Monday, November 23, 2009

Basic Music Theory (Scales)

I've been wanting to do a music theory post for a while so here goes. I realize that for most of you music theory is probably not necessary to learn. It's dry, a bit tedious, and not actually music. If you only care to sit and pick away on the couch then you can just skip it. Maybe this prompts some to ask why learn it all? So, here are a few reason to invest the time to learn it.

  • Understanding the The Big Picture:
All western music from The Beatles to Bach, Hank Williams to Iron Maiden, Bill Monroe to Miles Davis is based on one system. Understanding the system as a whole makes it alot easier to learn different styles.

  • Soloing:
If you hope to be a soloist (like playing lead guitar,) getting some basic music theory is pretty important. You could develop your ear and only play that way. I know some folks who do and are great. But if you developed your ear AND knew music theory you'd know so much more and have more options.
  • Communication:
Maybe the most important reason to learn music theory. If you play with other musicians on a regular basis you'll need to speak the language. Basic music theory allows you get the lingo down.

  • Songwriting
If you're a serious songwriter and you don't understand basic music theory you are severely handicapping your creativity. Music theory to the songwriter is like color theory to visual artists. Sure you can just throw all kinds of colors together but that doesn't mean it'll look good. Van gogh, Picasso, Pollock. These dudes knew how to use color.

Dylan, McCartney, and Hank knew how music functions as a system. Maybe they didn't know every detail, but they knew the fundamentals AT LEAST. Songwriting is one part inspiration and one part craft. Learn the craft to go along with your inspiration and your songwriting will start to stand out.

OK so you figure it can't hurt to pick up a few of the basics. Where does it all start? Well back in the day somebody came up with this system of music that we've been using for many, many years. Its a man-made creation. Like mathematics, sometimes you just have to accept things in the system as they and in this system it all starts with the Chromatic scale.

This link is meant to show you the notes of the chromatic scale on a piano. You can find these same notes on the guitar by starting on any OPEN string and play one note after another on that string until you get to the 12th fret. Here's a video demonstrating this idea on guitar:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9eFGDP_1PdM

Here are the notes starting with A:

  1. A
  2. A# or Bb (they're the same thing)
  3. B
  4. C
  5. C# or Db (they're the same thing)
  6. D
  7. D# or Eb (they're the same thing)
  8. E
  9. F
  10. F# or Gb (they're the same thing)
  11. G
  12. G# or Ab (they're the same thing)

That's it, that's all the notes that exist in western music. They can be higher or lower in pitch, but they are the same notes. This scale is the foundation of music theory.

A couple points to consider:

  • The sharps (#) and flats (b) are nothing to get worried about. They're no different than any other note. You can easily identify them as the black keys on the piano diagram from the Chromatic scale link.
  • There are no sharp or flats (i.e. no black keys) between B and C or E and F. I don't why. Just is.
OK, that's pretty dry stuff so I'll try to move on to something more tangible. So try this, play the notes of the chromatic scale one after another. No sense of finality or resolution in there is it? It's like a cat chasing its tail. Round and round. We need more structure. Viola...

The Major Scale


This link shows you how the major scale is formed on the piano. It is an excellent little intro and could help you if you follow it. But, you need to understand this first. There's a little formula that you apply to the chromatic scale that allows you to create the major scale. If you want to skip that info, that's OK. What's important is that you know that the Major Scale is somehow derived from the Chromatic scale. The formula is WWHWWWH. What does that mean? It means you skip notes of the chromatic scale with this formula. W mean skip a whole step (2 frets or keys.) H means skip a 1/2 step (1 fret or key.) The link can help with this. You can apply this formula to any of the 12 notes of the Chromatic scale and the result is the same. That note's Major Scale.

Here's a couple of videos I put together to help you with this stuff.

Let's start our Major Scale study with the C Major Scale. We could have started with any of the 12 Chromatic notes. C is the best place to start since there are no accidentals (sharps or flats, no black keys.) Its a little cleaner that way. So here it is: C, D, E, F, G, A, B

  1. C Maj
  2. d min
  3. e min
  4. F Maj
  5. G Maj
  6. a min
  7. B dim
  8. C Maj (the octive, same as the other C)

These are the only notes in the C Major scale. Seven tones, no more or less. Now for something useful. We can assign a number to each tone of the scale as I have done with the list above. If we think of each of these as a chord we see all the chords that are in the key of C. In other words, the Key of C is just the C Major scale and its related chords.

The 1 chord is C Major
The 2 chord is d minor (lower case to denote minor)
The 3 chord is e minor
The 4 chord is F Major
The 5 chord is G Major
The 6 chord is A minor
The 7 chord is B diminished (don't worry to much about this one unless you play Jazz)

Play each of these chords one after the other and you'll hear that scale in the chords.

Thousands, maybe millions of songs are built on the 1-4-5 chords. Its good to start referring to chords with their number as it relates to a Major scale. Like calling the C chord the 1 chord or the G chord the 5 chord. For practice, look at any song you play C chords over and look and see which of these chords I've listed pop up. Start thinking of them as the 1 chord, or the 6 chord or the 5 chord. You'll start to HEAR the relationship of these chords to one another.

That's plently for today. Let me know how it goes. Hope it helps.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Play what you feel, feel what you play

I recently watched a French movie about a music teacher/student relationship. The movie's title is Tous les matins du monde (All the World's Mornings.) The movie is about a young would be musician looking to study with a great master. The movie is a bit to complicated to relate here but it boils down to the lessons learned that turn the young student into a great musician. One of my favorite scenes involves the master telling the student his fingers work wonderfully, he plays no wrong notes, but he'll never be a musician and no amount of practice will change that. He tells the young student that he'll never reach an audience. Pretty harsh criticism but I see his point. Music is an expression. As the movie beautifully states, "music says words that we are unable to speak." The student had no feeling in his playing. You can't teach that.

One of my favorite musicians is always saying "play what you feel." This is the best advice. We're attracted to the sound of music for all kinds of different reasons but surely it comes down to the way it makes us feel. Hard to define but undeniable. I like to spend extra time working with students technical problems because I feel that they need extra help on that subject. If we're limited technically we'll be unable to get the music out. This is indeed important, but I have some new advice to go along with that. Whatever you play feel it.

A couple of years ago I competed in a guitar competition. A competition based on music is kind of ridiculous. Music is art. Very subjective. However, the competition was a very good learning experience for me and I'm glad I did it. Most of the contestants (me included) tried to play fast and sound impressive with little emotion other than trying to show off. One contestant however played very slow and expressively. She made few mistakes and in my opinion had one of the most musical performances of any of the contestants. Even though she didn't win her performance got her into 5th place and the memory of her playing has stayed with me. I couldn't tell you what anyone else did. She played with great feeling and a minimum of flash but it didn't matter. This was great music.

Work on your technical problems. Practice, practice, practice. By all means go slow, but remember why you're playing. Get into the music. Play what you feel then feel what you play.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Banjo Classes starting this week

I've got a couple of banjo classes starting this week at Dusty Strings. The classes will meet every Wednesday night for the month of November starting at 6:30pm. Here's a link describing the classes and their respective meeting times.


The classes are geared towards someone who is not a total beginner. They're not super advanced, so if you've been picking for a while you'll definitely pick up some great information. Feel free to contact me if you have any questions.