53. Basic Theory

The music alphabet has 7 letters, A-G. There is no H note. When G is reached, we begin again on A. Ascending (moving forward) through the same alphabet always raises pitch. Descending (moving backward) through the same alphabet always lowers pitch. Example: D is higher than C, but lower than E. When G is reached and A begins again, the next “alphabet” begins.


The range of music notes spans several of these repeating “alphabets” in the process. A musical NOTE is the name for a sound at a particular frequency, or PITCH, that differentiates it from other notes. Each of the 7 letters is a note.  5 of the letters have an additional note in between them, and 2 do not. The distance between any 2 notes is called an INTERVAL.


The entire span, or frequency range, of notes from low to high can be thought of as a circle, or better yet, a spiral. When two notes are exactly the same, this is called UNISON.  When ascending or descending through these series of “alphabets”, and the same note is reached, this interval is called an OCTAVE, which, as you will see below, is the span of a completed major scale.


The sound of the OCTAVE, with two notes that sound the “same”, yet one higher and one lower, is very distinctive and should be learned with the ear as soon as possible. Other intervals are much easier to learn once this is mastered.


The major scale is the axis of western music. Once it is well understood, other concepts are much easier to grasp. The smallest recognized interval in western music is the half step. Remember, this is the distance (interval) of one piano key to the next or ONE FRET on the guitar. The distance of one whole step on the guitar is TWO FRETS, 1 ½ steps=3 frets,  and so on.

The major scale contains a series of whole and half steps, in the following order: Whole step, whole step, ½ step, whole step, whole step, whole step, ½ step.  Below is the most basic of major scales, C.




The notes are numbered 1-8. These are called DEGREES of the scale. As you can see, we start on C and end on C. These notes are the “same”, one is higher and one is lower.


As noted earlier, this is the interval of an OCTAVE. All the other intervals have names as well, based on their numeric order in the scale—3rds, 6ths etc.  To learn the intervals of the major scale, I highly recommend visiting (or revisiting) the film The Sound of Music, with its song describing its sound and qualities. In it you will hear the notes sung as do, re mi etc.


This musical language is called solfege, and its purpose is to give each note of the major scale one name, training the ear to hear the note intervals, before learning various major scales where the note names change. For now we are doing the opposite, focusing on the construction of the scale only.


Look at the scale again. Note the ½ steps between the letters B-C and E-F. All the other letters, or notes, in our “alphabet” have a WHOLE STEP between them. Since movement in half steps is consistent, this means there is a note between each of these notes.

This is easiest to learn from a piano keyboard: The piano has 88 keys, ½ step between each. There are black keys between the white keys everywhere EXCEPT:










If you forget there are no half steps between B-C and E-F, basic theory will be very confusing, but if you remember this, you will have no problems.




This means there is no Fb, no Cb, no E#, and no B#. In music these note names are occasionally used, but they are not a part of any scales or intervals we will study, and we will not refer to them as such.


Know these terms: The symbol # means SHARP, or HIGHER in pitch.

 The symbol b means FLAT, or LOWER in pitch.                           .

On the piano, all black keys each have 2 different names. Their names are taken from the white keys next to them. Look at any white key that has black keys on either side.


For instance, look at G. The name of the black key to its right will be G with a “#” added to its name, in this case G SHARP (G#), and the name of the black key to its left will be G with a “b” added to its name, G FLAT (Gb). The black key to the left of G is also called F SHARP (F#), since it is ½ step higher than F (the next lowest white key) while the black key on the right is also called A FLAT (Ab), since it is ½ step lower than A ( the next highest white key).

On the guitar, there is no such visual aid; the notes ascend and descend either from fret to fret, or from open string to fret, and all look the same. But we don’t have to play notes with both hands either!

So the basic music alphabet has 7 letters, or notes, plus 5 more when the notes between  A-B, C-D, D-E, F-G and G-A are added, for a total of 12 notes. Together, this is known as the CHROMATIC SCALE. “Chromatic” in this case simply means movement in half step intervals.

  © 2012 Jim Greenfield