We’ve had “Music for
Dummies”, but there’s a group (sub-species?) that needs to start off at
an (ahem) slightly more elementary level. These individuals, whilst
excelling in some simple areas of human endeavor such as computers,
stereos, midi and Global Warming, need help in translating music into
simple terms that that they can understand.
Being a nerd myself, blessed by marriage to a talented musician, whom I’ve tried very, very hard to understand, I’ll try to bridge the gap with this article. Musicians, too, may find it interesting to peer into an alien mind.
Part I: what the heck are notes?
The sounds we hear can be broken down into about 7-9 “octaves”, where each octave is double the frequency of the previous one, starting at say 27.5 cycles/second, up to 14,080 or so. An octave in turn is split up into 12 notes, which are spaced out evenly into 12 proportional intervals. It is called an octave and not a dou-dectave as it obviously should be, because musicians can’t count (in school they were "numerically challenged").
Some notes are more equal than others
To musicians there is a vast difference, depending on the “root note” or tonic, the special key note (the key for short) an arranger happens to favor to build a song around.
Some fundamental facts
Microsoft vs Apple; Qwerty vs Dvorak; Pianists vs everyone else
In the distant musical past – there was a rip-snorting battle for market share between piano and other musical arrangers. The pianists won. Pianos then were tuned around C, the fourth note of the octave, and only had white keys. The musical staff we use is basically an early piano keyboard turned sideways.
Lines and spaces on the staff correspond to the white keys of a piano tuned to the C major scale, and musical notation pivots around this weird fixation. Below is listed the notes, with the black keys/accidentals in bold print.
Note Name Interval from Root note Also known as … Singers name Ratio
Strange, isn’t it? They call it an “Octave”, but it only has seven “key” notes and it skips that cool minor seventh interval in favor of the dissonant “major” 7th. Go figure! Its hard to believe even early musicians were quite that numerically challenged.
If you go up the scale on the white keys (major & perfect notes), you are following the “Major Scale in the Key of C”. If you follow all 12 notes (semi-tones), that’s the “Chromatic scale”.
Anyway, the important thing is the pattern is simple: go up from the root note in intervals of 2 semi-tones (whole-tones), except for a semi-tone jog from the third to the perfect fourth and a correcting semi-tone jog from the seventh back to the octave. If any sane person (and even some musicians) were to design the staff notation today, it would look a lot better.
You would just put in a
symbol marking where the root is, and always assume whole steps, except
where some little little brackets would indicate that the whole series
of 4 notes is dropped down (flatted) by a semitone and the root note
indicated by a little carrot (naturally, Doc). This way, musicians
would only need to learn to read two staffs, instead of 24 variations.
(The same goes for the piano itself; if they had alternating white
keys/black keys, people would only have to learn 2 fingerings, instead
of 12! Further, one could … get a lot of blank stares from musicians,
who are quite used to being notationally challenged.)
Figuring out the tonic
The normal musical staff notation assumes the notes correspond to the C-major scale, to get to the other scales, musicians shift the C major notes by the minimum number of semi-tone adjustments sharp or flat, (they don’t like mixtures), to get the major scale needed. In nerd terms, that little jog in the whole-tone spacing of notes is shifted up or down.
For example, if one pastes on an F-sharp on the staff, that shifts that third-to-fourth jog up and gives us the right jog pattern for a G-major scale; the F-sharp becomes the seventh below the tonic. You can repeat this again, going up a perfect fifth each time. Music theorists make a big deal of this, calling it the circle of fifths, but it’s just the way the math works. If you see sharps, just sharp the last one.
For flats, the trick works going by down in fifths. The important thing to remember here is that the second to last flat is the tonic, and when you see one flat, the tonic is F. (It’s simpler than counting up a fifth from the last flat.)