Basic Theory Made Easy. Part 2: The Why Of Notes

A continuation in my theory series explaining why note names are what they are and how to figure them out.

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In my last theory article, I talked about building a major scale around a framework of intervals and what made the major scale important. I didn't talk about notes because I didn't want to fill your head with too many things at once. This concept of building scales is truly important. And if you are a theory beginner, you should understand these basic concepts FIRST before trying to tackle other aspects of theory. Granted, you could choose to learn to read music first, but learning to read music is MUCH more advanced than simply learning to build a major scale. That is why I did that first. Also, SO MANY people actually are never taught HOW to build a major scale. Notes: What are they? Simply put, a note is an alphabetic representation of a pitch. There are 7 note names: A, B, C, D, E, F, and G. Notes: Why are they that way? Here, I am going to introduce you to sharps and flats. What is a sharp? A sharp happens when you move any note UP 1/2 step or one fret. What is a flat? A flat happens when you move any note DOWN 1/2 step or one fret. Why do we have sharps and flats? There are many useful reasons in music. But to keep it simple, we have sharps and flats to represent pitches "between" notes. In other words, a lot of note pairs have the WHOLE STEP interval between them. If we had to give different alphabetic names to ALL pitches at every HALF STEP INTERVAL, there would be note names from A to L!!! Remember how we looked at the major scale in the last article? There is a particularly important KEY as well. This is the key of C major. Don't worry about what a key actually is right now. Just know that the key of C major has no sharps or flats. Why is this important? Because it gives us the intervals that ALL THE NOTES naturally fall under. We know that the structure of a major scale's intervals is: whole, whole, half, whole, whole, whole, half from the last article. This structure is what the C major scale falls under naturally: C, D, E, F, G, A, B, C Given this, is it easy to deduce that the intervals MUST be: C to D = whole D to E = whole E to F = half F to G = whole G to A = whole A to B = whole B to C = half So yes, a couple of note pairs are naturally only a half step apart! These are E to F and B to C. This relationship NEVER changes. Let's say you want to build a major scale from A. Let's see how that is going to work: A to B = whole B to C = half Hey, wait a minute. The third note of a major scale is supposed to be a WHOLE step from the second note. Already we have a problem. What do we do? We SHARPEN the third note to make it fit the interval. So let's try again. A to B = whole B to C# = whole C# to D = half D to E = whole E to F = half. STOP. The fifth to sixth note's interval is supposed to be whole. What do we do? Sharpen it to fit the interval. Try again. A to B = whole B to C# = whole C# to D = half D to E = whole E to F# = whole F# to G = half Whoa! Again? Yes. The interval between the 6th and 7th notes should be a whole as well. What do we do? I think you know by now. Try again. A to B = whole B to C# = whole C# to D = half D to E = whole E to F# = whole F# to G# = whole G# to A = half Success! We have built a major scale in the key of A. A has three sharps: C#, F#, and G#. Do you see why? Without them, it wouldn't sound like the major scale. Let's try one more just to illustrate a point. Let's try the F major scale. F to G = whole G to A = whole A to B = whole Hold on. We know this interval should be a HALF. So we modify the B to fit. But this time, instead of us needing the interval to be whole, we need it to be half. We must FLATTEN the B to fit. Try again. F to G = whole G to A = whole A to Bb = half Bb to C = whole C to D = whole D to E = whole E to F = whole Success! Why did we use flats instead of sharps? Easy. If we said that the key of F needed an A#, not only would we be ignoring the B note, but we'd have TWO A notes right next to each other!!! The basic rule for a heptatonic (7 note) scale in any key is to use every note type ONLY ONCE. So the F major scale is F, G, A, Bb, C, D, E, F. The F major KEY has one flat: Bb. That is why there are keys. We NEED certain notes sharpened or flattened in order for that series of notes to fit within the major interval pattern. Notice how even the KEYS are based on the major scale? I told you this would all tie in. In my next article, we will explore modes and enharmonic notes. Thanks for reading.

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    SatanPriest
    I think I'm going start reading more of these, I already knew this stuff, but the theory books I have make it much more complicated and difficult to understand, kudos.
    byob_soad2
    I'm liking the way these are written! Just waiting to get to something I haven't already learned, now.
    |Matt|
    Thanks so much for all these articles man. I was always shit at music theory, but your articles are helping me heaps.
    GuitarGuy2005
    This discussion of intervals is why I'm glad that I did play piano before switching to guitar.
    BenjoJames
    cheesecakes4 wrote: F to G = whole G to A = whole A to Bb = half Bb to C = whole C to D = whole D to E = whole E to F = whole The last one's a half, not a whole
    I'm sure it's a whole. Look at a keyboard.
    BenjoJames
    'Here, I am going to introduce you to sharps and flats. What is a sharp? A sharp happens when you move any note UP 1/2 step or one fret. What is a flat? A flat happens when you move any note DOWN 1/2 step or one fret' So if you move the note B up one fret it's B#? I always though it was C natural
    cheesecakes4
    F to G = whole G to A = whole A to Bb = half Bb to C = whole C to D = whole D to E = whole E to F = whole
    The last one's a half, not a whole
    SilverSpurs616
    Good read! After what seems like a plague of recent poor articles, this series and the one one chords has been a breath of fresh air
    TheDissident
    Another easy to follow, simple and easy, clearly written lesson. Not disappointed, looking forward to more
    joeythedrummer
    Great lesson, dude! Just one correction for you... In the last exercise when building the F major scale, you show the interval E to F as being a whole step when it should be (and is) a half step. Just thought I'd point it out
    Jonthecomposer
    @joeythedrummer: Yes! You are correct! Thank you for the correction! Geez, I can't believe I missed that!
    vennaco
    Clear and consise. Great lesson. Am becoming a fan of your columns.