Like a lot of other musicians, I always go deep into music theory when listening to random music playing. Yesterday I heard a good song on the radio and thought: “What a lovely chord progression. I love how it works with the singer’s vocal melody and especially with the bass guitar. It’s almost magical.”
So why does this magic occurs? Music serves our most basic feelings by actually altering them according to our own wishes. When we are pumped with adrenalin - we may listen to metal songs, and maybe classical music when we need to concentrate.
Even plants and trees could, potentially, grow faster or slower depending on the music genre they “hear” at early stages of their development. But, we’re not here to write about flowers at all - we need to get you in shape - MUSIC shape.
In this article we’ll go through these Four:
- Music 101
- Chords and how to play them
- Guitar chords (tabs)
What is music and how can we define it? According to Google, it’s not as obvious as it’s written. “Vocal or instrumental sounds (or both) combined in such a way as to produce beauty of form, harmony, and expression of emotion”. This formal definition isn’t really helping us to “get” what is music all about, right? So let’s try to break it down.
“Vocal or instrumental sounds” refer to anything that we hear while listening to music. It could be a piano, guitar, a drum set, a vocalist or all of them together. But they aren’t just present there as simple sounds with no meaning - they are actually working together to form “harmony and expression of emotion”.
If we dig deeper into harmony, we’ll discover a whole world full of technicalities and beauty. How can something techie be beautiful as well? Well, that’s what music is all about.
In simple words, harmony is a set of music equations, formed in order to help combine two or more notes together while maintaining “beauty”.
Wait, so what are notes?
Music wise, each sound should be represented by a single sign or a “music letter” (cryptography). So each sound is a note and each note is an actual sound.
I guess now you pretty much beginning to understand the really boring definition of music from early before. Now, let’s say you have a rock band with a bass player and a guitar player - if they are both playing together, they form harmony. Maybe not a beautiful one - but still, a harmony.
A funny thing about harmony is that it follows certain rules and regulations. You can’t just combine two or more notes to form a coherent harmony. You have to do it in a regulated way.
For example, when writing music, you should decide in which ‘scale’ you’re in. After the scale is all figured out, you can finally start writing notes (as long as they're a part of your scale), combining them into harmony.
Scale is actually easier to ‘grasp’. It is a set of notes in a predefined order which dictates the chords, and eventually, the harmony. In simple words, the scale is the real foundation in music - that’s where you should start.
Every musical scale is unique and differentiates itself not only by the starting note but also by it’s key signature. Every scale (except two that we’ll cover later on) contains at least one note with a key signature of ‘#’, ‘b’ or ‘♮’.
Those key signatures are called:
- ‘Sharp’ - #
- ‘Flat’ - b
- ‘Natural’ - ♮
You can guess each sign is there to change the basic note or the note it’s attached to from the left side. The sharp sign will rise the note by a semitone, the flat sign will lower it and the natural, well, the natural sign will actually be used to alter the note to it’s basic form in case someone - somehow, changed it before.
Ok, so key signature, notes that form a scale, is an easy task to understand but how exactly are we using them in the real world?
Scales are divided into two categories: Major and minor.
The major scale will be built this way:
- Decide on the starting note
- Start counting semitone / tones from that note up by the next order
- Two tones, semitone, three tones, semitone.
- You should end up with a total of eight notes two of which, the first and last, are the same (octave apart).
Remember to name each note by their position according to the previous note and not by what it seems on a piano keyboard.
For example: If we started out with “B#”, the following will be C*, D*, E#, F*, G*, A*, B#. Notice that I didn’t write D instead of C* (‘*’ stands for double sharp, means moving up the note by two semitones or one tone) even though it will sound exactly the same to our ears.
The minor scales are built the same, but with different intervals. In real life, we will build a major scale from a given note and go 1.5 semitones under this same note to built the minor scale according to the notes on the major scale.
So to understand it better, let’s write the minor scale for B# major:
G*, A*, B#, C*, E#, F*, G*. (G*m scale).
It’s complicated in purpose of this exercise. Nobody will write those funny scales when they are writing for friends or other band members. Instead, they’ll probably write C major and A minor. Or in professional cryptography: C | Am.
Scales, notes, key signatures and all those rules - how it all connected to chords and harmony?
You see, the expression ‘Am’ stands for a common guitar chord but it also implies what scale this particular bar is in. Am states “Hey! I’m an A minor scale”.
So does this mean we can play all the notes of the scale and they will sound good and will express our emotion? Pretty much yes, but not entirely.
The rules of music works in mysterious ways, and they say that even though the chord is, for example, an Am, it is still a part of the ‘bigger scale’ from which they decided to build this Am chord at first place. Bigger scale means the root scale.
For example: If you are in a C scale (C major remember?) then Am will be the sixth but if you’re in G - Am will be the second. In the first case it’s the sixth because it is the sixth step from C. First step is stepping in place going nowhere (root note). On the second case, it’s the second step from G or the second degree. So if you feel like you have to play the note F# - in which case you’ll choose to do so?
Like me, you’ll probably chose the second case you know you have the note F# in a G scale, and it can be cool to play the same note while playing an Am chord on the same scale.
Of course there are so much rules, one can drown in first encounter. So let’s jump to the third topic, common chords.
The most common chords are C and Am. Afterwards you got G and Em, Eb and Cm chords. The most common scales are C and Cm, for some reason. It changes depend on the music genre but we’re talking statistically.
Fun fact #1:
Have you noticed the bass clef below the treble clef? This clef loves to act funny because he takes notes and converts them into minus thirds.
Why? Well, a couple of centuries ago, the classical composers needed a way to write music and to write it fast. There wasn’t any recording devices back then so each composer needed to deliver a new piece of music every week.
When it comes to speedy music writing, the major problem was the bass notes which always took time because of the amount of lines each note demands. The bass clef were invented to solve this. It meant to transpose one octave and a third step down so eventually when writing really low voicing - you can write it freely without any additional bars / lines.
Fun fact #2:
Although you’re just a beginner, it shouldn’t prevent you to understand the next logic; Am chord can also be C6/A.
Why? Because in music, the fifth degree normally isn’t playing any important role on defining the chords identity. C6/A includes the notes: C, E, G and A. Taking the ‘G’ out of this equation leaves us with a simple Am. Guitar players normally play chords regardless of their actual order, e.g. without paying particular attention to the bass note.
Fun fact #3:
Jazz players normally like to improvise on each chord scale rather than the actual contextual scale.
A really common cadence is II | V | I - which means, two | five | one which means - 2nd degree | 5th degree | root note / 1st degree.
It’s so common they like it on both major and minor scales. Charlie Parker, A known saxophone player liked to improvise on the altered scale out of the root scale.
Remember we said that there are only two scales without any key signatures? The C scale is one of them. The other one is Am, but not always.
Fun fact #4:
When playing one chord after another, we call it chord progression.
Let’s summarize everything we’ve learned. We understand harmony and the essential building blocks of music in general cases such as: notes, chords, scales, clefs and key signatures. We can figure out by ourselves in which key we’re in (seek for the root note and build step by step upwards) and all what’s left is practicing.
On the next week, we’ll walk through the essence of TABS and what are their purpose in this world. A MUST for beginner guitar players.
This is the 1st article out of a series of 3 articles about chords, guitar tabs and frequencies.
Noam Vardy contributed to this Article