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Thread: Really Basic Music Theory Questions

  1. #1
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    Really Basic Music Theory Questions

    1

    When people say 'All the chords in the C major scale' I don't quite understand what they mean. This applies to all scales, but I'm using C as a really basic example. Here's how my brain approaches this, I'm clearly misunderstanding something:

    The C major scale is simple right?

    CDEFGABC..all the white notes on a keyboard.

    Chords like C major, F major and G major all use the white keys...so they're in the C major scale. But chords like D major use black keys...so why do these count too?

    2

    I don't really understand the concept of key. If you record some vocals in say...the key of A minor, people say that the rest of the song should be in A minor. What is it about the vocals that would make someone say 'That's in the key of A' ? I know I'm confusing notes and key here, but I don't understand how you can come to that conclusion when the song hits all kinds of notes. Is it the first note that you go on or is it the most commonly used note?

    I know that sounds so ridiculous and I can hear the difference in my head but the terminology is making no sense to me.

    3

    Related to 2, when writing music people say that drums, guitar etc. should be in the same key as everything else. Because I don't understand the key thing I don't understand the application of this.

    I probably have more...but I'll leave it at that for now. I'm sure there's something that needs to 'click' but I'm just getting tangled in what seems like contradictory terms.

  2. #2
    Registered User Color of Music's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by FluffyClouds View Post
    1

    When people say 'All the chords in the C major scale' I don't quite understand what they mean. This applies to all scales, but I'm using C as a really basic example. Here's how my brain approaches this, I'm clearly misunderstanding something:

    The C major scale is simple right?

    CDEFGABC..all the white notes on a keyboard.

    Chords like C major, F major and G major all use the white keys...so they're in the C major scale. But chords like D major use black keys...so why do these count too?
    This is when you get into what we call "Harmonizing The (Major) Scale." It'll be much better seeing a video, so I'll post some as I go along posting.

    Here are the chord qualities for the major scale:

    Major, minor, minor, Major, Major, minor, Diminished

    In C:
    CEG (Major)
    DFA (Not F# because when using it, we get D Major - not minor)
    EGB (E minor)
    FAC (F Major)
    GBD (G Major)
    ACE (A minor)
    BDF (B diminished)

    Then, since you're asking about chord shapes, it has yo do with 1) how the piano/keyboard is set up and 2) intervals (which seems to be your problem.

    I'll reply more in-depth, unless someone beats me to it, but I wanna get to your other questions.

    Quote Originally Posted by FluffyClouds View Post

    2

    I don't really understand the concept of key. If you record some vocals in say...the key of A minor, people say that the rest of the song should be in A minor. What is it about the vocals that would make someone say 'That's in the key of A' ? I know I'm confusing notes and key here, but I don't understand how you can come to that conclusion when the song hits all kinds of notes. Is it the first note that you go on or is it the most commonly used note?

    I know that sounds so ridiculous and I can hear the difference in my head but the terminology is making no sense to me.
    How to determine key:

    Well, many have this idea that key is the same thing as scale and it's not. When someone asks "What key a song is in?" is really asking: "What scale is being used?" and their are three scales, but two you need to concern yourself with (although I will briefly explain the third one)

    The two most common scales used are major and natural minor (bolded for a reason).

    If you know your scales (and just transpose C if you don't, but I recommended you learn the other eleven):

    C-D-E-F-G-A-B-C
    D-E-F#-G-A-B-C#-D
    Eb-F-G-A-Bb-C-D-Eb

    etc.

    There are also minor forms - two of which that are used in music: Natural and Harmonic Minor.

    C-D-Eb-F-G-Ab-Bb-C (Natural Minor)
    C-D-Eb-F-G-Ab-B (Natural)-C (Harmonic Minor)

    (Transpose these to find them in the other eleven keys, but do learn them)

    Now, to determine the key (what scale is being used) of a song, listen for the series of notes that fit a scale (if chords are being played, just listen for the root note (this can be tricky when the chords are inverted, but if there's a bass player, follow him or her).

    If you don't get it from doing that, train your ear to hone in on a particular note or chord. If you hear it at the beginning and end of a song, this is more than likely your key.

    Now, if you are seeing music, there is what is called a key signature. This indicates the scale the composer is using. Here's a video explaining it (and from a sight-reading/sheet music perspective): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D0dkWyB0Kgo

    Gerswhin's Summertime: (In Bb minor; Bb HM scale is being used) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xJOtaWyEzaI (Hum the scale aloud: Bb-C-Db-Eb-F-Gb-A-Bb) Listen out for the Bbm chord (and also the V7 - F7alt)

    Here aew some more songs:

    Pachibel's Canon in D (Look, it tells you the key in the title) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MK6heUdRr-E

    D-A-Bm-F#m-G-D-G-A (I-V-vi-iii-IV-I-IV-V-I) The I is three times, so my key is D. (Btw, the Roman Numerals denote what's called Harmonic Analysis. This tells you the scale degrees used and in what order) It's just a fancy name and display for "Chord Progressions." (which from using scales and scale degrees)

    Here's Fur Elise in A minor. Note: it's temporarily changes keys to F, Bb and C very briefly (this is what is called tonicization - jazz loves doing this - nothing you should worryabout, atm, but note it happens); however, it returns to Am. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_mVW8tgGY_w

    Quote Originally Posted by FluffyClouds View Post
    3

    Related to 2, when writing music people say that drums, guitar etc. should be in the same key as everything else. Because I don't understand the key thing I don't understand the application of this.

    I probably have more...but I'll leave it at that for now. I'm sure there's something that needs to 'click' but I'm just getting tangled in what seems like contradictory terms.
    Writing for drums in totally different since they don't use standard notation or produce musical tones (ie: drumset), but there are toned - er, tuned - percussion instruments which may use standard notation (vibes, xylophone, marimba, etc.)

    Here. you're asking about concert vs. non concert pitch instruments. When we say concert pitch, we mean the instruments that are tuned to C (We may also say that instruments are tuned to A440 which is also concert pitch, but that is something else - frequency)

    I bring this up because I believe this is what you meant as it's clear that songs are desirable when everyone's in the same key (although there are pieces that are played in different key simultaneously)

    Non-concert pitch deals with instruments not tuned to C and usually the note said instrument is tuned to will be in its name - ie: Bb Clarinet, French Horn in F. This mean that the clarinet player saw a C on the sheet music and played it, it would sound like a Bb as Bb is its equivalent to the piano's C. Therefore, to produce the same sound, the sheet music would have to be transposed (including the key signature up a whole step. IOW, if the piano is playing and reading in C, the Clarinetist, will have to read in D to produce the same sound as the piano. (And this is for the entire piece, including key changes if any are present)

    As for the French Horn in F, well, the sheet music will either have to be raised a perfect fourth (five halfsteps) or come down a perfect fifth (seven halfsteps) or have some other instrument play the piece. It follows the same rules as the Clarinetist despite the interval shift being different - much larger.

    I mentioned tonicization earlier, that is a temporarily version of a modulation - where the piece changes key, but differs in that it does not return to the original key

    Here's an example of modulation: Forever (Mariah Carey): Starts in Ab - ends in A (Start @ 2:07 - This begins the bridge that starts on the IV (still in Ab), ending on the altered V7, then moves up a halfstep to A) and she'llk sing a C# - part of the A chord/key) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Dnc35lZR0O4

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    Quote Originally Posted by FluffyClouds View Post
    But chords like D major use black keys...so why do these count too?
    It doesn't, D major (D F# A) is not a chord diatonic to the key of C - D minor (D F A) is.

    (That does not mean you can't use a D major chord in a song in C if you want to! - but that's a somewhat different issue.)


    Quote Originally Posted by FluffyClouds View Post
    What is it about the vocals that would make someone say 'That's in the key of A' ?
    It means the melody (and its backing chords) are largely derived from an A scale - it'll likely start on A, and very likely end on A - a way it's often described is that A sounds like "home".


    EDIT: if you are interested in learning the basics I would suggest the lessons at musictheory.net as a good place to start.
    Last edited by walternewton; 02-18-2013 at 05:22 AM.

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    I should probably explain my situation better:

    I consider all of this from a songwriting point of view, my main problem is that I find it hard getting ideas from my head onto the instrument. I think this is partly down to a lack of proficiency on guitar/keyboard but I thought a basis in music theory would help a lot.

    At the moment, most of my time is spent just trying to work what chord progressions work well together.

    Is there a good practical means of getting to grips with this better? I find music theory guides just bombard me with terminology and never seem to make anything clear. I've been reading a book called 'Music Theory for Computer Musicians' which has been doing a good job so far, but I find that it doesn't cover much practical application.

    Thanks for explaining about determining keys, it also answered my third question in a sense. Just from playing around myself I noticed that the bass sounds 'right' a few octaves down as the root note of whatever chord I'm playing.

    I think I will have to train my ears to identify the key though, I can hear a distinct difference between two keys and chords played on the same instrument (Thank goodness ) but I find it hard to pick out on other instruments, I tend to overthink every sound I hear and it seems to get in the way of listening for the similarities.

  5. #5
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    Quote Originally Posted by FluffyClouds View Post
    I should probably explain my situation better:

    I consider all of this from a songwriting point of view, my main problem is that I find it hard getting ideas from my head onto the instrument. I think this is partly down to a lack of proficiency on guitar/keyboard but I thought a basis in music theory would help a lot.

    At the moment, most of my time is spent just trying to work what chord progressions work well together.

    Is there a good practical means of getting to grips with this better? I find music theory guides just bombard me with terminology and never seem to make anything clear. I've been reading a book called 'Music Theory for Computer Musicians' which has been doing a good job so far, but I find that it doesn't cover much practical application.

    Thanks for explaining about determining keys, it also answered my third question in a sense. Just from playing around myself I noticed that the bass sounds 'right' a few octaves down as the root note of whatever chord I'm playing.

    I think I will have to train my ears to identify the key though, I can hear a distinct difference between two keys and chords played on the same instrument (Thank goodness ) but I find it hard to pick out on other instruments, I tend to overthink every sound I hear and it seems to get in the way of listening for the similarities.
    And you think you're the only one with this problem? Seriously, not many people can do that and those that try very hard tend to forget that musical ideas change, but getting down the initial idea is difficult. What you have to do -- or should I say - not do - is force it.

    This is more often the case when songwriters take a year or two to do an album (from a songwriting perspective) and mention how they written a zillion tunes (lyrically) that a) would've worked, but didn't make the cut, b) they decided to use them for later albums, c) wanted to have something to reference or go back to if they get stuck due to d) fragments of earlier tunes that work for songs they're currently writing (Someone asked if it was okay to "steal your own material," and the answer is a resounding yes - make sure it is your for legal reasons, of course)

    Now, in terms of composition - specifically chord progressions:

    Though chords can start from and go anywhere, they have specific routes they often take. For this reasons, we get the "names" of these progressions - usually gathered from the songs that made them famous or popular:

    I-iv-ii-V: This is called the "Blue Moon" progression - deemed such due to the standard that uses it. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1UkFi3vMsTs (Eb-Cm-Fm-Bb). This is talking about the Cocktail Piano style.

    i-iv-VII-III-VI-ii-V-I - This is what is known as a circle progression (in a minor key). Autumn Leaves is the most famous standard that uses it in its entirety. Here's an explanation and in a jazz context: The songs used demonstrating it are: Autumn Leaves and Take Five: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Sjqy_...56768E&index=2

    Now, here it went through all twelve points; however, many tunes go half way around - six points. Many tunes find themselves using the diatonic (semi) circle of fifths (or fourths).

    To really understand the Circle of Fifths/Fourths movement, would be to play chords that evoke the dominant 7th (triad + b7)

    This fragment: Dm7-G7-? (ii-V-?) C (I). Looking at the roots alone: D-G is a perfect fourth as is G-C. [Also, note the ii-V-I being the last three chords in a circle progression. Jazz loves this fragment in isolation, but other genres use it, too)

    The best way to come to grips is to just mess around playing chords going off of what sounds good because even if you know the "what and how" ie: (have very good ears), it still comes down to what sounds you like and what sounds you don't. However, it would help to grasp this which you're trying and I applaud you for. Yet, if you spend time, listening to music (from anywhere) then plug the theory into it, you'll began to understand it.

    This is how I got to this point. I spent my childhood years only listening to sounds (music) and figuring out what they did. Then, when I started with the theory stuff, the lightbulb went off. Now, to this day, there are things I don't know/didn't realize and have and still ask questions, but as I tell people: Music is an ear thing first. No matter how much theoretical knowledge is gained, one's ear has the final say on what works and what doesn't. Theory merely gives reasons for what the ear suggests or tells you.

    Your ears aren't there yet, but keep at it - even if it means - breaking down the walls of theory to break through the walls of theory to get it. However, from what I gather in your posts, you are where you should be at this point. (I know how it is because I'm determined to help my mother who's a beginner as well and have helped many others in the same boat)
    Last edited by Color of Music; 02-20-2013 at 10:17 AM.

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    Thanks, to hear that I am where I should be is incredibly relieving. I don't really have any clue as to how I am progressing.

    As for the rest of the post I lost track of things somewhere around circle of fifths, dominant seven and triads. I think I need to expand my knowledge on chords a little more.

    What I've been doing also is listening to a song and then looking up which chords were used. When I find the answer, I realise how obscured the chords can sound with the rest of the music layered on top, or with different effects added.

    Do you think learning popular songs is a good way of memorising chords and popular progressions? I was thinking of learning some Beatles numbers as I figured they'd be simple and are apparently good reference points for learning music.

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    Quote Originally Posted by FluffyClouds View Post
    Do you think learning popular songs is a good way of memorising chords and popular progressions? I was thinking of learning some Beatles numbers as I figured they'd be simple and are apparently good reference points for learning music.
    Of course if you're interested in popular songwriting you should study popular songs! This site is great if you're interested in The Beatles.

  8. #8
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    Quote Originally Posted by walternewton View Post
    Of course if you're interested in popular songwriting you should study popular songs! This site is great if you're interested in The Beatles.
    Ditto, but to add, they do some really obscure progressions as well (specifically, Sir Paul McCartney). Yet, no thorough knowledge is needed to make music. Don't get me wrong, it is necessary, but this songwriting - not orchestration.

    However, I would suggest to FluffyClouds not to memorize because a zillion songs use the same progressions. Axis of Awesome (Four Chords): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oOlDewpCfZQ (And this is all genres of Western music)

    The only way to distinguish them is by lyrics and a melody (and the same melody can be applied to more than one song):

    Ode To Joy - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Wod-MudLNPA
    The hymn Joyful, Joyful We Adore Thee - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3fkvyYNsjPc

    Here's the version (arrangement) from "Sister Act II": http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OaEH1e_DLm0

    Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yCjJyiqpAuU
    The ABC Song - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yCjJyiqpAuU ("Next time won't you sing with me" is replaced)

    Londonderry Air - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X5Sg0WGy9YA
    Danny Boy - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4CvcBISH3b4

    Greensleeves - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=twix9KfES9Y
    What Child Is This? - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TWwj5Jatc9Y

    So, you really have to have a strong, memorable melody, but the melody of one song can resemble that of another. IOW, just write even if it sounds like something else. Music/Songs/Lyrics change overtime.

    But I would suggest starting with the tried and true progressions; then you can arrange and/or re-harmonize tunes (stripping out old chords for new ones, but ones that make musical sense). But that's beyond your scope right now at least what you're inquiring. This take thorough knowledge of progressions, harmonic analysis, functions, etc.

    Btw, the AoA video, I linked, all the songs are in D. Why's this significant? Maybe this will answer the question: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H1kGJoGVpOs (Even way back when the Classical guys wrote music - Pachibel's Canon, btw)

    But again, with songwriting, it's all about the melody. Get that down then worry about the progressions later as you can't write songs without a tune (melody) in mind. People think arrangers have it easy since they use/tweak the melody, but arranging is alot harder than you think. (Note, the above requirements)

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    Quote Originally Posted by FluffyClouds View Post
    I should probably explain my situation better:

    I consider all of this from a songwriting point of view, my main problem is that I find it hard getting ideas from my head onto the instrument. I think this is partly down to a lack of proficiency on guitar/keyboard but I thought a basis in music theory would help a lot.
    Possibly, but it's like studying the grammar of a language without knowing much vocabulary. Ie, it's not a lot of help knowing word order, tenses and word endings, if you don't actually know many words yet!

    In music, "vocabulary" means short melodic phrases: riffs, licks, melodic hooks, chord changes, etc. You don't get this stuff from theory books, you get it from learning songs.
    Of course, you can invent your own, but original inspiration is over-rated . All the great songwriters worked from a huge fund of "stolen" bits and pieces they'd amassed over the years -some consciously, some unconsciously.
    It's the one thing the Beatles, Dylan, Paul Simon, Elton John, Springsteen, etc, all have in common (let alone the old tin-pan alley writers like Carole King, Lieber/Stoller, Bacharach, etc): a voracious appetite for all kinds of music, and a huge range of influences. None of it comes from thin air, or by magic!
    And while people like Bacharach certainly knew their theory, Lennon, McCartney, Dylan, etc, never read a theory book in their lives. It all came from assiduously copying anyone they heard and liked. If anything separated them from the crowd it was that hunger.

    Of course, a little theory knowledge won't go amiss. It can help you organise stuff, and can offer guidance when your ear gets lost. (George Martin's education helped polish the Beatles' raw talents.)

    In short, my advice is just study songs as much as you can: analyse them, take them apart. Steal anything and everything that catches your ear.
    Music has been going into your brain your whole life anyway. You may as well start to - as it were - set up a customs post on the border and examine all its baggage...

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    Quote Originally Posted by JonR View Post
    Possibly, but it's like studying the grammar of a language without knowing much vocabulary. Ie, it's not a lot of help knowing word order, tenses and word endings, if you don't actually know many words yet!
    Aaah yes, I'm actually learning a second language at the moment and coming across this problem a lot.

    I didn't want to mention it for reasons I'll explain, but at this point I'm actually primarily geared towards electronic music, however I've found that so many upcoming electronic music producers at the moment have zero understanding of music theory and their tracks seem to be lacking because of it (Probably because there's no real requirement to learn keyboard or other instruments with DAWs nowadays). That's why I didn't want to take the 'dive in' approach and tried to build up some understanding from the ground up.

    I didn't want to mention it because I've always been a fan of rock/pop/country/guitar etc. and wanted to bring that to electronic music rather than being told "Oh you're making electronic music? Then you'll only need to learn _____." because I want to learn both guitar and keyboard in their entirety as instruments. Everything you guys teach me and tell me to learn on keyboard I automatically apply to my guitar practice too

    Still, I've got a bunch of tuition books to go through so I'll learn some songs, play with some chords and melodies innovate and improvise and see what music theory walls I hit following that.

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