Tuesday, December 31, 2019

Lesson Thirteen: Music keys are like crayons, & the importance of your thumb in finding chords

When you play a song written by someone else, or when you compose a piece of music, you'll select out eight of the possible twelve notes in the Western music chromatic scale. 

The music of Europe and America has the following notes, going up the scale: A, A-sharp, B, C, C-sharp, D, D-sharp, E, F, F-sharp, G, and G-sharp. Going down the scale from A-flat (same note as G-sharp), we have A-flat, G, G-flat*, F, E, E-flat, D, D-flat, C, B, B-flat, A. 

*No one ever says G-flat for some reason. It's always written F-sharp (F#) whether you are going up or down the scale.

In real life, people choose a key to play in, meaning that they choose a set of notes with a specific set of sharps and flats in it. In the last lesson, we discusseed major and minor keys, and we learned the counting pattern for putting the sharps and flats into the right places: for a major key, the pattern is whole note - whole note - half note, whole note - whole note - whole note - half note. 

If you want a wide repertoire of songs in your musical life, or you want to compose, you'll need to get a library book and look up "circle of fifths" and learn how many sharps and flats are in every playable key. But for this mioment I am going to guess that there are some kinds of music which interest you more than others. The songs of a particular genre tend to use the same two or three keys. 

The idea of choosing a select group of notes for your music is like drawing a picture with chosen crayons. If you use every color in the box of 64, your art piece going to have a lot of clashing and chaos. But by narrowing down the crayon selection to eight options, and maybe even not using one or two of those, you'll make a strong artistic statement. 

This is where the picking and choosing comes in. The standard set of 8 crayons is all-purpose. If you stick with the standard set, you're going to end up with art right out of third grade. But if you make your own selection of crayon colors which express what you feel or the statement you want to make, then people are much more likely to comprehend what you are doing.

The same idea holds with music. The key of C is bright, clear, simple, and frankly, boring. It's mostly nursery-school music, chirpy and so lacking in nuance that after a few minutes' listening to only songs in the key of C, you'd start climbing the walls if you are grown up enough to hold a driver's license or drink coffee without a large splash of milkshake in it. 

Most songs that aren't bright, simple tunes for children are in a key other than C, and they are therefore better for expressing more complex concepts than "I'm a little tugboat." For example, songs that are about how hard life is, like blues songs about being broke, or folk songs about class struggle, or bluegrass tales of love gone wrong, tend to include notes which are discordant -- scrape or rub or polish the other notes. Notes which don't ring in perfect harmony add a needed edge. But songs that make excellent happy radio pop, or songs sung in rounds, or expressions of life's spiritual beauty have harmonious notes which ring together, amplifying and boosting the other notes rather than carving into them. The musical key determines how harmonious or how edgy a song's message is. 

The other factor in choosing a key is the mood you set. Maybe you don't want to express a specific idea about hard work or trouble or God's love or how nice it is to fall in love. Maybe you just feel some emotion and you don't even know what it is exactly, and that's why you use sound instead of lyrics. In that case, choosing a major key is going to give you a very different feel than choosing a minor one. 

Here's a famous tune in C major:

Now here's a backing (play-along) track with piano in it which is in the key of C minor. The mood is very different. 

Now here's another little music convention: when people name a key but don't say if it's major or minor, 99% they mean it's major. 
And most of the familiar music in our world, the kind people are highly motivated to learn to play, is in major keys. So for this lesson, I'm going to use examples that use the major pattern. 

So let us say that you want to play some bluegrass music. While you could play bluegrass in a number of keys, some of the most common are G, D, and A. That's because bluegrass has its roots in the kind of folk songs that everyone knows (these are often in the key of G) as well as in songs from the Celtic tradition, which are often in the keys of D and A. (For more on this, Google "Scots-Irish" and "Appalachia.")

So let's say you decide you want to play some bluegrass songs, and you need to know what key those songs are in. That's because you need to know which notes to select and where the sharps and flats are. At first, this will be a little bit of an effort, but if you take some time to play as often as you can, you'll find that you'll come to know the keys. It's like knowing the phone number of your favorite pizza place or the taxi service you use most. Your brain will make a record of the details. 

If you memorize how many sharps or flats are in the two or three keys you'll be using in real life, you can quickly get a handle of what notes you'll play. Since we are using the example of bluegrass, the easiest key to start with is G. G is exactly like the key of C, the white keys on the piano, but there is one sharp and that's F-sharp. How to play in G? Never play F, play F-sharp instead. That's it. The notes are G, A, B, C, D, E, anf F-sharp. 

The key of D, also common in bluegrass, is the same as the key of G with an added sharp on the C.  So the notes in D major are D, E, F-sharp, G, A,  B, and C-sharp. And the key of A major is the D scale with a sharp on the G. It goes A, B, C#, D, E, F#,  and G#. Pretty easy, right? G is the same as C, but you play F#. D is the same as G but you play C# instead of regular C. And D is the same as A except you play G# instead of G natural. 

It might also be helpful to know that adding sharps always, always, always goes in the same order: F-sharp always has to be one of them. The next possible sharp is C-sharp. If there are two sharps, they have to be F-sharp and C-sharp. And the next one is G-sharp. If there are three sharps, they have to be F-sharp, C-sharp, and G-sharp.  

So, even if you don't read music at all, as long as you can count you are golden. Why? Sheet music has the "key signature" next to the treble clef. Here's what a song written in A looks like:

How many sharp signs -- those hash-mark, tic-tac-toe looking symbols -- are there? Three. If you can read music a little, you can see that the sharps are on the C, F, and G staff lines or spaces. But as long as you know that A major has three sharps, and that the order of sharps begins, always and forever, with F, C, and G, then you know that if there are three sharps, this key uses the notes A, B, C-sharp, D, E, F-sharp, and G-sharp.

The system of flats, by the way, has its own order too, like the sharps have. Depending on what instrument you play and what genre of music you enjoy, you may use very different keys than thye bluegrass examples of G, D, and A. Whatever you use, you can do the same thing; learn how many sharps and flats that key has, and you'll sort out which ones they are. 

NOTE: Once in a while, a song will have an "accidental" tossed in. That's a note that doesn't belong in the key but it's needed. When that happens in a piece of music you encounter, there will be many warning buzzers on the sheet music, or from a teacher, or from other players: "Now, watch out for that accidental in the fourth measure. This piece is in D, but you play F-natural there."

Besides counting sharps or flats, there are ways to determine what key a song is in. Often, sources for where you got the song will tell you what key it is in; old songbooks or sing-along sheets will say "Key of D" or "Key: A Major" on there someplace. And should you have to just ask someone, or Google for it, you can always take a pencil and write the key in the margin next to a song in a playlist on the back of an envelope. 

Now this is where, speaking from my own personal experience, that a little scale practice will help you out a lot.  I play the mandolin some, and there's a lot of string-hopping with that. If I'm playing something like "St. Anne's Reel" or "The Wreck of the Old 97," they are quick tunes and I can't hesitate over where to put my finger down on the fret. If I play a high F or F sharp on the E-string, it's not too challenging to choose the first or second fret. But if I am on the D-string and I hop over to the A string and then I hop back over to the D-string again, and I need F-sharp, I've got to put my finger down on the correct fret without hesitation. So if I play either song I just mentioned -- I use the key of D for both -- I will want to practice my D scale. The scale is just choosing to play the notes included in that key, in order. If I start as low as I can on the mandolin and go up two octaves, playing all the F's, C's and G's as sharped, and then I come back down again, my fingers begin to find the right fret. My mind accepts that I need to jump past the F-natural, C-natural, and G-natural frets and go up an extra fret each time to reach the note a half-step higher. 

One more tip on the musical keys before we move into a brief bit of information about chords: 


If you are not sure about where a sharp or flat goes, try playing the notes you think are in the scale, starting on the note which is the name of the key. So for the D scale, I start on D and D is the "do" note. If I play up the scale going do-re-mi and so on, my ear will tell me  that I goofed. ("Ouch!) I have either played a natural note which ought to be a sharp or a flat or I have played a sharp or a flat which should have been a natural. 

When this happens, grab an old envelope and scribble down the notes on the piano keys or guitar frets you know are right, and eventually you'll find the clinker. Fix it and circle it. You'll want to work on that one till the right intervals between notes come naturally to you. It's as easy to engrave a wrong pattern as a right one into your brain; if you keep hitting F when you need F#, you really gotta stop and smooth out the old way and groove in the correct way. 

If you get into a muddle, you can go back to the major scale pattern. Still have that old envelope? Write down the musical letters starting with the name of the key, then count whole step, whole step, half step, and so on. You'll see where the sharps or flats have to go. 


Now, to finish this series, a few brief words on chords. Chords are made when you play three or more notes. You use them for accompaniment, mostly. (There is something in jazz called chord-melody, but that's for another time and place.) You will probably want chords if you want to accompany yourself on ukulele or guitar as you sing, or on keyboard with your left hand while you play the melody on the right, or in bluegrass, to play mandolin "chops" in the background while someone else takes a solo. 

There's a really basic chord system called the I-IV-V. If you did not take Latin in high school as I did (not long after chariots were phased out), then those Roman numerals are one, four, five. This system is why I find my left thumb invaluable. Bou can use your right thumb, of course, if you are left-handed. To figure out what I need to do, I literally tap my thumb with my right index finger as my starting place. 

Musical interlude: "Thumb Thumb" by Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers:

 If I am playing music with someone, I want to find chords that go with the tune. If I know one-four-five, I can play a chord progression, which means moving from one chord to another one which progresses from it. A lot of popular music is built on three chords, and you play them in order, over and over. And to figure out what chords I need, I usually start counting on my thumb.

The easiest example of the one-four-five chord progression is also one which is commonly used ("How conveenient!"says the Church Lady), and that uses C, F, and G.

Her;e's one of the best-known songs with the I-IV-V being C, F, and G -- Bob Seger and the Silver Bullet Band playing "Old Time Rock and Roll":

I know I want to play a I-IV-V pattern, and I'll base it on C. I start counting on my thumb with C. My first finger is D, my second finger is E, my fourth finger is F, and my pinky is G. So I'll just the thumb note, C for the one. My fourth finger is F, so that's be my four. and my little finger is G, and that's my fifth finger so I have my five. One, four, five. 

To get a playable I-IV-V chord progression, I'll need three quick easy chords, each with three notes in it. I'm going to start with a C chord. I'll use a triad chord, which means it has three notes. 

To build a simple triad chord, I choose the first, third, and fifth notes in the key. Since I know that the C scale goes C, D, E, F, G, A, B, C, then I look at that set and I choose C which is first, then E which is the third note, and then G which is the fifth note. My C chord for the progression will be C, E, and G played together. 

So I have the I (one) of the I-IV-V pattern. Now I need the IV or four chord. I count off from my thumb, starting on C. C is one, D is two, E is three, and F is four. F is the four chord. To build my F chord, I will do the same thing I just did with the C. The F scale goes F, G, A, B-flat, C, D, E, F. I want to build a basic chord out of the first, third, and fifth notes of the scale. That would be F, A, and C.

So now out of the one-four-five progression, I have C-E-G for a C chord and F-A-C for an F chord. I need the V or five chord now. Thumb to pinky is C, D, E, F, G. I need G for the V (5) chord.  One more chord to build! I start on G, and I need to add the third and fifth notes to make a basic triad major chord. The G scale goes G, A, B, C, D, E, F-sharp, G. So I need G-B-D for my third chord of the progression. 

I've got the chords, and I know what order to play them in: C, then F, then G. But If I just play those three, I would have a really short song, LOL. So we need a rthythm. And I want to do a really basic one because these posts are about theory; the web is filled with zillions of how-to teaching videos, and the music stores have lots and lots of instruction books. But let's put something together to use the chord progression idea. . . 

The song "Old Time Rock and Roll," like many rock songs, is based on a fast version of twelve-bar blues. Here's another song which has twelve-bar blues as its structure, it's "Let's Work Together," written by Wilbert Harrison, and covered by Canned Heat:

So now, to get a starter pattern to play our chords with, let's take a twelve-bar blues rhythm, on which rock and roll were built, and  add the I-IV-V chords. 

Four beats for each bar (measure). You play the notes C-E-G together four times in a row and repeat that three more times. Four bars of four notes each, sixteen C chords. When you've done that, I think you'll find that the blues pattern just naturally makes you want to change chords, so you should do that. 

Now since the pattern goes  C-F-G and we just played C, we gotta move to the four chord, which is F, which you play with the three notes F-A-C. This twelve-bar blues pattern uses two measures of the four chord, so you do eight total. Four beats for the first measure, and four more beats for the second measure. 

Next, you shift, smoothly and gracefully, back to the first one, the C chord, and you play two more bars of four counts of the C. Four C-chords, then four more C-chords of C-E-G.

So far we have C chord times four, done four times. Then G chord played times four, done two times. Then back to C played four times, twice this time. 

And again, you'll feel that it's time to change chords. So you only have one chord left to use, the five chord, which is G. Add two bars of that to what you have. Four beats per bar (measure), so you hit G-B-D eight times. 

Metaphor time! The twelve-bar blues pattern is like climbing a tree.  When you get to the V chord, you're hanging up there from a tall branch and you want to come back down now. 

You climbed up the keyboard from C to F to G but now if you try to just jump back down again to the first chord of C, the music will sound abrupt. You need to climb back down.

 So from your G, your five chord, you hop down like you are going to a lower branch. Jump down to F and play the three notes of the F chord (F-A-C) four times for two bars, eight notes total. Now you can jump down to the C chord and do one more measure (bar) of four beats, four C-E-G chords total. This leaves you with an empty measure, so you are just out in space. You could just lamely play four more C chords and then take your hands off the piano keys. But you'd end up in a funny place where you haven't ended but you aren't quite ready to start over. So to keep going, you need a turnaround

Chord progressions go around and around and around and around. The band changes soloists, the dancers keep dancing, the rhythms change up a little to make it interesting. The group needs you to keep playing the C, the F, and the G chords. Also, for the music to swing or groove, the progressions sort of "catch" or "hang" for a second at the turnaround. And it lets everybody get in the exact same place again. It's easy, when playing with a group, to get a little bit ahead or behind, and the turnaround unites everyone to start the chord progression at the exact same moment. 

For a basic blues pattern, a very easy turnaround to do is to double up and repeat your C-chord, twice each for three times, and then skip the last beat before you start over on the I-IV-V.  Ta-da, ta-da, ta-da, pause, start over with eight measures of C chords. 

The basic structure is the same in the turnaround, but you are just making a variation in the approach. Since you are counting one, two, three four you squeeze in two quick notes where you had one. For the one count, a ta-da bea,. hit the C-chord twice fast, ta-da. Do that same thing for the count two of the measure and again for the count three of the measure. And for the fourth count, rest -- do nothing.  

You are completing the last measure of the C chord from the twelve-bar pattern, just changing up the rhythm. So for a turnaround, after you you do the nex-to-last  C-chord, keep playing  the notes C-E-G but play double-C, double-C, double-C, and pause. This will resolve that feeling of not-quite-done, not-quite-ready-to-start-over. This will put you back ready to start on the next circuit, starting with C.  The pros know dozens of turnarounds but the three-doubles-and-a-pause is a pretty good one to get going with. 

You will probably need to watch some YouTube videos to actually understand what I am telling you here. And there are many chord progressions that are a lot more interesting than C/F/G. But I have given you the example because I want you to have the power to start with basic information and the build your knowledge bawse. You can figure out the more complex stuff yourself, You don't need to ask the other people what the chords are. You don't have to copy the work of great players note by note. 

In the old days, musicians learned by watching and listening and maybe getting a little basic instruction in the school band or orchestra. Maybe a year or two of piano lessons. And then they took that infomation and they built onto it, and changed it around. Many, many great players are/were almost entirely self-taught. 

I have archived these lessons so you can go back and look it all over again While you are figuring it all out, you will get stuck and confused. But I swear, the light bulb will come on over your head and it will all fall into place. And then you'll have the power to play. Sort of like the might Hercules receiving the ring of power!

Sunday, December 29, 2019

Lesson Twelve: Major and Minor

This lesson is where we separate off from general music theory to practical music theory. Honestly, even a very diligent student could study the structure of music every day and still have more to learn when they run out of days. If playing one-dimensional chess bores you, you can find three-dimensional chess, right? Music has deep and complex connections within itself and the people who teach for a living (not me for sure) can take you on some epic mental journeys. 

But this is the next-to-last lesson in this series and when we come to major and minor scales/keys, what I'm sharing here is what you need to know to be able to use the information to play an instrument and/or sing from sheet music: where the half-steps are. 

When I left you last, we determined without a shred of doubt in our minds that there is no black piano key between the white keys B and C. Nor is there a black key between E and F. Since we know the sharps (going up) and flats (going down) are played with the black keys, then we can become Sherlock Holmes or Miss Marple and deduce that there is neither a B-sharp nor a C-flat between B and C. And between E and F, there is no E-sharp and no F-flat. 

In the last lesson, I compared the intervals between notes in Western music to the steps in a spiral staircase, an artistic spiral in which each step is not uniform. To make the classic do-re-mi scale, the step design has to include two short steps. If you had such a spiral staircase in real life, you would find it handy -- and probably life-saving -- to know where the two short steps were

Unlike the magical stairs in the Harry Potter movies, happily, the musical steps don't change around. No matter where you start, the steps always follow one of two set patterns. They are pretty easy to understand, but they require more of that rote-memory learning I love so well. 

Because we are doing practical music theory now, and because if you don't know where the half-steps are in a musical key, you are nowhere, man, nowhere, we need to get this solid and permanently. You do not actually need to know what a half-step is, but you do need to know where to find it. 

In the key of C major, we find the two half-steps where there aren't any black keys (sharps or flats) between two white keys. The half-steps are between B and C, and between E and F.

The pattern for a major scale goes "Whole step, whole step, half step, whole step, whole step, whole step, half step." This is the rote-memory part. You really, really need to learn the pattern. You can do it, "whole whole half, whole whole whole half."  Or "two wholes and a half, three wholes and a half." Whatever works for you. but you need to be able to sit down with a piece of paper and instantly come up with WWH, WWWH or something. 

I'll assume you'll get to work on that if it's new to you. Okay, moving on. . .

Let's see if that counting pattern matches the C major scale on the keyboard. We know the C key is the one to the left of two black keys. C to D has a black key in between. D to E has a black key. So that's a whole step and a whole step. Now E to F, no black key. There's our half-step. F to G, whole step with a black key in the middle. G to A, a whole step. A to B a whole step. So that's whole step, whole step, whole step. B to C is a half step. So we end with a half. Does that match our pattern? Why yes, it does! How conveeeeenient, as the Church Lady used to say.

But we can't count just on the lack of black keys to tell us where the half-steps are. Because only the C major both starts on the C note and uses the "whole, whole, half, whole whole, whole, half" pattern. If we start on a different note, or we play in a minor key, we can't just look for two white keys together to find a scale. 

Let's look at F major, since F is the other key we've learned to find instantly. It's the one to the left of three black keys. 

The pattern for major scales and keys is two whole steps, a half step, three whole steps and a half step. And we know we want to start and end on the note F.

F to G is a whole step, with the F-sharp black key in the middle. 

G to A is a whole step, with the G-sharp black key in the middle. 

A to B, is a whole step, with A-sharp in the middle,  but it's a whole step and we need a half-step. 

In practical terms, a half-step is from a white key to a black key or a black key to a white key, except for the two jumps with no black key in the middle: B to C, or E to F. Any other time, the interval from a black key to a white key or a white key to a black key is a half-step.

In musical terms, an interval between a "natural" note, a note without a sharp or flat, is a half step. So F to F-sharp is a half step. And a note with a sharp or flat in it which goes to a natural note is also a half-step. So B to B-flat is a half step down. 

The key of C major is the only one where the half-steps in the pattern are found just by spotting the E to F and B to C jumps from one white key to another. Now we are working on the F major key and we are finding out how to get the half-step we need to keep the pattern going. 

 Continuing with the F scale. . .

We'd started F to G, whole step, and then gone G to A, whole step. But now we need a half-step so we can't use A to B. Since we are going up, we need a sharp. So we choose A-sharp, as it's a jump from a natural note, A, to a note with a sharp or flat, which is A-sharp. That's a half-step and we need that. 

Now we have half the F major scale done. F, G, A, A-sharp.

Next we need a whole note. A-sharp to B is a black key going to the next white key, and that's only a half-step. And there is no B-sharp, because the B and C white keys are only a half-step apart with no black key between them. 

So we jump from A-sharp to C. That gives us a whole step, since A-sharp to B is a half-step and B to C is a half-step. We add the two little jumps and get a whole jump.  For the next whole step we can go C to D. And D to E is also a whole step.  We have F, G, A, A-sharp, C, D, and E. Now just a half-step is needed to finish the pattern of a major scale, and since E to F is a half step -- two white keys with no black key in the middle -- we've done it, by George!

NOTE: Sharps go up and flats go down, but here's another of those music conventional things. . . when people notate the F scale, they almost always write it the way I did it here under the way we just worked it out, with the note after A being called B-flat of A-sharp. It has to do with making a tidy "Circle of Fifths" diagram. Don't ask. 

Finding the notes of a minor scale work the same way, with a small adjustment to the jumping pattern. For minor scales, the pattern is whole step, half step, whole step whole step half step, whole step, whole step.  You count it out just the way we did here, just using the minor pattern.

Exhausting, eh? In real life, by the time you tuned up and went through all that, your allotted music time would be over for the day. 

So in the last lesson, we'll learn how people find the notes to play in the real world. 

Next time: Choosing the keys you need, and the importance of using your left thumb to find the chord notes

Wednesday, December 25, 2019

Lesson Eleven: Music: more a spiral than a utility staircase, or why there's no E-sharp

In previous lessons, we've used the word "interval" to describe the gap between one musical note and another. If we take a note on the piano -- let's say F, and we find the next F going up (to the right) on the keyboard, we'll see eight keys if we count the first note and the octave note above it: F, G, A (because the letter system ends at G, we start over at A), B, C, D, E, and F. It's like a set of steps going up. 

But the octave scale is not like the set of steps in the photo above. Those steps are equally divided. If the floor you're on is like F on the piano and you go up eight steps to the next floor which is like the next F higher on the keyboard, you would find that the notes aren't an equal amount apart.  If they were musical steps like in "Big," and tuned so each note was the same interval apart, some would sound fine but you'd hit a couple clinkers. 

The music scale from F to the octave of F is more like this spiral staircase. It has order and symmetry, but the steps are sized to fit the pattern or the building plan. 

Another example of this idea is the astrological chart. This first model of a chart in astrology is made on the "equal house" system. The chart is a depiction of the sky around the Earth and the wedge-shaped sections (houses) show the movement of time. Each wedge or house stands for two hours of time, and there are twelve of them, so they cover the twenty-four hour day. 

The equal-house system is a perfectly sensible and understandable way of depicting the astrological houses, except that the cosmos is not in fact sensible and understandable. The planets are different sizes, they are clumped together in groups, and orbits aren't round but elliptical -- like a circle that's been stretched out. The heavenly bodies don't move at a perfectly even pace; that's why we have Leap Year, for instance. The clock and the calendar are measured in equal units that click along, but the universe is a whirl of rocks and gases that's expanding and contracting and whatnot.  

The chart wheel below is done in what astrologers call the Placidus system. Instead of being like a pizza cut into twelve equal pieces, some of the houses are larger and some are smaller. This more closely matches the relationship of Earth, Sun, planets, stars and orientation in space. (If you want to know more about the details on astrrological house size computation, this link takes you to a web page all about it.)

In a similar way, the intervals in the octave have larger and smaller jumps from note to note. In an earlier lesson, I mentioned Pythagoras, who studied the mathematical ratios which help us build the musical scale. That's where we get some of the notes we use. And then some of the notes we use are the result of long historic arguments about "temperament," which is which note goes where to fill in the notes we get from math. This is all in the Western music system. In other cultures, people say that there are five notes in a scale, or many more than eight notes per octave. But in these lessons, I am working with the musical systems which came to us from the ancient Greeks and then from Europe. 

We've come across the fact, in past lessons, that the black keys on the piano are patterned in groups of two, then three, then two, then three. And that these groups are separated by pairs of white keys which have no black key between them. This keyboard layout is like the Placidus astrological wheel, the one with larger and smaller wedges. And it's like the spiral staircase. The keys are symmetrical and the same size, but the "jumps" between notes are not equal. 

The jumps, or intervals, are smaller where the two white keys come together. Since you have dutifully learned to find the C and the F keys on a keyboard, you can count over and see that the two spots where the intervals are small are between the E and F key, and between the B and C key. 

There is no sharp or flat between B and C. None between E and F, So if you count up the scale chromatically, using all the sharps and flats, you skip the sharp (if you are counting up) or the flat (if you are counting down) between the B and C. Sane with E and F, The notes go up this way:  A, A-sharp, B, C, C-sharp, D, D-sharp, E, F,  F-sharp, G, G-sharp, and back to A again.  If you go down the scale using flats, the notes go A, A-flat, G, G-flat, F, E, E-flat, D, D-flat, C, B, B-flat, and A. 

NOTE: No one ever says "G-flat" or "D-flat" for reasons too dull to explain here. People always say F-sharp instead of G-flat and they say C-sharp instead of D-flat, whether they are going up or down the chromatic scale. It's A Thing. 

We'll continue with this interval spacing system next time. 

Next lesson: Major and Minor

Monday, December 23, 2019

Lesson Ten -- Previously Withheld Information

Okay, now in the music theory series, there is a secret I have been withholding from you :

While it's true that sharps go up and flats go down --

-- a flat and a sharp can be the same note.

I'll wait a moment while you pick yourself up off the floor.

Ok, we good? So yesterday we noted that while there are two white keys together between each set of black keys -- one set of between each trio of black keys and the next pair of black keys, and one set between each pair of black keys and the next trio of black keys -- every other white key on the keyboard has a raised black key between it and the next white key.

These black keys are the sharps and flats. Later, we will talk about where they fit in the musical scale. And why. But for now, we'll focus on the fact that there is a sharp or a flat between almost all the notes in the Western scale. Yesterday, we looked at how C-sharp, written C# in musical language, is to the right of the C key. And F-sharp or F# is to the right of the F key.

We talked about how sharps go up, and "up" means along the keyboard toward the treble side, on the right, where the pitch of the note goes up higher.

Since we know that flats go down toward the bass side, they we can guess, verily and forsooth, that the black key to the left of the E key would be E-flat, also written as Eb. ( I don't have a "flat" musical sign on my typing keyboard so i will do the standard fix for that, which is to substitute a lower-case "b" because it looks like the flat sign.) The same holds for the A piano key. The black key to the left of A is A-flat, also written Ab.

I can hear the well-oiled gears of your mind turnings. . . "Okay, so if letters of the music scale end at G and then start over, then the black key to the left of the A key, the one you said was A-flat, is ALSO the black key to the right of the G key, and since right = up the musical scale, a higher note, and sharps go up, then that key you just said was A-flat is. . .G-sharp?!! Up, down -- sharp, flat -- help!"

You can see what I have kept this from you until now. The white keys only have one name each but the black keys have two name options. The reason we worked so hard on sharps up, flats down is that despite the fact that black keys have two names, we still know what to call a sharp or flat note played on any instrument, represented by that black key. The name we use is based on which way we are going.

On a flugelhorn, I play a tune that goes D, D-sharp, E going upwards. On the way back down, I play E, E-flat, D. If, instead of the horn I was playing the same notes on a piano, the black key between the white keys D and E would be D-sharp on the way up and E-flat on the way down. Same key, two names depending on which way I'm going.

The first time I started below the E and went up. I had the note D and then I sharpened it, make it go higher to a D-sharp before I got to E. The second time I started AT the E note and went downwards, so I flatted it the E, making it an E-flat, on the way down to D.

Let's do another one. If I am playing a fiddle and the melody is going up, I play G, G-sharp, A, A-sharp, B. If I am playing that going downward, I play B, B-flat, A, A-flat, G. What were sharps on the way up (G-sharp, A-sharp) are now flats (A-flat and B-flat). G-sharp is also named A-flat, and A-sharp is also named B-flat.

Tomorrow: Everything blows up on us when we move from B to C and E to F.

Sunday, December 22, 2019

Lesson Nine -- Sets of Two and Three Black Keys

Today's brief music theory post builds on yesterday's post in which I said it was essential to locate the C and F keys on the piano. I have not labeled those notes on the keyboard because I don't want to be an enabler. If you do not know where C and F are, please scroll down on my timeline and find the previous diagram and embed a synaptic groove in your brain with a map to the C and F piano keys.

Even not-very-careful observation, provided that you've had at least half a cup of coffee or tea or some other eye-opener, will show you that there is a repeating pattern on the keyboard in which two white keys hang out together. (Insert lack of diversity joke here.)

We know that C is the white key to the left of any pair of black keys. The white keys follow the alphabet, so if C is to the left of two black keys, then D is between two black yes and E is to the right of two black keys. This works out well as we've established that F is to the left of THREE black keys and that's where we are once we've gotten to the right of two black keys. Thus and forsooth, verily even, the white key between the first and second of the black key triplets must be G and the white key between the second and third black key triplets must be. . .H. Wait a darn minute. I mean, A. The scale starts over.

Two lessons ago (scroll down as needed) we learned that sharps go up and flats go down. This is helpful to know now.

So we have C, and where can we find C sharp? Since sharps go up it's above C. It's "above" in both senses. "Up" and "above" both mean playing or singing a higher note, and we know from the first few lessons that higher notes go to the right on the keyboard. So C sharp must be to the right of C.

The second way C-sharp (C#) is "above" C is vertically. See the raised black key to the right of the white C key? That black key is the C-sharp key. And the raised black key to the right of the white F key is F sharp.

And now if you look again, you'll see that there is a black key between each set of white keys, except in two repeating patterns. In between the groups of two black keys and three black keys. In those two places, which repeat along the keyboard, you find two white keys next to each other with no black key in between.

Next lesson, we'll pick up from this point.

Saturday, December 21, 2019

Lesson Eight: Spotting C and F on the keyboard

Next in the series of short, rote-memory posts on music theory:

In my view, one absolutely must be able to locate the notes C and F on a piano keyboard.

You don't need to learn to play the piano. You don't absolutely have to know any of the other notes by sight. But to really have a grip on this, to be able to navigate and to connect things up, then it's essential to do whatever it takes to see the C key and think "C" and then see the "F" key and think "F."

Honestly, it would be worth your time to spend a whole day doing that. If you don't have any kind of music keyboard at your house, then you could print out an image of you and put that on the table. Or even draw a section of keyboard with a Sharpie on the back of an envelope. It's learned by reinforcement. You stare at eh white key to the left of any group of two black keys and you put your finger on it and say "C." Same with "F" which is a white key to the left of any group of three black keys.

Depending on how long your keyboard or pretend keyboard is, you may two, three, or four C's and F's and they look just the samne. C is the first white key to the left of the pair of black keys, F is the first white key to the left of the triplet set of black keys.

Why two notes, C and F? You can find a touch-point more easily that way than to count 7 notes over from C if you are as far as you can get from it. One day the view of the keyboard will coalesce in your mind, and you'll be able to see it all together without counting.

Why the keyboard? It makes it easier to count, which I just said you won't need to do. Well, you won't have to count to locate individual keys, but when you learn structure in music, you do need to count up and down a lot. And if you get stuck, you can imagine the keyboard and then you'll figure out where you are.

Next time: White keys get into trouble when left alone with each other.

Friday, December 20, 2019

Lesson Seven: Sharps Up, Flats Down

This post on music theory doesn't require a whole blog post as it's short and sweet, as the next few posts on the subject will be. But having said that, I must tell you about changing over from Beech Grove Elementary to Lowell Elementary in 1967.

I learned the value of rote memory from that move. At Beech Grove, I'd learned the multiplication tables up to the 6's. But when I got to Lowell, the class was already at the 9's. My father's mother Edythe, a former schoolteacher, drilled me with flash cards to help me speed-learn the 7's and 8's but it wasn't the same as chanting "One times seven is seven, two times seven is fourteen. . ." I always have to frown and think hard to do math in my head if it involves 7's and 8's.

Thus and forsooth, I say verily to thee anon that there are a few things in music you simply must burn into your brain so they never leave and you can recall them instantly at any time, anywhere in any circumstance. As you know if you looked at any of the previous Push Start Music lessons, I'm a strong proponent of understanding what you learn so you can put it in context. But. . .

. . .there are a few things you simply have to be able to repeat like a robot. You don't need to understand them now; sometime in the future, you will. But right now you need to make them solid and firmly established in your mind, using any method you have found useful to hang onto info that really matters.

The first of these must-know ideas is that sharps go up and flats go down. You could look at the signs and decide that the sharp sign looks like a ladder

and you are climbing up to the roof a la "Disco Inferno." (It helps because you can also think of John Travolta on the dance floor pointing up.) 

And the flat sign could be one of those strength testers where you hit the base and a a little slide zooms up to the top and rings the bell. You've just rung the bell and the slider has come back down to the bottom of the track again.

Or perhaps you can adapt the lyrics to "New York, New York," with dramatic finger pointing "The sharps go up and the flats go down, the people ride in a hole in the ground. . ."

Whatever you gotta do, do that. You don't need to know what s harps and flats ARE at this point. But you have to know that the sharps go up and the flats go down.