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Checking my music theory understanding, and where to go next.

phantondentist

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Very new to composition, beyond the odd mess around with a guitar and bar cords. Have been learning for 3 months or so.

Wanting to first see if I am understanding things correctly and second to ask what else it would be useful for me to learn to, alongside the endless practising of what I have learned so far of course.

So what's below is what I understand to be the case, not necessarily what is the case.

My understanding so far.

Octaves are not arbitrary, they are decided by human biology. No one made them up, they were discovered.

Humans, speaking broadly, can hear about 10 octaves. Anything above or below this is either to low or to high for us to hear. So we have 10 octaves to work in, unless we are interesting in composing music for dogs or other species.

When the vibration of a sound has the same kind of wave as another sound, but doubled or halved then it is in octave higher or lower.

The number of segments we split octaves into (notes) is pretty arbitrary. In western music we split each octave into 12 equal parts. These are called C #C D #D E F #F G #G A #A B. However they could just as easily be called 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12. So we have 10 octaves each with 12 notes. This gives us 120 notes to work with.

A piano keyboard looks like its missing notes, give the gaps where you might expect a black key, and the lack of #E and #B. But nothing is missing, its 12 equal steps.

We could have 6 notes per octave, or 20, but as it happens we have 12. There are some practical limits. If we had 100 notes per octave you would have to be running up and down along your piano keyboard, which would likely have to be housed in a longboat, to be able to play its full range. Also there would likely be such a small difference between one note and the next with 100 per octave there there would be little noticeable difference between playing say 45 and 46.

So.... 12 it is.

We have many scales to choose from. All a scale really is is a pattern of notes to miss out between the notes we play. The number of notes we miss is called an interval.

So for a major scale we simply pick a note to start on and then miss 1 note, play the next, miss 1, play the next 2, miss 1, play 1, miss 1, play 1, miss 1, play 2. Or put more succinctly WWHWWWH (W = whole step aka miss a note, H = half step aka miss no notes)

For any scales it will simply be some other defined pattern of missed notes bthween played notes.

The key we are in is simply which note we start our scale pattern on (root or tonic). So if we are in F major we are using the WWHWWWH pattern starting on F.

A key signature tells us which of the notes in our current scale and key are the black notes on a piano. So its just saying play the white notes for each note in this scale, except for these ones listed play the black notes.

On that subject of black notes. A note one up from the one before it is the sharp (#) of that note. The note one down from a note is it's flat (b). This means a single note has multiple names depending on the context it's played in. For example #F is also bG.

Whilst there is no black keyboard key after B there is, under some contexts, still a #B, it's just usually called a C.

There is something called the circle of 5th. I don't fully understand what this is. It seems that for each major key there is a minor key that shares exactly the same pattern of played and missed notes. This is called a major scales relative minor. For C major, only white notes, its relative minor is A minor, again only white notes.

We can play all of our notes separately, or we can start playing multiple notes together. Certain patterns of notes played together are called chords.

A chord is quite a simply thing. We choose a pattern of notes to miss (our scale) then within the remaining notes we pick a note to start on (root) and apply a second pattern. This pattern is play a note, miss a note, play a note.

As a scale can only be composed of 12 notes we can number each of the notes in the scale for reference, these are called scale degrees. We call the note we start on 1st and then count from there.

So if we are in C Major; C = 1st, D = 2nd, E = 3rd F = 4th etc (we are only counting notes in the scale, hence #C is ignored as opposed to being 2nd for example)

So a basic chord (triad) can be referred to as being made up of the 1st, 3rd and 5th scale degrees.

Chords themselves have a pattern of notes that are not played between the notes that are (intervals). So we have 1st, some number of missed notes, 3rd, some number of missed notes, 5th. The pattern of these gaps tells us more about our chord.

A gap of 3 then 2 is a major chord, 2 then 3 a minor chord, 2 then 2 a diminished chord, 3 then 3 an augmented chord. We can also move the middle note of the chord (3rd). If we move it to the 2nd we have a suspended 2nd chord, if we move it to the 4th we have a suspended 4th chord. That would give us a pattern of missed notes (interval) of 1 then 4 and 4 then 1 respectively.

We could so fill in some of the missed notes. These are called add chords. So as well as playing the 1st, 3rd and 5th we could additionally play the 2nd or the 4th giving us a chord of 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 5th or 1st, 3rd, 4th, 5th.

We can also add to our chord by simply expanding our pattern of play a note, miss a note, play a note etc. We can do this up or / and down. So if we are playing in C Major and we are playing a D major chord (notes D, F, A, aka 1st, 3rd, 5th) we could also play the C which is the 7th. We have just carried our pattern on 1 played note further. This is a 7th chord. We can also have a 9th chord by adding the 7th (C) and the 9th (E) etc.

We can rearrange the order of notes within our chord by replacing them with the same notes in another octave. This is called a chord inversion. I can explain this well suggesting I don't understand it properly.

If we play the notes of a chord 1 at a time in order this is called an arpeggio, or a broken chord.

There are 7 possible basic triad chords in a given scale (not for all scales possible, pentatonic for example?). This is because there are 7 notes in the scale to start building our chord from. To make expressing chord progressions easier we can refer to which of the 7 possible chords we are using. This is done with Roman numerals. Uppercase for major chords, lower case for minor.

So I II III IV V VI VII / i ii iii iv v vi VII

We could express a chord progression as I IV vi (1 4 6) for example.

Melody in single notes played separately, harmony is notes played together.

We have leading tones. A leading tone is a note that feels like it needs to lead somewhere else. In the Major scale (at least, possibly others as well?) This might relate to tonic, subdominant, and dominant, though I don't understand this yet.

We also have modes. Modes are just patterns of played and missed notes, as with scales. Some modes are actually exactly the same things as a given scale in a particular key. For example C Major is also the same pattern a particular mode uses (I forget which and am only going of what I can recall to see what I have actually learned)

In general when composing we are playing with suspension and resolution. Some notes or runs of notes feel like they are going somewhere. Other notes feel like they are the destination we were heading for. Using this as well as other conventions we can fulfill or subvert expectations.

1. Any glaring errors? Nuances I seem to be missing?

2. What other aspects of music theory would it be practically useful for me to know?

Cheers in advance for any input.
 

Rory

Amateur Auteur
2. What other aspects of music theory would it be practically useful for me to know?

If you have a decent book on theory, you know that there's a lot more to learn. If you don't have a book, it would be a good idea to get one.

There are a fair number of reasonably priced books on the market. One with a workbook component (questions for you to work on, with answers) would be particularly useful.

This is a current thread on modern theory books, but most of the books discussed in it are expensive and more detailed than you need right now: https://vi-control.net/community/threads/modern-books-on-music-theory.95796/

Of the books discussed in that thread, the most suitable is likely this one (Amazon also sells a Kindle version): https://www.pearson.com/store/p/bas...ogramed-course-books-a-la-carte/P100002512300

A number of music publishers, such as Alfred, also publish books on theory, and these are more attractively priced.

What do you want to do? Just play an instrument? Write music?
 
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phantondentist

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Of the books discussed in that thread, the most suitable is likely this one (Amazon also sells a Kindle version): https://www.pearson.com/store/p/bas...ogramed-course-books-a-la-carte/P100002512300

Thanks very much, will give it a look.

What do you want to do? Just play an instrument? Write music?

That's still only partially defined. I know I would like to understand music theory for its own sake as I enjoy understanding how / why things work. I have started composing using a DAW and am enjoying creating things I like to listen to. I also like the idea of being able to compose and product music that far outstrips my ability with any given instrument so that I am not held back in regard to creativity due to instrument skill. I am then going to work on my actual playing skill, guitar, bass, drums, keyboard, but using my own compositions to learn from as well as others compositions. So I will essentially be learning to play my own songs after they are already finished.

For now I am not particularly interested in being able to read sheet music. I understand most of the symbols etc but am no where near fluent. Once I have some decent compositions down and can play at least 1 instrument service-ably then it might be a good time to look at this if it feels helpful.

I would say I am still trying to get a good top down view of whats out there to learn and then triaging based on what seems to have the widest practical use.
 

Rory

Amateur Auteur
I would suggest that you get a basic book on music theory that has a workbook component. I also think that trying to learn theory without learning how to read and write notes on a stave, and what they mean, is masochistic :)
 
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phantondentist

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I would suggest that you get a basic book on music theory that has a workbook component. I also think that trying to learn theory without learning how to read and write notes on a stave, and what they mean, is masochistic :)

Thanks for the advise. I suspect I will hit a wall at some point and then need to learn to read sheet music to progress. I just haven't hit it yet, but then its very early days.

As a sadist, I feel very misunderstood :)
 

Rory

Amateur Auteur
I don't have this book, but I've seen it highly recommended by someone who knows what he's talking about. It's $14 in paper, $6 on Kindle. If you buy it, I think that you'll do yourself a favour:


 
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phantondentist

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I tried that but one of the audience members urinated on my shoe. I hate bad reviews.

I know the feeling. I haven't experienced exactly the same situation but have had serious issues with audience members whilst playing Skunk Funk and even worse ones with Narwhal Oldskool Bluegrass. Binturong Rockabilly has always been smooth sailing however.
 
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