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    An Outline of Music Theory

    A musician can really only go in a combination of four directions.  Like an explorer who gets to choose between North, South, East or West, a musician can make choices within four contexts:
      Most music exists in combinations of these four elements.  Even the most "preconceived" orchestral music is usually open to at least some interpretation, if not improvisation.  Even the loosest, most improvised jazz generally has some basic structure to it.  Even the earthiest blues singer has some sense of music structure or theory to hang his laments on. Even the most abstract serialist has some kind of previous emotional/musical influences that may be affecting his musical choices.

    George Gershwin incorporated elements of blues and jazz into his very schooled orchestral pieces; John Lennon incorporated elements of classical music theory on top of a blues foundation; Miles Davis developed a very improvisational jazz, which nevertheless had strong structures; even the coldest serialist sequences evoke memories of musical idioms.

    Of course there are exceptions to all these rules and examples.  They are given here as a kind of model with which to approach musical structure.

    So many musicians (including myself, for a long time) spend most of their time sitting with our guitars or keyboards or whatever, listening to a record, and pulling riffs, licks, chords progressions, and other ideas off of it.  Then we string these ideas together when we're jamming in the hopes that we will homogenize them into a personal sense of style.  This is a good thing.  There is nothing that can take the place of being informed of one's roots, and creating music that presents those roots in a meaningful fashion.  Because if music isn't connected to emotion, then it's just a bunch of notes.  We'd be better off practicing typing than jamming. Emotion is always connected to memory.  This is why roots music is so powerful and so popular.

    But what happens when a musician (like myself) who is oriented this way wants to progress further?  How do you get beyond your roots and riffs into some new, unexplored territory?

    When I reached a point in my life when I wanted to get beyond rock, blues and folk in order to bring other musical realms back to my music and make use of them (to increase the number of tools at my disposal), I started studying jazz.  And I found out very quickly that jazz guitar teachers don't really teach much theory.  (This came as a big surprise, because I'd always thought of jazz as being pretty cerebral).  They mostly just want to give you a song to learn and then when you come back again next week, you work on that song and they give you another song.

    For me there were two problems with this.  This first problem was that this process never seemed to answer any of my questions about why jazz is the way it is.  (Why is that called a sharp five when it seems like it would be must easier to call it a flat six?  How can you have a major third and a minor third in the same chord?  Why does this chord have both sharps and flats in it? Etc.).  The second problem was that I wasn't that crazy about most of the songs I was learning.  I'd just wanted to get into jazz to learn more, not cause I really loved the idea of sitting around playing, "Misty", etc. (not as much fun as "Roll Over Beethoven" - at least for me).

    The thing that amazed me was that when I asked jazz teachers these questions, they fell back on their roots, too.  It was that way simply because that's the way jazz is played.   If you ask a blues musician why there are twelve bars in a twelve bar blues progression, he'll just say, "That's the way you play the Blues, boy!"  (Here's why: when the slaves
    were working out in the fields, the "leader" would call out a line, everyone would repeat that line, and then the leader would call out a response to that line.  That's how blues got it's A A B structure - 4 bars for each section.  If nineteenth century slaves had  a reason for what they did, certainly Duke Ellington should have a reason too!?(.

    Anyway -

    I wanted to see what it was like to compose music based on the building blocks of music - from the ground up.  I was tired of figuring out this or that blues, reggae or rockabilly riff.  I still loved that music, but I wanted to go someplace new.

    So here's some stuff that I came up with.  It's been a big help to me. Maybe it'll be of help to you, too.

    * * *

    Basic Building Blocks:

    The smallest building block that we usually use in Western music is the half step.  The half step is simply the interval between any two keys of the piano (including the black keys), or any two frets on the guitar.  The half step is also called "semi-tone".

    Two halves make a whole, and two half steps make a whole step.  Half steps and whole steps are what we use to create modes and scales in music composition.   More about modes and scales later. The diatonic formula, at the cornerstone of the western musical tradition, states that an octave is made of seven steps.  What is an octave?  This is a phenomena of sound that dictates that if a note is vibrated exactly twice as fast as another note, it repeats the same pitch, only higher.  We are all used to octaves, and seldom consider what a peculiar arrangement this is.

    Nevertheless, assuming the diatonic scale to be the primary configuration of the basic building blocks of music (half steps - or semitones, and whole steps - or wholetones), we will proceed to illustrate how modes are arranged.

    These building blocks are just that - building blocks.  What one person does with them may be entirely different from what another person does. This information is presented purely to give a musician tools to work with. What you do with these tools is entirely up to you.

    In any event, the seven steps of the diatonic scale are arranged as follows:

    whole step   whole step   half step   whole step   whole step   whole step   half step.


    two whole steps and a half step, three whole steps and a half step

    In this form, the diatonic formula creates the Major scale.

    If you look at a piano keyboard, this configuration accounts for why there is no black key between the B and the C, and also no black key between the E and the F.  Counting up from C, one whole step (two half steps) brings you to D, another whole step to E, then one half step (to retain the diatonic formula) to F (notice, no black key).  One whole step from F to G, (two half steps, including the black key again), one whole step from G to A, one whole step from A to B, and a half step (completing the diatonic formula) from B to C (again, no black key).

    C (whole step) D (whole step) E (half step) F (whole step) G (whole step) A (whole step) B (half step) C

    Here's another way to look at it:
    C D E F G A B C
    1 1 ½ 1 1 1 ½
    Think of the diatonic scale, for the time being, as home ground.

    In keeping this formula intact, we can map out every key signature.

    * * *

    Let's look at the G major (diatonic) scale.

    If we retain the diatonic formula in the key of G:

    two whole steps and a half step three whole steps and a half step

    we realize that in order to maintain this formula beginning with G, the F has to be sharped.  The sixth to seventh scale step in a diatonic scale has to be a whole step, and the seventh to eight is a half step.  This cannot happen if the F remains natural.

    So, a G diatonic, or major, scale is :
    G A B C D E F# G
    1 1 ½ 1 1 1 ½
    * * *

    Let's look at what happens if we start on a D note.

    If we maintain the diatonic formula, here's what we get:
    D E F# G A B C# D
    1 1 ½ 1 1 1 ½
    You will note that in order to make a D major scale we have to make both the F and the C sharp.

    * * *

    Let's look at one more scale, the A scale.

    If we use the diatonic formula moving upward from the A note, we get:
    A B C# D E F# G# A
    1 1 ½ 1 1 1 ½
    If you look carefully, a pattern begins to emerge here.  With each new note we picked, we kept the previous sharps and picked up one new one.  The C scale had no sharps.  The G scale had one sharp and it was F#.  The D scale had two sharps, keeping the F# and adding a C#.  The A scale kept both the F# and the C# and added a G#.

    So, each major scale has a specific number of sharps (or flats - we'll get to those in a minute).

    But how did I know which notes to pick that would give us an increasing number of sharps?

    Here's the key:

    So, every time we move up five scale steps, we have to add another sharp to keep the diatonic formula: two whole step, half step, three whole steps, half step.

    This is the phenomenon known as the Circle of Fifths.

    Here's the complete formula:

    You will notice that when we get to C#, every single note is exactly one half step above C.  We have succeeded in raising the entire scale up one. You will notice also that seven sharps is the highest number of sharps we can get in a scale that involves seven scale steps (!).  The only thing we can do from here on is to start using double sharps - but that's for
    another lesson.

    So, the key of C has no sharps, the key of C# has ALL sharps.

    * * *

    I said I would talk about flats.  If we go down five scale steps from C, here's what happens:
    F G A Bb C D E F
    1 1 ½ 1 1 1 ½
    So now we have one flat - Bb.

    Down another five scale steps and we get:
    Bb C D E F G A Bb
    1 1 ½ 1 1 1 ½
    So it's the same thing with flats if we go down five scale steps each time. This is also part of the Circle of Fifths:

    Once again, after seven flats, the maximum possible for a seven step scale, we get to Cb, a point exactly one half step below C, where we started, and each scale step is one half step below it's counterpart in the key of C.

    * * *


    There's a lot of superstition concerning modes.  I mean there are a lot of times when someone will say, "That's very modal."  And it might be hard to understand what he or she is saying.  Of course there's always the possibility that they're not sure either, but, anyway, a mode is a very simple thing, and an understanding of modes can really increase one's array of musical tools.

    A mode is just a scale formed on the diatonic formula, but starting at a different point in the formula.

    Let's take our diatonic model and spread it out twice identically over two octaves:
    1 1 ½ 1 1 1 ½ One Octave 1 1 ½ 1 1 1  ½  Two Octaves
    Two octaves of C scales, end to end, superimposed over the diatonic formula, would look like this:
    C D E F G A B C D E F G A B C
    1 1 ½ 1 1 1 ½ 1 1 ½ 1 1 1 ½
    Now, let's start a scale on the second scale step of C and, maintaining the diatonic scheme, end an octave above where we started:
    D E F G A B C D
    1 ½ 1 1 1 ½ 1
    This scale, based on the second scale step, is called the Dorian mode.

  • On To The Second Half of Music Theory!

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