Musician’s Corner Part I


The best way to discuss music theory is to start from the beginning. The first thing that virtually every beginning student learns is the C major scale. It is presented is a very simple way and is very easy to grasp. It is simply all of the white keys on a piano, starting from C. Well, why are those notes tuned to those exact pitches? I am not going to get very deep into that but suffice it to say that each note contains an upper series of overtones and these overtones correspond to the notes in the scale. For a much more in-depth discussion of this check out this article:

What I want to talk about is the relationships that are derived from this most basic group of notes, the C major scale. I have found that much of the emotional impact of music comes not from the particular note that one chooses to play, but from which note one chooses to play next. A single note can be lifeless and empty, but playing another note after it creates a relationship between the two that affects the listener in a very deep way. The best musicians in the world can move us with a single note, but for the rest of us, we need to use a few more to get our point across.
I intend to keep each of my posts on this topic short. The information can get deep very quickly so I want to present it in a more natural way, akin to how a child is taught. These small lessons should be easier to process. Hopefully, the reader will only read one at a time and let some time pass before reading the next one. From my experience, to really learn this, your sub-conscious needs time to process these bits of information before your higher brain can organize it into a functional system of thinking. For more info, check this out:

The advantage I hope to give you is that I will present it to you in a coherent logical order that should make it easier to learn. I learned it in a rather haphazard format and it has taken me a long time to make it coherent in my own mind.
Lesson number one will present the C major scale and show the different ways of thinking about the relationships between the notes. Here is one octave of a C major scale spelled out:


The first way to think about the relationships is to look at the distance between these notes. This is expressed in musical steps (1) or half steps (1/2). This can be seen be looking at a piano and seeing how many black keys are between each note. One black key between notes equals one step, and no black keys equals a half step.


We have just deduced the relationships between each note in the major scale. This order of steps and half steps can be used to construct a major scale from any note. It looks like this:


The major scale can also be labeled with numbers that correspond to the degree of the scale that each note occupies. This basically is an indexing of the scale using a moveable reference, the reference being the first note of the scale itself. It looks like this:


Each note of the scale also has a corresponding number. I could refer to the note D or I could refer to the second degree of the C scale. In both cases, I am actually talking about the same note, just using a different way to name it. We have now extracted another way to formulate the scale based on the scale degrees. It looks like this:


This formulation also corresponds to the interval that occurs between the root (C) and the other note. To find the distance between two notes we can look at our diagram of the number of steps between each note. The distance between the root C and the note E is two whole steps. Two whole steps is an interval of a major third. This conveniently corresponds to the scale degree number. Therefore we can say that E is the third degree of the C scale and that it is a major third above C. Here is a chart that shows the interval between the root and each note using our diagram for number of steps between notes.

Note → NoteNumber of StepsInterval
C→D1major 2nd
C→E1+1=2major 3rd
C→F1+1+½=2½perfect 4th
C→G1+1+½+1=3½perfect 5th
C→A1+1+½+1+1=4½major 6th
C→B1+1+½+1+1+1=5½major 7th
C→C1+1+½+1+1+1+½=6perfect Octave

The third way that I want you to look at the C major scale is in relation to the key itself. In the key of C there are no sharps or flats. This is an indexing of the notes in the scale, similar to the above example, but in this case we are using a fixed reference point, C, the root of the key that we are in. This is what it looks like:


You will notice that the last two ways of identifying the notes in the C scale are identical. Do not worry, as this is the only instance in which these two reference points will be the same. In the next installment we will look at a different scale (D Dorian), but we will still be in the key of C, so the scalar reference point and the key reference point will be different.
I am fully aware that today’s discussion can bring up more questions than it answers, but that is the point. Music always begs further investigation and one is never finished learning. That is why it is so helpful to have an inquisitive personality. If this does not make sense, just read it again and sleep on it. Things will start to come more into focus in the next lesson. Until then, enjoy C major!

Read the Chapter II

The Musician’s Corner


My website is still very much in the process of growing. I have come to realize that it is a living and breathing entity, something I might compare to a plant. When your plants don’t get enough water or sunlight they wither and die. I am trying to nourish my website and give it enough water so that it can grow big and strong. The sunlight is my readers, so hopefully a little water will attract a little bit of sunlight.
When I visit other websites that focus on music, I usually am left with a feeling of wanting. The information found is entertaining and somewhat interesting, but I always feel like there are questions left unanswered. My biggest question when listening to a musician that I truly admire is “How did he/she do that?” My ego would like to think that there is someone out there who listens to my music and is asking the same question., so I am going to attempt to answer it. Be warned, this discussion could get highly technical so if you are not a musician you could get lost or bored. But if you are a musician who is looking for some insight into how another player approaches it, or you are simply an inquisitive, explorative listener I think I have a lot to offer.
The Musician’s Corner will be a series of brief discussions based around my approach to harmony and music theory. As time passes, I may branch out, but I think this is a great place to start. Once, a drummer that I was playing with brought his 6 or 7 year-old son to a rehearsal of ours. My friend Dan Puccio was playing the sax and this little kid was engrossed in what Dan was playing. At the end of rehearsal he asked his father, “Dad, how does he know which notes to play?” That question made me laugh, but it really does get to the heart of playing an instrument. How DO you know which notes to play? Well, I am going to attempt to answer that question here in the Musician’s Corner.

Read the Chapter I