Archive for the ‘Music Theory’ Category

Up = (#/Sharp). Down = (b/Flat).

0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11
C C# Db D D# Eb E F F# Gb G G# Ab A A# Bb B

There are a number of discussions possible here. My point is the rose is a rose experience from my own limited understanding. Music theory is not my strong point. I know players that are very specific in the reference of notes or the progression used when naming them. It does make it easier to communicate – – – – – – To set up this conversation let it be understood that any note can be raised or lowered in increments of half-steps. Take your Root note and play the next highest note and you have ‘sharped’ the note. If you play the next lowest note you have ‘flatted’ that note. Up = Sharp. Down = Flat.

Any note. Any instrument. Any Western scale. Similar to the reference in Tuning; if pitch is too high it is Sharp, and if it is too low it is Flat.

We agree on common ground for the Titles of the Twelve. Looking at the piano as my standard example we need to notice the color of the keys not as a place on a musical staff or its place in a scale but as a compact representation of DISTANCE. The chart above uses the shading to mimic the keyboard and is not compressed or compact like the real piano is but if you play notes to the right they get higher by half-notes. Color means nothing to this reference. We rarely call the C note a B#, and we rarely call the F note an E# but this is a similar relationship.

Above you see the black notes have alternate names assigned to them. One way to help easy translation is to keep with one designator in the project. Give the notes names that are one system and not the other. Various way to think of it – a rose;

C, C#, D, D#, E, F, F#, G, G#, A, Bb, B, C is a rose:

C, C#, D, D#, E, F, F#, G, G#, A, A#, B, C

is a rose;

C, Db, D, Eb, E, F, Gb, G, Ab, A, Bb, B, C

Along those lines I want to copy a recent comment from a great friend of mine and frequent commenter on this blog:

The math is easier if you name the root “zero.” 0 2 4 5 7 9 11 (the major scale). You can add 12 and get the same notes, just an octave higher. Subtract 12 and get the original keys. There are only 12 tones on a piano: 0, 1, 2, …, 11 After that, it just repeats.

The Mysterious Twelve is represented this way in the chart above. Starting with zero would change the Safe Seven representation to look like this:


0 2 4 5 7 9 11 12

This is true and practical to use when considering the relationships of notes especially when working with musical scores where you are talking multiple octaves and keeping the relationships common. For many musicians, songs can be described as patterns. For example, if you are beginning a Jam and following previous examples in the key of C, you could say ‘lets start out with C for a few measures, then go to F and then go to G and repeat. Ready, set go!’. The Safe Seven shows us this relationship as a number starting with the Root equaling 1.

The Jam could also be started by saying ‘key of C, let’s play a 1,4,5 progression. Ready, set, Go!’. In this relationship, 1 = the Root or C, the 4th = F, and the 5th of the scale = G. The next jam session might be in the key of Bb, but we can still state this as 1,4,5 and the musicians that know the Safe Seven in each key will easily translate. You would be surprised how many popular songs follow the 1 – 4 – 5 and similar patterns! Starting with 1 as the Root, allows this pattern to more easily translate to the Root, 3rd, 5th – as this matches the common chord progression associations.

The point being there are a number of names for our ‘rose’, depending on the need or project at hand. If we call C “C”, “B#”, “0” or “1”, we are still describing the relationship between the 12 notes. As with the sharps and flats naming structure, once we start with a system, use the system through the entire project to avoid confusion!


When looking at the keyboard as an example of note patterns and the arrangement chart I used for the numerical assignment for each note, it might be natural to think that the Black keys or Shaded fields represent the ‘Half notes’ or notes that are not within a scale. This however takes us down the wrong path. The keyboard offers a clean representation of the note relationships at a quick glance but we need to be careful how we perceive this relationship. ALL notes – no matter what the color – are HALF notes. The color of each key means NOTHING if we are not in the key of C Major. Look at many other instruments and there are no color designators for scales, notes or keys. The guitar has other markings to help know what fret is being used, and this can be helpful for knowing the range of notes in any section of the guitar fretboard, but again, does not directly indicate notes within scales.

Play any adjacent note on the keyboard going up (higher notes – right) or down (lower notes – left) and it is another half step. Each instrument will have its own lingo but the structure is the same. Start with any note and if you skip a note or single key in this example you will be playing Whole notes. For guitar players we would say up one fret or down one fret…. up two frets or down two frets. Brass, wind and other players will talk about sharps or flats. From here it is better to be color blind until you get familiar with other scales and keys. If we start with a Black note for example, it becomes the Root and all notes will stem from that Root note. Some scales will include more Black notes, some scales will include less. The fact that the keyboard pattern has two white notes side by side has little value when thinking about scales, it just helps us understand the amount of separation from the surrounding notes. It is that separation and relationship that we need to focus on. The Perception is the distance between notes and the pattern helps understand their relationship to each other. The Deception can knock us off track if we begin to think the color designators represent a constant scale assignment.

In fact, when I look at a drum set I think the same way……. each tom, for example, should represent a tone or note and they can be tuned to fit within scales. For right-hand drummers or percussionists, the smaller toms are usually to the left-hand side and getting larger as you move to the right. Smaller toms are tuned to higher pitches and lower toms and the kick drum are tuned to lower pitches. YES! I will tune the drums when doing recording sessions so the tone of the drums will fit within the scale of the song. I might re-tune if necessary depending on the song, but that is fairly rare for bands to use dramatic changes. I make sure each tom, snare and kick drum is tuned to the project (that might be easier to understand than tuning to each song….). Like Gary Jefferson would often say to our audiences while the guitar player is silently tuning, ‘we sound better if we are in tune’! If the percussion instruments are not arranged properly and not tuned correctly, it will clash with the other instruments. The result can be unnoticed by many, but even those of us that are not professionals will notice that the recording or performance (as I mentioned I often tune drums for bands I am running sound for) sounds cloudy or awkward and not as tight as it could be even though the players are amazing and well rehearsed. We may not know why…. but we know something is getting in the way of a great performance.

Once we simplify the 12 notes and we are now able to find any Major scale very quickly  (if you only did the exercise to find the other Major scales a few times you would see this is really easy….) and we can continue to explore the Major scales for other Keys.  This is the foundation of the musical theory pyramid.  It is important to understand how we get to the Safe Seven.  No, you do not have to memorize every note in every scale, although ultimately that will help a lot.  For now, try digging in and go over the Major scale for each of the 12 notes a few times.  As you play the new Major scales, sing (or hum!) the Do Re Me song along with the notes you are playing.  (tip for the day; as you hum each scale from the new starting note, you are changing keys!)

When we look back at the Safe Seven article, I showed a simple connection that I will repeat here:

C    D     E     F     G     A     B     C

1     2     3     4     5     6     7     1

There is a lot of math in music and music theory.  But instead of confusing things and making you change from your creative hat to your thinking hat, I find the math connection actually simplifies the confusion.  It allows me to see the connection the various notes have.  Personally, I HEAR and FEEL music more than I THINK it through.  I have friends that can convert and spit out scales, keys and modes as easily as some of us use Pandora, Spotify or I-Tunes to change a song.  I am really amazed at their skills, but that is something I am not all that good at.  But you will see how easy it is to understand the art and the science by following these posts.
If we look at the Safe Seven for each Major scale, we can make an easy conversion (or universal language) for describing note or chord progressions for ANY Major key.  I know, I keep on harping on the Major scales, but the others will be really easy once we have this understood and comfortable with the Mystery of the 12 and the Safe Seven, so let’s keep going.  For those of you new to this blog, I have no formal training and I am self taught.   I can assure you I am no genius.  If I can get this, so can you.  I just hope to make it a bit easier for you if you are just diving in or curious about how this fits together.

Knowing now that we call the first note the Root, and the same note higher or lower on the keyboard are called Octaves, we will begin a simple conversion;  Root = 1.  Each note in the Safe Seven can be represented this way by assigning it a value of 1-7.  We just assigned Root = 1, so moving up is easy.  In the example above, C is the Root so C = 1 and continuing the scale, D = 2, E = 3, F = 4, G = 5, A = 6, B = 7 and the octave is again the Root or 1.   Each Major scale can be represented the same way.  Use the Whole, Whole, Half, Whole, Whole, Whole, Half system to find the Safe Seven and then assign each to their corresponding number and we can stop talking about note names!  As we get more into chord structure and progressions, this will also come into perspective.  But let’s not get stretched too far.  Play with these exercises a few times a day and we will build our solid musical foundation quickly.  I will also go into the names of the notes as they change keys and this can be confusing to many until you see the method to the madness.

Each key on the keyboard represents what we call a half step. if you play the adjacent key (above or below the key you just played) you have moved another half step.  I am not very good at math, but fortunately the math is simple and two halves equal one whole.  So if you start with any note twelve consecutive notes you will have reached the octave.  (The first note we will call the Root.  12 half steps above that root note is the same note but an octave higher when adding notes to the right and lower when adding notes on the left) Here we have all 12 notes as referenced earlier.  After this they will repeat again and again.

There is a lot of music theory out there and it seems to scare most people into thinking this is going to be work and not play.  There is always some learning or practice involved, but it can still be fun.

Out of the 12 half steps in each octave, most scales will include only 7 notes (8 including the octave).  When using the keyboard as an example it is visually easier to use the white keys and this happens to be the Key of C for the piano.  If you play the C note, and then play each consecutive white note and ignoring the black keys, you are playing the C Major scale.  This is not very mysterious once you know the pattern.  A simple count of each note played and the notes ignored gives us the pattern that can be applied to every scale.  When finished, all we will have to remember to figure out other scales is the pattern;

Two/Half, Three/Half

In slightly more detail, two Whole notes, then one Half note, followed by three Whole notes then one Half.

In the Key of C, the Root note is the lower C.  Move two half steps up (or one whole note) and you have D.  Two more half steps up and you have E.  ( —– no black key here, so we move up a half step to F.  (That is the first part represented by two Whole notes then one Half note—-).  now move up two half notes and you have G, two more and you have A, two more and you have B.  (—– no black key here, so we move a half step to C or the Octave.  (That represents the Whole – Whole  -Whole – Half portion)

C D E F G A B C                                                                                                                                                                                      1  2  3 4 5 6 7 1     These notes are The Safe Seven in the Key of C Major

So to find any major scale, start with the Root note, go up a whole step, up a whole step and up a half, then up a Whole, up a Whole up a Whole and up a Half step and you have arrived at the octave.  This is the Major scale and there are others, but they all start here.  For those of us that had music lessons in school or “The Sound of Music” fans, this will be familiar as the Do Re Me song we learned.  You can reverse the process when moving toward the lower octave.

Remember the saying practice makes perfect?

WRONG!  Only PERFECT practice makes perfect.  Focus on position and form at first and work on speed later.

Play with this for a while and I will be back with more!

If we look at the typical piano keyboard the visual impact is beneficial to demonstrate this big picture ….

You will eventually see the repeating pattern of white keys and black keys.  The pattern repeats over and over.  The piano is ideal because even though it is squeezed to save space, the keys and notes are linear;  to the left the notes or tones produced get lower, and to the right the notes get higher.  As we look to the center we can locate what is called ‘middle C’.   We can use this note as a good reference on the piano because it makes the key of C Major easy to see and play.  Other instruments will make it easier to see and play other keys.  This has to be detailed later, but for now, if you start playing the middle C and then play each sequential white note, you are playing in C Major.

A simple count however shows there are 12 notes between each ‘repeat’ of the cycle or each octave visually displayed on the keyboard.  That’s it.   12 notes and then it repeats.  Now that doesn’t sound too mysterious, does it?  The mystery comes in on knowing what notes to avoid.  If you eliminate the notes that are not within the scale or key you are working in, it becomes like the key of C Major on a piano; you will easily see and play the right notes.

    1       2      3      4      5      6        7      8      9      10      11      12
     C C#    Db      D D#   Eb      E      F   F#   Gb      G G#   Ab      A A#   Bb       B

In the key of C Major, it would be a safe guess based on the above, to play white notes.  It the simple chart above you can also see the numbers greyed that represents the black keys.  In this example, the black keys are not within the C Major scale.  For other scales and variations of scales, they WILL!

Generally speaking, if we are playing the C Major scale, playing black keys will not always fit in with the other notes being played.  White keys have a much better chance of ‘fitting in’ with other notes being played.

Which reminds me of a joke about musicians……..

What is the difference between a jazz band and a rock band?

The jazz band plays thousands of chords to three or four people and the rock band plays three or four cords to thousands of people!