Basic Theory for Musicians Who Don't Read Music: 1st Chapter

I run across a lot of musicians who don’t read music and know very little about music theory. If you fall into this category, you may be interested in this. There are lots of lessons out there for beginners; this isn’t one of them. You will learn how music notation works here, but my interest is in getting you to understand the system, not in getting you good at reading.

I am not asking you to practice anything. If you practice nothing, this will still help you understand what you’re playing and how to talk to other musicians about it.

I also won’t ask you to memorize anything other than basic vocabulary, with one exception:

Don’t memorize anything yet, assuming that you don’t already know how to identify piano notes. And you won’t ever have to memorize the names on the black notes. If you know the white notes, the names of the black notes will become obvious.

I assume you know this already, but we name the notes after the first seven letters of the alphabet. As we go through the alphabet, we go up in pitch. After we go through the seven, we start over. The distance between a note and the note with the same letter above it is called an Octave (because it’s the eighth note – “oct” means Eight, as in octagon or octopus).

A quick physics note: a pitch is produced by something vibrating at a steady speed, like a string. In normal concert tuning, if a string goes back and forth 440 times a second, that note is the A above Middle C (which is the C closest to the center of a piano keyboard). That speed is called the frequency, in this case 440 Hertz, which just means 440 vibrations per second. When you double that speed, you get a note one octave higher. In physical terms, that’s what an octave is: a doubling (or halving) of frequency.

I’m going to introduce a term here. The distance from one note to another is called an interval. There are different ways of naming intervals and we’ll learn the ones we need as we go. You just learned your first one: an Octave.

Now I’m going to introduce the most common name for the smallest interval we use in Western music: the half step. A half step is the distance between any note on that keyboard and the one right next to it, black or white. If you’re a fretted string player and you play guitar, electric bass, ukulele, mandolin, or banjo (but Not dulcimer), if you go from one note on any string to the one played on the fret next to it (same string), that’s a half step. As you might guess, two half steps is a whole step, or just a step.

Look up at the keyboard. You’ll notice that most white notes are a whole step apart, with two exceptions:
B to C and E to F. That’s where the black notes aren’t, and that’s why you need to memorize the layout of the keyboard. The keyboard above is a lot shorter than a full piano keyboard but the pattern remains the same: black notes between all the white keys except B – C and E – F.

I’m going to teach you another word now: if we play a scale consisting entirely of half-steps, that scale is called a chromatic scale. If we go by half steps, there are twelve notes per octave before we repeat (instead of the seven per octave if we’re just playing white notes – remember, the eighth note is part of the next octave).

Most of the time, when we play scales, the scales we play are major and minor scales. Major and minor scales all have seven notes per octave. Scales with seven notes per octave are called diatonic scales.

Look up at the keyboard again. You’ll notice that it begins and ends on a C. You might wonder why.
The reason is that a C Major scale is the only major scale with all white notes. Follow the intervals of the C Major scale (upward): Start on C, then go up by:
whole step (to D),
whole step (to E),
half step (to F),
whole step (to G),
whole step (to A),
whole step (to B),
half step (to C an octave higher).
Again, that’s two whole steps, a half step, three whole steps, and another half step.

No matter what note you start on, black or white, that set of intervals in that order will always give you a major scale.

If you ever forget what the intervals in a major scale are, all you have to do is visualize the keyboard, start on C, and follow the white notes. That will help you remember that there’s a half step between the third and fourth notes and again between the seventh and octave.

Now let’s get to the black notes:
You’ll notice that each of the black notes has two names written on it. What you call it depends on how you’re using it.

Go to the keyboard and figure out how to play a G Major scale, using the intervals above. Your notes will look like this: G A B C D E….  and all of these are white. But now you have a problem: The distance between E and F is a half step, and you need a whole step here. A whole step will take you to the black note just past the F. Another way of looking at it is that we have to raise the F to get the right interval. So, when you raise the note by a half step, you name the note, then add the word “sharp.” Sharp has a symbol: ♯. So a G Major scale has an F♯ in it.

Let’s try an F Major scale. Same intervals, as always. This time, F G and A are fine, but we then need a half step and B is a whole step up. So, in order to make it work, we have to lower B by a half step to make it fit. When you lower the note by a half step, you name the note, then add the word “flat.” Flat has a symbol: (lower case B). All the rest of the notes in the scale will be white. So an F Major scale has a   B♭ in it.

Sharps and flats are called accidentals. A note without an accidental is called a natural, as in “B natural.” Natural has a symbol: ♮. We mainly use this symbol if we’re taking a note that would otherwise have an accidental and removing it the next time it’s played.

Go up to the keyboard and this time look at the letters and accidentals on the black notes. In each case there are two, because the note can have either name. How do you know which one to use?

Here’s the rule:

All major and minor scales have sequential letters. In other words, letters in order without skipping any and without repeating any.

Write the scale out in sequential letters, then add accidentals as needed.

This rule is always true, even for white notes.

What do I mean? Let’s say you’re doing a C# Major scale. Look at the keyboard as you go:
C#, D#,  Now what? The note a whole step above a D# is an F, but an F isn’t the next letter in the alphabet. The next note has to be some kind of E. And so it is: because it’s an E raised by a half step, in this instance that note is called an E#, even though it’s a white note. (The next note past that is an F#, so F is still represented.)

That’s the end of the first chapter. Check yourself to see if you remember what the following words mean:

Half step
Whole step
Chromatic scale
Diatonic scale

Views: 253

Comment by Jonathan Wolfman on March 28, 2014 at 5:47am

You seem a natural teacher, Kosh. Thank you.

Comment by L in the Southeast on March 28, 2014 at 7:49am

Amen to what Jon said.  Even I could understand this, and I only took about two months worth a piano lessons at age 9!

Comment by koshersalaami on March 28, 2014 at 8:03am

I know I can get basic enough. I also know from experience that I'll throw in details that most people won't know, like about frequency and what an octave really is. That's not typically taught in theory but it makes the whole package make more sense. 

The problem I'm having at the moment is in getting the symbols to copy. Last night I downloaded a free program for writing music. I'm having two problems with it:  1. I can't seem to copy in order to paste here, and 2. I can't get it to leave stuff out. In order to keep it simple, I'd like to write stuff on a staff as I need it, but there are certain components that are always needed in actual musical writing that it won't let me delete. I'd rather wait until I explain them before I include them, but I may not have that option. 

Comment by JMac1949 Today on March 28, 2014 at 8:33am

I kind of knew what all this was about, but then I started smoking dope and that led to playing by ear... my biggest problem is that I couldn't get my left hand to work with my right, so I did my own limited chords and played the melody with the right.  R&R ;-)

Comment by koshersalaami on March 28, 2014 at 9:17am


Figuring out what to do with your left isn't easy. I've played since I was a child and I changed how I approached that in my thirties. Depending on what you're playing, it helps to at least be able to play melody and chords with your right hand and bassline with your left. When you play chords with your left, you've got to be careful of two things:

The lower in pitch you go, the worse notes sound that are played close together at the same time. If you play a chord around middle C, it will sound fine, but lower it by an octave and it starts to sound clunky. 

If you're up to jazz, don't play too many chords in root position left-nanded. It just sounds better if you don't. 

Anyway, if you're playing straight, let's say you're in C and your melody note is E.  What you'll be tempted to do is:
Left hand CEG, right hand E. Try instead: left hand C, right hand GCE.  You've still got the chord but now it's higher up and the blend will be better. (But play the E a little louder than the rest of the chord so you can tell it's the melody.)

Comment by James Mark Emmerling on March 28, 2014 at 10:50am

yes I know you are a natural teacher, you have proved that endless times..

but....well this will take rereading.

and maybe I should get a piano. to practice upon?


Comment by koshersalaami on March 28, 2014 at 10:56am
Well, James, that depends

If you were curious enough and had a musical keyboard of any sort handy, you could actually hear this. If you haven't played anything before, this might not make sense. Do you play anything and/or do you want to?
Comment by Kenneth Sibbett on March 28, 2014 at 1:34pm

Thank you~

Comment by Myriad on March 30, 2014 at 8:13pm

Valuable reference.  Once I get moved I'm getting back to keyboard.  (Given up on geetar - just can't do that delicate finger stuff.)

Comment by koshersalaami on March 30, 2014 at 8:15pm

Hope so. Once you check out the last chapter, let me know if the singing wow thing works for you. (You could cheat and read it first.)


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