Music Box and Music Theory Lesson

For Friendsmas, Michaelyn gave me a music box.  Not just any music box, but one for which I could write my own music!  I have elected to write her a waltz and give the music box back to her (if you want to hear what I come up with, you’ll have to bug her :P).

There are a few stipulations.  The music box is in the key of C major, does not allow for accidentals, and has a two octave range (from C3 to C5).  What this translates to in non-music nerd is that writing a song for this music box that isn’t boring will be a challenge.  It’s ok – I’m on vacation and have nothing but time, and I do love a good challenge.  If you think you are up to the challenge, feel free to write your own.  Mine will be about 15 measures long.

This reminded me of a series of posts I did way back in the day when I was on xanga over music in an effort to acquaint people with the basics.  Below the fold is a reprint of the introductory post about music theory.  Enjoy!  Let me know if you guys like it and, if you do, I’ll write more on music theory/vocal technique.

Also, feel free to ask any questions you might have in the comments.  I will answer all theory-related questions.


Intro to Music Theory

Let me first say that from the moment I was introduced to it, I’ve always loved music theory.  I loved it even though it was difficult for me to grasp at first (and boy was I slow at it compared to all the other students who had been musicians since they were two years-old), but I soon found it to be a very challenging and enjoyable synthesis of my analytical and artistic sides.

The more you learn about theory, particularly as you get into moderately complex stuff like twelve-tone serialism, the more mathematical it becomes.  It’s like a puzzle with an infinite number of variations.  It’s beautiful, and I encourage you to take the time to get the basics down – once you do, they open a whole world of possibilities that you must never go near an instrument or sing a note in order to enjoy.  And once you understand the construction of music, you will find that there is a whole other level on which you can appreciate the music you already listen to aside from the fact that it sounds nice – once you understand theory, you can also revel in the chess-like mentality, the cleverness of the composer as they created those sounds.  Like everything else, music is more beautiful, more awe-inspiring, the more you understand it.

My early entries in this series on music will be to set up my final entry in the educational blog series, four weeks from now, which will be over music history.  In order for that one to make sense we will all need to be on the same page with basic theory first.  Here’s how I think my entries will work:

Entry #1:  Intro to theory.  Note values, intervals, major/minor chords.
Entry #2:  Intro to vocal technique.
Entry #3:  More intro to theory.  Diminished/dominant7 chords, progressive/regressive motion.  Bonus entry on modal music.
Entry #4:  History.

Today there’s going to be a lot to cover.  You may want to take it in sections.  Also, if you’re already familiar with note values and what not, you may want to skip ahead.  :D  To start off with, we need to be familiar with notes.

When you look at a piano, you will see this pattern repeated over and over.  So once you learn what notes these keys represent, you will know what note every key on the piano represents.  :D

Starting from the far left and just going along the white keys (ignore the black keys for now), the notes are C, D, E, F, G, A, and B.  And if you were to put the same pattern after this…

…then the pattern starts over again on C.  Easy, right?  Every time you see the two black keys together, you know that the white key to their left is a C.

Now for the black keys.  You can describe them using either sharps (#) or flats (looks like a lower-case b).  For instance, the black key to the right of C and to he left of D can be described as C# or as Db.  To make a note sharp you simply take it up to the next note to the right.  Likewise to make it flat, you take it to the neighboring key to the left.

Real quick!

1.  Find F#
2.  Find Bb
3.  (Tricky, tricky…)  Find E#

Now we need to learn distance terminology.  Between every two notes is a particular distance.  The smallest distance between any two notes is what’s called a minor 2nd (m2).  You achieve a minor 2nd by moving one key in either direction on our virtual keyboard.  From D -> Eb, that’s a minor 2nd.  From B -> C (and also C -> B), also a minor 2nd.  If you want to know what a minor 2nd sounds like, think the theme from Jaws.

Real quick!

Moving along the white keys on our virtual keyboard (starting at C and ending on the C above it), there are two minor 2nds that occur naturally.  Where are they?

A minor second can also be called a “half-step”.  All other intervals are composed of a different number of half-steps.  A major 2nd (M2), or a “full-step” is just two minor 2nds stacked on top of each other.  So an example of a major 2nd would be from C -> D or from F# -> G#.  Here are the rest of the intervals:

Minor 3rd (m3) – Three half steps.
Major 3rd (M3) – Four half steps.
Perfect 4th (P4) – Five half steps.
Perfect 5th (P5) – Six half steps.
Minor 6th (m6) – Seven half steps.
Major 6th (M6) – Eight half steps.
Minor 7th (m7) – Nine half steps.
Major 7th (M7) – Ten half steps.
Octave or and 8th – Eleven half steps.Real quick!

1.  Give one example of a perfect 4th.  (example: E -> A)
2.  Give one example of a major 3rd
3.  Give one example of a minor 7th

Rather than counting all the half steps for 6ths and 7ths, there’s an easier way to go about it.  From D to B is a major 6th if you’re going up the keyboard.  However, if you go down the scale it’s only a minor 3rd, which is much easier to count.  Well, 3rds and 6ths are inversions of each other, as are 2nds and 7ths.  In other words, as you go up the keyboard for one, it is the opposite if you go down the keyboard using the same notes.  If you modify the prefix, then you have the correct interval in an inversion.  A major 7th going up the keyboard is just a minor 2nd going down.  An example of this would be from C to B.

Now for chords.  Chords are built on these intervals.  Chords require at least three notes (three-note chords are called tertian chords) played simultaneously.  We’re going to start with some standard tertian chords.

Major chords:  A major chord is composed of two intervals, which means we’ll need three different notes.  The intervals in a major chord are a major 3rd on the bottom and a minor third on top, both of which are built above the chord’s “root” note (in a C major chord, that note would be C.  Easy, right?  :D).

So, to make a C major chord we start on C and add the major third above it, E.  Then we go a minor third above that E to G.

We refer to the notes in their chord by their position above the root.  So in a C major chord, the E would be the third, and the G would be the fifth of the chord.

Real quick!

1.  What notes would you use in an F major chord?
2.  What notes would you use in a G major chord?
3.  What notes would you use in an Eb major chord?
4.  What notes would you use in an A major chord?

Minor chords:  Minor chords are the exact opposite of a major chord.  Minor chords start with their root note, and then have a minor third on the bottom and a major third on top.  So a C minor chord would be made up of a C, an Eb, and a G.

You’ll notice that the only note that changes between a C major and a C minor chord is the middle note (the 3rd of the chord).  This goes for any minor chord.  If you take it’s major chord brother and lower the middle note a half step, you will have a minor chord.

Real quick!

1.  What notes would you use for an E minor chord?
2.  What notes would you use for an F# minor chord?
3.  What notes would you use for a D minor chord?
4.  What notes would you use for a Bb minor chord?

I think that’s enough for today.  In the next theory post, we’re going to be dealing with the chords that allow the tonal system to exist: diminished and dominant chords.  It is an understanding of these chords that will be necessary for my post on music history.  Stick with it!  We’re just building the frame right now, and the frame is never as aesthetically pleasing as the completed house.  

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MORNING HAPPINESS: Singing the music that speaks to you.
"This is the Moment" from KC Oasis.
What made performing special for me - bringing the unreal to life.
Christopher Lee dead at 93.
About JT Eberhard

When not defending the planet from inevitable apocalypse at the rotting hands of the undead, JT is a writer and public speaker about atheism, gay rights, and more. He spent two and a half years with the Secular Student Alliance as their first high school organizer. During that time he built the SSA’s high school program and oversaw the development of groups nationwide. JT is also the co-founder of the popular Skepticon conference and served as the events lead organizer during its first three years.


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