The Keeper of the Keys
When I first started writing songs, I literally pulled out my origami skills and created a couple of cubes that would become my “chord dice”. I wrote every chord that I knew on the pair of dice, and I rolled the dice to decide what chord I would play. One of those two chords, I figured, would have to sound good!
I’m not joking. That is a true story. It did NOT sound good. I had no idea what I was doing.
Songwriting, to me, was some sort of magical, mystical métier. One had to be an outright master of their craft in order to put the notes and chords in the correct order. With so many possible combinations, how could anyone ever know anything about the mysterious nature of music?!
As I continued to learn and dig deeper into the subject, I soon realized that music is not actually very difficult.
In contemporary western music, songs are typically written in a specific key and only include notes and chords that are a part of that key. In fact, each song essentially uses seven notes over and over again.
Seven… now that’s not such a difficult number! But before we talk about seven, let’s go a little higher and talk about twelve.
There are essentially twelve notes in contemporary western music. Those twelve notes, then, just repeat themselves over and over, using higher and lower frequencies of the same basic notes. The 88 keys of a piano are just these same 12 notes being used over and over again, but using a higher frequency version of those same notes from left to right. Those twelve basic notes are:
A, A# (or Bb), B, C, C# (or Db), D, D# (or Eb), E, F, F# (or Gb), G, G# (or Ab).
You may have noticed that some notes have two names. The hashtag indicates that the note is sharp, or one half-step higher than the note beside it. The little b indicates that the note is flat, or one half-step lower than the note beside it.
There. That was easy. Right? So where does that seven number come in to play? Each key contains only seven of these twelve possible notes. The seven notes are set for each key, and songs rarely uses notes outside of the song key.
So how do you know which seven notes will be in the key that the song is using? There is actually a simple formula. It goes like this: Root, whole, whole, half, whole, whole, whole, half. (The key actually includes eight notes, but the eighth note is always a repeat of the first note. That repeat is called the octave of the root note.)
R, w, w, h, w, w, w, h
Start with the key that the song is written in. We’ll use the key of A as an example. The note directly to the right of A is a half step away from A. Two half steps make a whole step. So following the simple formula, the key of A would include the following seven notes:
Root: A, whole: B, whole: C#, half: D, whole: E, whole: F#, whole: G#, half: A.
Well, look at that! We effectively erased five possible notes from the song! This formula works for any key! Let’s try the key of C:
Root: C, whole: D, whole: E, half: F, whole: G, whole: A, whole: B, half: C.
Once you have a grasp of which notes are a part of the key, you are well on your way to becoming a musical wizard
* This #ThursdayWorshipThoughts article is part 3 (of 5) of a larger series, “Music Theory March”. Be sure to check out the other articles in the series, as well! For a printable version of this article, click here.
Artwork provided by my good friend, Brooke Gehman, an authentic and wonderful man of God, devoted follower of Christ, and an amazing husband and father. Brooke is a gifted Worship Leader, an incredible artist, and a Potter by trade (check out his website).