Category Archives: Music Theory

Getting Down to Basics

It’s a nice idea, isn’t it? Getting rid of all the fol-de-rol and the bells and whistles, so that you can concentrate on the essential things.  

I’m thinking about this particularly with regard to music, and the teaching of music.  A year ago, I thought all my face-to-face work would disappear and I’d be destitute.  Fortunately, that didn’t happen and I managed to maintain a high percentage of my work, keeping many people engaged with music in their own homes.  But at the beginning of the pandemic, I came up with a project I could do – not to make money, but to connect with people and help them learn about music.

I thought my idea was a simple one: make a series of YouTube videos explaining and illustrating the basic principles of music.  There are plenty of tutorial videos out there, some of them very good, but many more are too complicated, too simplistic, too excitable, too dull, too confusing, too American, or just plain wrong. I wasn’t aiming to be an influencer, just to find a way of doing what I do in Covid times.

This project has been on my “To do” list for a year now and it has not progressed very far.  I tried making a couple of videos and I discovered several things. Firstly, that I look really grumpy if I’m not actively smiling.  Secondly, that I say Um quite a lot.  And also that even when I understand things well, off the cuff I don’t always describe them clearly.  There were technical things too: the microphone I bought didn’t work and getting the lighting right was tricky.

I was aiming to keep each video short – five minutes or less, to suit the medium.  This was why I was trying to really pare back to the essentials.

I started off with what I thought was a basic building block of music.  Easy, I thought, I will just introduce this one concept.  Soon, though, I realised I’d used another word that had a specific musicky meaning which needed to be explained.  So maybe THAT should be part one and this other thing should be part two?

There are many terms in music that are words we use in everyday life.  Words like bar, note, pulse, beat, even high and low – when you use them in a musical context they have a specific meaning.  In addition, some words like note* and beat have more than one meaning, and it’s worth spending some time on precisely what is meant.

*Just to elaborate on this one: This can mean 1. the sound you hear, 2. the symbol on the page or 3.the physical thing you press down on a keyboard.  These are three quite different things.

I’m glad I had this idea. I haven’t scratched it off my list yet and it has really helped clarify my thinking about the fundamental elements of music. Even if I don’t upload videos, it will inform my teaching.

I am now filled with admiration for everyone who makes a half-way decent video on YouTube about anything. Especially music.

The shape of things… (particularly tunes)

In music, the gaps between the notes are more important than the notes themselves.

This sounds like a quotation from a handbook on either philosophy or the obscure end of nuclear physics – but it’s true.

You can start a tune on any note you like, to suit your voice or your instrument.  Whether the tune sounds like what you intended, or not, depends on you getting the right gaps between the first and second, second and third note, and so on.

sonnez les matines

Midi screenshot

This is a picture of a melody in midi format, a very neat way of showing sounds on a computer.

Each dash is a note. If you have good eyesight you will see that the black background is a grid of small rectangles. On the left, the piano keyboard shows which note the horizontal dashes represent.  Up and down = pitch.

The columns represent time: how long each note is and how soon the next one is played. Short and long = rhythm.

As long as the pattern of dashes stays the same, the tune will always be the “Sonnez les matines” line from Frere Jacques.  The first note is the end of the previous line, by the way.

Midi graphics are helpful because they are very, very logical, in a way that standard music notation is not.  It is entirely obvious in midi, for instance, that the vertical (pitch) gap between notes 5 and 6 is smaller than the gap between notes 4 and 5.  Those notes (and the repeated ones, 11 and 12) are right next door to each other.

If you sing that line it feels as though all the notes for
Sonnez les mati-” are next door to each other. The midi shows you that some next-door neighbours are closer than others, and that it’s only that last pair of notes that are only one step apart.

This is a very long introduction to the latest “Term of the Week”, which is semitone.  It is so long that I’ve made it a post in its own right but we have finally got to the point.  That gap between notes 5 and 6, one step on the midi grid, that’s a semitone.