*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!