Part One

Scales, Note Numbers, Roman Numerals

Concept #1 - Music as a Language

To begin with, music is like a language. Take this paragraph, for instance. It's made up of sentences, which are made up of words, which are groups of letters. The letters are taken from the alphabet.

Music has an alphabet too, but we call it a scale. Each note is like a letter. We put notes from the scale together to make chords (words). Then we put the chords (words) together to make phrases (musical sentences). When you know how to make good-sounding phrases, you are well on your way to writing songs.

So chords are your vocabulary. You need to know chords. But knowing chords alone is not enough. That would be like speaking words and not being able to create sentences. You need to know how chords flow from one to another.

Concept #2 - The Major Scale

There are many scales, but there is one in particular you’ll want to know. It's called the Major Scale.

The major scale has a recognizable sound. You're probably quite familiar with it already. Have you ever heard someone sing "Do, Re, Mi, Fa, So, La, Ti, Do?" That's it. That's the major scale. That's the alphabet.

Next we simplify. Instead of "Do, Re, Mi, Fa, So, La, Ti, Do," we use "1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 1." Same sound, just numbers now instead of names.


At this point, you might think we should learn a lot about scales, and someday I hope you can. But for now, we need to stay true to our purpose: to know the chords we need and how they flow from one to another. So let's move on.

It might surprise you, but it's possible to write a very good song without knowing a lot about scales. When you play a chord, you can immediately hum several notes that seem to fit. This process of playing and singing while searching for a strong melody is automatic. You "hear" the vocal lines in your head, or you experiment until you discover something you like. Part of the fun of writing songs is this searching process.

But while you can get along fine "discovering" the tune, it's a lot harder to discover chords. The writing process is much easier if you already have a group of chords to work with.

Concept #3 - Roman Numerals

Even though we walked quickly past scales, there is one important scale concept to remember. The notes in the major scale can be numbered 1 through 7. That matters.

Next let’s introduce a new idea. Each note in the scale can be considered the starting point, or “root,” for a chord. In other words, there is a note we will call 1, and there is a chord, made up of several notes, which uses note 1 as a starting point. Don't worry right now where those other notes come from. Just remember, there is a note called 1, and there is a chord based on note 1.

This chord based on note 1 is called the "one chord," and we use a roman numeral one (I) when we are referring to this chord. So if we want to talk about just the note, we will use "1," but if we're talking about the chord, we write "I." This is important to understand. "1" means note number one. "I" means the one chord, which is built on note number 1.

The same is true for the other notes in the scale.
There is a note "2" and there is a chord "ii."
There is a note "3" and there is a chord "iii."
There is a note "4" and there is a chord "IV."
There is a note "5" and there is a chord "V."
There is a note "6" and there is a chord "vi."

(There is a note "7" also, but the chord built on note 7 is a little different, so we're leaving it out for now. You may still use note 7 when you sing, and note seven may appear in other chords, but the chord that uses 7 as a starting point is not being considered at the moment.)

Did you notice? Some of the roman numerals are capitalized (I, IV, and V), while others are lower case (ii, iii, and vi). This is intentional. The capitalized chords have a sound which some people describe as being happy or bright. In music theory we call them "major chords." The lower case chords have a sound some consider to be more contemplative, or perhaps darker, or sad. These lower case chords are "minor chords."

Review of Part One

We started with our purpose: to learn about chords and how they flow. We then discussed how music is like a language, with stories, sentences, words, and letters, but we call them songs, phrases, chords, and notes. The notes come from the scale. The scale is similar to the alphabet.

Although it's very helpful to learn scales, we decided to postpone this area and jump straight to chords and how they follow one another. Most beginning songwriters can hum or sing a melody without knowing a lot about scales. But it's very hard to write songs when you still don't have an understanding of chords.

We did, however, observe one important fact regarding the major scale: it has seven notes. We numbered the notes one through seven and then made the further observation that each of these seven notes can function as a starting point, or root, for a chord. For instance, the chord built on note 1 is called "I." Leaving off the chord built on note seven, we were left with six chords, which we labeled I, ii, iii, IV, V, and vi. The I, IV, and V chords are "major chords," and the ii, iii, and vi chords are "minor chords."

Review this page as needed until the material starts to feel natural. When you understand the information here, you are ready for Part Two.

Copyright 1998 - 2018 Stephen Mugglin

Permission is given to make not-for-profit copies of this material.

The materials presented in Section 1 (Parts 1-12) are available as
a downloadable PDF eBook. Click here for more information.
First Steps in Keyboard PDF eBook Series is available. Learn to play 
chords in multiple keys. Click here for more information.
ChordMaps2, our interactive, chord-exploring midi controller app for iPad 
(iOS 8.0 or higher) is available. Click here for more information.
Our 28-page PDF eBook Learning and Remembering 
The Circle of Fifths is available here.