I decided to write this article because if you get tantalized by the theory of music you will irreversibly expand your musical universe. With that said, this article skims across the top of very huge subject. My intention is to give you a glimpse of that subject and just maybe enough information to light your fire.
The written language of music, sometimes referred to as standard notation, is a subject in itself. But we learn to talk before we learn to read, so I am presenting only some portion of the vocabulary:
- There are indeed 12 notes. The tonal distance, or interval, between each is referred to as a half step. On a guitar a half step is one fret. The notes are:
C, C# (or Db), D, D# (or Eb), E, F, F# (or Gb), G, G# (or Ab), A, A# (or Bb), B.
This is one octave. You just keep repeating this sequence to go up another octave.
- A Sharp (symbol: #) is a half step (or one fret) higher in tone. A flat (symbol: b) is a half step (or one fret) lower.
- The major scale is the starting point for all this stuff. Everyone starts out with the C Major scale cause it has no flats or sharps (which are also called accidentals). Here is the major scale in the key of C:
C D E F G A B C (amazing isn't it?)
- If you notice the distance between C and D, it's two half steps (which equals one whole step). Between D and E is a whole step. If you repeat this exercise up the entire scale, you'll see that a major scale is built by the following steps:
whole, whole, half, whole, whole, whole, half
The major scale can be built in another key using this step sequence and the twelve notes I mentioned.
C - D, D - E, E - F, F- G, G - A, A - B, B - C
- In the C major scale, for example, the C is referred to as the First degree or I (roman numeral one) note. The second degree or II note is D and so on. So:
C = I, D = II, E = III, F = IV, G = V, A = VI, B = VII.
- To build a major chord use the I, III and V degrees in C these are the C E G notes.
- To build a minor chord you flat the III ( I IIIb V) so the C minor is C Eb G.
- To build a dominant 7th you add a flatted 7th. (I III V VIIb). C7, for example, is C E G Bb.
- To build a minor 7th just combine the dominant and minor (I IIIb V VIIb). So, Cmin7 is C Eb G Bb.
- Finally, to build a Major 7th you add a Seventh. (I III V VII). CMaj7, for example, is C E G B.
- Modes: The basic modes are built directly from the major scale. What ends up happening is you change the intervals (or steps) between the notes in the scale. This is done in a very systematic and straight forward way. I'm not going to go into when to use them, as this is well covered in other articles at Whole Note. I am just giving you vocabulary.
- The Ionian mode is simply the major scale: C, D, E, F, G, A, B, C. Nothing new here.
- Now if you take that major scale and start on the second note, D, you have the Dorian mode: D, E, F, G, A, B, C, D. What's happened is that you've changed all the intervals between notes. Now the steps are: whole, half, whole, whole, whole, half, whole. If you play this scale you get a very different sound. This has the notes of the Minor seventh chord and works well, played over those chords.
- Start the major scale on the third note, E, and you have the Phrygian mode: E, F, G, A, B, C, D, E. Again you've changed the intervals between the notes in the scale. Now the steps are: half, whole, whole, whole, half, whole, whole. Try this scale you get a very different sound.
- Starting on the fourth note, F, you get the Lydian mode: F, G, A, B, C, D, E, F. You should be able to name the intervals, and hear the difference when you play the guitar.
- You should be getting the idea here, now. The Mixolydian mode start on the fifth note, G. Thus, G, A, B, C, D, E, F, G. Again name those intervals and try this scale out. This mode has a flatted 7th and sounds similar to the major scale. It's quite useful if played over dominant 7th chords.
- The Aeolian mode starts on the sixth note, A, so A, B, C, D, E, F, G, A is the scale sequence. This is mode is also called the minor scale. Try it out.
- Finally, on the 7th note, B, we have the Locrian mode. B, C, D, E, F, G, A, B. Again try it out and figure out the intervals.
- Other scales. A five note scale is referred to as a Pentatonic ( Five Tones) scale. You could just pluck five notes out of the major scale and have some kind of Pentatonic scale. The pentatonic scales are well covered in other Whole Note Lessons.
- The major Pentatonic scale is built on the 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 5th and 6th notes in the major scale. In C, this is C, D, E, G, A, C. This is a popular country western scale, but very useful in many playing situations.
- The minor Pentatonic scale is very popular in rock and blues. This scale is built on the 1st, 3rd, 4th, 5th and 7th notes of the minor scale, so using our A minor scale as a basis, we obtain the notes: A, C, D, E ,G
This is a lot of information, yet I've barely scratched the surface. So, now, memorize the notes on the fretboard, the circle of fifths, and learn to read standard notation and you're on your way.