Tag Archives: music theory

Musical Mirth

C, E flat, and G walk into a bar.  The bartender says “Sorry, no minors.”

Sorry if this joke doesn’t strike a chord with you.  Some people are a bit tone deaf when it comes to musical humor.  Okay, enough of that.

Most Western music is constructed from 12 notes.  They are named after the first seven letters of the alphabet.

  1. A
  2. A♯ / B♭ (read as “A sharp” or “B flat”)
  3. B
  4. C
  5. C♯ / D♭
  6. D
  7. D♯ / E♭
  8. E
  9. F
  10. F♯ / G♭
  11. G
  12. G♯ / A♭

This set-up bears a brief explanation, so stick with me for a moment.  The notes that do not have sharps or flats (A, B, C, etc) are called naturals.  The space between a natural and its sharp or flat is called a semitone (or a half tone or half step).  For example, there is an interval of one semitone between the notes A and A♯.  The naturals A and B are separated by a whole step, or simply a tone.  Most pairs of naturals are separated by a whole step, with the exceptions of B and C, and E and F.  For reasons we won’t get into right now, there are no sharps or flats between B and C, or between E and F.  The note B♯ is the same as C natural, and C♭ is the same as B natural.  A similar relationship exists between E and F.

Although there are 12 notes to choose from, a lot of musical pieces only emphasize seven of them.  The seven notes featured in a musical piece make up the key.  Keys come in two varieties: major and minor.  The key helps set the mood of the music; a major key is generally upbeat and happy-sounding, while a minor key can be somber and haunting.

The notes for a key are chosen by a relatively simple formula.  For major keys, you choose a starting note, then pick out the notes that fall in the following intervals: whole step, whole step, half step, whole step, whole step, whole step, half step.

If you wanted to build a major key around the note of C, you’d follow the formula to pick out the rest of the notes in the key:

  1. Start with C.
  2. One whole step above C (two half-steps) is: D
  3. One whole step above D is: E
  4. One half step above E is: F
  5. One whole step above F is: G
  6. One whole step above G is: A
  7. One whole step above A is: B
  8. One half step above B, and we’re back to: C

The C major scale has seven unique notes, and ends where it began (albeit one octave higher…oh wait; I didn’t explain about octaves?  Oh dear.)

If you want to build a minor key around C, there’s a slightly different formula to follow: whole step, half step, whole step, whole step, half step, step-and-a-half, half step.

  1. Start with C.
  2. One whole step above C is: D
  3. One half step above D is: E♭
  4. One whole step above E♭ is: F
  5. One whole step above F is: G
  6. One half step above G is: A♭
  7. A step-and-a-half above A♭ is: B
  8. One half step above B, and we’re back to C

From the notes in a scale, you can construct chords – combinations of notes played at the same time.  Just as there are major and minor keys, there are major and minor chords.  One common chord structure used in music is the triad.  As the name suggests, a triad is made of three distinct notes.  In our opening joke, a triad consisting of C, E♭, and G, walk into a bar.  Since those notes represent the first, third, and fifth notes in a C minor key, it is a minor triad.

In case you understand everything about music theory but still don’t get the joke, the word “minor” can also refer to a person who isn’t old enough to legally purchase and/or consume alcohol.  Hilarious.