Music Theory Notebook

A guided tour trough music theory

There are 12 notes in music, and 7 of them come from a Major scale and the rest are the 5 black notes on a keyboard.

In Solfege we call the notes “Do Re Mi Fa Sol La Ti” but in the actual real world we call the notes by the alphabet letter names from A to G. Looking at the lowest note from a keyboard we start at an A. The first note, A, is a white key, we call all the white keys by the alphabet from A to G, then we repeat the pattern, after G we go back to A.

As previously mentioned, we have several types of intervals. So far we have looked at Major, minor and Perfect interval types.

For now let's go over the Major and minor second!

The Major second, turns out, also has a very popular name. A Tone! Depending if you speak British or American English you'd refer to the Major second as a “Whole Tone” or simply as a “Tone”. Both terms, Whole Tone and Tone, mean the same thing and are sometimes used interchangeably depending on context. But at the end of the day we're talking about a Major 2nd.

On the other hand, a minor second also has a fancy set of names. A minor 2nd is also called a “Half Tone” or a “Semitone”.

The name gives it all away, A half tone is half of a whole tone. Another way to say the same thing is that a semitone is half of a tone.

A related topic comes to mind! Remember that we used flats to lower notes and turn Major intervals into minor intervals? Well another way of thinking about adding a flat symbol to a note or scale degree is that we are lowering the pitch by one semitone (or by one half tone).

Interval Explanation
b2 A Major second lowered by a semitone
b3 A Major third lowered by a half tone
b6 A Major sixth lowered by a minor second

What I want you to realize is that lowered by a semitone, lowered by a half tone and lowered by a minor second are all the same thing. That's why the interval name is just a number with a flat symbol before it. To flat a note or interval or scale degree is to lower it by a semitone.

Semitone in music recording and production programs is labeled as “St”, just a quick trivia titbit!

You probably have heard a musical scale where people sing Do Re Mi Fa Sol La Ti. This is one way to refer to the scale degrees, in this naming system called Solfege we name the 7 notes from a Major scale using those music-y sounding names.

Major Scale degrees Solfege note names
1 Do
2 Re
3 Mi
4 Fa
5 Sol
6 La
7 Ti

You'd probably heard those names from The Sound of Music. A Musical turned cult classic movie from 1965.

It's not very important that you memorize the Solfege note names but we will use them for now as place holders for the actual note names.

So on a Major scale we have 7 notes – Do, Re, Mi Fa, Sol, La and Ti – But in reality there are more than 7 notes, in fact we have 12 distinct notes..... So? Where did the other 5 notes go?

To easily find them let's look at a piano:

In here we can see that the first note is labeled C3, a bit further after that we have C4 and C5. The piano is laid out in such a way that we have white colored keys and black colored keys. The white and black keys follow a pattern that repeats.

We have 2 black notes bunched up together and then 3 black notes in a group. This pattern repeats, 2 black notes then 3 then 2 then 3 and so on.

So again, we have 7 notes (Do, Re, Mi...) out of a total of 12, so we have 5 notes left to discover.....five is the hint of the century!

The pattern repeats, 2 black notes then 3....2 then 3. Two and three.... EQUALS FIVE OMG. So yeah quirky manners aside these 5 black notes on they keyboard are the 5 that are missing from the total of 12 notes.

And these remaining 5 notes don't have names by themselves, they are named by adding sharps and flats to neighbor notes.

So the first note, labeled C3, is Do. So the next note, a black key, is called Do sharp. Remember that to sharp a note is to raise it by 1 note and to flat a note is to lower it by 1 note.

This leads to an interesting realization. If we look at the white keys not all of them are separated by the same distance.

The distance between the first white key and the second white key is of 2 notes. 1 black note and 1 white note.

To count the distance between two notes we start at the note we're counting from, this is note zero, then we count until we arrive at the note we want to figure out the distance to. So to figure out the distance between the first 2 white keys we start at the 1st white key (0) then we go up to the first black key (1) and we arrive at the 2nd white key (labeled 2).

So the distance between the first and second white notes is two semitones. Yep, each note going up or down equals 1 semitone.

But look at the distance between the 3rd and 4th white keys:

The distance between the 3rd and 4th white keys is only 1 semitone!

And the same is true for the distance between the 7th and the 8th white keys.

So between the 3rd and 4th white key there's 1 semitone, and there's also 1 semitone between the 7th and 8th white key. This pattern is super important!

Take in mind that all other white keys is separated by 2 semitones, test it out for yourself!

Major scales follow an easy formula we talked about before, it's simply 1 2 3 4 5 6 7.

To go from Major scale to a minor scale we have to modify a few notes, we do so by adding flats to some of the notes. Remember that to flatten a note is to lower it's pitch by one note.

To get a minor scale we take a Major scale and we flatten the 3rd, 6th and 7th scale degrees.

Major Scale Degrees minor Scale Degrees
1 1
2 2
3 b3
4 4
5 5
6 b6
7 b7

Now's a good time to say Major tends to be written with a capital M while minor tends to go with a lowercase m. This is not a strict rule, but a good practice nonetheless.

In bold I have highlighted the difference between Major and minor scales. The 3rd, 6th and 7th are flattened as compared to Major.

When a note is flattened we call it's interval minor.

For example, the interval of a 3rd is actually called by full name as a Major third, and the interval of a flat 3rd is also named a minor third (sometimes written b3, and pronounced “a flat three”).

So the interval names of a minor scale are:

Scale degrees Interval Names
1 Perfect Unison
2 Major Second
b3 minor Third
4 Perfect Fourth
5 Perfect Fifth
b6 minor Sixth
b7 minor Seventh

Meaning that a minor scale swapped the Major intervals (like Major third, Major sixth and Major seventh) for minor intervals (minor third, minor sixth and Major seventh). The only Major interval left is the 2nd. In a minor scale the 2nd remains Major.

A minor 2nd does in fact exist, it just does not clearly appears on a minor scale. It's presence it's more obvious on the Phrygian mode, a scale we will look at later.

Even though the minor scale formula (1 2 b3 4 5 b6 b7) does not specifically include the minor second (also referred to as the flat two / b2) it IS present in the minor scale, it's just initially hidden, in fact it's also present on a Major scale, this is the next topic we will tackle, for now I leave you with this:

An important realization is that all the intervals that are perfect are the intervals that the Major and minor scale have in common...... expect for the Major or minor 2nd. The reason why we will explore shortly!

A Major scale is built as follow:

1 2 3 4 5 6 7

But what do those numbers mean? We mentioned they're scale degrees, but WTF?

Well, they actually mean multiple things, one of them is the intervallic makeup of the Major scale.

An interval is the space between two notes and every interval has a special name, there are many “kinds” of intervals, for now the intervals belonging to a Major scale as follows:

Scale degrees Interval Names
1 Perfect Unison
2 Major Second
3 Major Third
4 Perfect Fourth
5 Perfect Fifth
6 Major Sixth
7 Major Seventh

For now it does seem very random and disorganized how some intervals have the pre-fix perfect and some don't. But this will slowly start to become less strange the more we familiarize ourselves with the Major scale and the minor scale.

For now we can focus on the interval name itself without looking at the pre-fix. This is actually what musicians do in practice, when a guitarists says “go up a third” he actually means going up by a Major third. Same goes for all intervals, unless stated differently all intervals refer to the names labeled on the chart above.

For example if someone says “go down a fifth” they mean a Perfect fifth, but if someone is explicitly saying “raise it by a minor third” then they definitely do not mean a Major third, mud a minor 3rd instead.

The intervals from the Major scale are “the default”, in practice.

An easy way to remember the fancy names for the intervals is that only the unison, fourth and fifth are Perfect on a Major scale, and every other interval is a Major interval (aka Major 3rd, Major 6th, etc.)

There are many more kinds of intervals other than Major and Perfect, but to better understand them we need to learn the minor scale, that's coming up next!

There are many ways to start talking about music, now after some experience of teaching theory I notice that starting here tends to yield the best results. For some time it will seem that my approach is not very useful, but trust me it will click later on!

A Major scale is a type of scale, and a scale is a collection of notes. For now let's not worry about what notes belong to a scale, but let's look instead at the index of notes!

By index I mean the number that represents a note inside a scale. Many scales have 7 notes, some other scales have more than or less than 7 notes and they are commonly referred to as “artificial scales” or “synthetic scale”.

For now we will focus on scales with 7 notes, and to get fancy up in here we will call these type of scales “diatonic scales”.

I like to look at the meaning of new words, to me it's helpful when confronted with weird stuff like diatonic. Diatonic comes from Greek, dia means through or belonging to, and tonos means tone. So Diatonic literally means “that belongs to a tone or a scale”.

Diatonic Non-Diatonic
That belongs to a Major scale Does not belong to a Major scale

So a non diatonic scale is a scale not alike a major scale:

Diatonic Scale Artificial Scale
Major scale Not a Major Scale
7 notes Not 7 notes, can be more or less notes

A Diatonic scale follows certain “rules”, more less it follows a pattern. For now we will not focus on said pattern, instead on the note index. In musical terms, the index is referred to as the scale degree.

Here's the scale degrees of a Major scale:

1 2 3 4 5 6 7

Looks simple right? Just numbers 1 to 7... Well it's because it is simple! These numbers from 1-7 have multiple meanings and if you understand all of them you will very easily understand melodies, intervals, chords, song progressions, available tensions and much more!

Now, let's think of notes for a second.....

Notes have letter names, they are named after letters from the alphabet. The note names are so intertwined with the diatonic major scale that there are only 7 letter names from the alphabet to represent the 7 notes from a diatonic scale. Sounds confusing? Take a look at this: The note names are A, B, C, D, E, F and G.

7 letters from the alphabet for 7 scale degrees, 7 notes to fill a 7 note scale.

But if you look at an instrument you'll notice there are many more notes than just 7. A full sized grand piano has 88 keys! Well, turns out that the note names repeat, You have the notes A though G and then back to A, and so on.

On a piano, the notes A through G are represented by the white keys. And there are some black notes in between some white keys. Those black notes don't have names for themselves. They are called in reference to the notes around them.

For example the note C sharp is the note just above the note C. And the note A flat is the note just below A.

“Sharp-ed” notes are referred to with the simbol “”, and “flat-ed” notes are referred to with the symbol “”. Now on the internet it's easier to type # and b for sharps and flats.

In addition to sharps and flats we also have “naturals”, meaning a note without any modifications. B natural is the same note as B with no sharps and flats. The natural symbol is “♮” and due to its function it is often written out in English (for example “play an F natural instead of an F#”).

Notes that don't claim to be flat or sharp are natural by default. So C is the same as C natural.

Sharp Flat natural
To raise a note in pitch by 1 note To lower a note in pitch by 1 note nor # or b
♯, or # ♭, or b (in lowercase)

Why am I going on and on about sharps and flats?

Because we use them for tell apart a Major scale from other scales!

For example, this is a Major scale:

1 2 3 4 5 6 7

while this is not a major scale:

1 2 3 4 5 6 b7

This is some other scale, but because the 7th degree is flattened it's some other scale. If the 7th were a natural it would be a Major scale!

This is a long way to say that a Major scale is 1-7 and nothing else!

A Diatonic scale is a scale related to the Major scale, all diatonic scales share many characteristics, one of them is that they have 7 notes. So the scale above (with the flattened 7th) is not a Major scale, but it's still a Diatonic scale. Because it's related to the Major scale, because it also has 7 notes. There are other characteristics that play in here but we will go over them later.

So that's it! The Major scale is 1 2 3 4 5 6 7! Later we will look at the names of the notes rather than the numbers, but for now that's it! What about 1 2 b3 4 5 6 b7? That aint Major, it has flats... and what about 1 2 3 #4 5 6 7? Nope, sharped 4, not Major!

Hello! I'm Alex Esc, a musician and producer from Mexico. And like many starting musicians I started my journey by looking up online tutorials for playing songs I like and understanding how to play a specific type of chord or scale.

Eventually I became very disappointed with the online resources I found, many articles and videos contradicted each other. Pop music resources claimed some advanced concepts are useless so they never bothered to teach them, meanwhile some classical music resources claimed pop music is soulless and stupid because they did not understand said concepts, but they teach them in vocabularies completely alien for someone that learned the basics from pop resources.

Caught in the middle of the crossfire between classical and pop music I became frustrated with the bad pedagogy that came from this conflict. Sometimes debate can further knowledge, but it seemed that internet creators, teachers and musicians could not get it straight and teach some consistent and simple music theory.

Lucky me, a big name music school from Mexico's capital city just started a campus here in my hometown. The school offers bachelors in music performance, composition and music production / engineering. The school's philosophy is that all students must have good and all-rounded music education. Meaning for the first couple of semesters the entire alumni study performance, composition and production. A great classically trained guitarist is hopeless if they can't make a professional recording, a producer is lost if they can't write a song and a composer can't get a good gig if they can't project their idea into Pro Tools.

I am more interested in production, so I enrolled in the production and engineering major and even tough I enrolled in music school to mix and produce I became exposed to classical piano training and contemporary jazz harmony classes and I have completely falling in love! Finally I had professional guidance through music theory and it has completely changed the way I see art and music.

Theory is now a topic I hold dear to my heart and I love teaching people about it. I have been thinking in publishing the entirety of my school notebooks for some time now, and although I won't post everything I will be condensing down some of the info to hopefully end up with a comprehensive guide of theory.