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Thread: Music Theory from Square One.

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    Senior Member PostMinimalist's Avatar
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    Lightbulb Music Theory from Square One.

    In reply to a request for help with basic music theory, I have elected to start a thread which will act as a simple, unofficial tutorial on the subject. The idea is to have an open discussion based on the posts I'll be puting up here from time to time dealing with very basic music theory topics.

    This first post should be up later today and I hope it will be helpful for a lot of the newcomers to this forum as well as entertaining for the more regular visitors.

    See you later.
    FC

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    Senior Member Bach's Avatar
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    Two quavers equals one crotchet.
    Si vos agnosco is tunc vos es quoque erudio

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    Senior Member PostMinimalist's Avatar
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    For almost a thousand years western music has been written down. Despite being part of an aural tradition where songs and tunes were learned by ear or by someone showing someone else how to play a certain tune, the stuff of music (notes and chords etc.) at some point became too complex to be passed on in this manner. It became absolutely essential to be able to write down or 'notate' a piece of music.

    Written down music is called 'music manuscript' and the system for writing it down in any way is called 'notation'.

    Today's musicians in western culture use several 'notation systems' depending on which instrument and style they have in mind.

    A guitarist might use any of three or four different types of notation:

    1. A pictorial representation of the fretboard with dots showing where his fingers should be pressed down to form a certain chord (several notes sounding together).
    2. A 'tabulation' where the strings of the instrument are each given instructions which the guitarist follow simutaneously.
    3. A system of chord names abreviated into letters and numbers which he translates into the chords to be played. And finally
    4. Actual 'standard musical notation' where the notes to be played are represented independantly of whether they are intended for guitar or not.

    It is this fourth system that is the most widespread music notation system in use in western music today and it is the most useful for demonstrating all the features of western musical theory.

    It was invented in the 10th century by an Italian monk called Giudo D'Arezzo and consists of several horizontal parallel lines which are read left to right and upon those lines are placed symbols (dots and lines) which represent notes (both in pitch and duration).

    The set of parallel lines that has come down to us today is known as 'the stave' and looks like the first of the two diagrams below. 5 parallel lines.

    In the second diagram there are 2 florid symbols which are called clefs (the French word for 'key') and helps the musician to work out which pitches are being refered to by the stave.
    The first symbol is called the 'treble clef' and is centred on the second bottom line of the stave. Since the sign is based on the written letter 'G' as you can see below, the treble clef is sometimes called the 'G clef'. It indicates that the second bottom line of the stave represents the note 'g'. The dot on this line which follows is the note 'g'. We'll look at all the notes next time.

    Also in the second diagram there is another symbol called the 'Bass clef' which is centred on the second top line of the stave. This symbol is based on the written letter 'F' and is sometimes called the 'F clef' and indicates that the second top line of the stave is the note F. The note following it in the diagram is the note f. Note that if the F clef had not been there the note would be considered as belonging to the treble clef which is at beginning of the line.

    Next time we'll look at how different notes are written and how their lengths are notated.

    Cheers
    FC
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    Last edited by PostMinimalist; May-26-2009 at 22:33. Reason: typo check

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    Senior Member Tapkaara's Avatar
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    What a great idea for a thread! I just hope, um, some don't get too carried away here with their knowledge on the subject. Anyway, I think this will be a very useful resource.
    "Music is not philosophy." --Akira Ifukube

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    Senior Member JoeGreen's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Bach View Post
    Two quavers equals one crotchet.

    for american english speakers that's...

    two eighth notes equals one quarter note.
    I adore art...when I am alone with my notes, my heart pounds and the tears stream from my eyes, and my emotion and my joys are too much to bear.

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    Senior Member PostMinimalist's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Tapkaara View Post
    What a great idea for a thread! I just hope, um, some don't get too carried away here with their knowledge on the subject. Anyway, I think this will be a very useful resource.
    The idea is to be really basic for absolute beginners without making anyone feel alienated by the depth of theoretical knowledge some here may have. So let's keep everything right down to a lowest common denominator as we go. Hopefully in a few weeks or months this will be a reference thread for newcomers.

    I should thank sammyyooba for getting me started on this.

    'Eighth notes' and 'quarter notes' are names given to certain note lengths. That is to say a word that describes the duration of the note but only relative to the speed of the music and not an absolute measurement in seconds. It is easy to guess that in the same piece an 'eighth note' will last half as long as a 'quarter note' which is only half as long as a 'half note' and so on. In England the old French words for relative note lengths are still in use.

    A half note = a 'minim'
    a quarter note = 'crotchet'
    an eighth note = 'quaver'

    so you can now see the full story behind the references to 'two crotchets = a minim' etc.

    I will use the american system of calling the note lengths after their 'fraction' names. That is eighth, quarter, sixteenth etc. because it is easier to imagine and it is more universally accepted.

    FC

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    Quote Originally Posted by JoeGreen View Post
    for american english speakers that's...

    two eighth notes equals one quarter note.
    Or for those in my school learning music, that's...

    two "coffees" equals one "tea"

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    Senior Member Elgarian's Avatar
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    I'll be very interested to see at what point I drop out of this (brilliant idea Fergus, by the way). In my time I've acquired a passable understanding of general relativity and quantum mechanics, but music theory, despite many attempts - never. I know what will happen - I shall follow you perfectly well through these elementary stages, and then at some point in the future I shall meet a brick wall of incomprehension, and there'll be no crossing it. Reading a score (unless it be Three Blind Mice in C major for treble recorder) still seems as utterly impossible as flying.

    I think it's one of those dodgy brain-wiring things that some people experience with regard to mathematics. But lead on, Fergus, lead on. I will follow till I drop.

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    Senior Member Cyclops's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Elgarian View Post
    I'll be very interested to see at what point I drop out of this (brilliant idea Fergus, by the way). In my time I've acquired a passable understanding of general relativity and quantum mechanics, but music theory, despite many attempts - never. I know what will happen - I shall follow you perfectly well through these elementary stages, and then at some point in the future I shall meet a brick wall of incomprehension, and there'll be no crossing it. Reading a score (unless it be Three Blind Mice in C major for treble recorder) still seems as utterly impossible as flying.

    I think it's one of those dodgy brain-wiring things that some people experience with regard to mathematics. But lead on, Fergus, lead on. I will follow till I drop.
    I too attempted to teach myself music theory and tho I struggle to read notation(and can't get away with tab at all) i find the theory fascinating. I got quite into it,learning about T,T,T,st,T,T,st etc but then kids came along and that was that! Game over.
    And all those moments are soon lost,like tears in the rain•••

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    Senior Member sam richards's Avatar
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    I don't have the energy to do it myself, but I think you should touch upon the notes and their naming before music notation.
    “If I decide to be an idiot, then I'll be an idiot on my own accord.”
    - Johann Sebastian Bach

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    Senior Member PostMinimalist's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by sam richards View Post
    I don't have the energy to do it myself, but I think you should touch upon the notes and their naming before music notation.
    All that coming very soon! I've had a busy week puting a new floor down but I am preparing things to post. My Flickr account is filling up with examples and diagrams.
    FC

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    Junior Member Clancy's Avatar
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    I would like to add a belated thumbs up to this thread idea, I am looking forward to trying to follow the next few lessons! I'm afraid my experience of music theory is similar to Elgarians, but I will see how far I get.

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    2. Notes.

    Now that we have seen the 'stave', the place where most western music is written down, it's time to look at exactly what is written there and how that relates to what musicians play as they read it.

    Music notation is like a written language in as much as it is a set of symbols which represent sound which can be translated into sound. In the case of language these sounds are spoken, in the case of music they are sung or played. Whereas a language has letters, words and sentences, music has its constituent parts such as notes, chords, melodies, phrases etc. We will see exactly what they are in due course, first let's see some notes.

    When you sing, you sing notes, no matter how badly or untrained you might be. Almost anyone can do this, but a trained musician will be able to make controlled changes to his or her voice to produce a melody and not just any melody but a melody which as been written down by another musician (possibly from another country and even a different time), rather like reading a book by Dostoyevsky. There is no need to have Dostoyevsky in front of us to tell his stories. He 'wrote them down' and now we can 'read' them anytime we like. In the same way Beethoven, Mozart and all the other great composers of western music have written down their music in order that they don't have to stick around to play it to us when we want to hear it. Imagine having to ask Beethoven round so you could hear his ninth symphony!

    So what do these musical symbols look like and what do they mean? Like letters and words on the page, notes on the stave have different shapes and placements. Let's have a look at what a note you might sing could look like:



    That's it there, the first dot! Of course this may not be very accurate because not everyone will sing exactly the same thing, but I imagine that you all might sing a note and hold it for a second or two and then stop. That's what you are seeing here. It looks like a black dot sitting somewhere on the stave with a tail going off vertically. The dot, or 'note head' has to be written in such a way that you can tell exactly where it sits, vertically on the stave. If it were a huge dot (like the second dot) then you could not say if it was on the second bottom line or in the first space or whatever. If it was tiny (like the third dot) then it might not show up if it was on a line! So the dot has to be a bit bigger than the thickness of the stave lines but smaller or equal to than the distance between the stave line.

    This makes it easy to see where the note sits vertically on the stave. This is very important because it is the key to telling which note is being symbolised!
    Remember in the first post we looked at the G clef where the florid G symbol was centred on the second bottom line of the stave? Well that is the key to working out which note is being symbolised. First let me tell you how the notes themselves are named.

    In western music different countries use different systems to name notes and some times even professional musicians form different coutries get confused when discussing music that they are playing. What a French man calls 'Si' in what an Englishman calls 'B' and what an Englishman calls 'C' is what a Frenchman calls 'Do', and what an Englishamn calls 'Dough' the Frenchman calls l'argent! (Humour aside.)

    I will use the accepted English language system for naming the notes so let's see how that works.

    Here are all the notes that fall within the stave in order from lowest to highest. Below the notes are their names as used in the English system.



    As you can see the lowest note is E and the next F followed by G. The next note, however, is called A! Why is that?

    Well in this system we use seven letters A,B,C,D,E,F and G to name the notes as they appear on the stave without any exrta infromation (we'll see what kind of information this can bee when we look at 'accidentals' a bit latter). If you remember that the florid 'G cleff' or "treble clef' (which is what we will call it from now on) is written on the second line of the stave so, naturally a note on that line would be a 'G'. Everything is relative to this point - so the note written in the space just below the 'G' line is an 'F', and the note written on the line below the 'F' space is an 'E'. Notes written above the 'G' line start over using the series A,B,C,D,E,F and G again. So the note written in the second space (the one just above the 'G' line) is an 'A'. If you look at the diagram again you can see all the names of the notes that fall within the stave.

    You might think that the diagram looks like a fight of stairs. Well you're right! The musical word for what you're seeing here is a 'scale'. A lot of western music is built using certain series of notes called 'scales'. The word means 'steps' and comes from the Italian 'scalla', like the famous opera house, the 'Teatro la Scalla' in Milan, which is called literally 'the Theatre of the Steps'.

    Here's a bit of ancient history:

    We'll take a quick trip back in time about 2500 years to the Island of Samos in the Aegean Sea. There we find the great mathematician and philosopher Pythagoras. He was the one who told us how to measure triangles if you remember, but besides that he was also an avid observer of nature. One of the things that Pythagoras noticed was that when he hung his boots up by the laces they swung in accordance to the length of the lace. The longer the lace the slower the swing. Now he was also a lute player (the lute is a bit like a small harp) and he knew that the longer his lute string was, the 'lower' in pitch the note would be. After looking at all this together he decided to see what the mathematical relationship was between the notes and the speed of the swing and the length of the string etc.

    To do this he built a thing called a 'monochord' which just means, 'one string' which is in fact all it was: a box with one string stretched over it.



    Here you can see that there is a 'moveable bridge' supporting the string. (A 'bridge' is the part of a stringed instrument that supports the string.) Pythagoras would measure the length of the string at various points and try to find out which notes came out of his monochord. He was delighted to find that there was a mathematical relationship between the length of the string and the pitch of the note. He discovered that when a string is pucked it produces a note of a certain pitch which is the result of the string swinging back and forth quickly (called 'oscilation' or 'vibration') and that when it was only half of the original length it would produce a sound that was in many ways very similar to the original but somehow higher in pitch. He worked out that to produce this effect the number of 'oscilations' was exactly double!

    With this in mind he decided to shorten the string length to a third of the original and found that the note changed all together but when both the original string and the third of the length string were struck at the same time the sound was very rich and pleasing.

    Pythagoras believed that the universe was ruled by numbers and decided to experiment further by dividing the string into quarters and fifths and sixths etc of it's original length. Doing so he discovered that each division sounded slightly different and some would not sound good together and others sounded lovely.

    Ultimately he found that he could make divisions in string length up to about a twelfth and still find someway of combining the resulting sounds together. He then built a monochord which could artificially divide the string into proprtions of it's original lengths by use of 'frets'. Frets are the lines you see on the neck of a guitar and they are almost exactly in the places that Pythagoras would have put them if he made guitars today!

    The strange strange simlalrity between a one string and another half it's length in called an 'Octave' You can hear this phenomena on a guitar by playing the string without any fingers pressing down and then pressing down your finger on the half way mark and playing the free part of the string again. This was so much an itegral part of the pythagorean way of thinking that even today at meetings of Pythagoreans the 'sounding of the octave' is used to signify the beginning of their council.

    Now, going back to the diagram of the scale, the notes E on the bottom line and E in the top space have the same name but they are written in different places. They are related to each other by the 'interval' of an octave (the thing Pythagoras was nuts about!). An 'interval' is the distance between two notes and that is one of the many things we'll look at next time.

    FC

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    I'm desperately trying to study for my Grade 5 theory exam and failing quite miserably. This thread looks interesting, so I might have to spend several hours hunched over the computer (this is my first theory exam.)

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    Senior Member chillowack's Avatar
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    Did this wonderful thread end back in June then?

    I would have thought it would be quite popular, and full of life and activity.

    I think it's a great idea, Fergus sharing his knowledge with beginners. I hope it resumes.

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