Let’s start at the very beginning…
To appreciate the art and craft of songwriting to its fullest, it helps to have a grasp of one or two concepts from the field of music theory. I intend the following to bring you the reader to the level of ‘keen bluffer’ if indeed you are not already of such a standard. If you are already a keen bluffer (or perhaps even a ‘nonchalant expert’), I highly recommend doing something far more fruitful with your time than reading the remainder of this section. Go ahead and fruit. If not, or you feel you need a refresher, then read on. It shouldn’t be too painful.
The only prior understanding required for what follows here is a familiarity with the Do-Re-Mi-Fa-So-La-Te-Do musical scale and how it sounds (you may find yourself singing it later on), and an appreciation of the notes which comprise the musical alphabet (A, B, C, D, E, F and G – there, you’re already more knowledgable than you were when you started).
Intervals, semitones, tones
Much study of music is based on the relative musical distances between different notes. These distances are, entirely unintuitively known as intervals, (and have sadly nothing to do with the interval we all know and love, i.e the one which involves ice-cream.) We might use intervals to investigate how the notes of a successful melody relate to each other as they proceed one after the other (as a series of melodic intervals), or how the notes of a blissful chord are stacked up on top of each other to create harmony (harmonic intervals).
The two smallest and immediately useful intervals to get us started are the semitone and the tone.
The semitone constitutes the smallest musical step it’s possible to take on a piano keyboard or guitar fretboard (I use these examples advisedly as neither instrument easily allows its player to access ‘the notes between the notes’ as other instruments do, the violin for example.) So moving up or down a single fret on a guitar, or a single key on a keyboard (black and white notes included) would be to move by the interval of a semitone. Luckily for me, I need not labour the point too much further as you will most likely be very familiar already with the humble semitone, whether you know it or not. You need listen no further than that most famously pant-wetting pair of musical notes which open the main theme from the film Jaws. Those two alternating notes (E and F), which speed up to a maddening intensity and have become international shorthand for ‘for heaven’s sake, get out of the water now’… are a semitone apart.
If we were to continue the series of semitones on our chosen instrument, we would hit 12 uniquely named notes, known collectively as the chromatic scale, and individually as per the keyboard diagram below.
Here you can see clearly the arrangement of the notes of the musical alphabet across the white notes of the keyboard. As you are of the observant persuasion I’m sure you’ll notice furthermore that the pattern repeats in a strict order. You may even spot that each white note has its own unique position among the familiar pattern of black notes. For example, the note ‘D’ (and there are plenty of them evenly spread up and down the keyboard) is always to be found between the black notes arranged as a pair (rather than between any two of those in the trio of black notes). Beginner pianists will have been taught one of a number of ways to remember the note positions (e.g. “D is in the Dog House”), and from here can go on to work out the positions of the other notes with relative ease. You’ll be pleased to hear that the positions of the notes will be equally true whether you’re sitting at a piano in Durban or Derby.
The # symbol, now far more commonly known as the hashtag, has believe it or not a far longer history in the world of music as the sharp symbol. The other potentially unfamiliar symbol, which looks uncannily like a lower-case B is known as the flat symbol, though when its written properly is a little more flouncy. As you can see, sharp notes (or simply, “sharps”) are always to the right (i.e. up the keyboard, higher in pitch) than the note from which they take their name.
Conversely, flats are always one note to the left (i.e. down the keyboard, lower in pitch) than their namesakes. Therefore each black note on the keyboard has two names. Like Elton John. (Reg Dwight to his friends, plumber, accountant etc)
Hopefully the final thing you’ll have gleaned from your intense study of the musical keyboard is that some white notes do not have corresponding sharps (namely B and E), and similarly others lack corresponding flats (C and F). Deal with it.
Where a note is played without it being sharpened, or flattened, it is said to be natural. Makes sense. What makes perhaps slightly less sense is that sharps and flats are also known as accidentals, presumably as they are constantly making musicians stumble, fall and require medical attention.
Oh… and a tone equals two semitones. There… far more straight forward. So, in the pursuit of a note one tone above another, a pianist would play the note two semitones away from the original note, encountering black keys and white keys alike, and a guitarist would move two frets up (i.e. toward the body of the guitar). If you’d like for the sake of completeness to know what one of those sounds like… then imagine in your mind’s ear (a very handy tool to have in these situations) the first two notes of Strangers In The Night… i.e the notes that the two syllables of the word “strangers” sit on. There!
We can arrange specific combinations of these tone and semitone building blocks to create different musical scales, which you can think of as the set of notes around which songs are based, or a note-palette if you will. Scales are often one of the first pieces of music theory that instrumental students get to (or fail to get to) grips with in practice. If we arrange our recently befriended intervals in the following order…
Tone – Tone – Semitone – Tone – Tone – Tone – Semitone
…then we get the notes of the major scale (i.e. the familiar Do – Re – Mi – Fa – So – La – Te – Do pattern). Regardless of which note we start on, if we follow that pattern, we will hear the familiar, generally jovially mannered major scale. For example, if you were to begin on the note C at the piano (the root note, or ‘tonic‘ of the scale), then you’d form the C Major Scale by playing…
C D E F G A B C
…all the white notes from one C note to the next C note on the keyboard.
You can test the formula out by singing up the scale Do – Re – Mi – Fa and then repeating Mi – Fa – Mi – Fa… now see how long it takes before you start to feel the eerie presence of a certain shark as you alternate between these two notes, a semitone apart. Or you could try singing the first five notes of the scale ‘Do – Re – Mi – Fa – So’ and seeing if any gritty London-based soap operas come to mind. The one you’re hopefully thinking of happens to feature the first five notes of the major scale, in ascending order, right there for you on a musical plate.
To get serious for a moment, it’s important to know that each scale is ‘spelt’ such that it only features each note of the musical alphabet once, (not counting the repetition of the root-note which really just satisfies our need for things to be nicely rounded off.)
With that in mind, let’s try another example, this time beginning on the note G. The resultant major scale (G Major, of course) would look as follows…
G A B C D E F# G
A piano player here would need to play the black note one semitone higher than the F note to maintain the correct tone / semitone formula for the major scale. Likewise, a guitarist would have to play one fret higher in order to sharpen the F note. Either way, we have added one accidental, in this case a sharp to find ourselves firmly playing the G Major scale.
Some scales require notes in the sequence to be flattened rather than sharpened, to sound correct and to maintain the correct scale spelling. F Major for instance can only be expressed as follows… F G A Bb C D E F. No scale yet known to man features both sharps and flats. The thought!
The formula for the more melancholic minor scale (using exactly the same building blocks, just in a different order), is as follows…
Tone – Semitone – Tone – Tone – Semitone – Tone – Tone
I will offer two examples here which have relevance to the C Major Scale. The first, C Minor as the name suggests, begins on the same note, and in fact features some of the same notes elsewhere in the scale too, but as we’ll later discover has one particularly significant alteration. The notes of this scale are C, D, Eb, F, G, Ab, Bb, C. Certainly as far as keyboard players are concerned, this is a trickier scale to master as it involves those pesky accidentals too. These two scales are said to be parallel in nature (i.e. C Minor is the parallel minor of C Major). By far the easiest minor scale for the keyboard player is the A Minor scale, as it too features only the white notes of the keyboard, but starting with A, rather than C, i.e.
A B C D E F G A
The scale of A Minor is therefore said to be the relative minor of C Major, and vice-versa.
While popular songs and classical music are obviously very different in many respects, pop songs tend to be written from one of the two starting points above (major or minor), in the same way that classical music often does. There are other flavours of scale (called modes) which are formed using different combinations of tones and semi-tones. Each one adds some kind of nuance to a major or minor base, like putting mustard in your ham sandwich.
Each degree of the scale has a specific name, not all of which are particularly intuitive. For the record, they are follows.
1 – Tonic
2 – Supertonic
3 – Mediant
4 – Subdominant
5 – Dominant
6 – Submediant
7 – Leading note
The most important ones for our purposes are the tonic (also often called the root, or “home” of the scale) and the dominant which is the note of the 5th degree of the scale, and is the “away” to the “home” of the tonic, as we’ll see later.
Good, now that’s out of the way, let’s press on. The key signature of a piece of music is an expression of the musical scale around which the music is based and therefore tells the performer(s) which notes he/she/they will more than likely be needing, I.e. which scale they will play (major, minor) and which note will be used as the root of this scale.
When music is written down formally, the key signature is written at the beginning of the piece or section. When pop musicians get together and jam, they have to agree on which key signature they will use as a starting point, giving them one less thing to argue about later on when they’re famous. “Let’s play something slow in G Major” for instance. In either case, the musicians will know that they’d best avoid playing an F natural, or they may find themselves quickly back in their old job.
When musicians begin learning an instrument, particularly keyboard instruments, they tend to begin playing in ‘easy keys’ for their instrument. The key of C Major for instance is a favourite among teachers of beginner keyboard and piano players as it involves no sharps or flats i.e. the white notes, C, D, E, F, G, A and B (whereafter the pattern repeats an octave higher).
Let’s return to our discussion of intervals now. Both semitones and tones are known as steps, and a melody which moves up or down by either one is known as step-wise .The largest interval we’ve discussed so far is the tone, but often, particularly when discussing harmony, we’ll need to refer to intervals larger than a tone, drawing on what we know about scales and key signatures.
If we lay out a musical scale in front of us, then each note has a different distance (or interval) to the root note (the note after which the scale is named. For example, in the key of C Major, the interval between scale degrees 1 and 2 (i.e. Do – Re, or C – D) is known as a 2nd. The interval between scale degrees 1 and 5 (i.e. Do – So, or C – G) is known as a 5th and so on. Oddly, the interval between scale degrees 1 and 8 is known as a octave. (You can kind of see why… octopus, octagon etc, but still…)
Depending on the exact relationship between the note and it’s reference point, the interval will take on one of three main qualities (perfect, major or minor), and more rarely one of these (augmented, diminished). Within the major scale, the rules are that the 4th and 5th (C – F and C – G) intervals from the root note (C), are perfect. They sound pure and unemotional, whereas the 3rd interval (C – E) has a major quality (4 semitones to be precise), which is largely why the scale sounds its jolly self. The 2nd, 6th and 7th intervals are of a similarly major quality, though these have less of a bearing of the overall emotional feel of the scale. Conversely in a minor scale, while the 4th and 5th intervals remain perfect, the 3rd interval is a minor interval (C – Eb, 3 semitones), and its this which to a large extent makes the minor scale sound the way it does.
The Circle of Fifths
So where is all this leading? If only there was some neat way to represent all of this complex information about different key signatures in a clear(ish) and concise way. Well, look no further than the natty little graphic below, the circle of fifths. Named partly on account on it fitting almost uncannily into a circle (and a clock-face at that), and also due to the fact that each key signature around the circle is a perfect 5th interval from its nearest neighbour.
As you can see from the diagram, C Major (and it’s musical brethren A minor) are at the top of the circle and require the use of no sharps (#) or flats (b). Hence if you were to play the following series of adjacent white notes C D E F G A B C, on a musical keyboard (and I highly recommend that you do), you’ll hear the C Major scale. You’ll then feel the irresistible compulsion to start singing a song about a female deer, and drops of golden sun. Trust me, you will.
As you go round the circle in a clockwise direction from C Major at the top, you’ll see that more and more sharps are added to each key signature. So the key of E Major for instance has 4 sharps, and it’s scale would be played thus… E F# G# A B C# D# E. Go and find a piano this instant and try it out. Again, your mind will be flooded with images of deer and raindrops and names that you call yourself and this is because the notes follow the same pattern of tones and semitones as all the other major scales, as we discussed earlier. Exactly which notes need to be sharpened is shown on the circle, determined by a pattern for which a range of bawdy acronyms have been devised involving Father Christmas and exploding electric blankets.
All kinds of interesting things can be gleaned from representing the different key signatures like this. For example, if we look at a particular key signature, then those which are scattered nearby (i.e. the relative major / minor, and those of the adjacent keys either side) form a nice little palette of chords which can be used to create harmony for a song. If we look at the key of C Major, we can see that A Minor, G Major, E Minor, F Major and D Minor are all within reach, and as such could all play their part in a song’s chord sequence.
The circle also neatly sets out the extent to which different keys are related. We already know that the keys of C Major and A Minor share all their notes (as they are relative keys). The Keys of C Major and G Major have all but one note in common as they are directly adjacent (i.e. 12 o’clock and 1o’clock respectively). This could give the songwriter clues about which keys could work together in different sections of a song. The further away you jump around the circle for your new section, the more drastic (and potentially awkward) it is likely to sound. For similar reasons, a very close variation of the circle of fifths is used by many DJs to help them make decisions when blending songs in a musical way, avoiding musical clashes.
Of course, its not all about melody, wholesome though they may be. We all need somebody to lean on, and in the case of music, melody more often than not needs something to underpin it, have its back, when the going gets tough etc etc. Enter the chord. Chords are combinations of notes played simultaneously. Chords are often comprised of three notes (and are known as triads if this is the case). There are a few different flavours of triad chord, each of which has its own specific feel. The two most common are major and minor chords. Both chords feature a root note, which is the note the chord is named after, and a fifth which is appropriately a perfect 5th interval above the root. The other note sits somewhere in between and is known as the third. As you may have ascertained, it is this note which gives our chord its specific flavour.
Major chords are built from an interval of four semitones between the root note and the third, and then a further interval of three semitones between the third and the fifth. So a C Major chord would comprise the notes C E and G, in ascending order of pitch. If you refer back to the piano diagram above you’ll notice that these notes are each separated from the next by one intervening note (D and F).
Conversely, minor chords are built from an interval of three semitones between the root note and the third, and then a further interval of four semitones between the third and the fifth. So a C Minor chord would comprise the notes C, Eb and G. You’ll note that the root note and the fifth are the same in these chords, with the third changing only by one semitone, but creating drastically different emotional whack.
Two other common triads are the diminished triad (three semitones and another three semitones), and the augmented triad (four semitones and another four semitones). These triads are lesson common in popular music, though can be used to different shades of tension and release if deployed sensibly.
Triads can be tweaked, inverted, manipulated and generally man-handled to create all kinds of different effects within a song, and different instruments will generate different ‘voicings‘ of these chords by virtue of the way the instrument is generally played. As an example, most triads played on a guitar (having 6 strings) will include some notes of the chord more than once, potentially in different octaves.
Just as the key signature tells us which notes to choose from to create a melody, it also tells us which to use for our chords too. By building chords on each note (or degree) of the major scale, we create a palette of chords which can be guaranteed to work well musically in a sequence (commonly known as a chord progression) in the chosen key. Below are the chords which comprise the harmonised C Major scale.
C Major – D Minor – E Minor – F Major – G Major – A Minor – B Dim
By virtue of the arrangement of tones and semitones (with which we are of course now eminently familiar), three of the chords created are major chords, three are minor, and one (there’s always one) is diminished.
Just like the “formula” of tones and semitones to create a major scale, this pattern also holds true of all major keys. With that in mind, we could (and indeed shall) write out the harmonised major scale using roman numerals to replace the specific root notes above, a bit like replacing specific numbers with letters (like x, y and z) in algebra, but the other way around.
I Major – ii Minor – iii Minor – IV Major – V Major – vi Minor – vii Dim
Again, as you are no doubt incredibly observant, you will notice that the major chords have capitalised numerals, while the minor and diminished chords have lower case numerals. The three major chords are also known as the primary chords of the key, and these can be easily related to the primary colours of visual art, as they constitute the simplest and boldest choices when devising a chord progression. The relationship between the V chord (aka. the dominant chord) and the I chord (aka. the tonic chord) forms the basis of much popular and classical music, more blatantly in some cases than others, and derives its power from the tension which is created by the V chord as it desperately seeks to be resolved by the I chord.
As you might expect, the minor scale can also be harmonised in the same way, though you may not have expected that there are in fact different types of minor scale, just to add a little spice to things. Since we’re dealing with the process of harmonisation, it makes sense to use what’s known as the harmonic minor scale to generate our chords.
i Minor – ii Dim – III Augmented – iv Minor – V Major – VI Major – vii Dim
The other main types of minor scale are the melodic minor scale and the natural minor scale, but the main advantage of the harmonic minor scale is the major chord on the 5th (or Vth?) degree of the scale, as this generates a very strong sense of momentum back to the tonic (i) chord.