Basic Scale Theory

Hello all. This is the first of (hopefully) many educational posts about music theory. Whether you know nothing about music theory and want a place to start, or you just want to brush up on the basics, this post will fulfill your needs. I promise. So pull up the grand piano that I’m sure you have sitting next to you, and read on.

The Musical Alphabet

Before you can begin to really understand concepts such as chords and scales, you have to familiarize yourself with the musical alphabet. First, write the standard English alphabet from A to G like so:

A   B   C   D   E   F   G

Like magic, you have already discovered all of the natural notes within the musical alphabet. They are called “natural notes” because they are not flat or sharp, and they make up all of the white keys on a piano. Notes that are “flat” (indicated by a “b” next to the note) or “sharp” (indicated by a “#” next to the note) are called accidentals. You can think of them as “in-between” notes, and there are five of them hiding between those natural notes, making up the black keys on a piano. I will reveal them for you below.

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

I know, our beautifully simple series of letters has just been ruined, but fear not, as there is plenty more explanation to come! Notice how those red accidentals I just revealed actually look like two notes in one. That’s because, technically, they are. An A# is the exact same note as a Bb, a C# is the exact same note as a Db. They are simply given different names depending on their context. These two-for-one notes are called enharmonic tones. So, saying “D# and Eb are enharmonic tones” is just a nerdy way of saying “D# and Eb are the same note”. If you walked up to a piano and played an F#, then asked someone with perfect pitch (the ability to identify the letter names of notes simply by hearing them) to name the note they hear, they could answer with either F# or Gb, and they would be right.

Now that we understand that enharmonic tones can be used interchangeably, I will simplify things by only talking in terms of sharps. If we rewrite the musical alphabet using only sharps for the accidentals, it will look like this:

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

You are probably curious as to why there are no accidentals between B and C or E and F. I will talk about this after the next section, but for now, just accept it and memorize the fact that those accidentals don’t exist.

The distance between each of those twelve notes above is called a half step. You would say that A# is a half step above A, or D is a half step below D#. Don’t forget that the distance between B and C is a half step, as well as the distance between E and F. Two half steps make a whole step, which would be like skipping over one of those notes. For example, B is a whole step above A, E is a whole step below F#, and so on. Check out this handy picture to further your understanding:

Visualization of half steps and whole steps

In the above drawing, W stands for whole step and H stands for half step. You can see that from note to note, you have a half step, but between every other note, you have a whole step.

Alright, so now you know the twelve notes that make up the musical alphabet, and what accidentals, enharmonic tones, half steps, and whole steps are. Congratulations! Let’s move on to more interesting things.

Scales

A scale is simply a group of notes played one at a time in sequence. If you were to walk up to a piano and play each of the twelve notes of the musical alphabet in order, one after the other, you would be playing the chromatic scale. This scale has it’s own uses, but let’s talk about a scale that is much more common.

The major scale is the scale that most people are probably familiar with. When you hear a vocalist warming up with “do re mi fa so la ti do”, they are warming up with the major scale. The distance between the notes of a major scale follow this pattern:

Whole, whole, half, whole, whole, whole, half

The best way to explain this would be to use the example of the C major scale. Take a look at the musical alphabet above and follow this pattern starting at C. The first word of the pattern is “whole”, which means to go a whole step above C to get to the next note of the scale. A whole step above C is D (a half step would have been C#). The next word in the pattern is also “whole”, so we find the whole step above D, which is E. Now it asks for a half step, which is NOT E#, but F (don’t forget that there are no accidentals between the notes B and C as well as E and F). Continue along with the pattern and you should end up back at C. The musical alphabet is cyclical, so once you reach the end you just continue from the beginning (a whole step above G is A, as shown below). Check it out:

whole ->  D  whole ->  E  half ->  F  whole ->  G  whole ->  A  whole ->  B  half ->  C

Did you notice that this pattern doesn’t include any accidentals? The C major scale is made up entirely of the natural notes of the musical alphabet, and you can play it with only the white keys on a piano. Remember how there are no accidentals between B and C or E and F? This explains why the keys on the piano look the way they do. Pianos are constructed so that the white keys will always be C major. If you play the above notes in sequential order, you will hear the C major scale.

You can start this pattern from any note in the musical alphabet. This is what it looks like for the E major scale:

E  whole ->  F#  whole ->  G#  half ->  A  whole ->  B  whole ->  C#  whole ->  D# half ->  E

So there you have it. I hope this was enough to at least get you started with music theory, or at least give you a better understanding of basic scale theory. I will put up more posts in the future that will continue this topic as well as cover different areas (such as basic chord theory). Take care!   🙂

P.S. check out my post on the emotion behind chords and scales if you’re bored!

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Expand Your Library: Have you ever listened to a painting? Check out El Cielo

Recommended album: El Cielo by Dredg

If you’re into: Alternative, experimental, progressive, rock

The year is 2002. I am a twelve year old boy flipping through television channels in search of something to entertain me, most likely late at night after finishing some homework that I had put off far too long. I come across an eerie, strange, and slightly disturbing video of an odd-looking puppet in a suit, walking down a dismal road. Music is playing over this scene, and it contains a haunting vocal melody that hovers and drifts above a strong, bass-heavy drum beat. At first I am somewhat turned off by this depressing visual, but for one reason or another, I am transfixed by it. As the video and music continues, I watch with extreme curiosity, as I had never seen or heard anything like this before. When it finishes, I do not feel as though I had just watched another music video. For the first time, I feel as though I had just witnessed a work of art. The song was “Same Ol’ Road” by the California-based band, Dredg.

At the time, it was still too different for me to fully grasp, perhaps because I was not old enough to really appreciate it. Keep in mind, this was during the years when rap and pop-punk ruled the United States, so I was used to watching music videos of New Found Glory, Eminem, and Avril Lavigne. While I did not immediately like it, I was still compelled to obtain the song, which I may or may not have done through the use of a certain music sharing program that was popular at the time. The song remained on one of my music mix CD’s for a few years, and when I was about fifteen years old, I decided to check out what else the band had to offer. I believe I was in a music store in the mall when I shuffled through the many rows of CD’s in search for Dredg. The only album they had was “Catch Without Arms”, which did not contain “Same Ol’ Road”, but I bought it anyway. I did very much enjoy that album, and still do. However, I still wanted to find the album that had that first song I heard three years prior. After doing a little research online, I found that the album I was looking for was “El Cielo”. Since I couldn’t find it in stores and online shopping was not much of a reality for me at that point, I put it on my Christmas list. When the holiday finally came around, I was happy to find it under the tree. I went downstairs to my room, painstakingly unwrapped the annoying plastic wrapper around the CD case, then popped the disc into my CD player. For the next 57 minutes, I stood by the speakers, soaking in each and every song.

Album art for "El Cielo" by Dredg

“Lucid, you control it, your body’s asleep, but your mind is awake” -Dredg, “Scissor Lock”

I learned that this was a concept album dealing with lucid dreams and the phenomenon of sleep paralysis. The booklet that came with the CD was filled with images of letters from people talking about how they, too, often suffer from sleep paralysis, and describe their frightening experiences of hearing things and being unable to move as they are half awake and half asleep. The whole thing was apparently inspired and influenced by this Dali painting:

Dali painting

Painting titled: "Dream Caused by the Flight of a Bee Around a Pomegranate a Second Before Awakening" by Salvador Dali

The first track is titled “Brushstroke: dcbtfoabaaposba”, which is an acronym for the very long title of the inspiring Dali painting. Also, according to the Wikipedia article for the album, the Japanese words found in the song “The Canyon Behind Her” translate to:

“This album was inspired by a painting titled ‘Dream Caused By the Flight of a Bee Around a Pomegranate One Second Before Awakening’. It is recommended that you view this painting as you listen to El Cielo. It is as if one stimulus awakens other senses. In other words, it’s about drawing music.”

This is an album best listened to with shuffle off. Each song flows perfectly into the next song, creating an almost continuous flow of music. The “Brushstroke: ” tracks are short, transitional interlude snippets, used to present a feeling of movement from one track to the next, while also bringing back subtle motifs to further enhance the consistency of theme throughout. This is one of my favorite aspects of this album. Unlike a large portion of modern music, Dredg did not focus on releasing a single hit, or an album that was full of stand-alone, radio-ready songs. Instead, they worked towards creating an album that can only really be appreciated as a whole, when played in a particular order, and that is something I very much respect. That is not to say that every album in the world should be like that, as there are plenty of albums I love that are filled with stand-alone, radio-ready songs, but in my opinion this takes things to an entirely different level.

The sounds and instruments you hear will keep you on your toes. Whether it is the spine-tingling shriek of a violin (check out the end of “Brushstroke: A Walk In the Park”), the sound of a brush scraping against a canvas (found on the opening track), the beating of tribal drums beneath female chanting vocals and a tremolo mandolin (“Brushstroke: An Elephant in the Delta Waves”), or a saxophone with heavy delay and reverberation making sounds reminiscent of an elephant’s trumpet-like call (“Whoa is Me”), you will most likely hear something you haven’t ever heard before in a rock album.

The guitar playing by Mark Engles is very tremolo heavy, usually clean and reverberated for the verses and distorted yet crisp in the choruses. The tone and style of playing helps give the songs a lush, full sound, while not bashing you over the head with twenty distorted guitars. The focus is much more on quality than it is quantity, and the written parts for the guitar provide texture rather than brain-melting licks (though I do love me some brain-melting licks, this album just doesn’t require them).

Gavin Hayes, the lead singer, lays down clear, baritone vocals practically fit for a Broadway musical. While I have not intently listened to each song to pick out his full range, he can be heard singing as low as a B2 in “Scissor Lock”, as well as as high as a G4 in songs such as “Of the Room” and “Same Ol’ Road”. He also appears to use some falsetto to hit higher notes in songs such as “Sorry But It’s Over” and “Same Ol’ Road”. The album even finishes off with a dramatic vocal harmony at the end of “The Canyon Behind Her”, complete with beautiful suspensions and smooth movement from one chord to the next. I am not sure whether it is all Gavin, or if any of it has been doctored, but it sounds to me like the parts for the harmony go as low as an E1 and as high as an F#4.

The drummer, Dino Campanella, and the bassist, Drew Roulette, work together to form the backbone of each song, and one of my favorite aspects of the album. Dino’s drumming is tight, rhythmic, unique, and very, very groovy (just listen to the cymbal play in the verses in “Of the Room”). Drew’s bass playing fits right in, locking up with the kick drum so perfectly that you can practically feel a thud in your chest every time it happens (listen to the opening of “Same Ol’ Road” with a nice pair of speakers and a decent amount of volume and you’ll see what I mean, or “Triangle” from about a minute and fifteen seconds in to the rest of the song). Together they are the foundation of the album.

Each song contains lyrics that play with the theme of the album. They are poetic, symbolic, imaginative, thoughtful, and philosophical. They often do not rhyme and are sometimes sung in a loose rhythm that approaches rubato (such as the first verse of “Sanzen”). Check out this excerpt from “Same Ol’ Road”:

“All you need is a modest house in a modest neighborhood

In a modest town where honest people dwell

Making the cleanest energy for the greenest plants to grow

The richest soil that is drenched with the freshest rain

Then you should sit in your backyard

Watch clouds peak over the tallest mountain tops

Because they unveil honest opinions about the stars”

-Dredg, “Same Ol’ Road”

In the end, this album is a unique and fantastic experience for those who are into alternative rock. I realize that this is certainly not a new release, but the point of this post is to expose it to people that may not have heard of it before. Dredg has since come out with new material and they play and experiment with different sounds and feels for each, some more dramatically different than others (their most recent release to date, “Chuckles and Mr. Squeezy” is the clearest change in overall sound and has sparked quite a bit of discussion amongst fans). I do like their newer stuff, as well as their older stuff (“Lietmotif” is pretty damn awesome), but “El Cielo” just holds a special place in my heart, either due to nostalgia or just the overall feel and concept. It certainly isn’t for everyone, but whether you are an alt-rock fanatic or someone trying to broaden their spectrum of musical taste, do yourself a favor and at least give it a listen.

Software suggestion – Frescobaldi

I’ve already done a post about Lilypond, which is a text-based sheet music editor, but I have since discovered a handy piece of software that takes Lilypond to the next level.

Frescobaldi (here is the website) is an open-source editor specifically designed for Lilypond, and in my opinion it GREATLY enhances the experience. It provides a single window which contains the Lilypond text file you are working on, a preview of the PDF you are creating, and access to all of the help documentation your heart desires.

Without this software, you would have to have to work on your music code with a text editor, then run the code through Lilypond (via the terminal on Linux or by dragging the file onto the icon in Windows), which generates a PDF file that you have to re-open every time you want to check the changes you made. With Frescobaldi, everything is right there in one single window.

The built-in text editor is color coded and comes equipped with a library of Lilypond functions and variables that pop up as suggestions as you type your code. So rather than feeling like you’re typing a boring old notepad document, you feel like you’re using some fancy programming software, fit for programming the next huge operating system (or at least a sweet piano sonata). This feature is incredibly useful for keeping your text files organized and visually easy to navigate.

After making changes to the text file, all you have to do is click the Lilypond icon embedded in the top bar of the software, which compiles your code and instantly updates the PDF preview. No more closing and re-opening a PDF viewer each time you want to make any changes to your score.

As someone who considers himself far from fluent in the Lilypond language, I often have to search online for instructions on how to do certain things with Lilypond. Sometimes I forget how to add a double bar line, or how to include first and second endings, etc. The built in document view in Frescobaldi takes just about all the information I would ever need and plops it right in the window I’m already working in. Now I just tab to the documentation viewer and search keywords or navigate the contents of numerous manuals. This saves quite a bit of time and Google searches.

Along with everything I’ve mentioned here, Frescobaldi incorporates several helpful tools, including a page setup dialogue box, which allows you to fill in information about the piece, such as composer, arranger, title, etc. Once you hit the okay button, it converts your input into Lilypond code and includes it in your text file. There are several other handy features that I have not utilized, but everything is included to make your Lilypond experience as convenient as possible.

Did I mention it’s free, too? Gotta love open-source software. If you like Lilypond, download Frescobaldi…right now. In case you missed it, here is the link to their website again.

EP to be completed soon

It’s been way too long since I’ve updated this blog, so I figured I should post something about my upcoming EP to help influence me to make more posts.

The “Brush It Off to the Wind” EP will consist of 6 original solo works, comprised mostly of a mixture of folk, alternative, and a dash of funk. Honestly, the most difficult thing about this release was deciding what songs would be included. I usually never stick to a single style for too many songs and I love to experiment with something new quite often.

While the songs are all fairly different from each other, I tried to keep some similarities between them all. Each song contains different aspects of the main theme of the EP, which is breaking away, letting go from something, or someone, that has been holding you back. While it may be a little cliche, I really feel comfortable with this theme, since it relates to me and almost seems fitting for a first “official” release as a singer-songwriter.

As far as instrumentation goes, I stick with a pretty consistent use of acoustic guitar, bass, mandolin, and percussion. There are a few other instruments thrown in, such as piano and electric guitar, but they are particular to a few songs. Currently, two songs are done, and I’ll (hopefully) be recording the other four songs all at once during this upcoming weekend. When the dust clears and the music is finished, I’ll be officially releasing the whole EP on my Bandcamp page. There will be two options, a digital download of all the songs, which will be donation-based (yes, you can even choose $0.00! I wouldn’t mind, trust me.), or a physical copy, including a fancy CD sleeve with album artwork by my good friend Alex Krokus (check out his incredibly rad art blog here). I haven’t decided on an official price for the physical CD, but my guess is it will be around $7.00.

Come back often for more updates on the progress of this EP if you’re interested! For the most up-to-date news, continuously hit the “refresh” button until you faint (Disclaimer: That was a joke. I am not responsible if you faint).