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.) Once you know how to make phrases sound good, 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 make 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 everyone needs to know. It's called the Major Scale. Almost everyone starts there.
The major scale has a particular sound. You've heard this sound many times. You've probably sung it too. Have you ever heard anyone 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. 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. It's much easier if you already have a bunch of them available.
Concept #3 - Roman Numerals
Even though we walked quickly past scales, there is one important concept to remember. The notes in the scale can be numbered 1 through 7. That matters.
Next I'd like to 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 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." Get it? "1" means note number one. "I" means the one chord, which is built on note number 1.
The same holds 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 trickier to understand, so we're leaving it out. 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 needed right now.)
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 certain sound, which some people describe as happy or bright. In music theory we call them"major chords." The lower case chords have a sound some people hear as being darker or sad. We call these "minor chords."
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 often as you need until the material presented here starts to feel natural. When you feel good about what you've learned in this part, you are ready to proceed to Part 2. Have fun!
Index - Part 1 - Part 2 - Part 3 - Part 4 - Part 5 - Charts and Maps
Part 6 - Part 7 - Part 8 - Part 9 - 1st Steps in Keyboard - Part 10
Part 11 - Part 12 - 1st Steps in Note Reading
Copyright 2004 Steve Mugglin
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