Music Theory- the building blocks to music

Music theory is such an important part of music education, yet a lot of teachers avoid teaching the fundamentals and just teach what a student needs in order to play the next piece they need to learn. I’ve had students hire me simply so I can play their pieces for them so they can hear what it sounds like, this (they tell me) is how they were taught. I can’t teach that way! A student is better off learning all their scales; chromatic, major, all 3 minors, all the modes of every scale, the whole tone scales, arpeggios, etc. It sounds difficult, but it’s not. In fact when I give my students lesson #1, they are amazed how much more simple it is. It’s like someone has just turned on the lights and most are ready for more. Here’s a run down of that first lesson…

You will need a keyboard or a picture of a keyboard and you will need to be able to locate C on this keyboard. 

Here’s a link to a picture of one that is labeled. 

The Chromatic Scale

Notice that all the white keys are labeled C,D,E,F,G,A,B,C and the black keys have 2 note names, one is a sharp name and the other is a flat name, (the black keys have two names because a sharp symbol raises a note by a half step and a flat symbol lowers a note by a half step. Since the pitches of two white keys with a black key between them is a whole step apart then raising the lower note by a half step and lowering the higher note by a half step makes them meet in the middle. Sometimes a key will have to be called by it’s flat name if you’re in a key using flats and other times it will need to be called by it’s sharp name if you’re in a key using sharps; this is needed in order to avoid using a note name more than once).  Now let’s count the keys from C to B (in other words, don’t count C twice). There are 7 white keys and 5 black keys for a total of 12. All the keys are a 1/2 step away from one another so if you play C,C#/Db,D,D#/Eb,E,F,F#/Gb,G,G#/Ab,A,A#/Bb,B, then you have just played all the pitches in a chromatic scale within 1 octave (technically you would have to include C for it to be an octave but I think it’s important for my students to understand that there are only 12 different pitches in music).

I start all my students off with one octave of the chromatic and once they realize there are only 12 notes then they don’t feel so overwhelmed. The flute is a little more than a 3 octave instrument and a lot of the notes in each octave have similar fingerings so it’s not long after they learn one octave on the flute that they are on the second octave and the third octave takes a little more time because of the changes in fingering.

The Major Scale

Once you understand that all major scales are made up of the same combination of whole steps and half steps then learning all 12 major scales becomes so easy. Several of my students have displayed frustration from never been told the pattern earlier. They feel like their previous teachers had no faith in them to learn all 12 majors. They explain to me that they are taught one scale at a time and it takes years to learn 6 when I have taught them 12 in less than 30 mins. Here goes….

C major is what everyone knows as “the easy scale”, it’s made up of all natural keys; in other words, it’s all the white keys starting on C and ending on C.

Now take a look at the keyboard and notice the placement of black keys between the white keys from C to C. First there are two sets of black keys then three. Since all neighboring keys are half steps then the two white keys that are side by side, with no black key between them, are half steps. If the white keys have a black key between them then they are whole steps (two halves equal a whole). Now see if you can figure out the pattern of whole steps and half steps in a major scale. If you figured out two whole steps, then a half step, then three whole steps, then a half, then you got it right. In other words…. whole step, whole step, half step, whole step, whole step, whole step, half step. Using this pattern you can build a total of 12 unique major scales since there are 12 unique pitches within an octave. It’s pretty easy to do on a keyboard since you can see the whole steps and half steps. Try building all 12 scales on the keyboard and then try it on your own instrument. When you have to play a whole step on your own instrument, you have to have a grasp of the chromatic scale so you know which note to skip and then which note you play next.

Naming the Major Scales and the notes within them.

A common problem my students have is not being sure what to call some of the scales, for example C# or Db. They are both the same note so what is the name of the scale? Well you go with the one with the least accidentals. When you build a C# major scale, you will end up with 7 sharps but if you call it Db major then you will have only 5 flats so it’s a Db major scale. Every white key has a sharp (half a step higher) and a flat (half a step lower) pitch, C has a C# and a Cb, D has a D# and a Db, E has an E# sharp and Eb etc. Sometimes the half step higher or lower might be another white key so B for instance can also be called a Cb, F might be called E# etc. The following video demonstrates this on a keyboard.

In a scale you have to use all 7 note names once and cannot repeat them so a C# scale will have a C#,D#,E#,F#,G#,A#,B#,C#. Look at those notes on a keyboard, a C# is also a Db, a D# is also an Eb, an E# is also an F, an F# is also a Gb, a G# is also an Ab, an A# is also a Bb, a B# is also a C, and a C# is also a Db. This tells you that a Db major scale is Db, Eb, F, Gb, Ab, Bb, C, Db. This scale has 5 flats and 2 naturals so we call this scale a Db major scale instead of C# major. Now try building the major scale starting on D. The first note is a D so the next note will have to be some kind of E whether it’s Eb, E or E#; then the next note is some kind of F, then G, then A, then B, then C then back to D. Have fun with your scale building! I hope this has helped!!