Practical Music Theory unit 1: The ABC’s

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  • The ABC's of music

  • The ABC’s: Musical Alphabet/Chromatic Scale

    The first thing that you need to understand is what I call the “musical alphabet.”  Another term that describes essentially the same thing would be the “chromatic scale.”  Basically, it just means “all of the notes.”  The easiest way to visualize them is on a piano keyboard:

    If you start on A and go one key at a time to the right, you’ll see that the musical alphabet is as follows:

    A – A# – B – C – C# – D – D#  – E – F – F# – G – G#

    The same thing using flats would be:

    A – Bb – B – C – Db – D – Eb – E – F – Gb – G – Ab

    Sharps and Flats

    It’s worth taking a moment here to go over what “sharp” and “flat” mean.  Sharps are indicated with a “#” and flats are indicated with a “b” (a lowercase B).  “Sharp” refers to raising a note by a half step, or one key to the right on a keyboard (and one fret higher on the guitar).  Flat indicates lowering a note by a half step, or one key to the left on a keyboard.  So a G# is the black key immediately to the right of G, and a Bb is the black key immediately to the left of B.

    For all practical purposes, the notes C# and Db are the same exact note.  Same with G# and Ab, F# and Gb, etc.  There are definite theoretical reasons why one would sometimes call it a C# and other times a Db, but the truth is that you don’t need to worry about that right now.  For our purposes at this point, they are the exact same note, played in the exact same spot on the guitar.

    One thing about sharps and flats that is worth remembering is that their use is usually consistent within a chord, scale, or key.  So for example, you would not ordinarily have a Bb and a D# in the same chord, scale, or key.  You would either have a Bb and an Eb, or you would have an A# and a D#.  In either case, it amounts to the same thing, but you should stick with one or the other to avoid confusion.  I have noticed that most guitarists and rock musicians tend to think in terms of sharps more than flats–and they tend to favor keys that have sharps in them, like E and A, while horn players and jazz musicians tend to think more in terms of flats, and favor keys with flats in them, like Bb and Eb.  This has to do with the fact that guitar/rock music tends to be in “sharp” keys (G, D, A, E) whereas jazz tends to be in “flat” keys (F, Bb, Eb).

    Octaves

    The distance from one ‘A’ to the next ‘A’ is known as an octave.  Same goes for the distance from one ‘E’ to the next ‘E’, one ‘Bb’ to the next ‘Bb’, etc.   And you may have noticed that the 12th fret of the guitar has two dots–that’s because the note on the 12th fret is exactly one octave above the note that the open string makes.

    Half Steps and Whole Steps

    Whole Steps: If we look at the intervals between the notes (in other words, the distance from each note to the next one), you can see that most of the time, there is a black key between the two white keys–for example, the note C# (a.k.a. Db), is between the C and the D. This interval, from C to D, is known as a whole step (which translates to two frets on the guitar–D is two frets away from C on the neck of the guitar).

    Half Steps: Notice there are two places where there is NOT a black key between the white keys–between E and F, and also between B and C. When there is NOT a black key in between, the interval is a half step (which translates to ONE fret on the guitar–notes that are a half step apart are on adjacent frets, as in E to F).

    Half steps also exist between adjacent black and white keys.  Therefore, the distance from F# to G is a half step.  So is the distance from F to F#, Db to D, etc.

    This concept can then be translated to all of the other notes on the keyboard. A few more examples of whole steps: F to G, B to C#, Ab to Bb. And some examples of half steps: F to F#, Db to D, G# to A.

    The Single Most Important Thing You Need to Know (right now)

    The #1 most important thing to take away at this moment is that there is no black key between E and F, or between B and C.  In other words, there is no E#, no Fb, no B#, and no Cb.  Don’t EVER forget that–it’s the key to understanding a LOT of aspects of music.  And you’ll quickly see why as we go through the rest of these clinics.

    Having said that, notes like Cb and E# do actually exist in theory, but it’s in unusual circumstances, and unless you play jazz or classical music, you’re unlikely to ever run into this situation.  But if you do ever stumble across one of these notes, you may not be hallucinating.  For all practical purposes, a Cb is a B, a B# is a C, and an E# is an F, and an Fb is an E.  But don’t let this confuse you–just file that knowledge away in case you ever run into it.

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