Music theory is a way to gain insight into how music is made or how you can create it yourself. Theory is a foundation from where you can appeal to when composing, improvising and analyzing. We could figure almost anything out by using theory, but not everything has to come from the books. Many good or successful artists know little to nothing about theory or work solely by hearing. Just like Chet Baker, Art Tatum, Michael Jackson, Jimi Hendrix, Tom Morello, Kurt Cobain and Eric Clapton. Nothing has to be an epic theoretical performance to sound and feel good. Just like Duke Ellington said: "If it sounds good, it IS good." I want to emphasize this. Follow your gut feeling. On a side note there’s a lot to read about beat-producers (like Kanye West) knowing nothing and time after time still find their way in producing good, catchy rhythms and melodies. Music is about expression if we are talking about classical, hip-hop or pop. Everyone has a story to tell or wants to inspire others and let that be our guiding principle of the basic music theory series by Inside Audio.
What are music notes and intervals?
Music notes and the alphabet
Music notes are the building blocks for music as we know it. The musical alphabet contains of 7 letters: A, B, C, D, E, F, and G. Every note has it's own pitch. To make it visually easier to understand, we'll use the keys of a piano. There are 12 notes on the keyboard of the piano: A, A# / B♭, B / C♭, C, C# / D♭, D, D# / E♭, E, F, F# / G♭, G and G# / A♭. On the white keys you will find all 7 'natural tones'. These are without a sharp (#) or flat (♭) symbol. On the black keys you will find all raised / sharp (#) or lowered / flat tones (♭) with an accompanied symbol. To say the notes are sharp or flat, depends on the 'key' the piece is written in. A combination of natural, sharp and flat notes create a key.
An interval is the distance between 2 notes. There are various intervals. We measure these intvervals by counting the half steps, whole steps and the position of the key. Every key on the piano keyboard is counted as a half step..
If you look at the notes B-C, E-F on the piano, you will see there are no black keys between. The interval between B and C is a half step. This is also the case for E and F. Between C and D, the interval is a half step, because there are 2 keys higher. If you take 12 steps, so thats 12 piano keys, from C higher or lower, you will end up on the note C again. This is called an octave.
What are music scales?
A scale is a set of notes between an octave, composed by a certain order of pitches. The ascending or descending intervals determine the underlying relationship between pitches and define, what we call in the end, the scale. The notes of a scale are used to build melodies and harmonies. Every scale has a series of degrees, these are expressed in Roman- or regular numbers.
There are multiple different scales with each it's own qualities.
Major scales sound happy, big and the most natural sounding to a lot of people. The intervals that detemine the scale are: Tonic-Whole-Whole-Half-Whole-Whole-Whole-Whole-Half (octave tonic). If we take the key of C-Major (Ionian) it would look like this: C-D-E-F-G-A-B-C. If you were to play these notes on the piano, you will see that these are all the white notes. If you would look at the intervals described here and counted manually, it would lead you from white to white key if you would start at C.
Minor scales have a sad, melancholic sound compared to the Major scales. The intervals that compose the Minor scale are: Tonic-Whole-Half-Whole-Whole-Half-Whole-Whole (octave tonic). If we would take the minor key of A (Aeolean) it would look like this: A-B-C-D-E-F-G-A.
Here we are playing only the white piano keys again. The reason for this is because A-Minor (Aeolean) is the 6th degree relative to C-Major (Ionian). These 2 scales are like brothers (or sisters) and have the same notes, but each their own characteristics. There are 6 more degrees within the C-Major scale with each their own sound and applications (with the same notes!). We are going to talk about modes and modality in future articles. So be sure to keep an eye out on Inside Audio if you want to learn more!