arrangements of songs. Rather than relying on the full sheet music for a piece and learning it note-for-note, you start from just the essentials (melody and a suggested harmonisation in the form of chord symbols) and it’s up to you to fill in:

    • Phrasing and dynamics
    • Ornamentation and embellishments to the melody
    • Solos and improvisation
    • The exact chord voicing and way of playing them
    • How a group plays the song together
    • The overall style/genre you play in

    All of these are ways of expressing your musical imagination! So you can take the skills you’ve built through ear training (e.g. melody improvisation, appreciating different chord types, genres diversity etc.) and use them to create your own arrangement of the song.

    How to use a fake book for ear training
    Fake books are perfect for connecting your ear training with your instrument. Pick a song (preferably one you know but don’t know how to play) and practice playing the melody. Then practice playing through the chords: left hand voicings for pianists, or try playing through arpeggios on non-chord instruments.

    Try changing the rhythms (e.g. swung vs straight, or 4-to-the-floor rock vs upbeat reggae, or even a waltz) and how you fill in the chords. Most fake book arrangements will clearly divide and label each section (e.g. A section and B section or verse and chorus) making it easy to play around with repeats and inserting improvised solos.

    At first it can be daunting to start from an absolutely minimal arrangement like they provide, but you’ll quickly find it is actually very liberating! Once you get the hang of improvising chord voicings in your left hand while sight-reading a melody in your right hand, you can easily pick a new song from the book and play a decent arrangement first time.

    For me, this totally changed how I looked at playing piano. Instead of thinking in terms of carefully, painstakingly learning each new piece, note by note, I felt more and more able to just pick up a new piece and play a nice rendition straight off, or figure out songs quickly by ear.

    If you’ve never played from a fake book, I really encourage you to try it! You can find free lead sheets online to get started.

    If you’ve used a fake book in the past, dust it off, and try using the skills you’re currently developing through ear training to improvise more interesting arrangements.

    So that’s my perspective. What do you think? Are fake books useful tool for ear training and improvisation?

    Profile photo of dayzd

    This is a really good tip! I have this book

    http://amzn.com/0793559898 The Professional Singer’s Pop/Rock Fake Book

    Trying to play songs from it really helped me to play guitar faster (like switching from chord to chord without a gap)

    Here’s my add on tip: I really like to pick a song in the book and then try using the chords to write my own song. You can make it really different from the original, nobody ever guesses I started from a “real” song!

    Profile photo of thomasrowland

    I have used lead sheets in the past to play melodies on horn but your write-up has made me realize that I should return to them now that I’m learning guitar and see what I can make of the chords. Thank you for the interesting suggestion.


    @dayzd: That’s a nice idea! I was inspired by it to write an answer for this new FAQ today.

    Profile photo of trentvon

    I think I’m the only piano player I know who has yet to learn how to read music. I suppose I should learn soon.

    How would you grade music reading in terms of importance if you don’t want to become a music teacher but a performer of original music?

    • This reply was modified 3 years ago by Profile photo of trentvon trentvon.

    How would you grade music reading in terms of importance if you don’t want to become a music teacher but a performer of original music?

    I think it’s an important but not essential skill.

    It is important because it opens up many more possibilities for you as a performer – for example when an opportunity arises to play or collaborate, and time doesn’t allow for learning the music by ear. Sight-reading from sheet music is a great quick way to play new music.

    However it’s not essential, and particularly if you are performing all original music, you can go a long way purely “by ear”.

    So I would encourage you to learn, but I don’t think you should feel any guilt that you can’t. Many play-by-ear musicians feel intimidated by those who read music – but the reverse is also true! Neither approach is necessarily better, both are valuable skills. The best musicians can do both.

    Profile photo of britanica

    I wish I would have known this stuff when I was a kid trying to play the piano! I likely wouldn’t haven given up so easily. Really great advice. I will keep it in mind if I ever decide to give playing the piano a go again.

    Profile photo of kristin_r

    I was going to ask if they make fake books for lots of other instruments. I read the comments above and saw that thomasrowland said that he has used lead sheets before with a horn. I did also check out the link that dayzd posted with the singer’s fake book. I have never learned to play piano but when I first started taking guitar lessons my instructor penciled in the chords and up and down arrows so I would know what patterns to strum in so I could play and sing my favorite songs without having to sit there and figure out each note individually. I have lots of past experience playing sheet music on a flute but being that I was just learning guitar I was having trouble finding all the notes quickly enough to play the songs correctly at the time. Getting there when you are new takes a lot of practice and I was glad that my instructor helped me out with that so I could have some more immediate gratification.

    Profile photo of chaulky

    Great advice, i just looked more into fake books and they seem to be very popular.

    Profile photo of britanica

    I was searching fake books on amazon and saw quite a few for just about any instrument. I am shocked more people don’t use these things!

    Profile photo of alexx

    At first I found them difficult as a sight reader, but they have really improved my creativity & ability to just let go.

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