No matter how much we learn about music, there is always something additional to learn. But also, whatever our skill level, there’s always something we should already know but we missed or skipped. Those missing pieces limit our skills and our enjoyment in playing. We may not even realize there is something missing that could solve a problem or fill gaps you can sense but can’t quite identify.
In my first 25 years of playing music, I used to assume I was too dumb to learn all the information other people knew, and got by pretty well without it, until I took up another new instrument and had to figure out for myself how it worked. I had missed a lot of information, partly because as a dyslexic I could not read the music notation and was kicked out of classical lessons, and partly because the only instruction available to me thereafter was by rote. I realized that if I had been taught certain concepts early on – independently of the printed page – it would have made learning any instrument much easier. Although I had an inherent sense of harmony, melody, and so on, I didn’t know why the things I did worked.
Even among paper-trained musicians, I find that the most common missing pieces are the most basic ones. Such as: what makes a chord, how do you know what chords to use where, how do you find the notes you hear in your head, etc. etc.
The collection of data that is referred to as music theory is usually taught on paper rather than directly on an instrument, and is assumed by many musicians as applying only to reading music. Actually, those concepts describe the structures of music itself – its frequencies, its sounds, and how to make music make sense.
Most musicians learn music either by note or by rote, and either way there’s a lot missing. When you can read the music but you don’t know why it is what it is, that’s as much a handicap as learning by rote without being able to read. But if you understand and use the knowledge of music’s structures, you can do just about anything. You can enhance arrangements, you can compose, and you can do simple things too, like finding the right chords, use more interesting chord forms, transpose easily, and understand modes and how scales are set up.
If you’re reading this you probably have a fair amount of knowledge of music in general. But how would you know what you’re missing? (You wouldn’t, because you missed it!) Although I cannot cover here the entirety of music strucure information, I can get you started. In a very general and simple way, allow me to guide you through a review of the basics. Let’s begin with terminology – if the first part is too elementary, read on – it gets better. If you have access to a keyboard, or to an instrument on which the diatonic (do-re-mi) scale is linear, this will be easier to visualize and hear.
What is a scale? A scale is a sequence of notes. There are many kinds of scales used in different cultures and different applications. The easiest scale on a piano, for instance, starts on the C note and progresses thusly up the white keys: C, D, E, F, G, A, B, and C.
What is an interval? When two notes are played at the same time, the term “interval” refers to the distance between them. For instance, choose a note and call it “one”, and then choose another note and count how many notes of the diatonic scale (do-re-mi-fa-so-la-ti-do) there are between the two, including both of the notes you’ve chosen. The number you count is the interval. If, for instance, there are five notes, the interval is a fifth. If there are three notes, it’s a third. And so on.
What are chords? A chord is three or more notes sounding together. There are many kinds of chords; the sequence of notes determines the exact type of chord in addition to its name.
What is a phrase? A phrase is a group of notes that complete a musical thought, much like the words between commas in a written sentence. (Phrases are not defined by measures. If they fall neatly into measures, it’s coincidental.)
The Diatonic 7-tone Scale
Thinking of your notes as numbers simplifies everything. You can, for instance, play a scale (in any octave), but call the notes 1,2,3,4,5,6,7 and 1. This is a “do-re-mi” scale, also known as a 7-tone, major, Ionian, or diatonic scale, which can be played in any key. In every key, the same numbers, in the same order, are still applicable. Simply assign the number 1 to the first note of any scale.
The scale described above consists of a specific pattern of musical sounds called half steps and whole steps. In Western (rather than Oriental or Arabic) music, the half step is the smallest change in pitch we can make when moving from one note to another. A whole step is double the range of the half step. The 7-tone scale, on unlevered strings only, goes: whole step, whole step, half step, whole step, whole step, whole step, half step.
Why isn’t the scale set up evenly? Why are there only half-steps between the third and fourth notes and the seventh and eighth notes? Because, based on the harmonic series, Pythagoras (who is credited with being the “creator” of our modern scale) set it up according to mathematic principles that match those of every natural form in the universe, making the diatonic scale pleasing to the ear. (See my book Singing the Universe Awake, available from http://www.laurieriley.com.)
The 12-tone Scale
If you have a keyboard handy, you’ll notice that you create a half-step raise in pitch when you play a white key and then the black key just to the right of it. Or if you’re on a chromatic fretted instrument such as a guitar, you get a half step when you play a note on one fret and then one fret higher.
If you have a harp, you will also notice that the levered third and seventh string of any diatonic scale will give you the same note as the unlevered string immediately above them (the fourth and eighth string).
If you start at C and play all your notes, you get C, C#, D, D#, E, F, F#, G, G#, A, A# and B – that’s twelve tones – before you get to the C an octave above where you started. The twelve-tone scale is also called the chromatic scale. It is composed of all half steps. You can get a chromatic scale in any key – in other words, you can start anywhere on a piano or a guitar and play a chromatic scale. The note you start on will be the name of the key.
A triad is a three-note chord in which the notes are each an interval of a third away from each other. When playing a triad, the name of the chord is always the lowest note (the root). A triad with C as the lowest note, for instance, is a C chord (or a “one” chord, whch is expressed by the Roman numeral I).
A three-note chord in which the notes are less or more than a third away from each other is not a triad.
When referring to chords by their numbers, we use Roman numerals. I, II, II, IV, V, VI, and VII. This keeps us from confusing chord numbers with single note numbers. When we refer to note numbers, we use Arabic numerals 1,2,3,4,5,6, and 7.
You can expand a triad chord to make a full chord. If you add the octave note (8) you will have a four-note or full chord. Like a triad, the name or number of the full chord in the root position (not inverted) is the name or number of the lowest note of the chord.
You can also play open chords: if you play notes 1,3,5,8 and then take away note 3, what’s left is 1,5,8. This is very pleasing to the ear because of its uncluttered sound. The name of the chord is still the lowest note.
You can also play expanded chords. If you place 1,5,8,3 (the 3 above the 8) it produces a very open and lovely sound.
You can also play more complex chords. If you place 1,3,5, and 7, you’ll have a 7th chord, because the 7 note is included in it. (Don’t confuse this with the VII (“seven”) chord, which is a normal triad or a full chord whose lowest note is the 7 note.)
What makes a chord Major or Minor?
If you play a 1 (let’s use C) chord in triad form, you will notice that it is made of two intervals of a third. Notice also that the lower third has two whole steps within it. In other words, C, C#, D makes two half steps (one whole step) and D, D#, E makes two more half steps (one whole step). Therefore the lower third of this chord contains a spacing of two whole steps.
But notice that the upper third of this chord has only one and a half steps within it. From E to F is a half step; from F to F# is a half step, and from F# to G is a half step, equaling 1½ steps. There are more half steps in the lower third than in the upper third of this chord. A third with two whole steps (four half steps) is called a major third. A third with 1½ steps (three half steps) is called a minor third.
When the major third is on the bottom of the chord, you have a major chord. When the minor third is on the bottom of the chord, you have a minor chord. I like to think of these this way: the major chord is bottom-heavy (more half steps in the lower third), and the minor chord is top-heavy (more half steps in the upper third).
Chord I is a major chord.
Play a chord containing notes 2,4,6. This is a II chord. Look at the number of steps in the bottom third and then in the top third. This is a top-heavy chord, so it is minor.
There are three major and three minor chords in every major key. The major chords are I, IV, and V. The minor chords are II, III, VI.
The character of a major chord differs from that of a minor chord. It’s been said that major chords sound cheerful, and minor chords sound melancholy or introspective.
There is one chord we have not yet discussed in regard to major/minor. It is the VII chord. If you play a VII chord you will notice that it is not very “pretty” (again, a VII chord is not a 7th chord). If you count the steps in each of its intervals you will see that it has 1½ steps in both thirds – fewer steps than the other chords. Therefore, it is called diminished and is neither major nor minor.
Chords can also be inverted. You might think of it as “yoga for chords”. For instance, play a C triad and then, move the lowest note up an octave. You now have 3, 5, and 8. This is called an inversion. You have changed the order of the notes, but still have the same note names in the chord, though one of the notes is in a new octave. In this new configuration, which is called the first inversion, the name of the chord is the name of the highest note rather than the lowest note. The chord is turned upside down; the lowest note is now the highest note. It is still a C chord.
Now move the second note of the original chord up an octave. Now you have notes 5,1,3. This is the second inversion. In this configuration, the name of the chord is the middle note. It is still a C chord because it still contains the same note names, even though some are in a new octave.
Now, move the third note of the original chord up an octave. You now have 1-3-5, a triad one octave above the original triad.
You can do the same process with a full (four-note) chord.
Inversions are useful for providing variety in your arrangements, and they are also useful when you have an instrument with a limited range of notes.
This is not a complete tutorial, obviously. There’s more in past posts and probably will be more in future ones. But if you keep your ears open, you can get good information from many sources.