This is the last installment of Music Theory Basics. Why? Well, beyond this you are getting into more intermediate and advanced concepts of music theory. Even this entry is pushing the limits on what is “basic,” which is why I strongly recommend taking sometime to review the previous three entries before reading this one.
In Part 3 of Music Theory Basics, we discuss how our modern day musical scales developed from the musical modes used by the ancient Greeks. For today’s purposes, here is a “textbook” definition.
Scale: a series of notes arranged, ascending or descending, by pitch.
Most scales are arranged in 8 notes (octave) and there are 7 different pitches within the modern musical scale of the Western world. Each pitch serves a specific function and a name describing that function. Take a look and the scale degrees of a C major scale.
Tonic: As the first scale degree, the tonic is the strongest tone within the scale and is the pitch that the melody and harmony center around. Musical phrases usually end on the tonic.
Supertonic: The second scale degree which is on step above the tonic. This note is usually used as a passing tone to resolve to the tonic.
Mediant: The third scale degree. The mediant is halfway between the tonic and the dominant and is often used to harmonize either tone.
Subdominant: The fourth scale degree derives its name from being just below the fifth note (dominant) and being a fifth below the tonic. It’s placement makes it a fairly strong note often leading to the dominant or tonic and sometimes it finishes a musical phrase on its own.
Dominant: The fifth note in the scale is the second strongest to the tonic. In many cases, other notes will resolve to the dominant rather than the tonic and the end of a musical phrase.
Submediant: The sixth note of the scale is known as the submediant because it is halfway between the subdominant and tonic. It’s function is similar to the mediant.
Leading Tone: The last note on the way up to the tonic the leading tone creates the most dissonance and just begs to resolve to tonic. A great way to torture musicians is to end a musical phrase with the leading tone.
By knowing the names and the roles each scale degree plays in the scale, we can better understand the relationship of melodies and harmonies which can aid in composition, improvisation, and analysis. You no longer have to say, “I like that song, it sounds pretty.” Instead, you can say, “It sounded like the composer was going to resolve to the subdominant, but instead he moved to the dominant and then resolved to the tonic. That move created a little bit of tension, but not too much. I liked that.” Impressive.
In the first two parts of Music Theory Basics, we covered a lot of topics. Today we will only be focusing on one topic: key signatures. There are, however, several layers to this concept. I will try an lay it out in a way that makes it a tasty parfait and not an onion.
Let’s start with a little background.
Western music (music originating from western Europe) evolved from ancient Greece. Back then, music was learned, performed, and passed down by ear. The Greeks used a system of modes. Each mode had different “rules” of what the musician would play. These rules determined, among other things, whether or not a note was sharp or flat. From the modes developed, what we call, scales. When music began to be written down, scribes noticed these “rules” for each scale and began to use key signatures to indicate the notes that would be consistently sharp or flat.
Key Signature: Generally written immediately after the clef, it is a series of sharp or flat symbols (AKA: accidentals) placed on the staff denoting which notes are consistently played sharp or flat.
Accidentals: Includes, sharp, flat, and natural signs. Accidentals are used to alter the pitch of a note higher or lower.
Sharp: Means higher in pitch. Notes with the sharp symbol in front of them, or that are indicated as sharp within a key signature, are to be played a half step higher that their natural counterpart. For instance, an A-sharp is a 1/2 step higher that an a-natural.
Flat: Means lower in pitch. Notes with the flat symbol in front of them, or that are indicated as flat within a key signature, are to be played a half step lower that their natural counterpart. For instance, an A-flat is a 1/2 step lower that an A-natural.
Natural: the natural sign cancels any previous accidentals and returns the notes to its unaltered or natural state.
Now, I wish that I could say that once the key signature is set, you don’t have to worrying about it changing. Key signatures can change often in a piece of music. Plus, composers often use accidentals in places that they want harmony get interesting. You will see the symbol directly in front of the note and that accidental applies for the entire measure.
So, now that you understand all the symbols, how do you know what key you are in. You could just learn by rote. I like to use the following chart, though. It is known as the Circle of Fifths. I’m going to try by best to explain this briefly, but I could get a little long. If you want to skip the explanation and just take the chart at face value, great. There’s no quiz on it. Just trust me it works.
Want more information? It is called the Circle of Fifths because the key signatures are listed a fifth apart (meaning they are five notes apart including the starting note). At the top of the circle, we have the key of C, the key of C has no sharp or flats. It’s all natural. If you were go up the scale by a fifth from C (C, D, E, F, G-that’s five!) you land on G. The key of G has 1 sharp. A fifth above G is D. The key of D has two sharps and so on and so forth. The more you advance by fifths, the more sharps you get. You can see this pattern by going clockwise around the circle of fifths. To determine a key signature that is full of flats, you must go counter-clockwise and you descend by fifths. A fifth below C (C, B, A, G, F) is F. The key of F has one flat. Likewise, a fifth below F is B-flat. The key of B-flat has two flats, and so on.
One thing that is tricky, is when you reach the bottom of the circle of fifths. The flat key signatures and the sharp key signatures run together. What’s happening there, we call enharmonic tones.
Enharmonic tones: They are two notes that are equivalent to each other. For instance, F-sharp is an enharmonic tone to G-flat. Basically, an individual tone can have multiple names. Still a little confusing? Think about playing a piano. If you start on G-natural, the black key below it is G-flat, but that is also the black key above F which we know as F-sharp.
What that translates to in the circle of fifths is that the key of C-flat major contains the enharmonic tones of a B major scale.
If the Circle of Fifths is not your cup of tea, check out Ricci Adams’ mathematic method.
We’ll stop there for today. Our basics are quickly are becoming more advanced. The last installment of Music Theory Basics, will cover intervals, scales, and the function of each note within the scale.
6. Classical music is relaxing.
Sometimes, when I’m washing dishes, I’ll turn on one of three things: talk radio, classical music, pop, or Broadway music. Interestingly enough, while I do find most pieces on the classical music playlist to be calming, I believe that’s a result of the host arranging a playlist that appeals to what a general audience perceives as what classical music should sound like. In other words, the repertoire heard on the radio is vastly different than a professional orchestra’s repertoire for the season.
Beyond what’s played on the radio, there is a world of complex, intense, cacophonous, dramatic, edgy, avant-garde, and even violently animated orchestral music that is by far NOT RELAXING. Works that come to mind include Wagner’s Ring Cycle and Ride of the Valkyries, Prokofiev’s Symphony No. 5, Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra, and Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 5.
In fact, rather than feeling relaxed when I listen to these pieces, I find myself distracted from the tasks at hand, absorbed by the excitement and motion in these rich compositions. I have trouble treating most of the greatest masterpieces as “background” music that might relax me. These are the pieces that keep me riveted and on the edge of my seat.
7.Only educated intellectuals can understand and enjoy classical music.
There is some truth to this point in the sense that those who have studied music theory, history, form, and performance have a deeper understanding of classical music as a result of increased knowledge about classical compositions. But knowing where a piece was composed, in which key it’s written, from which musical era it originated, which opus number it is, or even who composed it doesn’t necessarily influence how enjoyable a piece may be to an audience member–educated or not.
In fact, sometimes the intense study of music–the probing and picking at it–can take the magic out of it. Beating a beautiful piece of music to death in the practice room can sometimes lead a performer from loving it to hating it in no time. I know plenty of professional performers who loathe and mock pieces like Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker and Handel’s Messiah just because they’ve played them too many times and find them boring.
Sometimes it’s those who are not educated in the field of music who have the greatest appreciation for it. To them it is some kind of mysterious magic; how can someone take something as static as a wooden instrument and make it sing and speak in such a moving way?
On that note, educated and studied musical scholars can often be the most critical of listeners, hearing the mistakes in performance and poor composition of harmonically challenged pieces. While being a learned musician may give you a deeper understanding of music, often it is the innocent or even ignorant who understand the true and deeper purpose and meaning of the music.
Composers did not write music for intellectuals only, but for the masses, for all people. Cooks don’t just cook for cooks, but for people to eat who will enjoy it whether or not they know the methods and techniques employed.
8. Listening to classical music will help you fall asleep.
Something that fascinates me is that massage therapists typically don’t use classical music as background music during a massage. Instead, there’s an entire genre of ethereal “massage music”–it’s like there’s a whole industry revolving around this dreamy, synthesized stuff. Okay, this is going to sound snobby, but because I’ve found typical massage music to be almost irritating, I’ve actually brung CDs of my own favorite, calming classical pieces to play that will edify rather than annoy me.
This statement though, that classical music will help you fall asleep, refers back to point number four in my previous post: all classical music sounds the same. I actually think there are very soothing and beautiful compositions and lullabies to which listening to would be far more effective than counting sheep. But it’s inaccurate to assume that all classical music creates this effect.
However, you might have to argue this point with that guy who always snores through every symphony concert you attend.
9. Only people who play classical music actually listen to it.
People who play orchestral instruments and music definitely tend to listen to more classical music than those who do not. Many people who don’t play classical music don’t listen to it because perhaps they have never even been exposed to it.
Exposure to orchestral music, then, is usually all it takes for one to develop an appreciation and love for the music. In my previous point (number eight), I established that one does not need to be trained or educated in the field of music to understand or enjoy it. I have developed a greater respect for people who don’t play classical music who listen to it and attend concerts because I appreciate their devotion and interest.
As a performer, if only players of classical music attended my performance, I would have a very small audience. I am so grateful for those who attend and listen to performances who have no musical background; these are those who are often most edified, impressed, and moved by the truly awesome power of refined music.
10. All classical music originates in Europe.
Most of time time the mention of classical music conjures up images of pink-cheeked men in powdered wigs and coats with shiny buttons. Okay. So it is true that Western classical music originated (note: past tense) in Europe. Western music notation with lines on a staff and notes written with rhythmic symbols were established in Europe in the 16th century.
What is amazing since the industrial and digital revolutions is that Western classical music began to spread across the globe not only on record, but in theory and compositional textbooks. In other words, the use of the musical staff and Western music theory became worldwide standards.
BUT what we can’t overlook is the entire genre of Middle Eastern and Eastern classical music. This is rich stuff! Eastern classical music is notated differently and composed with unique instrumentation. I can’t even begin to list the names of Asian and Middle Eastern instruments.
Beyond Eastern music, there is classical music composed by international composers from every nation. I encourage you to seek out and listen to a wider variety of classical music; there is just too much culture to be absorbed and too little time!
So while I do believe that to enjoy classical music a basic understanding of it can improve both an appreciation and sense of fulfillment when listening or playing it, I also believe that an extensive knowledge is definitely not necessary. Classical music is for everyone.
So if you’re one who always opts for pop over classical, try giving the classics a chance! I GUARANTEE you’ll find something you’ll love.
In Music Theory Basics (Part 1), we discussed the musical staff, clefs, and note names. Today, we will cover the basics of rhythm and note duration. There are lots of charts in this one!
The term rhythm has come to mean several different things in today’s culture, but for our purposes, we will use the following definition:
Rhythm: The controlled movement of music in time usually divided into strong (or accented) and weak (or unaccented) beats in a piece of music.
Beats: The regular pulse of music. Often, beats are dictated by accents in music, a metronome, or a conductor.
Strong (or accented) beat: The effect that occurs in music when one note or syllable is stressed or emphasized more than others.
Duration: The length of time that a note is sounded. This length of time is determined by the note value.
Note value: is the duration of a note in the context of a measure/bar of music as determined by the time signature. Here are some common note values.
To avoid confusion with note names, it is important to think about them in relationship to a whole note. A half note is half the value of a whole note, a quarter note is one-fourth (or a quarter) of a whole note, and an eighth note is one-eighth the value of a whole note. Here is another chart to break it down.
Measure/Bar: a term that signifies the smallest division of a piece of music marked by vertical bar lines on the staff. Each measure contains a fixed number of beats. The number of beats is determined by the time signature.
Time Signature: A symbol placed at the left side of the staff indicating the meter (or measure of time) of the piece of music. A time signature is made up of two numbers. The top number tells you how many beats are in each measure and the bottom number tells you which note is the beat.
The top number is pretty straightforward. It always signifies how many beats are in a a measure. If it’s a 4 then there are four beats, if it’s a 6 then there are six beats, and so on.
To “crack the code” of the bottom number, you need to be familiar with factions. The bottom number is the denominator of the fraction of the note that it represents. For instance, a quarter note is one-fourth or 1/4 the value of a whole note. So, if the bottom of a time signature is a 4 then the quarter note gets the beat. Likewise, an eighth note is one-eighth or 1/8 the value of a quarter note. So, if the bottom of the time signature is an 8 then the eighth note gets the beat.
Here is a chart of common time signatures you will run into.
We will stop there for now. You can now take the concepts we have learned in these first two parts and apply them too some of the basic songs in the repertoire! Why not try this part of “Jingle Bells.”
Playing music is more than just playing notes on a page. Simply playing the notes would be like saying words without expression, asking questions without the rising inflection at the end of the phrase, writing without punctuation, eating food without salt or spices, seeing the world without color . . . you get it. Creating beautiful music happens when you add flavorful touches and techniques:
That last one is hard to define for students and sometimes hard to teach. But when you understand the following classical music genres, you’ll know how to better shape a piece to represent the period in which it was written.
THE COMMON PRACTICE PERIOD
The phrase “classical music” usually refers to any music played by an orchestra or ensembles including stringed instruments, piano, or vocals that feel . . . old. Music written by dead people who wore powdered wigs. Music directed by some guy in coat tails holding a stick.
Much of the classical music you hear today on classical music radio, Pandora stations, and Spotify playlists comes from the Common Practice Period. The term “Common Practice Period” refers to the three centuries between roughly 1600 and 1910 when the techniques, ideas, and written language of Western European music as we know it today were standardized and systemized.
THE THREE CLASSICAL GENRES OF THE COMMON PRACTICE PERIOD
You’ve probably also heard the terms “Romantic” and “Baroque” and “Classical” as sub-genres of general classical music. Well, that’s confusing. How can there be a classical music sub-genre of classical music?
Understanding the genres of classical music becomes increasingly important as beginning students advance into more mature performers. To bring some light to the subject, let’s break it down. From “oldest to youngest,” here are the three subsets of classical music.
1. BAROQUE (1600-1750)
Definitive Composer: Johann Sebastian Bach
Other Baroque Composers: Antonio Vivaldi, Arcangelo Corelli, George Frederic Handel, Henry Purcell
Defining Characteristics: Continuous bass line (basso continuo), use of harpsichord and pipe organ, introduction of written works such as cantatas and oratorios, smaller ensembles with limited or no wind and percussion parts
Performance Style: added embellishments and tremelos, little or no vibrato, trills starting on the higher note
2. CLASSICAL (1750-1820)
Definitive Composer: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Other Classical Composers: Christoph Willibald Gluck, Carl Philipp Emanuel (C.P.E.) Bach, Joseph Haydn, Ludwig van Beethover (early works)
Defining Characteristics: short melodies and phrases, obvious cadences, larger orchestra than Baroque, music in sonata form, eventual disuse of harpsichord and introduction of piano, quartet music
Performance Style: light and clear articulation, trills starting on the lower not, modest use of vibrato, more dynamic contrast
3. ROMANTIC (1820-1910)
Definitive Composers: Ludwig Van Beethoven (transitional later works), Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, Johannes Brahms
Other Romantic Composers: Franz Schubert, Felix Mendelssohn, Frederic Chopin, Robert Schumann, Richard Wagner, Antonin Dvorak, Edward Elgar, Gustav Mahler, Richard Strauss, Sergei Rachmaninoff
Defining Characteristics: reflective of human emotion and expression; a response to social and political movements; rich and song-like melodies; more modulation and key changes; larger orchestra with more winds, brass, and percussion; programme music and symphonic poems;
Performance Style: dramatic, expressive, wide vibrato, dramatic and high-contrast articulation and dynamics, rich texture, virtuosic playing, lyrical and song-like phrasing
Next time you pull out your sheet music, take a look at the composer’s name and their birth and death dates (usually included after the name). Identify the musical period from which your piece was performed, then try adding the stylistic characteristics relevant to that genre of music. Perhaps you’ll find yourself developing a greater appreciation and understanding of the historical value of music as well as the brilliance of these amazing composers. Enjoy taking your performance to a whole new level of musical maturity!
Music is a language and like any other language it has a written form. The parts that make up the written form of music and the rules for writing is are know as music theory. No matter your age or experience level, reading music and understanding music theory is a valuable skill. Not yet music literate? Now is the perfect time to learn!
Let’s dive in!
Staff: The musical staff is the foundation of modern musical notation. The staff is made up of five lines and four spaces. Each line and space represents a specific note.
Note: Short for “notation”. Depicts the pitch and duration of a musical sound.
Pitch: represents the perceived fundamental frequency of a sound.
Clef: A clef is what assigns individual notes to certain lines or spaces. There are several type of clefs, but the most common are the Treble clef (aka G clef) and the Bass clef (aka F clef).
Treble clef: Treble is a term for higher sounding notes. The treble clef gets its name because it represents the high notes.
Bass clef: Bass is a term for lower sounding notes. The bass clef gets its name because it represents the low notes.
Note names: In modern music, there are 7 letters that make up the musical alphabet. A, B, C, D, E, F, and G. The letters are used to denote the pitch of each note. The note names are assigned in alphabetical order (i.e. B comes before C, etc.) and once you reach a G the alphabet starts over again (i.e. A, B, C, D, E, F, G, A, B, C…). This patten can repeat an infinite number of times.
Let’s put this all together with this handy chart!
Since this handy chart won’t always be available, let’s go over how to remember note names. The best way, that I have found, is to use mnemonic devices.
On the treble clef, the notes in the spaces (from bottom to top) spell FACE. The note names spell a word, so that’s easy enough to remember. The notes on the lines (from bottom to top) are E, G, B, D, and F. To remember these note names, most people make up a sentence like: Every Good Boy Does Fine.
On the bass clef, the notes in the spaces (from bottom to top) are A, C, E, and G. The sentence All Cows Eat Grass is a handy way to remember that. The notes on the lines (from bottom to top) are G, B, D, F, and A. I like to use the sentence Green Bananas Don’t Fool Anybody.
If this seems complicated to you, throw away the sentences and just remember two things. The treble clef is also called a G clef because it indicates where the G is located on the staff. If you look closely, the line that intersects the clef the most is the second line from the bottom. That line is G. Likewise, on the bass clef is also called an F clef because is indicated where the F is located. The F can be found between the two dots that are to the side of the clef. This is the second line from the top. Music scholars believe that the current style of the clefs evolved from stylized G’s and F’s that composers and publishers included in the music.
In Music Theory Basics (Part 2) we will cover Rhythm and Note Duration. Inspired and can’t wait? 8notes.com has a useful Beginner Music Theory section with easy to read slide shows. You can also find music theory in some of the most popular violin method books like Suzuki. For more recommended method books, click here.