Music Theory Distilled – Part 1: Melody


Most musical sounds have an identifiable “pitch”. Thisdoes not, but thisand
thisand thisdo. Some complicated soundshave many pitches
at once, but for now let’s just talk about single pitches. Pitch comes from the dominant frequency in the sound:
the number of vibrations per second. Think of pitch as a line, going from low
to high. We can pick a point anywhere on this line,
and call it a “note”. This is also a note. So is this. If a note moves up in pitch, we say it is getting “sharper”. If it moves down, we say it is getting “flatter”. Listen as a second note gradually moves away from the first note. At a certain point the combination of notes seems to almost disappear into a single note. Both notes are still there, but when combined
they almost sound like one note. This special distance between notes is called an “octave”.
Don’t worry about the name — it’s just a label. We think of notes an octave part as being the same note, in some sense. If you pick a note on the line, you can find the octave
above it. You can also find the octave below it. And those notes have an octave above them
and below them and so on. So you can start with a note anywhere on the line, and once it’s chosen, the line of pitch divides itself naturally into
octaves based off that note. Since we know every note magically reflects itself
up and down an octave, that means that whatever music happens in one octave
can be repeated in the octave above and below. So let’s narrow our view to one octave. This octave
could sit anywhere on the line of pitch. Divide the octave into twelve equal pieces. Why 12?
Fascinating question, no time to explain. These 12 notes, spaced in this way, are the foundation
of almost all melodic music on earth. Between any two of these twelve notes are infinite
in-between notes, but from this point forward when I say “note” I will be talking about
one of the 12 fixed notes in the octave. Here are the twelve notes on the neck of a guitar. Each course of strings in a piano represents one
of these notes. Some instruments use complicated keying systems,
but they are playing the same notes. With some instruments, there are no frets or keys, and it’s up to you to find the notes yourself. Let’s play through all the notes. Now let’s play some of the notes,
and leave the others alone. We’ll include the octave notes, and some, but not all,
of the inner notes. We’ve created a “scale”: a scale is a selection of
some of the notes between the octaves. Here’s another scale. It sounds like this. There are countless different scales. You can make up your
own. But there are a few scales that are most common. This one is called the “major scale”.
Commit this pattern to memory. Don’t worry about why it’s called ‘the major scale’.
It’s just a label. Let’s number the notes in this scale. Relax — this is not math! These are not numbers in the
mathematical sense. They are just labels. Sometimes the notes are labeled “do re mi fa sol la ti do”. We could have labeled them red orange yellow green… or alice bob carol dan… One tradition even uses shapes to label them. The labels are arbitrary. Note how the 1 is repeated: remember, that’s the octave, so the counting just starts over as you go
up or down to the next octave. The 1 note is also referred to as the “root” of the scale. We could have labeled each of the 12 notes in the
octave with a separate number. That would arguably be a more straightforward
way to label the notes. Instead, we number the notes based off the major scale. But then how do we refer to the notes in between the scale notes? We borrow the terms “sharp” and “flat”. This note is not in the major scale. It is sharp of the 1, and flat of the 2, so we can call it either 1# or 2b, and we use these symbols to indicate that. 1# and 2b refer to the same note. The same is true for the other notes outside
of the major scale. Notice that there is no 3# or 4b, and there is
no 7# or 1b — this is just a byproduct of the labeling: there is nothing different about these notes. The notes that don’t have a sharp or flat label
are also referred to as “natural” notes, and you’ll sometimes see the “natural”
symbol next to them to emphasize this. Remember: there is nothing special about a
sharp or flat note: they are just labels. Underneath the labels are always just the
same friendly 12 notes. Any two notes right next to each other are said
to be a “half-step”, or a “semitone” apart. Notes that are two half-steps apart are said
to be a “whole step”, or a “whole tone” apart, sometimes just called a “step”. So far we’ve talked about notes in a “relative” sense. If I tell you to sing the 3 note and I don’t give
you any other information, you can’t do it. It’s like telling you to stand 3 meters from the starting
line without telling you where the starting line is. We usually talk about pitch in a relative sense
because that’s how most of us perceive it. We can hear this major scale melody. We can then shift it a bit in one direction or the
other and play it from a different starting point. It sounds different, but we recognize it as the same melody because the relative position of the notes is the same. But sometimes we use “absolute” pitch names which refer
to particular, unmoveable places on the line of pitch. These are the note names familiar to many as
A, B, C, D, E, F and G. Consider this note. It is labeled “A”. This is just like the notes we worked with before,
except this one is fixed to a frequency of 440 Hz, meaning 440 vibrations per second. We can’t slide it around. A is always A
(assuming your instrument is in tune.) There are of course octaves of A,
and they are also labeled A, but their frequencies are fixed in relation to the original A which is used to define the absolute pitch locations. We divide up the octave in to the same 12 notes. These get labeled A through G like this,
and the in-between notes get labels as well. Now, with these labels there is no B sharp or C flat,
and no E sharp or F flat. It looks slightly different.
Commit it to memory and don’t worry about it. So how do these two worlds come together? Let’s start by visualizing the line of pitch with
the absolute pitch labels on it. Remember: these are actual,
verifiable frequencies we can play. Let’s imagine a ghost copy of the
same line of pitch just above it, and on this let’s see our major scale pattern again. Now, this major scale can slide around anywhere
on the line of pitch and it works just fine. But if we want to find a selection of absolute
notes that matches this pattern, we just slide our scale down until the 1 lines up
with one of the absolute pitch locations. Here we line the 1 note up with an E note. Now we can play the major scale again,
and this time we are playing it starting on an E note. We call this the “E major scale”. We can list the notes we are using based on the pattern
of the major scale: E F# G# A B C# D# and E. Many seasoned musicians can “spell” a scale like this in
their heads, and it may seem impressive, but it’s not. The pattern is simple, as you’ve seen. Let’s try another one, this time starting on C.
This will sound almost the same to the ear, of course: it’s the same scale, just from a different position on the
line of pitch, but the spelling will obviously change. This time we get C D E F G A B and C. How about that:
we didn’t have to say ‘sharp’ or ‘flat’ at all. Some scales use more sharp or flat labels than others. The C major scale happens to not need any. This does not mean the C scale is special
or primary or powerful in any way. And of course we can do this with any scale of any shape to find the spelling of that scale rooted at a particular note. We don’t have time to cover all the other common scales, but let’s talk about one called the “natural minor”. Shown here is the good-old major scale. In contrast, the
natural minor looks like this. It sounds like this. See how the third note in the scale is a 3b?
Any scale with a 3b in it is called a “minor” scale. Any scale with a natural 3 in it is called a major scale. So there are actually lots of different major and minor scales, even though the term “the major scale” is always
used to refer to the one we have already seen. Let’s start again with the major scale. If we skip the 4 and the 7, we have a scale with just five notes in it, plus the octave. This gets the dedicated name
the “major pentatonic scale”. It sounds like this. Remember: it is “major” because it has a natural 3 in it. The “key” of a piece of music is determined
by the root note of the scale in use, and whether the scale is major or minor. Here is our natural minor scale again. If the 1 note of this scale was associated with a C# note, we would say that music played with this scale
was in the key of “C# minor”. There are lots of ways to write that, but the most common is a capital C, the sharp symbol, and a small m. If we remove the 2 note and the flat 6 note from the natural minor scale, we have another five-tone scale, this one also gets a dedicated name:
the “minor pentatonic scale”. Let’s say someone is playing the notes in the major scale, but they are playing up and down from the
6 note to the 6 note. They are only playing notes in the major scale,
but if you walk in the room and hear them, your ear is likely to interpret the notes differently. The musician playing has tricked your ear into hearing
the root of the scale as if it was at the 6 note. As far as your ear is concerned, the 6 note is actually
a 1 note, so the scale your ear hears looks like this. In case you’re having trouble hearing this,
here is a background chord to emphasize the effect. If we label the notes using the same numbering pattern we label all scales with, you can see that what your ear is perceiving is a pretty
different scale from the major scale. Coincidentally, this particular scale happens to be
the natural minor scale we looked at a minute ago. This trickery is called a “mode”. By simply using the major scale notes differently, we get a different scale for free. The musician can create this effect by clever
selection or emphasis of notes when playing, or by playing different chords in the
background to guide the listener’s ear. So a mode is just another scale. It’s a shortcut:
once a musician knows a scale pattern on their instrument and in their muscle memory,
they can easily play modes of that scale. You can make a mode from any scale you play, not just the
major scale. Since the major scale has seven notes in it, you can make six modes in addition to the base scale. The
modes of the major scale have special names, like “dorian”, “mixolydian”, and so on. These are just convenient labels. Now that you understand the underlying
framework of scales, you can go wild. Exactly what order you play these notes in is entirely up to you and whatever genre you may be trying to conform to. When you approach a piece of music, figuring out
what scale is in use is often a smart starting place. Find the root note by ear and go from there.
It takes a little practice, so start with easy tunes. Once you find the absolute notes used in a scale,
start thinking of them in relative terms, and understand the shape of the scale
within the 12-note line of pitch. Thinking of the scale in a relative sense
allows your ear to start recognizing what scales sound like
regardless of what key they are in. Part two will cover intervals, harmony, chord naming,
and chord progressions. Part three will cover rhythm. I hope this video was useful to you. These videos do take
weeks to produce, so if you have like 50 cents, or a dollar, or a thousand dollars, or a million dollars, there’s a link down there in the hoopty-hoo for donations. Thanks!