Music Theory For Non-Musicians
This occasional series is about how music is made, and it’s for people who don’t already make music. It’s part music appreciation and part music theory.
I hope to cover rhythm, melody, intervals, chords, inversions, and more. Maybe we’ll get into extended chords and modes. Let’s see!
S1 : E4: Brand New Key
My mother-in-law had a habit of forgetting her own children’s names. She’d get frustrated and end up calling them Sonny, which is interesting because she only had daughters. Sometimes generic names, like Darling, Junior, or Grandma, are good for referring to the relationship rather than the actual person.
Likewise, we can refer to notes by their names, like C, D, E, F, etc. but sometimes it’s more useful to refer to them by their position in the scale. In C Major, the C is the tonic, the D is the 2nd, the E is the 3rd, F is the 4th, and so on. As we go along, sometimes I’ll use the names and sometimes I’ll use the numbers, depending on the context.
If you read the last installment, you know how to figure out the notes of the major scale. Let’s see what we can do with them.
Quick refresher, if you’re looking a piano keyboard you start at your first note, which is called the tonic, and go up two keys for the second note.
• Two more keys for the third
• only one key for the fourth
• two for the fifth
• two for the sixth
• two for the seventh
….and one to get to the octave of the tonic.
Or in musical parlance: whole step, whole step, half step, whole step, whole step, whole step, half step.
The Europeans among us might say tone, tone, semitone, tone, tone, tone, semitone.
Let’s stick with the C Major scale because it’s the easiest to visualize on a keyboard. It’s all the white keys. C, D, E, F, G, A, B, C. There are no sharps or flats.
It’s interesting that the pattern of tonic, whole step, whole step, half step, whole step, whole step, whole step, half step divides the scale into two equal parts of four notes, and both halves are whole step, whole step, half step. I show the two halves in yellow and blue here:
There’s no real reason for you to know this except to understand that the consistency is part of what makes it sound right. We’ll see the same sort of symmetry in the harmonic minor and other scales. I guess we like repeating patterns, even when they’re subliminal.
Let’s play some music.
If you have a keyboard handy, play these notes: C C G G A A G.
Take a quick rest and then play these: F F E E D D C.
Recognize it? You’ve just played the melody to Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star, more or less. Melodies are nothing more than a series of notes that are (usually) in the song’s key. If you know the key is C Major, the song’s melody will most likely use the notes in C Major: C, D, E, F, G, A, and B. That’s certainly the case with Twinkle, Twinkle.
Here’s the entire song:
C C G G A A G
F F E E D D C
G G F F E E D
G G F F E E D
C C G G A A G
F F E E D D C
Even though this is a children’s song, there are a couple things we can learn from it. Firstly, it’s very definitely a major key. There are no sharps or flats which means that, since we’re sticking to the key of C, you don’t use any black keys.
Did you notice that the only note in the note that isn’t used is the B? In the key of C Major, B is the 7th note. There may be a reason why it wasn’t used, so keep this in mind when we talk about the 7th below.
The whole song has only two parts. The first part, meaning the first two lines, is played once at the beginning and once at the end. The second part is played twice in a row, as the third and fourth lines.
Not to repeat myself but we seem to like repetition. The reinforcement of repetition makes melodies more memorable, and everyone likes a catchy tune. You’ll hear repeating melodies in most pop songs. We’ll come back to the idea of repetition in a future article.
Also notice that the song is in C Major and it ends on a C. Melodies frequently end on the tonic of their key. That makes our ears feel like we’ve reached the conclusion, like we’re back home and everything is alright. We call this resolution.
If I were to play Twinkle, Twinkle in C Major and didn’t play the last note, everyone in the room would be on edge waiting for the C. A song doesn’t feel like it’s over until it resolves. It’s like taking a trip and never getting to your destination. It makes you feel tense.
Music is a series of transitions from tension to resolution. After all, a song or a trip that never left home would be pretty boring.
The simplest melodies move from one note to another nearby. The first section of Twinkle, Twinkle starts with a jump from the tonic to the 5th note of the scale, but every note in the rest of the phrase is from one note to the next one up or down the scale. And the second part of the melody is just four neighboring notes, descending from the G to the D. That’s from the 5th to the 2nd. It’s like walking down stairs. There are no big jumps.
The distance from one note to another is called an interval. The interval between the first two notes of Twinkle, Twinkle is from the tonic to the 5th, so we’d say it’s an interval of a 5th.
Jumping half way up the scale may seem like a lot, but there’s nothing wrong with big intervals. Sing Somewhere Over The Rainbow in your head. Or out loud if you’re in the office and want to amuse your co-workers.
The interval from “Some-” to “-where” is a full octave, from the tonic up all eight notes of the scale. Melodies rarely have intervals much bigger than that, but it can and does happen.
So, melodies can have big intervals up or down, and that can make them beautiful, or maybe ugly, and maybe hard to sing, but there are no rules limiting jumps from one note to the next. It’s really just a question of taste.
Having said that, there doesn’t have to be any intervals at all. Listen to the verse of Mr. Brightside by The Killers. It’s essentially one note.
And the verses of The Beatles’ I Am The Walrus are mostly just two notes.
We’ll get to why these one and two note melodies aren’t boring in a future article.
A few paragraphs back I said that melodies are series of notes that are usually in the same key. What do I mean by “usually?” Why would you use a note that isn’t in the key?
The answer is the same answer we always use in music theory. Because it sounds good, or at least the way that we want it to sound. Play the note that suits your purpose and we’ll figure out the theory for why it’s the right note later.
The first line of The Long And Winding Road by The Beatles is “The long and winding road that leads to your door.” It’s really a perfect melody, yet one of its notes isn’t in the key.
The song is in Eb Major so its notes are Eb, F, G, Ab, Bb, C, D, and Eb. I want to concentrate on the D, the 7th note of the scale. The words “The” and “and” are sung on the D. However, “your” is sung on a Db. Why? Db isn’t even in the Eb Major scale.
I’ve just tried playing the melody using the D natural that’s in the key and it sounds wrong. Part of that could be that I’m so used to hearing it with the Db, but also, the D natural is the 7th of the scale, only a half step from the tonic. It’s so close and yet so wrong. It grates. So flattening the 7th in this case sounds better than playing the “right” note.
This, I think, is why the 7th is more likely to be changed than any other note in the major scale. It’s too close to the tonic for comfort. Sometimes the right note is the wrong note.
Here’s my new motto for “Theoretically Speaking.” It was part of a comment on Reddit by a user named Comprimens and I ask their permission to use it here.
…if there was ever an art where breaking the rules is one of the rules, it’s music.redditor r/Comprimens
As listeners, we should be aware that every note is a choice. The composer or the musician decided the notes we’re hearing are the right ones, whether they obey the rules or break them. Every single note’s characteristics, like pitch, volume, timbre, length, etc. are (usually) intentional. Sometimes a happy accident happens in the studio, and the artist decides to keep it. But even that’s a choice.
We, as critical listeners, get to decide if those choices were good ones.
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