Three Is A Magic Number, or Music Theory From A Pragmatic Perspective, Part I


In this post I want to hand you a little toolbox of music theory as far as I use it. This box is surprisingly small, but very efficient. I cannot read music, although I tried hard several times in my life to make a connection between the black dots and what goes on in my head, but for my everyday work I don’t need those dots at all. What I need is a basic understanding of how the notes relate. If you want to able to dissect, improvise, compose and arrange any kind of music there is no way around music theory, but I make do with what little follows. This goes out to self-taught guitar/bassplayers who think in frets most of the time. I have the feeling that players of all other other instruments learn this stuff by heart by the age of 8, but we poor string-fellows somehow rarely do… Okay, brace yourselves, here we go:

I. Basics.
There are 12 semitones (or frets) to the octave. In western music (classical, pop and most jazz) you pick 7 of these to make up the basic ingredients of your key. Depending on which 7 you pick you either have a minor/major scale, or one of the other modes. If you play around on your guitar and pick any 7 notes that make sense to you on an emotional level you will always end up with one of these, although there are more sets of 7 in these 12 notes.

II. Intervals.
The distance between any one of these notes, and any other note is an interval. The distance is measured in semitones, and their number determines the interval.

semitones above the root: name of interval
0: root
1: minor second
2: perfect second
3: minor third
4: major third
5: perfect fourth
6: diminished fifth
7: perfect fifth
8: minor sixth
9: major sixth
10: minor seventh
11: major seventh
12: octave = root

Now pick your set, but always just one of every numeral degree: pick a root, one of the seconds, one of the thirds and so on. In your two most basic keys, major and minor, you always have the perfect intervals and the root. For a major key, add the major intervals:
root, perfect second, major third, perfect fourth, perfect fifth, major sixth, major seventh, or if you think in tabs and take an open string as the root: 0 2 4 5 7 9 11

For a minor key, add the minor intervals.:
root, perfect second, minor third, perfect fourth, perfect fifth, minor sixth, minor seventh, or if you take an open string as the root:
0 2 3 5 7 8 10

III. Analysis
Now in order to understand what this means you have to dissect music you play. It doesn’t matter if it is your own music, or stuff other peoplepersons wrote. If you want to understand a chord, take the lowest note that is played as the root, and define the intervals you have by counting semitones. If you want to find out the key, play the piece until you come to the chord that feels like home, where all tension is gone. Usually that is the final chord of the piece. If that final chord consists of majors and perfects, your piece is most likely in a major key over the root of that chord. If minor, minor. In most music outside of jazz you will find that the whole piece sticks to those seven notes of that key. Any other note that is used will stick out like a sore thumb, and be there for a single reason: to introduce some tension.

Now, play your favourite piece veeery slowly and try to think along which intervals you are using right now. I learned most of what I know about harmony from thinking through pieces I wrote or played, and trying to be aware of the relative position of ANY note I play in that piece. In my head that sounds like this: Okay, the melody goes minor seventh, minor sixth, perfect fifth, root, perfect second, ARG what the fuck was that, lemme count, aha, four semitones, that is a major interval while, as all the others were minor, weare in a minor key, what a cunning bastard, but here comes the perfect fourth again, and back to the root, horay.

IV. Furtherer

Understanding what relation any note you finger has to the root, and getting a feeling for how certain intervals and tension tones feel is maybe the most important thing I learned over the last years. This is the root (haha…) of all arranging, improvisation and composition: training that inner ear. The fun part is that it works both ways; the better you can analyse a piece you play, the easier it gets to write your own stuff. All I do when I write is listen to what comes next. There is always a vague suggestion in my head how whatever I hear right now might continue, and the better I analyse and hear that, the faster I can write what I want to happen at that spot.

I learn music by ear. I always tell all my students to do the same, and although I understand why people ask for tabs for my youtube-videos I rarely ever write them; not because that would be too much work, but because playing from a tab helps you learn to do the mechanics of a piece, but you skip all the musical relations and tensions and the inner structure. If you don’t know which of fingers plays the melody and which does the harmony you don’t really know what you are doing. So: Transcribe!!

More on constructing stuff with what I wrote above later on, for now what I scribbled down on this is much too confused for anyone to follow.




2 thoughts on “Three Is A Magic Number, or Music Theory From A Pragmatic Perspective, Part I

  1. hanswurstvonelmwoodsbach says:

    Wow….can you explain why the intervals are named as such? I feel like I learned music theory through chord theory whereas the sixth chord is the chord which has the sixth note of scale as its root. What’s all this about diminished fifth? I thought the diminished occurs at the seventh.I’m also confused as to why you wrote semi’tones but then explained that to understand this we should pick seven notes on the guitar which make sense emotionally, wouldn’t that then be a scale? Bro, I’m lost! You’re the manfor even writing this though!

    • null says:

      The intervals are just counting upwards from the root. third degree is the third note in a key, where the root is the first.

      The semitones are the resolution we think in, the way we measure distances, and as you have 12 of them in any octave, but playing all of them will sound rather rough, you pick 7 out of these 12. that is then indeed a scale. i may have misled you by speaking of keys all the time and not of scales, but they are the same here.

      The diminished fifth, ah, that’s where the fun starts. if you take a minor key as your starting point, and construct a triad over the second note of the scale (=the second degree), you will have the tones: perfect second, perfect fourth and minor sixth as seen from the root. in that case the chord that you actually end up with is your root tone, a minor third, and a tone that is 6 semitones over your root. in A minor that would be a Bdiminished consisting of B, D, and F. The sixth degree of A minor is F, so if you have the B chord, the F is the fifth, but it is not a perfect fifth (7 semitones) but a diminished fifth (6 semitones) just because yout tonal material is fixed to what A minor contains, and there is no F# in A minor.

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