by Jason Steele
Welcome to Theory Thursday! Some would argue, “what’s so fun about music theory?”… I would argue back, “what’s NOT fun about music theory?”
No matter what side you live on I’ll be posting an ongoing series of music theory lessons. If you want to grow as a musician it unavoidable that you must have some sort of idea about how music works. I’ll start with the basics while also trying to keep it always tied to basic concepts. I don’t want to go too far too fast. I’ll also be posting some tune analysis down the line, so if you have a song request you’d like me to pull apart and teach you about what’s going on, just post your requests in the comments below. Happy Theory Thursday Ya’ll!
The first step you need to take is to become familiar with what the names of all of the notes are, and to do this we will start by taking a look at the piano diagram below. You might ask here, “I play guitar, why are you showing me a piano?”. I teach this first concept on piano because the piano is so visual which makes it easier to see all of the notes and their relationships. In fact you may have already noticed that the piano has 2 different groups of black keys. From left to right it has a group of 2, then a group of 3, group of 2, group of 3, 2, 3,2, 3, etc.
You also need to be aware of the idea that some notes sound higher and some notes sound lower. The best way to get this part is to get next to a piano and drag your hand (pushing down all the notes as you go) from left to right across the the entire keyboard. This is the sound of the notes going from low to high. Now do the opposite dragging your hand from right to left. This is the sound of the notes going from high to low.
There are 12 different notes that we can play in music. A, B, C, D, E, F, G (7 of the 12 notes) which are played on the white keys of the piano in addition to 5 other notes played on the black keys. 7+5=12!! The notes found on the black keys are referred to as the sharps (represented by the “#” symbol) and/or flats (represented by the “b” symbol).
Piano Diagram w/labeled notes on white keys and arrows going to the five black keys
A special note about the piano diagrams: keep in mind that the piano diagrams are a small section of the piano. Full sized pianos have 88 keys unlike my 20 key diagrams. It is only necessary to use a cross section (20 keys or less) of the piano because the pattern that I have laid out here just repeats itself throughout the entire length of the piano. Again using the piano is only for its visual advantages.
Black Keys (not the band)
The black keys are called the sharp and flat notes. Each black key can actually be called both a sharp and flat at the same time…think of it as having real name and a nickname. When you call someone by their nickname they are still the same person, but just called something a little different. Right?
These black keys are named by using the letter from the adjacent white key and then adding either a sharp (#) or flat (b) after that letter. Start by looking at the first black key on the left side of the diagram below (XXX)- it is the 1st black key in the group of two. This note is called C# or Db. If you use the letter on the left side of the black key then you put a sharp (#) after it. If you use the letter to the right of the black key you would put a flat (b) after it. Make sense?
Piano Diagram of naming the 1st black key
Try the second black key in the group of two. See if you can figure this out before looking at the answer below.
Piano Diagram of naming the 2nd black key
Did you get D# or Eb? If so, great job!!! Now see if you can name the remaining three black keys.
Piano Diagram of naming the last three black keys
You should have gotten F# or Gb for the 1st one, G# or Ab for the 2nd, and A# or Bb for the last one. I’ve provided a finished piano diagram with all of the notes labeled including the white keys from before.
Piano Diagram of naming all 12 notes
Before moving forward make sure you fully understand how to name all of the 12 different notes. This is the important part because how can you start to learn where your notes are at on the guitar fret board if you don’t even know what the notes are or what you’re looking for.
Special note: The piano has 12 different notes – do you know how many different notes a guitar has? If you guessed 12 you’re right! It has the same exact notes as a piano. How about a trumpet? Same thing – 12 different notes! In fact just about any instrument you can think of (with only an exception of a few) has these same 12 different notes.
Here is the list of the 12 different notes you should be familiar with. Memorize these before moving to the next section.
List of all 12 Notes
- A#/Bb (remember this is the same note so you only count it once)