13 Mar

Understanding music theory

Bursting the bubble

Music theory is important. You would be surprised how many people there are who can make a guitar do almost anything. Yet those same people have very little idea about music theory or how to relate what they are doing to other musicians. I call it “the guitar bubble”. Often such people walk into a Sydney recording studio or voice over studio under prepared to communicate with those around them.

Learning piano helps with this a little but in the same way, pianists have their own way of thinking that often relies on notes on a page. Often in a Sydney Sound Studio there will be a pianist on hand to baby sit other musicians. But why rely on this!?

As far as song writing and communicating with other musicians goes, there is no substitute for sitting down and simply learning “how music theory works”. Its not merely necessary, its fun!  It will unlock many pathways to writing and composing that previously you were ignorant of.

An introduction to scales.

The variance of pitch in an organised fashion ascending and descending is basically what gives us scales. There are different ways of organising these pitches or “notes”. One stand out feature across almost all cultures is that note that seems to “repeat itself” and sound “the same” but higher. We call this the octave. It is between this octave that various scale patterns occur.

Modern Western culture recognises 12 tones per octave, arranged in semitones (what we call the “chromatic scale”). This is all the useable notes squeezed into one octave consecutively and essentially it is not organised into music theory yet.

The major scale.

To come up with organised scales we apply patterns to each of these notes and arrange them in ascending order. The most friendly to the western ear  and used in most recording studios and voice over studios is the major scale which is comprised of the pattern of intervals: Tone, tone, semitone, tone, tone, tone, semitone (TTSTTTS). This was popularised by the solfege names given it (as used in the movie “The Sound of Music” ) DO,REI, MI, FA, SOL, LA, TI, DO. In C major (C, D, E, F, G, A, B , C ). Most songs you hear on the radio are created using this formula with different starting notes, rearranging the notes into a melody.  Becoming familiar with this scale on the Piano and your specialist instrument (guitar or otherwise) is one of the first steps to conquering theory.

The minor scale

An important off shoot or “cousin” of the major scale is the minor scale. This comes in several different forms. A form popular in classical music and heavy metal is the Harmonic Minor scale which looks like this: TSTTSm3S

With m3 representing minor 3rd jump in the middle of the scale. Its somewhat exotic and lends itself well to some genre. A more commonly used and easier on the ears minor scale in pop is the natural minor which is: TSTTSTT. This is actually the 6th mode of the major scale. In other words if you were to start and finish on the 6th note of any major scale you would have this scale. E.G. Derived from C major:  A. B. C. D. E. F. G. A. Known as A natural minor or the Aoelian mode. We will discuss modes a little later in the blog.

Triads and chords

The next important foundational concept in music theory is chords and triads. A triad is 3 notes separated usually by thirds that make up the foundation of a chord. For example, derived from the key of C major, the C major triad is simply. C, E AND G. When played together they are harmonically compatible.

Another type of triad is a minor triad. For example C Minor would read: C, Eb, G. Notice only the 3rd is altered to differentiate major from minor. An invaluable exercise is to sit at a keyboard or piano and play through the C major scale forming triads of each of the notes. For example, from the second note of the C major scale we derive a D minor triad: D, F, A. From the 3rd note and E minor triad: E, G, B and so on. This alone is a great start to writing chord progressions for songs. Try using triads/chords built from the 1st, 4th, 5th and 6th notes of the major scale (any key is fine) and notice that they lend themselves nicely to progressions. This is kind of a “tool box” for the song writer in any Sydney Recording Studio.

Unusual triads

Other types of less common triads are: The diminished triad which is simply a stack of minor third intervals (very suspenseful sounding) try the notes: C, Eb, Gb. Diminished triads are often a passing triad. A great example of their use is to move from the 5th to the 6th chord in a progression. Eg: in G major: D triad, followed by Eb Diminished and ending on Eminor. Another type of triad is the Augmented, which is a stack of major third intervals and holds it’s own unique kind of tension. Eg: C, E, G#. This is just one aspect of music theory.

Adding the 7th

7th Chords are just an extension of the concept of a triad. For example the chord Cmajor7 is simply a C triad: C, E, G,  with a B on top (the 7th note of the C major scale) creating a “jazzier” sound. An Aminor 7th Chord contains A, C, E, G. Adding further extensions and intervals like the 9th  above the root note will result in a chord like A minor 9: A, C, E, G, B which is even richer and lusher on the ear than a 7th Chord. Often these sorts of chords will sound inappropriate and over done in pop writing. They are certainly worth experimenting with in any Sydney Voice Over studio.

The Cycle of fifths

Moving beyond pop and basic folk music with their simple combinations of common chord progressions we begin to look at using the Circle of Fifths. This concept rightly needs its own dedicated blog but they nuts and bolts of its revolve around what we call a “cadence” in classical music. An example of a cadence is one chord moving to “rest” onto another chord very satisfactorily. One of the most common is the perfect cadence where the “5” chord of a key moves to the “1” chord. For example a G chord (more specifically moving (or “resolving”) to a C chord. The interval downwards of this motion is a 5th and it is the strongest movement in music, often at the end of a progression or even the end of an entire song. Try playing a G7 chord (G, B, D, F) and resolving it to a C chord.

Following through

To take this idea in music theory and follow it on from the C chord would see us landing a 5th below very satisfactorily onto an F chord. The F would fall to a Bb, the Bb to an Eb and so on and so on all the way back to a G chord. This in a nutshell is the “cycle” or “circle” of fifths. It creates a great too for song writing and can see a song move in different directions to what is expected. Elton John’s writing reflects some of this. (See the chord progression for “Your Song”).