‘You Only Play The White Notes’

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Last night I attended a dinner party at a penthouse in Park Lane. Not my usual environment, but I had been hired by an old acquaintance to come and play violin for the guests, whilst they celebrated the life and work of a famous Indian painter.

I was paired with a pianist whom I met fifteen minutes before the guests arrived.

“So, what do you like to play?” he asked.

“Well,” I said, I’m more of a singer than a violinist really…I mean…I do play the violin…but, I don’t really have a repertoire, as such…I just…improvise and accompany.”

“Like…jazz or classical?” he asked.

“Um…kind of Indian, like folk, traditional…with a bit of classical… ,” I trailed off.

“Could you tell me some of the songs you know?” He whipped out his phone. “I have this app where you can search for songs and find the chord progressions. You can even change the key!” He looked at me expectantly.

“Well…you see…I have a feeling they aren’t going to be searchable on there. They’re not really pieces of notated music. Let’s play something that you like, and I’ll try to follow. What’s your favourite to play?”

He smiled, “You know – jazz standards, be-bop, swing…”

As we spoke, guests started to arrive – all clicking heels, fabrics and fine gems. We looked at each other. Time to go!

Over the next two hours we did our best to marry together our abilities. My part Indian, part folky, part rusty (!) violin playing found ways to harmonise and flow with his pieces. He tried to find ragas or modes for me to improvise within. Where I couldn’t join in, I tried to sing along. Six floors down, I could see the Park Lane traffic flowing beneath the sycamore trees as I tried to remember all the words to ‘Night and Day’ and ‘Somewhere Over The Rainbow’. There were a few ‘la la las’, but I don’t think anyone noticed.

It was a learning experience and judging by the smiles, nods and comments – we made the grade. At the end of the night, he said to me, “It was great to play – very unexpected, and your sound is very nice – but you only play the white notes. Don’t you ever play the black ones?”

It was a simple question – and one that might not mean much to a non-musician. What he referred to was that in my playing I consciously chose keys that only use the white notes of the keyboard – the safe zone. Black notes are ‘sharp’. Black notes are ‘flat’. Black notes require work and thinking; transposing; learning scales. Playing jazz, and generally being a flexible musician requires someone to become fully conversant in different scales and modes that utilise both black and white notes in different ways. But it’s always easier to stay on the white ones. Predictable and safe – minimal risk.

Friends sometime make fun of me for always having something deeper to say about trivial things. I know it can seem silly sometimes, but this thought really stuck with me and brought up some timely questions. How we do one thing, tends to be how we do everything. Have I been ‘playing only the white notes’ for years? Am I cosy and comfortable in predictability? Or when called to improvise, am I ready to take the risk of some bum-notes; to surrender to complexity, and imperfection?

In life we are called upon to ‘make music’ with all kinds of people – often with little or no warning or rehearsal. To become great musicians requires both a highly refined listening ability, as well as a willingness to jump off the deep end; to put our faith in a deeper knowing, and in the path that is opening up before us. Some know this a spiritual faith, or as a relationship with God, others as intuition or ‘going with the flow’.

Regardless of how you look at it, I ask you that question today – are you playing only the white notes? If so, what can you do to surrender a little bit more to the sharps and flats?



  1. My tendency is to sing in Bflat, I’m told. I like Bflat when I’m playing harmonium in the key that has B flat in it. I don’t know any other keys with B flat – so I guess I have a lot to discover about ‘my voice’ and how it can sing and how I can play. My underlying philosophy is that Krsna knows all the notes and life is much more rewarding and less boring when I dance to His tune – as well as I can – then I learn new moves, soar to higher places and go deeper. You friends may make fun of me!

  2. Music can be so simple and beautiful ,please look this video: Maestro Bernstein conduct the orchestra only by eyes….


    Y.s. Naradamunidas

  3. fantastic post. (PS – I mostly never play white notes)

  4. You play more techni-colour than you realise. 🙂

  5. Haha good one. ..I play mostly white with up to 3 black notes… But some times I play only Black…. I guess that kind of sums up how I live my life too. Nice article jana. X

  6. Sometimes we need another set of ears to remind us of what we are doing. Becoming a creature of habit is akin to breathing. Only when we point out the breathing do we remember that we can actually control it. Thank you for this gem if a lesson.

  7. I had a really good time jamming with you that night and I think that you are a good musician. I’m gonna reply properly to this post soon but for now, check out the black notes in this:


  8. Beautiful post, Jahnavi! Your question at the end jolted me into examining what notes I play in my own life. Thank you!

  9. I liked this post but at the risk of offending someone, it irks me to see the “whited out” black keys above…There is something to say about that, too, of course. But, the more time I spend on Earth, the more I realize the “hues” of life…Since 15,to my now age 63, I have taught, performed, written, recorded, sung, and insinuated notes of the scales, but from underneath the keys themselves, they are all the same color… The colors of life is directly related to the way we play them…major, minor, positive/negative, add a bit of royalty, seduction, or grief, etc, – by playing a “blue” note -or a “fifth” -as you prefer…A fine tuned instrument, to me, is like a beautiful, big garden of wild flowers-each with their own colors, personalities, and fragrances. There are the “Touch-me-Nots”, the Roses, “Jacks In The Pulpits”, the “commoners” and “rare”-all sorts in life…For each of us, we have to choose and pick what we want in our view but unfortunately, many of us do not realize how truly short our journey through the garden really is…nor that the instrument is there for our playing pleasure! Some performers are color blind and can see only white keys…or black- depending on their life’s view -negative or positive! Others scale to a three chord song. But, when those song lines occur from the rare, that beauty and passion that seems to rain down on us from Heaven above, grabs our hearts and holds us dear, then gives us chills because we KNOW that the cause of white, black, blues, fifths, sevenths, etc, has ALL been facilitated -to create a serious work of art! I pray that we become more aware of our surroundings of our garden and that we don’t go through our life color blind -but rather choose our garden path with glorious blossoms of a passionate life- not on only the black keys -nor only white ones but the full spectrum of the colors of life.
    Barbara Lane

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