Hi! This is my first post on guitargear.org. I’d like to thank mr goofydawg for allowing me the chance to contribute here. I want to delve into theory and there’s no better place to start than the beginning. In this first post, I’m going to start with some basic terminology and the fundamentals. First, let’s talk about tonality and the octave.
We begin with a single note. A note is generated by some vibrating mass at a steady frequency. The vibrations cause air to move and the frequency of the vibration determines the pitch that is perceived by our ears. Consider a length of string pulled taught. When it vibrates, it produces a note. When we shorten the length of the string by exactly half, the string will vibrate at a pitch one octave higher than it did at the original length. The tonality of our musical language is defined by the number of notes that occur between these two notes – the fundamental, and its octave. In Western (European and American) music – the system likely to be the most familiar to readers of this blog – we divide the octave into 12 notes. Check out your guitar. The 12th fret is the octave, dig it?
You may have heard of one or more microtonal systems. The term microtonal is obviously relative to our 12-tone system and indicates that there are more notes in an octave than we have. These and macrotonal systems (ones having fewer than 12 notes) are used in Eastern (Asiatic) music. Our discussions here will all relate to our Western tonality.
Now that we’ve discussed notes, let’s move on to chords. A chord is the effect of multiple distinct notes. This is one thing that caused me some confusion in my early theory days. When I say distinct notes, I mean notes that have the same name, without regard to the octave. In a open G chord like the one shown here, the notes, lowest to highest, are G B D G* B* G**. The G and B notes with the single stars are up 1 octave from their previous occurrences within the chord. The double-starred G is up 2 octaves. So, we are strumming 6 notes, but still this is considered a 3-note chord – G, B and D. 3-note chords are called triads and, with them, we define our chordal tonalites like major, minor and others. As an aside, 2-note chords are called doublestops.
Our final topic for today will be scales. Scales are sequences of notes. For all intents and purposes scale, mode and key are interchangeable terms. In Western music, scales typically consist of 7 distinct notes. The notes in the scale are given a number and a name. The names aren’t terribly important to non-theorists so I won’t bore you with them here, but check this link if you’re curious. These numbers are also used to identify chords within the key. A chord that has the tonic as its root note will be called the “1” chord, etc. You may likely have heard of “the old I – IV – V” chord progression – think Louie, Louie or Wild Thing – and now you know the origin of the name.
In music there are certainly absolutes. Middle C vibrates at exactly 261.626 hertz, but for the purposes of studying theory, it’s helpful to think of these concepts in relative terms. This goes back to referring to chords or notes by number rather than name. You’ll start to understand the relationships between these concepts much more quickly and you’ll be able to apply the concepts to a wider array of musical situations.
OK everyone – that’s all I’ve got for tonight. I’m hope you’re still with me and that this was helpful and informative. In the next post, I’m going to dig into chord theory, the beautiful simplicity of the triad and the ambiguity of the doublestop! Cheers!