The Building Blocks of Music
Many things in this world couldn’t exist without an important fundamental building block. For living organisms, it is the cell; for skyscrapers, it is the steel I-beam; for modern electronics, it is the transistor. For popular music, it is a set of seven notes called the major scale.
The major scale is just a group of notes that follow a special pattern - one that humans happen to really love. In fact, we love these notes so much that the vast majority of the songs you hear on the radio are built using just these seven notes played in a unique sequence. Doesn’t that seem remarkable?
One set of these notes corresponds to the white keys on the piano. To hear them, click the play button.
Before you criticize this particular ordering of notes as uninteresting and not very musical, know that listening to them in this order is the equivalent of looking at an I-beam sitting on a construction site. However, when re-ordered, these seven notes can create almost every song you know and love. In other words, the white keys of the piano are all you need. Let’s listen to a few:
- "Over The Rainbow" from the motion picture The Wizard of Oz (1939)
- "Basketcase" by Green Day (1994)
- "A Whole New World" from the motion picture Aladdin (1992)
- "Hey Jude" by The Beatles (1968)
- "Blowin' In The Wind" by Bob Dylan (1963)
- "Bad Romance" by Lady Gaga (2009)
To be clear, there is nothing special about these specific songs that makes this possible; they were chosen simply because they are iconic and recognizable.
The many major scales
The first note in the scale we just showed you happened to be C, but a major scale can actually be played starting from any note on the piano. Other major scales make use of the black keys, but they all sound basically the same, and any one of them can play all the songs you just heard.
The fact that a major scale can start on any note is the reason songs are said to be written in a “key" like C or F or G - the key indicates the starting note of the scale that the song uses. For example, every song in the medley you just heard used the notes from the C major scale (since the starting note of the scale was C), so they are said to be played in the key of C. The original recordings of these songs don’t all use this particular major scale, but I bet you couldn’t tell and didn’t care; you still heard each song just as you remembered it.
The fact that a major scale can start on any note is convenient for singers because it allows them to sing songs in the key that is most comfortable for their vocal range, but it makes trying to understand music a real mess. Consider two frequently used major scales: C Major and D Major:
C Major Scale
D Major Scale
Notice that the note D shows up in both scales. The note D, however, is in a different position in each scale: it's the 2nd note in the C major scale and the 1st note in the D major scale.
This is important because the way a note is used in a song is determined by its position in the scale rather than its letter name. D plays a completely different role in a song written in C major than a song written in D major.
Trying to understand a song by looking at just the names of the notes it contains isn’t very useful because it ignores this fundamental fact. Fortunately, there is a simple solution that makes understanding the structure of a melody and comparing different songs very straightforward.
So far we've basically told you only 2 things:
1. the lettered names of the notes contained in a song are of no help for understanding what is going on unless they are considered in the context of the major scale that a song is using.
2. the particular scale that a song happens to use doesn’t matter. Most songs can be played entirely with the white keys of the piano (the C major scale), but they wouldn’t sound much different if they were played in some other scale that makes use of a different set of notes.
For these reasons, it’s easier and more intuitive to understand music by referring to notes in a song by their position in their scale (1-7) rather than their actual letter names (C, D, E, ..., for example). To introduce you to this notation, often called relative notation, consider the two major scales you saw before but now marked up with numbered labels and colors to emphasize each note's position in the major scale.
C Major Scale
D Major Scale
When notes are referred to by their position in a scale, they are referred to as scale degrees. The note D, for example, is scale degree 2 of the C major scale since it is the second note of the C major scale, but it’s scale degree 1 of the D major scale.
One of the most useful things about relative notation is that it enables songs that use scales with different starting notes to be compared side-by-side. For instance, one can compare a sequence of scale degrees rather than two different sets of lettered notes.
Visualizing music relatively
Since relative notation makes it easier to learn music, we created a simple way to display music in relative notation. The next example shows the C major scale displayed in relative notation on a staff. Each colored rectangle corresponds to a note. The vertical position indicates its scale degree (1, 2, 3, etc.) instead of its note name (C, D, E, etc). Color is used as an additional visual indicator of each scale degree. Red, for example, is always scale degree 1 regardless of the scale a song is using. Green corresponds to scale degree 4. The length of each note indicates its duration. When you click play, you will hear the scale degrees of the C major scale:
The next movie shows the G major scale on the relative staff. Notice that even though the C major scale and the G major scale are different on the piano, they look identical on the relative staff since both use the exact same scale degrees as they play (1-2-3-4-5-6-7-1).
In the previous examples, the 4th scale degree of the C major scale happens to be F. In the G major scale, it happens to be a C. In the relative system, however, both notes are represented by a green scale degree 4 to emphasize their sameness.
Real songs in relative notation
A major scale is very simple, and you might be asking how this works with actual songs. Since most songs only use notes from the major scale, they can be represented very naturally with relative notation regardless of the key they are written in. Below is the melody from the chorus of "Living On A Prayer" by Bon Jovi visualized with the relative staff.
What uniquely identifies the melody of a song?
Thinking about melodies as numbers representing positions in a scale makes it much easier to compare different melodies at a glance. It also makes it easier to analyze and understand melodies because the position of the note in the scale is what determines function rather than the actual note name itself.
The melody from "Living On A Prayer" uses scale degrees 1-1-1-7-6-5-3-4-4-... in succession. If the song happened to use the C major scale, these scale degrees would correspond to the notes C-C-C-B-A-G-E-F-F, but it could just as well have been written in G major where these scale degrees would correspond to entirely different notes (G-G-G-F#-E-D-B-C-C).
When we study the melodies and chords of different songs to look for patterns, we want to compare apples to apples, so the note names just won't do.