Got a music theory-related question? Email it to me, and if I’ve got an answer worth sharing with others, I’ll post it here in addition to e-mailing an answer to you directly. If I can’t answer your question, I’ll do my best to steer you in a helpful direction. Let me know if you’d like your name included, and if so, in what form (initials, full name, etc.), and whether you’d like your city and state included or not. You get the idea. Please proofread your question! (I’ve gotten e-mails with so many typos that I couldn’t even understand the question.)
By the way, this page is intended first and foremost for readers of my books. The rest of you are welcome to submit questions, but preference will be given to my readers. Why? Quite simply, if your question is already answered in my books, I’d be duplicating my effort to answer here. Also, the answer won’t be as complete as in the books.
This is a partial collection of questions I’ve received over the years. I hope some of what’s here might answer questions you may have.
Use the Find command on your device to search for keywords of interest. That’d be Command-F on a Mac, Control-F on Windows, and on iOS devices, in the URL bar: then scroll to the bottom where it says “On This Page.”
"Most-recent sharp/flat" confusion
I don’t get the “most-recent sharp/flat” to be added to a scale/key biz. What’s the story with that?
~ many people
Yeah, this gets a lot of people for a little while. Welcome to the club. First, a NOT: the ‘most recently added accidental does NOT refer to the first sharp or flat you encounter in ASCENDING (or DESCENDING) a scale. Nope. Rather, think of the sharp scales as a club: Club Sharp, and the flat scales as a club: Club Flat. To belong to either club, you’ve got to get your flats and sharps in the right order. Otherwise you get thrown out into the chaotic world of accidentals being notated EVERY SINGLE TIME they occur. Yechhh! Okay, get this: If there’s a key with one flat (the key of F or Dm, by the way), then the accused flat is always a Bb. The key with two flats (Bb or Gm, gang) has that same Bb, plus a special appearance by an Eb. See, the Bb is still there in first place position, as it’ll always be, and the Eb comes in second. The key of Eb (and/or Cm, right?) has three flats. Got what the first two are? Bb and Eb. The third flat, which makes the key what it is, the key of Eb (and/or Cm, yah) is Ab. Look at any printed sheet music with these key sigs, and you’ll find that they always come in this order. That is unless you’re playing Bulgarian, Klezmer, or other Eastern European (and other) musics, in which case you’ll find the accidentals mixed, deleted, and all mixed up. But if you understand standard key sigs and yer scales and modes, these will easily make sense.
Whew. Hope that helped.
Scale choice when jamming with pop songs
I use the major pentatonic scale to jam along with some Eagles songs, such as “Take it Easy” and “Already Gone”, but am having trouble figuring out what to use with some Creedence Clearwater Revival songs, such as “Have You Ever Seen the Rain.” Any suggestions?
~ Marty, Brigham City, UT
Actually, these songs are all much more alike than they are different, regardless of composers/performers. They are all mostly diatonic, using the I, IV, V (no surprise so far), and, to a lesser extent, the vim and iim chords. Therefore, the major and major pentatonic scales (on the appropriate root–it happens these are in the key of G!) are a great starting point.
To go to the next level, easier said than done, but well worth the journey, you’ll want to be aware of the chord progression, and take advantage of chord-tones in your improvisation. This’ll make a HUGE difference in the sound of your leads. Songs as simple as this are very forgiving in this respect, and are therefore again a good place to start.
Speaking of the Eagles, a song such as “Hotel California” is considerably more ornery. Just jamming on a minor pentatonic or blues scale (the-likely starting point. although the harmonic minor cries out for inclusion) will yield a pretty dull solo. On the other hand, following (or leading) the chord changes with your lead, including new chord-tones in favor of preceding chord-tones can result in a real tasty solo, given good phrasing, tone, texture, eta. Being in control of scale choice, chord-tone inclusion, and tension/resolution is what separates the greats from the rest of the gang.
Secondary dominants. What IS the deal with them, anyway?
~ David, Biddeford, ME
Again, this is confusing at first. Then, eventually, it will become soooo obvious. Here’s the deal: If you’re asking this question, you must be comfortable with the tonic-dominant relationship. Dominants (seventh chords especially) live and love first and foremost to resolve up a fourth (which is the same thing as down a fifth, right?) to their respective tonics. Right? Okay, try this on: any chord can be a temporary tonic, with its own dominant preceding and pulling to it. That makes the dominant in question a secondary dominant. In the key of C, Am is vim (you know that). If it’s preceded by an E7 chord, the E7 is serving as a secondary dominant. YOU do the music-math–it’s late and I’ve got to go to bed–which makes it the “five of the Am chord”, or the “five of six”, or “V7/vim.” Notice that the 7 appears when you get specific in writing. Folks do or don’t mention it, depending on what they’ve had for dinner, how much they’ve had to drink, and/or how many initials they have after their name. Everydoobie’s different.
To reiterate what I harp on repeatedly in the book, the E7 we’ve been interrogating is most simply described as “III7.” But that only describes where it lives, not what it does for a job. In this case, and many cases (excluding deceptive cadences–see chapter 19: Cadences, and tritone substitution – see chapter 20: tritone substitution, oddly enough), how it’s functioning is as a secondary dominant: V7/vim. Good night.
At what age and by what method do you suggest introducing children to formal music lessons?
I have three children, all girls, under 5. I would love to give my children a solid foundation that they can build upon when they grow up. They already enjoy music and are exposed to music in a variety of forms in the home and in the church. At what age and by what method do you suggest introducing children to formal music lessons?
~ Elizabeth, Bothell, WA
There’d be a different answer to this question for every person asked, but since you asked me, I’ll only take responsibility for my answer. I hope it’ll be of some help. For the most part, I figger that kids at this age, and even older, should be climbing trees and riding bikes until they express an interest in music. (Sorry, “Mozart effect”!) An exception to this is a child who has obviously exceptional musical aptitude–one who, without any adult intervention, sits down at a piano and picks out familiar melodies, or won’t put the family ukelele down, for example. I’d be cautious about starting a young ‘un (five years old, say) on traditional instrumental or vocal lessons. There’s time for that later. But, of the children-oriented methods: Suzuki, Orff, and Kodaly, to name a few, my personal favorite is the Orff method. Carl Orff is best known as the composer of the very hip “Carmina Burana”, but also came up with what is, oddly enough, called ‘the Orff Method.’ I was first introduced to the results of this on a show on KPFA (ultimately fabulous radio station from Berkeley, California), where a group of kids played sophisticated, kidly, fun pan-world music on a variety of instruments. I was bowled over. No twinkling stars or little lambs here; no violin or piano virtuosos (yet). Rather, intriguing, compelling music of perhaps identifiable ethnic origins, played by kids playing together. And I’ll tell you, the ensemble was beautiful. Since then, I’ve bought a couple Orff-kidly records, and enjoy them primarily as a listener, and secondarily as a teacher. I figure that that’s a good sign.
Personally, I value a healthy relationship with music over a virtuosic relationship with music. The world would be a poorer place without Mozart’s music, but I gotta wonder if Mozart’s life wouldn’t have been a happier one with less pushing from the parental sector. Geez, I feel like a preacher!
Lastly, in a more generic and less contraversial vein, you owe it to your kiddos or any age to try several different teachers before settling on one. Try three or so lessons with as many teachers as as many friends whom your dialing finger can stand dialing recommend. Busy as you must be, stick around and actively observe all of them. Talk with your kid about how comfortable they felt. Factor in your own comfort level with what you saw. Please don’t call your local music school and sign your kid up with a semester of lessons with their recommended teacher without first giving ’em the once over.
Hope that’s of some help.
Why do we say "C#", but write "#C", for example, in music notation?
This is a fairly basic question, but one that is bugging me. Why do we say C#, but in music notation, the # comes BEFORE the note? My guess is that the folks who created “notation” put the “adjective before the noun” (“sharp C”), but somewhere along the way, someone else decided the noun should go first (The Italians or Spanish?).
~ Michael, Baton Rouge, LA
Good question. Fun answer. I agree with your answer, except might put the chicken before the horse – or is that the egg before the carriage? Whichever way things actually went, speech to notation or notation to speech (although I’d wager the farmer, not the ladder [sics- sorry, really bad puns; couldn’t resist] is the way it went), I’m glad that the accidental comes BEFORE the note when notated. Afterward feels like it would be that fraction of an inch on the staff too late, whereas I don’t mind it at all in speech. Maybe I’m just used to it because that’s the way it is.
If that’s not a serious or complete or scholarly enough answer, I’d post your question on the newsgroup <
How to overcome my problems learning diatonic chords?
Are there any memory “tricks” to memorizing the scale chords of each key or do you just “get it” after a while? It’s pretty important to know, for example, that F is the IV chord in C major, right? It’s just a jumble in my brain right now. For some reason, I’m really having trouble getting this information to stick in my mind. Any suggestions you might have will be greatly appreciated. It’s amazing that I’ve played music for so long and yet with so little understanding. It frustrates me that I wasn’t taught these things as I was learning to play the harp and piano. Maybe my teachers just thought that I already knew why I needed to learn scales and key signatures. I catch myself starting a new piece without even looking at the key signature or trying to figure out what chords to expect! Is there hope for me?
Given what you said in your second paragraph, it sounds like you could perhaps benefit from getting away from your instrument(s) for a bit. Here’s why: if you know how to construct a scale, chord, or key’s diatonic chords AWAY from your instrument, you could translate that knowledge superquick to your instrument-and then you just play it, because you know how to play your instrument. Perhaps you don’t play it WELL on your instrument (yet), but that’s okay, because that’s what practice is for. (That’s one possible approach. You’ll have to find out what works well for you, knowing yourself as you do, better than anyone else. A contrasting approach, below, is hands-on.) It’s cozy for technique and understanding to grow side by side in a musician.
Anyway, it’s “important” to me “to know, for example, that F is the IV chord in C major.” (I can’t say for sure if it’ll be important to you.) I use it all the time, but if I ever spaced it for some reason, I’d figure it out without missing a beat. It’s a question of HOW you know it. Do you “know” it because you memorized it because you were told you had to or knew you’d get a bad grade, or your wrists would get beaten if you didn’t?
Hands-on: one can learn keys, their signatures, and their diatonic chords in either of two ways. The first is by hard-core memorization. Some people prefer this, but I prefer the second way, which is through use. Start with a simple folk song or two, harmonize it using I, IV, and IV; as few chord changes as possible-just enough to make it sound basically right- and try playing it in a couple of different keys. Then try adding in some iim, iiim, and vim where your ear likes ’em, and then try that in a couple of keys. It will all, over time, leak into your brain, hopefully without your hitting your head on the wall much, if at all.
Sure there’s hope for you! Many instrumental teachers are, well, mostly instrumental teachers! Their focus is (am I repeating myself yet?) mostly on the instrument, and secondarily on the other aspects of music. The very fact that you are now wanting to become more fluent in the musical, rather than instrumental, aspects is a great first step. The next steps will take you where you want to go with patience and practice. Take your time, and go easy on yourself.
How to memorize diatonic chords in different keys?
I understand key signatures and how to construct diatonic chords. What I have trouble with is remembering what the scale chords are for each key without having to count up from the bottom. I may memorize the D major scale chords one day so that I can instantly say that F#m is the iii chord, and AM is the V chord, etc., but then the next day I have to count up from the bottom again. I’ve made little drills for myself where I randomly put numbers down on a piece of paper and then go back and fill in the corresponding note (or chord). Even doing that, it doesn’t seem to “stick.” I was told to play the scale chords and say out loud DM = I, Em = ii, F#m = iii, etc. until it becomes second nature. Is this the best way, or is there a better way? Flashcards? Exercises?
~ Nancy, Arvada, CO
It could certainly be fine for some. Flashcards and exercises too, if that’s a path you like. Otherwise, I’d say stop “starting at the bottom and going up”! Start with I, IV, and V in as many or few keys as you’d like, then slowly add in a diatonic minor chord or two.
Harmonizing a melody
On my English concertina, I am attempting to move from single notes to adding harmonizing notes to the melody line. If this is all written in for me in some arrangement such as that in a mandolin piece (which seems to favor intervals of sixths), everything is fine. If I want to add them myself, how do I decide between adding sixths, fifths, thirds, etc? Is it just a matter of what sounds good or is there some kind of underlying theory that would give me a formula for choosing?
~ John, Davis, CA
Yours is definitely a good question. In (very) short, chord-tones are the place to begin. Look at the melody in the context of the accompanying chords. Generally, chord-tones in the melody like to be harmonized with chord-tones in the harmony. Then you connect the dots. The simplest is parallel harmony (thirds or sixths are safest until you know what you’re doing). If thirds, don’t work for a phrase, then sixths very often will. The interval can certainly change from phrase to phrase, as well as within a phrase, but if you feel like you’re FORCED to change too often, you may be trying to use the “wrong” interval. Try Silent Night for starters. It can mostly be harmonized with thirds and sixths-not all, but mostly. Try it.
You are not being too analytical. Those who do this without the analytical understanding of it are fortunate: they innately understand what to do intuitively. Most others, such as yourself, from the sound of it, have to experiment, starting from some analytical understanding. Remember, trust your ear. Make mistakes and learn from them. Bit by bit, you will build your ability to harmonize until it comes naturally and easily.
Another thought: learn prefab harmonizations of tunes, that is, those done by others, you’ll gradually see “how it’s done.”
Is a major chord in a minor key necessarily a secondary dominant?
In the key of E minor, I have a chord of A C# E. Now, I know that A is the IV chord right?? So, with it obviously being major, would that make that chord a secondary dominant??
Edly: Not necessarily! Could very easily be a Dorian mode progression. Very common.
Q: So, then I guess I don’t understand why in the key of A minor for instance, why the E chord is major- I know that it is the V of the scale, but there isn’t a G# in the key signature!
Edly: Well, the E chord could be major or minor depending on how it’s functioning right at that moment. A song in A minor could, and often DOES have both an Em and E chord within the same song. Look at Chapter 14 “Diatonic Chords and Functions.”.
Mediant, submediant, etc.; where do the names come from?
I’d like to know how the scale tone names are derived. Especially the mediant (iii) and the submediant (vi). It doesn’t make sense to me that the mediant is the 3rd note of the scale and the submediant is the 6th. The other names do make sense — the subdominant (4th note) is under the dominant (5th note), the supertonic (2nd note) is over the tonic (1st note).
~ Cathy, Climax, NY
Hi. Join the club. Here’s the best explanation I’ve heard:
Mediant = middle (more or less), right? The mediant is in the middle (more or less) of the tonic and dom.
The SUBmediant is in the middle (more or less) of the SUBdom and the tonic. Each (mediant and submediant) is the THIRD of the tonic or subdominant chords, respectively.
Does that make sense? It really helps in remembering ’em, and probably would’ve been good to include in the book. Second edition maybe.
About “the other names do make sense — the subdominant (4th note) is under the dominant (5th note)”: yes, positionally true. Also in terms of FUNCTION, it is the NEXT MOST “dominant” scale degree after the true dominant, so, also FUNCTIONALLY true.
Transposing for trumpet
I’ve been recruited by a local band to play a trumpet solo on a couple of their pieces in a week. I asked the lead guitar guy what scale I should play and he told me the one he used most was the pentatonic scale. That’s easy enough to figure out– just take the major scale for the key and drop the fourth and the seventh, right? Okay, so I show up for practice and sound like Little Joey from the 7th grade Jr. High band. Now the chord progression goes like this (it’s a 4 bar progression): E / G#maj7 / F#maj7 / A which I transpose to the following for the trumpet: Db / Fmaj7 / Ebmaj7 / Gb Right?
Wrong. You play Bb trumpet, the standard trumpet available nowadays, right? If so, you transposed wrong: you need to play everything a WHOLE-STEP higher, not a minor third lower (check out the transposition chapter. If you’ve read it, read it again, very CAREFULLY!). Your (mistaken) transposition was for an Eb instrument, alto or bari sax for instance. Now correctly:
E / G#maj7 / F#maj7 / A in concert key
F# / A#maj7 / G#maj7 / B, more easily enharmonically spelled:
Gb / Bbmaj7 / Abmaj7 / B
You sure that those are both maj7 chords, not either of ’em a minor7?
If so, might be safest to approach this progression through arpeggios rather than one scale. Learn the arpeggios first. Then start adding non-chord-tones bit by bit as you go along.
Enharmonic spelling choices in blues scale
There was another opportunity to use the double sharp on the C# blues scale. You used consistently a note and its raised note for the third and fourth scale degrees. When you did C# you used F# and G instead of the parallel construction of F# and F##. Another opportunity to use double sharps in a meaningful way.
~ Bob, Seattle, WA
I see the instance you’re referring to. This is a touchy thing because, in the blues scale, it’s both a raised 4 AND a lowered 5. So is it an Fx (F##) or a G natural? Well, I’d say both. So, I chose the simpler spelling. And given the blues scale’s living in the vernacular rather than the historical, I chose the simpler enharmonic spelling. One could say the same of the preceding Bb blues scale. Should it be E natural or Fb? I’ll leave that decision to others. I’m more concerned, especially in the case of blues scales, and other “non-academic scales” with the right notes, rather than their spelling. But your point is, nonetheless, a good one, and your attention to detail, right on!
Chord symbol conventions: does the accidental go to the left or the right?
I find the notation 7 flat 5 flat 9 somewhat confusing to know if the flat symbol is to the right or to the left of the note flatted.
~ Bob, Seattle, WA
Yes, I hear you. The accidental is always to the left in the case of chord symbols, whether abbreviated (7 b5 b9) or written out (7 flat 5 flat 9). It’s the same as on a staff, where the accidental also comes to the left of the note. The big exception, of course, is notes with accidentals notated as text: Bb, F#, etc., where the accidental comes to the right.
Why is the m7 chord's seventh flatted?
I find it puzzling also that a minor chord has a flatted seventh without notating it as such.
~ Bob, Seattle, WA
I’d need a little more detail on this one. A minor chord, strictly, has NO 7th. A m7 has a b3 and a b7. The m3 is self-explanatory. The b7 harkens back to 7th chords (being THE exception) having a b7th unless stated otherwise, as in M7 (major 7). Does that help? That’s discussed at least one place in the book (Chords Summary & Exceptions, maybe?), although maybe I should make a bigger noise about it.
Why does the diminished seventh chord have a sixth in it?
Also I find puzzling that a diminished seventh chord really has a sixth in it. I could see calling it a diminished sixth. Or a diminished flatted seventh chord. I would like the seventh to be the seventh scale member in the original tonic scale. I would like to have C7 in the key of C be C maj7 and C flatted7 be the C with the Bflat. Maybe noted C-7. iim7 would still be D F A C etc. But C dim7 would be C Eb Gb B and Cdim7 would be C Eb Gb Bb, and C dim6 would be C Eb Gb A. It’s probably too late for that. But what are the sensible reasons for the present notation especially for the diminished chords?
~ Bob, Seattle, WA
Whew! That’s a lot for one paragraph! Let’s see:
To address your first point AND partially address your final question, a diminished seventh chord has TWO dim intervals in it: a dim 5th and a dim 7th. This is because when you lower the top note of either a perfect OR minor interval, it becomes diminished. So, major seventh down to minor seventh down to diminished seventh, which is the same as a sixth. “Diminished sixth” wouldn’t work. By now you probably see why, but just in case, it’s because the interval would be an enharmonic perfect fifth!
The one thing I DO agree with you about is the messy dominant seventh exception thing. A lot of students new to theory would be a lot less confused if C7 were C E G B and C dominant 7 were called something like C dom7. But alas–and this is part two of the answer to your last question–that’s just not how the lingo evolved. Just like bad urban planning can lead to traffic congestion, I guess.
C-7 is already taken: C minor seventh. I think it’s confusing enough already that “-” can mean either minor OR flat, and that “+” USUALLY applied to the fifth, but not ALWAYS, as in C7+9 (=C7#9). Again, like language, the notation system evolved (and is still evolving), rather than being invented, so we’re left with something of a hodge-podge.
In terms of your ideas about renaming the diminished chords, see my first point above. Other than that, I share some of your revisionist tendencies: there are some changes I’d like to make in the English language. I’d like to be able to reshevel myself when I feel disheveled. I’d like theories to be bunked before they’re debunked, and then for them to be subsequently rebunkable. And so on.
Sounds of different modes
I really enjoyed the modes and beyond at the end of the book. I am eager to get to a keyboard to find out how the #4 makes that mode brighter than the Major. I am going to try composing a melody that moves from bright to dark and then back again to bright through the modes… Thanking you in advance.
~Bob, Seattle, WA
(You can also use your cello, of course.) Yes, a great idea. Also, write a melody where one strain is in Phrygian or Locrian and the next is in Lydian, for example. That’s a great effect. In fact, there’s a CD called Mythomania ( dumb name, great CD) of German medieval music that has a song that does something very much like that. I’d be more specific, but I’m listening to Saint-Saens’ Concert Piece for horn & orch, and I don’t want to take it off! You are welcome. Great to get such meaty questions. Gotta go. Do stay in touch!
Is it true that a trombone and a French horn can't play the same note?
I was told by a music major that a trombone and a horn in F can’t play the same part musically because it doesn’t sound good. By that I mean a horn playing an F and a trombone playing a C, same pitch. But I heard the two instruments in an arrangement of music playing the same pitches. What’s up with that? I heard that there is some kind of effect or law or something saying that it doesn’t sound good an alto instrument playing the same pitch as a tenor instrument, but then I heard the two playing the same part in a piece of music.
First off, a (French) horn playing its F will be a concert Bb, not a concert C. The easiest way to remember the transposition of transposing instruments goes something like this: “When a horn in F plays its C, it comes out an F” (a fifth lower, by the way). “When a trumpet in Bb plays its C, it comes out a Bb”, and so on. See? So, to complete the first part of your answer, the horn would have to play its G, not F, in order for it to be in unison with the trombone’s (concert) C.
Now that we’ve dispensed with the nit-picky details part of the answer, let’s get to the crux of your question. A French horn and trombone playing in unison will sound absolutely wonderful. The horn’s conical bore yields a less sharp attack than the bone’s cylindrical bore. The result will sound like a boney horn, or a horny bone, if you will. Examples abound in scores all around.
What scale to play over a certain chord?
I am playing Moonglow on the piano in the Key of G. The first chord is Am7 so the scale is A Dorian. The next chord is F7+11. What mode will allow me to figure out the chord scale.? If I understand your book, F in the Key of G is a Locrian mode which would not work here. Thanks. –Vince-Wynnewood, PA.
Vince: Great question. In general, I personally prefer to think of scale choices as much as possible as based in the key of the song or phrase (with chord-tones being resolved notes and nonchord-tones being notes of higher tension), rather than thinking in terms of chord scales (where the root of the scale of choice changes with each chord).
For example, with a chord progression such as Gmaj7, Em7, Am7, D7, I just think of a G major scale, keeping in mind the changing chord-tones, rather than four “chord scales”: G Ionian, E Aeolian, A Dorian, and D Mixolydian. Yech. Besides, the way my mind works, at least, the first method describes better, and more succinctly, what’s going on musically, than does the second.
In your example, starting with the Am7, I think of the G major scale, knowing the chord tones are A, C, E, and G. For the F7#11, I’d just modify the G major scale to take into account the new chord tones, yielding G, A, B, C, D, Eb, F, G. You could call this a G Mixolydian flat 6, if you like. In fact, the notes in the F7#11 (F, A, C, Eb, G, B) include all the notes in that scale except the D, which would be a standard extension anyway.
Make sense? If not, or if you prefer to think in terms of chord scales, the above scale would be called an F Lydian flat 7 (or Mixolydian #4).
Further, you could use this general rule: the Lydian flat 7 chord scale gets the “most likely suspect” award for any dominant 7th chord that resolves in any way other than a fourth up (fifth down).
In your Theory book, first edition, you call Chapter 13 “Tetrachords”. I’ve a friend, a musician, who says that tetrachords aren’t simultaneous, but some kind of sequential ordering of notes. I checked a music dictionary, and they say that tetrachords are something else: an interval into two of which an octave can be broken down. Your usage seems the most intuitive, but I’m wondering if it is consistent with the conventional musical lexicon. –Michael Cohen, Aizu-Wakamatsu, Japan
Great question. The “interval into two of which an octave can be broken down” would be the tritone (#4 or b5), C to F# and F# to C, for example.
In traditional usage, a tetrachord is a series of four notes separated by certain intervals. In the case of major scales, the intervals are whole-step, whole-step, half-step. Two tetrachords a whole-step apart form a major scale.
To me, the coolest thing about the tetrachord approach to scales is that, like the circle of fifths, it shows the progression of scales and keys. Below, any two consecutive tetrachords form a major scale.
C D E F | G A B C | D E F# G | A B C# D | E F# G# A | B C# D# E | F# G# A# B | * Db Eb F Gb | Ab Bb C Db | Eb F G Ab | Bb C D Eb | F G A Bb | C D E F, and so on.
* enharmonic change
Getting back to my book, in the second edition, I changed the title of the chapter to “Chords: 7ths (& 6ths),” foregoing intuition for convention. Thank you for attending the first-ever Intuition Convention.
Improvisation suggestions & blues scale versus other scales
When improvising jazz tunes I run out of ideas for patterns or runs. Any suggestions? Second, it’s odd that when playing the blues one can use the same blues scale all through the tune, but it sounds terrible if you play just one particular scale all through a standard, Why? Thanks for any insight.
Assuming you do have your arpeggios and scales/modes down, my first suggestion would be to stop thinking in terms of patterns and runs. Try improvising with your voice. Yup, that’s right. Sing! Think of what you’re playing as creating a melody instead of a bunch of strung-together phrases. This will help you rely more on your ear, and less on formulas. Having said that, and in direct contrast, there are books of arpeggio- and scale-based patterns for improvisation. Without hearing you play, it’s hard to say which of these approaches would be better for you.
All of this is easier said than done and will require some time and energy on your part. For more ideas, I’d recommend the Improvisation Ideas chapter in my theory book.
Regarding your blues/jazz point I’ll say this: The dissonances resulting from the juxtaposition of the blues scale and blues chords are part of what makes the blues sound like the blues. Secondly, simple blues stays firmly in one key. Jazz can dance through several key centers faster than you can say “Two, Five, One.” If your note choices don’t reflect that movement, the clientele will spill their martinis, and you may well not get asked back to the gig.
What are downbeats and upbeats
I recently purchased your book on theory and a few terms I keep running into elsewhere were not mentioned or defined. They are downbeat and upbeat. Thanks for whatever help you can provide.
~ Jim, Burlington, VT
Most simply, downbeats are beats: 1 2 3 4, or if you’re tapping your foot, when your foot hits the floor. Upbeats are exactly in between the beats, when your foot is highest in the air, and when you count “and”: (1) + (2) + (3) + (4) +. Hope that answers your question, and that you’re enjoying the book.
Edly, I’ve read your book and have enjoyed it. I have a question about song patterns. You list the basic parts of songs such as verses, chorus’, the coda, introduction, phrases, etc. Then you describe some different structures, ie. ways in which phrases are combined, such as AABA, ABBA AABBCC.., etc. What’s confusing me is how these parts relate. Is the structure found within a chorus or verse or does the structure consist of verses and chorus’? Or is the answer both?
~ Chris, Cape Neddick ME
Glad you enjoyed the book. Good question about song anatomy. The quick answer is, “it depends.”
In so-called jazz standards (show tunes, etc.), a chorus typically consists of 4 phrases, AABA, respectively. More often than not, the verses are omitted, and in in the case of many older songs, are all but forgotten.
In Celtic music (jigs & reels, etc.) and other folk forms, the letters generally refer to repetitions of entire sections (each section usually consisting of 4 phrases), and one typical form is AABB(CC), although sometimes you find things like AAB. The order of the phrases varies from song to song.
In classical music, Rondo form is usually described as ABACADAE, etc. In this case, the letters refer to sections rather than phrases.
Lastly, in pop music, whatever the phrases make-up of the verses and choruses, there’s too much variation in how verses and choruses come to codify exactly, but a common technique is to delay the first chorus by repeating the verse first: vs, vs, chorus, verse, chorus, etc.
Hope this helps.
With a bit of practice, you’ll be able to pick out all these form anatomies by ear. Edly
Do the notes in a chord change in different keys?
Edly, Would you mind answering another question for me? This one is definitely about something that’s been tougher for me to grasp. It’s tough to even verbalize in the form of a question. This has to do with the chord symbols floating about the bars I encounter on sax music. It’s not to be confused with how chords are actually written out for piano music. I see that sax sheet music often has the chord progressions above the bars. Of course, that music will also have a key signature. But the key signature doesn’t really have any effect on reading the chords, do they? I mean, a chord written above, such as Dm, already specifies the root as D. If I’m playing the piano(or arpeggiating with the sax), won’t I simply hit the notes together as D, F#, A? Or am I supposed to bring the key signature into the equation? For example, if the key sig was Eb, would that make Dm a relative designation(like IIm)? In other words, would the root then be based on where D lies on Eb relative to its location on C major(like F A C I think)? If the chords are played as written, regardless of the key signature, then how would you transpose them to a different key? Say if the piece was in C and you wanted to transpose it to Eb, what would D, F#, A of Dm then become? I knew nothing about music until I picked up your book so the fact that I can even phrase a music question is testimony to the efficacy of your book. I’ve come a long way. –Chris, Cape Neddick ME
Very cool question!!
But before I answer it, let’s fix two mistakes: Dm is D F A, not D F# A. And a Dm chord in the key of Eb would be a viim, not a iim– you analyze chords relative to the key signature of the song, not relative to C.
To boil down your question: Does the key signature have any effect on reading the chords?
No. A Dm is D F A regardless of the key signature.
Short answer to your transposition question: A Dm in the (original) key of C would be an Fm in the (new) key of Eb. It’s iim in both cases.
You’ve come a long way baby. I’d encourage you to reread the book, though. Most people miss a lot in one reading. Maybe it’s my fault as the author, or maybe it’s just due to the amount of material covered (or maybe it’s like a good movie: the second time through, you noticed all those nifty details you missed the first time).
In your case, I recommend reviewing the chapters on chord construction, major scales & keys, diatonic chords, and transposition. Your transposition question is answered more fully there.
Over what chords, or set of chords, may the Lydian flat 7th be effective?
Over what chords, or set of chords, may the Lydian flat 7th be effective? I am primarily a blues-rock guitarist but am always interested in scale possibilities. I play over minor chords, blues progressions but usually I am not playing over dominant chords with flatted or sharped 5ths or sharp ninths (pretty much dominant 7th). Thank you.
A common use of the Lydian b7 scale is over a dominant 7th chord, where the chord resolves down a half-step (such as Db7 to C). (The chord doesn’t have to have a b5 or #4 in it.) In jazz lingo, the dominant seventh chord is functioning as a substitute for the five chord (“sub V”) chord. The scale can certainly be used in other instances, and I go into this in a lot more detail in the theory book, but this is the quickie answer. Hope it helps!
Is it possible to figure out what someone's playing just by listening?
I know a bit about the different kinds of scales that make different musical moods, like how Carlos Santana always plays in a certain kind of scale and how it makes him sound more like himself instead of other guitarists. I was wondering if there’s a way to figure out what scale they use by listening to them. Also, I was wondering about switching minor scales and major scales within a blues tune, I know that Clapton does this a lot, but is there a certain place in the progression where it’s best to do this without sounding like you went to the wrong note? Thanks, man.
Here comes the short answer to only some of your questions. First, if you practice (and even better, actively train) your ear, you can definitely identify a solo or melody’s source scale(s). Put this together with some knowledge of theory, and you can do it in your sleep.
As for switching scales within a blues tune, either the minor or major pentatonic scale will sound good over the I and V chord, whereas you might want to be careful of the natural 3rd degree of the major pentatonic scale over the IV chord. (The minor pentatonic will work great though.) For example, in C, the major pentatonic is C D E G A C (and the minor pentatonic is C Eb F G Bb C). The E note will rub in a way that you may not like against the F (IV) chord: F A C (or F A C Eb, if it’s F7). Sound confusing? Sorry ’bout that; this is a quicker answer than it would ideally be.
Here’s a looser answer: Part of what makes the blues sound like the blues is the way the notes of the melody rub up against the notes of the harmony. If they rub in a way that you’re used to hearing in bluesy contexts, it will sound bluesy. If it’s a rub of a different color, then it may well just sound wrong.
There are your yin and yang answers, each incomplete. Like yin and yang, put them together, and you may have a whole.
Teacher is discouraged by students' lack of practice
Hello Edly: I’ve visited your site recently and was encouraged to write because of the reviews of your book ‘Edly Paints the Ivories Blue’. I get discouraged by the progress of many of my students. It seems so little time is used practicing, I wonder what causes them to think that it’s even possible to retain any resulting progress from one lesson to the next. As a matter of fact, lessons are becoming more like supervised practice sessions. Any assistance in this matter would be greatly appreciated. I really want to encourage my students, and I see myself as patient and complimentary with them, but, those qualities just don’t seem to get the job done. I’m 26, I’ve taught for almost four years, I teach all styles except jazz & classical. I’ve recently had upwards of forty students. I have formal training in neither music nor teaching. Justin
You’re young, haven’t been teaching for long, and from the sound of it, have had few or no teachers from which you can model your approach. That’s a lot of counts against you. I’m hoping you are both a good player and an intuitive teacher. You’re definitely doing something right if you’ve had more than 40 students at a time.
Do I understand you correctly when you say you have “no formal training” in music, that you are self-taught?
Early on, I made it a habit of asking how much the student practiced since the last lesson. Some answer very specifically. Adults are almost always completely honest. Older teens too. Younger than that, the less specific the response, the less the student practiced, guaranteed.
I’ll say this: patience is a virtue, but there comes a time to say to a student: “You’re not practicing enough to achieve the critical mass necessary to progress. I’d suggest you consider whether the amount of time you’re putting in justifies your shelling out your (or your parents’) hard-earned bucks for these lessons.” Certainly, if it’s a child, then the parent needs to be involved in this discussion. Edly
You’re right, I am self taught. I’ve broken myself of saying so outright because I’ve noticed people who aren’t involved in music are particularly impressed with self-taught musicians, (I don’t know why), and I wish I had more financial capacity to study with some local teachers because I feel as if I’m missing something sometimes. Sometimes I ask the student what it has worked on, and sometimes we need to discuss how much time is spent practicing. Yes, I do try to keep parents as involved as possible, but with some students, the parents just aren’t as involved in the student’s life as perhaps they should be. My approach to teaching is to do what the student wants in regard to the songs learned while educating them on the finer points of knowing what is going on musically. That seems like a silly statement, but I’ve heard too many students’ complaints about teachers who only teach what the teacher claims is real music. My neighboring teacher at the store where I work refuses to teach certain songs or styles because of his personal beliefs. I might be wrong but, I find it more of the parents’ responsibility to monitor what their child listens to. It’s usually the parents’ money purchasing the student’s CDs. Students are interested in music because of what they listen to, and if we want them to listen to “better music” it is our responsibility to demonstrate the open-mindedness we wish to see in them, (not that I think any music is inherently better than any other). I really appreciate you taking the time to assist me in making certain I may or may not be on track with some things. I find it difficult to locate people with time to share their better understanding with other teachers.
Basic chord construction
Edly: Thinking chords. Take the ‘C chord’ for example: A C major chord has the intervallic spacing of Tone, Tone, Semi-tone, Tone; when advancing from C to G. This is the equivalent of 3.5 tones or 7 semi-tones. What if we were to flat the E (per minor), one halftone, and raise the G one half-tone. We would still have the 3.5 tones or 7 semi-tones. But we do not call this a major chord. I am NOT certain what this particular construct would be called. Augmented minor?? Why not call it a major? What should it be called? Cheers!
~ Ken Walper
The quick and simple answer is, “absolutely call it major–specifically, Ab (major).” More completely, it’s an Ab chord in first inversion. I’ll explain inversions in a bit.
But first, I want to address and correct one step in your thought process. Raising the G a half-step (semi-tone) gives you eight half-steps, not seven. Right?!
Chords need to be defined more specifically, though, in order to make sense. Working with your half/whole-step model, a major chord could be defined like this: root, the note 4 half-steps (a major third) higher, and the note another 3 half-steps (a minor third) higher. In fewer words, a major third with a minor third piled on top. This is called “root position,” because the root is on the bottom. Still with me? Now, if you transpose the root an octave higher, the chord is said to be in “first inversion.” If you then transpose the new bottom note an octave higher, the chord is now in “second inversion.” If you just can’t stop yourself, go ahead and transpose the new NEW bottom note an octave higher, and, ta-dah, the chord is again in root position, but an octave higher than it started out.
With that in mind, can you see that the notes C Eb Ab are indeed an Ab chord in first inversion (since root position would be Ab C Eb)?
Lastly, I always encourage students to think of chords not as stacked half- and whole-steps or intervals, but rather as being derived from the major scale. If you understand that a major scale has all whole-steps except half-steps in between the third and fourth and seventh and eighth notes, you can then just modify those notes for chords, like this:
major: 1 3 5
minor: 1 b3 5
augmented: 1 3 #5
and so on. Of course, you can invert to your heart’s content. I hope this answer helps!
How to mix the blues scale and the natural minor scale in my solo playing?
I have an inquiry here: how to mix the blues scale and the natural minor scale in my solo playing? Thanks and God bless… Les Paul Cherry Sunburst
Dear Mr. Paul,
It’s quite a surprise, and quite an honor, to hear from a legend such as yourself!
Before I answer the question, let’s fill in some info for those who may not know what you’re talking about.
The blues scale is 1 b3 4 #4 5 b7 (8), or in the key of A, A C D D# E G (A). The natural minor scale is 1 2 b3 3 4 5 b6 b7 (8), or in the key of A (minor), A B C D E F G (A).
Okay, here goes. In a blues/rock context, the natural minor scale becomes useful when chords that use the b6 (flat sixth note) crop up, such as bVI or ivm, F and Dm respectively, in A.
It’s because of the notes in the chords. The F chord is F A C, while the Dm chord is D F A. Both chords contain the F note, which isn’t in the blues scale. By adding the F note to the scale during your solo, especially during a chord that contains that note, you bring the melody and harmony together in a way that the ear likes, even if the listener isn’t aware of it. It also makes you sound like you know what you’re doing.
This could be applied more generally. Try this on for size: Whenever you’re soloing using mostly one scale (such as the blues scale), it’ll sound good if you add notes that are in the current chord but are not in the scale. Reread that a couple of times if necessary. It’s an important one.
For example, try soloing over the progression Am to E using a blues scale, but during the E chord, add a G# to your scale. See how good it sounds? You’re picking up a note from the chord and adding it to the scale. Once you start doing this, you’ll notice (I hope) how relatively consonant the G# is, and how relatively dissonant the G natural is. Remember, dissonant does not mean “bad sounding.” It means “tense.” The tension of notes that are in the scale but not in the chords is one of the things that gives the blues (and styles of music derived from it) its characteristic sound. By tastefully adding (or not adding) these missing notes, you’re controlling how bluesy (or greensy or redsy) your solo will sound.
Getting back to your examples, there’s a song in which the big guitar solo is over im, bVII, bVI, bVII, or in the key of A (minor), Am G F G. The guitarist mostly used the minor pentatonic scale (the blues scale omitting the #4 note) with the addition of the b6 note. (This yielded a “natural minor sexatonic scale” hybrid, if you go for terms like that.) So, the scale was A C D E F G A. The song is “Stairway to Heaven.”
Hope this helps, and sorry for the delay!
Why can you play more than one scale over a given chord?
If a composition is written in the key of G (one F# at Treble Clef) and the chords are G7-C9-D9, why is it that you can play G Mixolydian and G minor scales? and “not” G Ionian and A Dorian and on down the 7 modes in the Key of G? I think it would be because they are dominant chords and Mixolydian is the dominant Mode. I’m lost and I don’t understand why you can play both Pentatonic and Major scales. I’m used to a system of one mode for one chord.
~ John, Palm Harbor, FL
One mode per chord, eh? Hmmm, to me, you’re cheating yourself out of a lot of potentially great sounds. To me, that’s like cooking something only one way all the time. Think of scales as different flavors that can be applied to chords.
Here are some quick thoughts.
Over the G7, possibilities include G Mixo, G blues, G major or minor pentatonic, and more. The modes of G have an F# in them, which disagrees with the F natural in the G7 chord, except as a chromatic passing tone, or purposeful dissonance.
Over C9, one might choose C Lydian b7, G blues, minor pentatonic, C mixo, etc. Notice that all of these have a Bb in them. The movement from B natural to Bb and F to E are two of the strongest shifts in the progression G7 to C7. I would probably refer to them in my scale choices. Over the C9, you could use an F natural or F# or both. It’s just a matter of flavor.
Hope this helps.
Quality of the mediant triad in harmonic minor
Hi! How do i know the quality of the mediant triad in harmonic minor is III+? I can understand where the III is coming from, but I don’t understand why it would be augmented.
~ Amanda, New Haven, CT
Because because because because becauuuuuuuuuuuuusssssssee, (to quote Dorothy), the 7th degree of the harmonic minor scale is natural, as opposed to flat (in other words, it’s a 1/2 step below the tonic). So, in Cm, that’d give you Eb, G, B natural. Ta-dah! An Eb+ chord!
Jazz singer with "sorrowfully minimal knowledge of music theory"
Hi, Edly, I’m a jazz singer with sorrowfully minimal knowledge of music theory. Although I can sight read the sheet music and easily and naturally transpose the song into a comfortable key, I’m always at a loss trying to tell the other musicians what key I’d like the song played in. This especially bothers me because I think it diminishes my professionalism. I was searching the web hoping to find some kind of transposition “cheat sheet” — something that would provide a list of key signatures and, for example, what key I would be in if I wanted to raise it by so many steps. The search brought up your site, so I thought I’d ask you. Can you offer any suggestions or advice on where I could find this? I’ll be forever in your debt.
~ Karen Atlanta, GA
You’re right that it diminishes your professionalism. You probably have heard various “singer jokes.” It also makes getting the music ready that much slower.
Anyway, the short answer goes something like this: You (hopefully) know your range. Ideally, your ear is good enough to be able to sing through a song–in your head and on fast forward–such that you know the range of the song in terms of scale degree (I can do this in a couple of seconds for most songs), such as, “from low 6 to high 9 (a range of an octave and a P4th). You know where you’d like that to sit in your singing range, maybe from E – A, if you’ve got a low voice, which would put it in the key of G.
Or have I lost you?
If so, I’d suggest you lose your “sorrowfully minimal knowledge of theory” status. Granted, that was an admittedly quickie explanation, but I’m going to suggest that you buy and read Edly’s Music Theory for Practical People. You’ll have fun reading it, and you’ll be way better off as a singer and musician.
I've been playing for years, but recently I've decided to learn theory
Edly, I have been playing guitar, keys, and drums for many years now, but recently I’ve decided to break out of my musical rut and learn theory. I compose a lot and always relied on my ears. Theory wise, I knew maj and min pentatonics and just always tried to expand on them with tons of passing tones, etc. Anyway, I’ve learned the major scale inside and out, all the modes, the harmonic sequence of chords, etc.I use the modes alot now in my lead playing, and am very happy with all the new “colors” I can add to my music. When trying to invent new chord progressions however, when I stay in a specific mode (using that mode as the parent key – A mix would extend to B Aoelian, C Locrian, etc..) all the chords and riffs all sound like they are coming from the same seven notes (which they are) despite any voicings I come up with. This led me to what Joe Satriani calls “Pitch Axis”, where instead of revolving everything around a parent mode, you modulate a certain mode, i.e. A Mix, B Mix, G Mix, A Mix. I find that this allows for alot more tonal control. Also, it opens up alot of harmonic possiblities , in the case of the above progression – A7,B9,G13,A13, etc.(instead of only the V chord being dominant 7, 9, etc) I guess theres a million questions that could be asked in regard to this subject. Do you know of a list of rules that govern modal modulation? Do you cover this subject in any of your books? Examples: – Are there any way to chose the root notes of a progression other then using the notes of the mode that I’m modulating, i.e. – A Mix : A,B,C#,D, E, F#,G? -If building chords from Dorian, is there a set list of modes that will sound good over those chords, i.e. – F Dorian chords: Fm7-B7sus-G11 …will F Phy work, etc. I know that I can just find out by using my ear, but a chart of harmonically compatable modes would save alot of time. Many thanks, Guitardog
Whew! What questions!
Let’s take ’em one at a time:
Do you know of a list of rules that govern modal modulation?
No, I don’t. When you start using modes in ways that you stated (A Mix, B Mix, G Mix, A Mix), you’ve opened the door to the kitchen sink, so to speak. No reason to stop with the above. Even if you used other notes of the A mixo mode as tonics of other mixo modes, such as A mixo, C# mixo, D mixo, etc., these modes are going to be foreign enough one from the other that the ear won’t hear them as being particularly related.
My approach to theory is “tools not rules,” as my friend Tom Randall once put it: theory gives you a set of tools to use according to your musical aesthetic. If you understand modes, I would encourage you to use your ears first and brain second, rather than looking for MORE rules on how to put them together.
In other words, if you are looking for a string of Mixolydian modes to use, find some that sound good in succession, and use them, according to what you’re trying to do in that given piece! And don’t stop there. Try mixing up the modes, such as A Mixolydian, A Phrygian, A Lydian. Or A Dorian, E Lydian. I personally find this more interesting, and to my personal taste. But, of course, mine is not necessarily yours.
Are there any ways to chose the root notes of a progression other than using the notes of the mode that I’m modulating, i.e., A Mix: A, B, C#, D, E, F#, G?
Certainly. My personal favorites are ears and whimsy, as outlined above. But if you prefer to work from a more intellectual starting point, then you could come up with a formula you like. (A friend and teacher of mine, Tom Ross (with a few exceptions, I like to limit my friends to people named Tom), took the bass notes from the chord progression of “Hey Joe,” nuked the chords, applied a rhythmic pattern of his own choosing to the bass notes, and then composed an entirely new piece over them. The result was a wonderful piece that sounded nothing at all like “Hey Joe.”) Back coming back to formulas: one example would be to start with Lydian, and skip two modes darker each time: Lydian, Mixolydian, Aeolian, Locrian, and choose tonics according to a different formula, such as: Note X, P5th higher, m2nd lower. Since there are 4 modes and three tonics, it would take a while to come out at the top again. This is pretty heady stuff, though, and not for everybody (myself included, at least these days).
If building chords from Dorian, is there a set list of modes that will sound good over those chords, i.e., F Dorian chords: Fm7-B7sus-G11 …will F Phy work, etc. I know that I can just find out by using my ear, but a chart of harmonically compatible modes would save a lot of time.
I could say more, but I think you get my drift. My sense is that you already have plenty of tools (except that you’re a guy, and it’s said that we guys NEVER have enough tools). Use the tools according to what you want to accomplish (including imposing your OWN rules upon the tools), rather than looking for externally imposed rules to govern the tools. Hey, maybe you’ll be the Arnold Shönberg of modal fusion, and I can say I knew you when!
Do you cover this subject in any of your books?
I teach the natural modes (as we’ve been discussing), and “artificial” (lousy name!) or altered modes, such as Lydian b7, and then organize them in different ways. I readily admit that other than some typical jazz and folk uses, I leave the creative part of how to use them up to the reader, as I am doing you. Good luck, ‘dog!
Hope this was of some help.
How do you play Fmaj7#11 and an F Lydian scale?
I’m a rock and blues guitar player who has recently begun trying to study jazz guitar. I’ve begun working with modes as well. How do you play Fmaj7#11? I think the Fmaj7#11 calls for the Lydian mode at the 5th fret and none of it sounds right. I’m not sure how to finger the chord which I think is FACEB. I’m also not sure if the F Lydian is in the right position for the first note. Please excuse my ignorance. How do I play the chord and where do I play the Lydian scale (is it at the 5th fret for F, being F majors 4th position?
~ Charlie, Rockford, Illinois
FACEB is correct, but remember that inversion is okay, and often necessary, on guitar.
Let’s see: how to communicate fingerings via e-mail. Hmmm. Let’s do NOTES, string by string, starting with the 6th. You find the frets! X means mute, or skip the string. Here are some possibilities:
X F B C E A
X F C E A B (a bit of a stretch for the first finger, if you’ve never done this kind of warped bar)
X C F B E A
X X A C E B (assuming the presence of a bass player, or merely not worrying about the missing root)
F C F A B E (low and rich. Also good for folkier sound)
Further, you could add the 9th (G) to the mix, and it would thicken the chord without significantly changing the flavor.
X F A E G B (four-string bar)
That should get you going.
In terms of your scale question, yes Lydian is the most obvious scale choice. Where you play it is up to you, as long as it comes out F G A B C D E F.
Double sharps? TRIPLE sharps?!? And half-steps and octave ratios.
I’m having trouble reading/playing a piece that’s way over my head. In Beethoven’s Sonata in C# minor, in the 19th measure of the 1st movement, there’s a G that’s marked G#. Since G is already sharp in this key, do I actually play a G## (an A)? Later, in the 27th measure, there’s a double sharp on an F. Since F is already sharp in this key, does that make it an F### (a G#)? Still later, in the 35th measure, there’s an F marked with a # AND a natural??!! What does that mean on top of the fact that the F should ALREADY be sharp!?!?! Maybe I should go back to “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star”….. Now here’s a question that involves not only music theory, but the theory of sound itself. I’ve always wondered why there’s a half-step between B and C and E and F. Notes an octave apart vibrate at speeds in intervals of 2X. Do notes in a major scale have regularly spaced vibration speeds? And do the half-steps correspond to those regular spacings? If the vibrations of the notes from one half-step to the next are not the same as the differences between two notes that are a whole step apart, why does it sound “right” when you play a scale? I know that question is a little “out there”, but I once heard an explanation of music and musical instruments explained in mathematical terms, and I almost understood it. Thanks for your time and help.
~ Lee, New Castle, DE
Here’s the short answer, without the sheet music in front of me.
G# is G#. Fx (double sharp) is G (natural). The natural in “F#natural” would be there to cancel a previous Fx, so you’d play F#.
Again, without the music in front of me, I’d guess that in the first case, there had been a G nat just before the G#, and the composer (or editor) wanted to make sure that the player played #. And G# is always G# and Fx (double sharp) is always G (natural) regardless of key signature.
Your second question: There are two levels here. You’re right about the 1:2 ratio of an octave. Half steps are all equal (in equal temperament, which Western music theoretically uses–I won’t get into the “why theoretically” aspect). That’s the first level. The second is the major scale itself. The major scale’s pattern of whole-steps and half-steps is what makes it sound like a major scale, just like a four-sided polygon with sides of equal length and all right angles is, by definition, a square. So, the notes in a major scale are irregularly spaced according to the pattern of w w h w w w h. (“Regularly spaced,” or symmetrical scales, such as the whole-tone scale–w w w w w w or diminished–w h w h w h w h, disorient the ear due to their symmetry, and make it hard to hear just which note is the tonic. Try it, and you’ll hear what I mean.)
In other words, the major scale sounds “right” because it IS. If you play a natural minor scale–w h w w h w w, it sounds “right”–for a natural minor scale because it IS.
Hope these answers help!
Enharmonic spellings in chords
I was wondering about something from your ‘Practical People’ book. In chapter 13, the Triad, Seventh, and Sixth Chord Practice, (well actually in the answers section) you give some enharmonic respelling and I was wondering if this is correct procedure or just for simplicity in learning? Also if it is just for simplicity, then the correct usage should be FIRST and the laymen in parentheses, NO? My teacher says that in real cases you NEVER change the spelling of a chord, can you help me? Thank you.~ Aimee, Seattle, WA
Thanks for your great question. It was mostly for simplicity, although it’s very common to see some chords (dim 7ths come to mind immediately) with enharmonic spellings. For example, C dim7 is often seen spelled as C Eb Gb A, rather than the textbook-ly correct C Eb Gb Bbb.
As for your teacher’s admonishment of “NEVER,” I’d say “never say never.” Obviously, some people are fussier about this than others. I would say that, in the real world, chords are very often spelled enharmonically if the situation calls for it.
Hope that helps.
Trouble identifying resulting diatonic sixths (page 22 in Edly's Theory)
I am stuck at a point early in the book and have read and re-read the book from the beginning to this point but it still doesn’t make sense. I am having trouble with the exercises on Page 22 that asks the reader to identify Resulting Intervals for Diatonic Harmonization in Sixths. I figured out the Thirds by counting the half steps between notes on a C scale and calling the interval M3 if there were 4 steps and m3 if there were 3 steps. I am baffled when I try to do the same with the sixths. How do you figure out the interval of sixths? In the second paragraph on page 19, it says “… the first method is more efficient assuming you know your scales…”. Am I using the first or second method by counting half steps? If I am using the second (less efficient method), what is the first? I would appreciate it very much if you could help me get through this. Thank you.
“First method” (pg 18 bottom & pg 19, first paragraph) For both chords and intervals, use a formula based on a major scale. In your example, this would mean knowing your major scales and diatonic intervals and using the appropriate scale to see whether the interval is M or m. The “appropriate scale” is the one beginning on the bottom note of the interval in question.
“Second method” (pg 19, second paragraph) count half-steps
Both of these methods can be used to “measure” any interval. While they both require some memorization, it seems to me that the first method encourages you to use important information (your major scales), whereas the second requires a lot of memorization of the pain-in-the-butt variety (how many half-steps in each interval; blech!).
So: Is the sixth interval from E up to C a major or minor sixth? Well, in an E scale (again, use the scale beginning on the bottom note of the interval), the (diatonic, and therefore, major) sixth would be a C#, so E to C is a minor sixth.
Are augmented chords found in minor keys as well as major?
Don’t know why I don’t remember everything about these from theory classes – I just don’t! Are augmented chords found in minor keys, or are they strictly a Major phenomenon?
~ Kathleen, Pittsford, NY
Kathleen, a lot of people (even practical ones) don’t remember a lot from theory class! In answer to your question, sure! Play this progression in the key of your choice: im, im7b5, V+7, im. Loverly! The V+ (or V+7, for even stronger pull to the im chord) is diatonic to the harmonic minor scale, as are the other chords in my simple example. Hope that answers your question.
Harmonic families (tonic, subdominant and dominant) in modes?
I have a theory question for you that I’ve been unable to answer. Harmonic families (tonic, subdominant, and dominant) are commonly known with respect to the harmonized major and minor scales (Ionian and Dorian). But what about the other modes? It would be very useful to me if I could associate a harmonic function with each chord in each harmonized mode of the major scale. My main purpose in this has to do with modal interchange in composition. If you’re looking for a tonic substitute in a parallel mode, it’d be nice to know which chords in that mode have tonic function etc, etc. Can you help?
Are you asking about naming chords in modes as follows? Mixolydian mode, for example: Tonic: I. Dominant function: vm, bVII. Subdominant function: IV. Is that what you mean?
That’s exactly what I’m asking. For example, which chords in a harmonized Dorian mode have a subdominant function? I’m trying to make a complete chart of this in-so-far as I can. (See chart below.) I’m just talking about the 3 basics levels of tension; tonic, subdominant, and dominant.
Key to this is your use of the word “function.” Also, a chord could serve different functions in the same mode, depending on the context. Some of these choices could be argued over by music geeks at a cocktail party.
Looks like you were doing fine with your chart. I made a few changes, and see my aeolian parentheses.
Take another look at Chapter 26, too. You’re doing more thoroughly and specifically what I was alluding to there. I’m not a supermodal (sorry, couldn’t resist), but I tend to approach this kind of thing (that you’re doing) a bit more intuitively, and less specifically, figuring that once someone has gotten to this point, that they’ll be able to feel it out. I could definitely be wrong in this figure, though.
Also, I haven’t thought much about it, but also wonder if this might not be a somewhat forced use of tonal jargon on the modal system.
Be that as it may, here’s your chart back. Please proofread this. I’m a bit spaced now but wanted to get this out to you.
Lydian: Tonic: I, iiim, vim. Sub-Dom: ivdim, (vim), II, Dom: V, viim (!), II(?)
Ionian: Tonic: I, iiim, vim. Sub-Dom: iim, IV. Dom: V, viidim
Mixolydian: Tonic: I, vim. Sub-Dom: IV, iim. Dom: vm, bVII
Dorian: Tonic: im, III, Sub-Dom: IV, iim, vidim. Dom: vm, VII
Aeolian: Tonic: im, III, (VI?). Sub-Dom: iidim, ivm, VI(!). Dom vm, VII
Phrygian: Tonic: im, III, Sub-Dom: ivm, VI, Dom: vdim, bII(!)
Locrian: this is tough, since it’s hard to hear this as a mode where the “one chord” is the tonic, its being diminished, ‘n’ all. BUT, if cornered at a music geeks’ cocktail party, I’d offer this:
Tonic: i° (?), Dom: bII, bviim, bV (?). Beyond that, I’m not in the mood to go right now.
PS: You said: “If I base it purely on the location of the root, then it’s easy, but the chord type must play into it as well.” That’s a good point, and still doesn’t even go quite far enough. Lydian, for example the viim (and viim7) act in a strong dominant function, but that may not be apparent on paper. But it is to the ear, at least mine.
Blues scale fingerings
Edly, I purchased your book Edly Paints the Ivories Blue some time ago. I have been slowly working through things… would have gone faster except life is continually interfering with art! Anyway, I wonder whether there is a scale fingering for the different blues scales. I remember learning the fingering for all the majors and minors when I was taking formal lessons in piano. It seemed that efficiency was always the name of the game. A buddy of mine (who is about 90% self-taught) says he just uses 1-2-1-2-1-2-1 and keeps crossing over. Having come up playing classical music, that feels really foreign to me in any key. When I play the C blues scale I have come to use 1-2-3-4-1-2-1. My friend argues that the 4-1 is a problem because the crossover slows you down. He says that 1-2-1-2-1-2-1 is just more consistent and more smooth. What is your spin? I seek the truth.
Choose any answer, or combination of answers, that suite(s) you:
1. Check out pg 45.
2. Blues is, happily, free of most of the pedagogical dogma that shrouds classical music. Say all together, “Yaaaayyyyyy!” So play 121212, or my fingerings on page 45, or use, in combination, your nose and your toes. 3. Blues scales feel to me a bit too spread out for 121212 to be comfy. But heck, maybe your hands are bigger or yer keys are smaller. 4. As for “C blues scale. . . 1-2-3-4-1-2-1,” see answer #1 above. 5. If you ever find truth, please let me know the URL, ‘k?!
What are the notes in an F flat major scale?
Edly, I play saxophone and I have to know an f flat major scale for a test and I don’t know how to play it. I think it might start with a c sharp can you help me?
~ Matt, Port Ludlow, Washington
An F flat scale is as follows:
Fb Gb Ab Bbb (double flat) Cb Db Eb Fb
Yecchhh, right?!?!! Yep, I’m with you. But happily, F flat=E natural.
So, any reasonable person would prefer:
E F# G# A B C# D# E
I would definitely put this one in the “trick question” category. Your teacher wanted to know whether or not you understood that Fb=E, which you now do!
Ionian Flat Sixth scale: what's it good for?
My name is Len, and I’m an electric bassist. Anyway, I have a bass scale encyclopedia of sorts..and in it, I ran across ‘Ionian Flat Sixth’ scales, it shows the scales but there is no word whatsoever on practical usage(how/when/why). Any ideas? As it is, I just write out the scales and try to apply them either on my four-string or my six-string bass. My main musical interest is more on the jazz side of things. Any feedback on this would be appreciated. Thanks….
Quickie answer: First thing that comes to mind would be a I ivm progression, such as C to Fm. C Ionian b6 would come right to mind, as would C Mixolydian b6 (which, by the way, could also be thought of as C Aeolian natural 3).
"Pentascale" vs. "pentatonic scale" confusion
I thoroughly enjoy your theory book. I was wondering if I could ask for your impartial wisdom on a few questions.. Thank you. 1) One of the (piano) books I am working out of teaches pentascales.. C+ pentascale would be C,D,E,F,G..Why is your C+ pentascale on pg. 94 C, D, E, G, A, skipping F? Can there be more than 1 C+ pentascale as long as you use the notes in the scale? 2) A V7 chord. How can it be a 3 note chord if there is a ‘7’ in the V7? Can a V7 chord be thirds, sevenths, ninths, etc? In a triad, which notes in the scale make up the V7 chord? Thank you very much, Mr. Edly… psu91
1) Don’t confuse “pentascale” with “pentatonic scale.” Pentascale is something to get your coordination going on piano. I call them “five-finger exercises” personally (check out my Piano Basics page). Any five-note scale is a PentaTONIC scale. Your piano pentascales fit into this category. The major pentatonic (1 2 3 5 6 (8)) and minor pentatonic (1 b3 4 5 b7 (8)) are two of the most popular in our culture. The great and powerful (and funny as he is smart) Peter Schickele did a couple of great shows on pentatonic scales on his National Public Radio show “Schickele Mix,” which comes with my highest recommendation. Call your local NPR station to find out if and when they air it.
2) A V7 chord would be a four-note chord, not a three-note chord. A V chord would be a three-note chord. Ahhhh, wait a second, I’m getting a flash: I’ll bet you’re working out of an Alfred or Bastien piano book, you poor thing. Boring, huh? No? Okay. They leave the fifth out of the V7 chord to make it easier and to thin out the chord. The fifth is certainly the most dispensable note, adding thickness without particularly adding character. (Notice that, if you leave out any other note, it changes the character much more than omitting the fifth.)
Lastly, the notes that make up the V7 chord are 1 3 5 b7 starting on V, or G B D F in the key of C.
Whew! I’m glad that most questions aren’t this good. I’d never get any work done!!!!
Suzuki vs. traditional instruction
Hi, I am very confused. I have my three home-schooled children girl 4yo, two boys 7yo and 8yo in a music program called Children’s Music Academy in the Denver, CO metro area. It is a 3-4 year program and they are learning to read music and to play on a keyboard. In their last year, they will learn the guitar. I have some other home-school friends who are sending their kids to Suzuki teachers and they are playing at State competitions and winning trophies and getting all kinds of acknowledgments for playing the Suzuki method. Please help me with the difference between Suzuki and traditional methods. I read your FAQ about the three girls and lessons. I agree that kids should be playing and having fun at this age so help me make an educated choice on which method to use for music lessons. Thank you for any help in this area. I struggle with if I am making the right choice for my little people.
~ Sonnora from Colorado
This is very much a personal decision. Regardless of educational mode, trophy winners are going to be the exception, not the rule. To my way of thinking, unless it’s clear you’ve got a prodigy on your hands, the goal is to provide a fertile environment for your children to develop a healthy relationship with music. And this also applies in the case of prodigies. Two of my friends are “recovering adult child prodigies.” Neither now plays the instrument with which they astounded the adult world as children. My personal choice for young children, at least in theory, is the Orff method, which emphasizes group practice and performance, as well as improvisation. Suzuki does yield impressive results, no doubt. Traditional instruction, with a fresh-thinking teacher, can be fine.
Reading music is an important skill if one is to go on in any Western music setting. But it doesn’t necessarily need to come first, or even second. The skills learned, and pleasure gained, from playing in a children’s drumming ensemble, for example, are priceless.
I would ask you, are your children happy with their instruction? With their instructors? With the music they are playing? If the answer to any of these is no, then it’s time for a change, regardless of the method. Then it’s up to you to let them try some different approaches to see which works best for them. And it may well be a different one for each child.
Lastly, I’d say forget trophies and recognition, unless they come naturally. Music isn’t a competitive sport unless we make it that.
Chromatic Alteration of Intervals
Dear Edly, First of all, I want to thank you for writing “Music Theory for Practical People”. I’ve been playing guitar for five years but, until I took up piano a few months ago, never really delved into music theory. I knew I was missing out on a lot, but I was intimidated by the “serious” music theory books I occasionally thumbed through. Your book changed all that. I picked it up a few weeks ago and immediately read it cover-to-cover. I’m now going back over it again, spending more time of the details and doing the exercises. I am actually beginning to understand music theory! It’s great! Knowing a bit of theory has helped my playing, and I’m anxious to continue studying. There is one thing that’s confusing to me, though. I’ve been over and over it, and I’m missing something (probably something obvious), but I just can’t figure it out: On Page 30 of the book, under “Chromatic Alteration of Intervals,” you set out five statements, referring to the “Chromatic Intervals from Octave to Unison” chart on Page 29. Statements 1 and 4 make sense to me, but I’m having trouble with the rest of them. With reference to statement 2, if the top note of a minor third is lowered, doesn’t that make a major second (and not a diminished interval)? With reference to statement 3, if the top note of a perfect fourth is lowered, doesn’t that make a major third (and not a diminished interval)? With reference to statement 5, if the top note of a major third is raised, doesn’t that make a perfect fourth (and not an augmented interval)? Anyway, thanks again for the book. Sincerely, Larry
~ Larry Arcata California
Larry, you da man!!!
You win the blue ribbon for attention to detail! Strike up the band!
The answer to all your questions is “yes.”
Okay, do I have your attention yet?
Here’s the deal. It’s a question of enharmonic spellings. If the top note of a minor third (C to Eb) is lowered, it becomes a diminished third (C to Ebb), which indeed sounds like a major second (C to D), but as you can see, they’re written differently.
If the top note of a perfect fourth (C to F) is lowered, it becomes a diminished fourth (C to Fb), which is the same notes and sound as C to E, a major third.
You’re not going to see these too often, though, except on music theory tests, and some rare cases. But they do exist and are therefore worth understanding.
Enharmonic spellings come into play depending on the direction the notes are moving. Let’s see. Here’s an example of the first, in the key of C minor (key signature: Bb, Eb, Ab).
G Gb F Fb Eb
C C C C C
P5 dim5 P4 dim4 m3
Yes, C to Fb could indeed be written C to E natural, and many composers/editors would choose to write it that way, especially in simpler music, or music intended to be read by less advanced players. But in more advanced music, you’d probably see it as the diminished 4th, C to Fb. It shows the direction the notes are moving, and also requires one fewer accidental. That is, if it’s written C to E natural, then an Eb is needed for the next interval.
Does this clear it up?
And so very glad you’re liking the book so much.
Best of luck to you!
What chords, runs, riffs or anything can I also play to keep the tune jazzy/bluesy?
Good Afternoon. My name is Tony writing from MD. I do have a short question that maybe you can help with. I’m accompanying a piano player who has written a tune in G and then goes to Ab. To me, it seems that the G7 and the Ab7 chords fit in as chord basics but what chords, runs, riffs, or anything can I also play to keep the tune jazzy/bluesy? Thanks for your time.
Well, if you’re accompanying a piano player, you’d better play whatever chords he or she is playing, or it’s gonna sound pretty funny! The basic blues chords are I, IV, and V in whatever key you’re in, like this:
G: G, C, D
Ab: Ab, Db, Eb.
Certainly making the chords dominant 7ths and/or 9ths will add flavor.
As for scales, do you know the blues or minor pentatonic scales? Here they are:
1, b3, 4, (#4), 5, b7 8
G, Bb, C, (C#), D, F, G
I’ll let you transpose it into Ab!!
The note in parentheses is called a “blue note.” With it included, the scale is the blues scale. Omit it, and it’s called the minor pentatonic.
For a sweeter, happier sound, you can use the major pentatonic scale:
1, 2, 3, 5, 6, 8
G, A, B, D, E, G
And in all cases, adding notes that are chord-tones of the current chord, but NOT in whatever scale you’re using, will make it sound like you know what you’re doing, rather than just sticking to the scale.
How can I make up chromatic passages using notes not in the scale but that resolve beautifully at the end?
Yo, Edly: I often hear other cats play sixteenth notes for 2 measures or more (4/4 time). It’s hard to describe but you and I know it when we hear it. The runs usually contain chromatic passages and notes not in the scale but resolve beautifully at the end. I want to be able to do this so bad on my Sax, I can taste it. What’s happening and how can I make up licks like that and resolve them? When this happens, are they playing changes? From a theoretical approach, how are these notes chosen? Why do all of the notes outside of the Key of the song sound so good? My knowledge consists of understanding Major, Minor, Blues, Pentatonic scales, and Major Diatonic Chord movement. Any help would greatly be appreciated.
Good questions! Too many long answers. Here’s just a bit to get you started.
People often speak of this as “playing outside.”
Nondiatonic notes add color and, potentially, ambiguity, to the melodic line.
Using more upper structure (9th, 11th, and 13ths) notes as predominant melodic notes will also create tension.
The fewer 1, 3, & 5 notes used, the more tension is created.
You can also think of creating an arc where the ends of the arc are relatively resolved and the middle is relatively tense. Interestingly, classical composer Paul Hindemith speaks of this in his book on composition, I believe.
This may or may not be apparent, but having the skill to choose your sixteenth notes according to the flavor you want at the moment allows the player to shower the listener with enough notes that the listener comes away with hearing/feeling a GESTURE, a gestalt, an overall motion, rather than the listener having time to process individual notes. This, again, allows the player to play “inside,” “outside,” or any other side he or she chooses.
Buy or borrow transcription books of famous jazz players. Those of Charlie Parker and John Coltrane come immediately to mind, but there are many to choose from. Study their lines, and put what you see together with what you know.
Hope this was of some help!
Why are 4th and 5th intervals called perfect?
I have been trying to find out why the 4th and 5th intervals of a scale are called perfect. I understand the ratio business of the sound waves between the tones, but where did the term perfect come from, and are the 4th and 5th really perfect? I think I see why the unison and octave would be considered perfect, but not the 4th and 5th. Thanks.
~ Dani, Sumner, Washington
Perfect intervals invert to perfect intervals. They are also the lowest (first to appear, more importantly) in the overtone series. They are the purest, with ratios as follows:
Beyond that, I can’t tell you where the term “perfect” came from. I suppose they could have been called “grounded” or “hollow” just as easily. Both describe their effect as well as, or better than “perfect.”
As, or more, important, is to understand the sound quality of perfect intervals, versus 3rds & 6ths, versus 2nds & 7ths. Chapters 15 & 16 in my theory book go into all of this in much more depth.
Hope this is of some help!