Sunday, May 22, 2022


In asking myself what a skill for life would be, learning a musical instrument was my immediate answer. There is a level of dedication and devotion implied by competently playing a melody, let alone being able to improvise one – that is the difference between knowing the right notes and learning your scales.

The latter of these has eluded because I have been so concentrated on the former, and the time has come for me to learn properly to play even better. However, like solving quadratic equations, learning what notes form the key of G major appears to be just something you must learn, with no shortcut or mnemonic.

To clarify, musical scales are predominant in Western music and culture, consisting of eight notes in sequence relating to the first, “tonic” note, the last note being the first when played one octave higher. To our ears, playing in the right key is the same as playing “in tune”, without “hitting the wrong note”. The names given to the two types of scale, “major” and “minor”, are based on importance and use. 

As it turns out, major keys are comparatively easy. C major is the one that everyone can do, because it has no sharp or flat notes - it only uses the white notes on a keyboard. Looking at a keyboard indicates how the major scale is formed: there are 12 notes from one C note to the next, known as semitones – skipping a black key implies a step of two semitones, or a whole tone. There are no black keys between the E and F key, or between B and C, and the gap between these is one semitone. 

Therefore, the gaps between the notes in C major are tone, tone, semitone, tone, tone, tone, semitone. Repeating this in G major requires you to use a black key, F sharp (F#), to fulfil the pattern, and to play “God Save the Queen”. Every major key follows this pattern: starting on E flat (Eb), you play Eb, F, G, Ab, Bb, C, D, Eb to make the key of Eb major, and the start of the “EastEnders” theme. Start on C#, and you can play my song “Nostalgia’s Gonna Get You” [link].

When people talk about minor keys, it is generally the “natural” minor keys have their own pattern. A minor, like C major, only uses the white keys, but starts three semitones lower, making a pattern of tone, semitone, tone, tone, semitone, tone, tone – likewise, the equivalent of G major is E minor. There are “melodic” and “harmonic” variations that developed to fit certain intentions, but I can get more information on these once I nail the fundamentals down.

This is as far as I reached before needing to understand Western diatonic scales and the “circle of fifths”, but even the above proves there are certain assumptions that must be made before you begin to learn something, and things that you just must learn. There is no such thing as a shortcut to learning, except for making the size of the task feel less huge.

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