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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