Music Theory for the Untrained/Curious.

Discussion in 'Non-Maker Specific Tutorials' started by moon, Dec 30, 2013.

  1. moon

    moon the moon Veteran

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    Note: This was an article, intended to be part of a series, that I was writing ages ago to post on RMN but decided to scrap it because I didn't think it would have been much use to anyone. Anyway for whatever reason I've decided to dust it off and post it here in the hope that it might be illuminating or useful to folks. Let's see.


    So.. I hesitated about writing this article for a long time because, well, firstly I wasn't sure if I was particularly qualified to do so and I wasn't sure how much help it would be to anyone and also because the content of these articles will have very little to do with rpgs, rpgmaker, or videogames at all and so I wasn't sure if it was the sort of content that would really suit this site. Anyway, a few people I mentioned the idea to seemed to think it was a decent enough idea and so here I am.

    So who is this for and why? Essentially it's for people who would like to get into making music for their games (or for any other reason, really) or for people who already make music who would like to increase their understanding of how it works from a theoretical/compositional perspective. I make no claims of being particularly adept and I know there are already a bunch of very talented composers or musicians in the community who this will most likely find my explanations woefully reductionist. All I can say to that is: This is series is aimed at beginners/intermediates and not people who already have a firm grasp of music theory.

    As for why: I've been casually (and sometimes not as casually) "involved" in music for most of my life to some degree or another but for as long as I can remember I was always annoyed at how I couldn't mentally piece together all of the things that I intuitively understood about music and more annoyed still at how of the available resources (at least outside of formal training perhaps, but I wouldn't know about that) seemed only to further mystify the "how" and "why" of music (namely, music theory) and render the subject more opaque or didn't address things in a context that I could relate to anything I was personally familiar with. So after many years of approaching music in a hodge-podge way, gleaning information from various sources, breaking songs apart to understand how they worked and figuring things out from my own experiences I'm pretty sure that I've (and only in recent months too!) managed to put together for myself a logically satisfying, unified understanding of music and I hope to convey that here.

    So in this article series I'm going to attempt to reduce the most functionally useful aspects of music theory into a coherent, easy to understand framework that you can use to understand and write music.

    So, a final disclaimer: I may get terminology and other things wrong but I aim to provide the most practical understanding of music theory I can muster based on what I have had to learn and piece together myself, hopefully with few barriers to entry.

    What these articles are not about: What software to use, how to get music making software, how to use music making software, file formats, MIDI, DAW, etc (although I'll briefly mention that there are lots of programs you can buy, plus a bunch of free programs, I'll leave this to you and google.)

    Part 1: Notes
    There are 12 notes in western music. That's right, just 12:


    (As the vast majority of music software includes or even sometimes exclusively uses a piano roll in lieu of a staff I will be using the keyboard to illustrate things. Also I'm a piano/keyboard player and not a brilliant music reader ._.)

    They are called A, B, C, D, E, F, G and C#/Db, D#/Eb, F#/Gb, G#/Ab and A#/Bb. Why do the last five have two names? Well for now let's just say it's because the name given to the note depends on whether you're coming "up" (going right) to it or "down" (going left) to it. The black note to the left of C is C# and the black note to the right of D is Db - They just happen to be the same note.

    These 12 notes keep repeating along the length of the keyboard getting higher in pitch to the right and lower in pitch to the left and are usually referred to with a number when it is required to distinguish which particular "version" of that note you're referring to, for instance "C4" or "D5" (where a higher number indicates a higher octave). So C3 and C4 for instance are the same note - just that C4 is double the pitch of C3.

    The 12 notes always appear in these positions (provided you're not in a non-standard tuning or modulating or anything else, but ignore that for the sake of this :>). Notice that you have two black notes, then a gap and then three black notes? The note to the immediate left of the left black key of the two black keys together will always be a C, the middle black key of the three black keys together is always G#/Ab, and so on for every note on the keyboard.

    Interesting Aside:

    Musical notes correspond to certain frequencies and are sometimes referred to by those frequencies for the sake of tuning. For instance A440 refers to the note A at a frequency of 440Hz. If you halved the frequency of that note you'd get an A still but with a frequency of 220hz - That is, the note A an octave lower. Same goes for doubling and getting A an octave higher and so on.
    Terminology Breakdown #1:


    # = "Sharp" - This refers to a note that is a semitone or "half step" higher than another note.
    b = "Flat" - This refers to a note that is a semitone or "half step" lower than another note.

    (note: the symbol for "flat" is not actually a lowercase "b", but it looks a lot like one so I use it for the sake of ease.)

    The distance between C and C# is called a semitone or "half step" whereas the distance between C and D is called a "tone" or "whole step". TAKE NOTE: The distance between E and F or B and C is also a semitone/half step because there is no black key in between them! A whole step always involves skipping a single key on the keyboard/piano roll regardless of whether it is black or white.

    (oh and for the record, it doesn't matter if you're going up or down the keyboard, I just didn't put any arrows pointing left for this one)

    Actually, if you are a beginner in making or understanding music - do yourself a huge favor right now and stop thinking of black notes as somehow different to white notes. Trust me, you'll thank yourself later.

    Which leads into...

    Part 2: Scales
    There are two types of scale you should familiarize yourself early with if you want to get a decent grasp of music theory and they are the Chromatic Scale and the Diatonic Scale (I may also refer to the diatonic scale as the Major Scale, although they're not actually identical terms; for the sake of this explaination I'm going to consider them functionally identical, but for those who care, the natural minor scale is also diatonic and a scale can be diatonic regardless of the starting point of the scale, if that meant nothing to you then don't worry).

    The Chromatic Scale:
    The chromatic scale is your musical spectrum, if each note were a colour then the chromatic scale = the whole range of colours available to you (and oh hey, chroma means colour, zing). If you start from any note on the keyboard and move up or down playing every note (black and white) until you hit the next one of the same note you started from then you've just played a chromatic scale. That is to say, a chromatic scale is a scale that uses all 12 of the musical notes (with the 13th note being the same note that you started on, just either an octave higher or lower). For example: C, C#, D, D#, E, F, F#, G, G#, A, A#, B and finishing on C an octave higher = a chromatic scale (although you can start from any key and it would still be a chromatic scale provided you used every key between the starting note and its counterpart an octave above or below).
    Chromatic scale, up and down, starting from C.

    Another way to explain this is: A chromatic scale is a scale composed entirely of half-steps/semitones. If you try this for yourself you may notice it doesn't sound particularly musical and that's because most music isn't chromatic (although some genres such as jazz, various ethnic folk traditions and some eras of classical music involve a lot of chromatic elements, but that's not important right now) just as most works of art don't use every single hue in the spectrum because some colours clash. To make music that sounds good we need a more limited "palette" and preferably one composed of tones that work well together. Which leads to...

    Diatonic Scales:
    If you start from the note C and "walk up" the keyboard using only white notes until you reach C an octave above, you have just played a C Major Scale. Notice that it only contains 7 unique tones (the 8th note being a repeat of the 1st note but an octave higher) as opposed to the 12 tones of the chromatic scale. Also notice that it sounds a lot more musical than the chromatic scale too:
    C Major Scale, Up and Down.

    Most people are familiar with the sound of the major scale (or at least with the 5 tone up-and-down variant of it). In fact if you know "Do, Re, Mi, Fa, So, La, Ti, Do" (this is actually called "Solfege" btw) then you know the sound of a Major Scale (Tip: if you don't already know what a major scale sounds like, learn it, it will be invaluable to you, especially if you don't naturally have "an ear for music"). This is a good time to mention:

    Diatonic Scales = "Keys"
    Although this is not strictly always the case, for the same of argument and explanation I'll say that this is true. To elaborate: If you play/compose only using the notes of the C major scale - You're playing in the "the key of C Major". In other words if a piece uses only the notes that make up the C major scale (C,D,E,F,G,A,B ) then then C Major is that piece's "key".

    So just by eliminating 5 of the 12 musical notes we've managed to "create" a diatonic scale, that is, a set of 7 unique tones that sound good together. For the C Major Scale we've "removed" the 5 black keys from the total 12 and are left with 7 unique notes that all happen to be on white keys (and this is no accident).

    The main rule to remember with diatonic scales is that they must include one of every letter. For example, C Major is comprised of C-D-E-F-G-A-B, Ab Major is Ab-Bb-C-Db-Eb-F-G and B Major contains the notes B-C#-D#-E-F#-G#-A#.

    Super-good-useful tip: If you want to make a major scale (and therefore find a diatonic key to write your song in) from any note on the keyboard, then start from your note of choice and then progress like so: W-W-H-W-W-W-H (where W means "whole step" and H means "half step") and you've found the key of *whatever* Major, now if you write a song using only those 7 notes in any combination you'll never technically be "out of tune/key" (but this does not guarantee that it will sound great either, it just helps a fair bit :p ).

    What's the deal with C anyway?
    You may notice that despite the notes being "A B C D E F G" the first note in the image of the keyboard is C and you may also notice that in teaching music theory people use C as an example all the time. There are a variety of reasons why C is focused on a lot (including a lot to do with history and tradition and how music/tuning was systematized), especially in beginners' music lessons, but the easiest explanation I can give right now is because "the key of C major" has no black keys and therefore if you play with nothing but the white keys you'll never hit a note that's "out of key". As a result of the way the piano is designed and laid out; C and the key or "C Major" provide a sort of easy territory to start learning. The key of A Major has three black notes and as a result doesn't make the best "beginners' key" despite being the first note by alphabetical name.

    Part 3: Degrees


    Yeah it's probably best to ignore the weird names like "Submediant" and stuff, for now. Those are just there for nerdy reference atm. 

    Anyway, the numbers and the letters are the most important thing here. Each note of a diatonic scale can be assigned a number which is known as a "scale degree" - in this example above, the 6th scale degree of C Major is A, the 2nd degree of C Major is D, and so on. Why this is even important is that scale degrees behave identically regardless of the "key". But I guess that means "behavior" needs some explaining.

    In the Key of C major - the note "C" behaves as a sort of "tonal center" or "home" for the music happening in the piece and the various scale degrees will have a tonal relationship with the "tonic" (or "1st scale degree" in this case C) that is always the same regardless of the key you're playing or writing in. Notes are not as important as the relationships of distance between them and how they sound together based on that distance and tonal relationship

    (and for ease and reference's sake here is a diagram lifted from the net, of all 12 diatonic scales (in Major form) ).

    So the C in "C major" behaves the same and performs the same "musical tasks" as the A in "A Major" and the same applies for all the other scale degrees across all keys.  This is why instead of using note names we can use numbers - implying that the actual key is interchangeable and that the relationships between the degrees of the scale are what really matter. (a useful analogy may be that of hue-shifting or palette-swapping images. You can hue-shift an image so that red becomes green but all the other colour (tonal) relationships and distances that were present in the image remain intact despite the fact you have changed the actual colours (notes) themselves).



    ...and that is as far as I got with my first part attempt! (actually I tacked on a bit for clarification) If this is even interesting or useful to anyone or anyone thinks this would be worth carrying on with then PLZ DO SAY and I will try my best to explain more things, more clearly and stuff. and add more to this ever-growing thingy. If music folk want to chip in too, that's welcomed.

  2. Philsco

    Philsco Flipped Out vet Veteran

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    This is excellent!  I'm a bit of a musician, myself (albeit primarily a percussionist), and I'm quite impressed by this!  You could hack this into a few pages and start giving out music lessons...which I guess is what you're doing here haha.  I can't wait until you get to rhythm, tempo, velocity/dynamics, and the whole timing and time signatures sections (parts where as a percussionist I'll have a lot more to input on :p )
    Great job!
  3. Neverward

    Neverward Keeping it trill Veteran

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    This is very well written, you manage to make the theory a little more understandable. I would say that there are not enough examples throughout the text, not much breathing room for people to absorb. I could see how the onslaught of information, which regularly step by step takes people months to learn, could become too much pretty fast. Perhaps a few links to some sort of wav files playing the way the keys sound chromatically and diatonically, I dunno... But I believe the determined reader will come out the other end much more educated ;)

    Bravo for making this, it's interesting to see the way you phrase everything, makes it easy for people creating music with computer programs for soundtracks.
  4. Tigersong

    Tigersong Furry Fellow Veteran

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    I remember the piano puzzle in Myst taking a while because I wasn't "musically literate". Perhaps this article will let me solve it faster. ;) Good on you for helping folks learn the ropes.
  5. padr81

    padr81 Guy whose game is taking too long. Veteran

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    As a musician I find this great and other musicians will but I think their may actually be too much for other non musicians to get their heads around. Its a brilliant piece for anyone whose a novice musician and has taken their first baby steps in music theory already.
  6. The Magic Circle

    The Magic Circle Listen to my Soundcloud fam? Veteran

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    This is extremely well written and is making me think about starting to write some music tutorials myself. Do you have any plans to continue working on this?
  7. teeobi

    teeobi Veteran Veteran

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    Wow, i needed this...

    how do you maximize your hand mind coordination?

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