In the first part of this blog post, I discussed the reasons why a singer should know some basics of music theory. Then I reviewed the first two parts of an online course titled “Music Theory – a Beginners Guide” that you can find on Udemy. Let’s continue with the remaining three parts of the course: scales, keys, and rhythms.
Scales are patterns of half steps and whole steps (see part 1 of this blog to read about half steps and whole steps).
There are two most significant scales: major and minor scales. The minor scale is often called a natural minor scale. There is also so called harmonic minor scale, which is a natural minor scale with raised 7th pitch (in order to make the last step a half step similarly to major scales).
A major scale has the following pattern: WWHWWWH.
If that is hard to remember, then try to remember 2 ½ 3 ½.
How to Construct a Major Scale?
- Take any note to start a scale. For example start with the F note.
- Write it on a staff. The F note will be in the first space of the staff.
- Then write 7 more notes using different letters: in our example, write G A B C D E. Finish with F (F will be the only letter used twice).
- Follow the pattern of a major scale – WWHWWWH. If needed, raise or lower pitches by writing sharps or flats in front of the notes. In our example, you will need to lower the B note by writing the flat symbol in front of the note (on the third line). In other words, there is a whole step from F to G, then a whole step from G to A, then a half step from A to Bb, then a whole step again from Bb to C, then a whole step from C to D, another whole step from D to E, and finally a half step from E to F.
Remember! C major scale is the only major scale that does not have any sharps and flats.
A minor scale has the following pattern: WHWWHWW. Try to remember 1 ½ 2 ½ 2.
How to Construct a Minor Scale?
- Take any note to start a scale. For example start with the E note.
- Write it on a staff. The E note will be on the first line.
- Then write 7 more notes using different letters: in our example, write F G A B C D. Finish with E (E will be the only letter used twice).
- Follow the pattern of a minor scale – WHWWHWW. If needed, raise or lower pitches by writing sharps or flats in front of the notes. In our example, you will need to raise the F note by writing the sharp symbol in front of the note (in the first space). In other words, there is a whole step from E to F#, then a half step from F# to G, then a whole step from G to A, then another whole step again from A to B, then a half step from B to C, then a whole step from C to D, and finally a whole step from D to E.
Remember! A minor is the only minor scale that does not have any sharps and flats.
Every note on a scale has its name and a number.
The two most important pitches on a scale are tonic and dominant.
Tonic is the first note on a scale. Dominant is the fifth degree (pitch) on a scale.
Other degrees on a scale:
Mediant is half way between tonic and dominant – third degree.
Subdominant pitch is one below the dominant pitch – forth degree.
Submediant pitch is one above the dominant pitch – sixth degree.
The leading tone is the seventh pitch but it has to be half step below the last pitch (tonic).
Supertonic is the second degree.
The seventh degree in a natural minor scale is called subtonic.
How to Recognize Key Signatures of a Song?
Key signatures were created so we don’t have to write accidentals before every note that needs to be raised or lowered. Key signatures are placed right after a clef. Key signatures have either all sharps or all flats.
Dr. Ferrandino explains how to identify key signatures. He uses a simplified method to understand basic principles of recognizing key signatures. There are other ways to identify key signatures (one of them is to memorize all key signatures). However, it is important to note that you cannot identify key signatures based on accidentals only. As recommended by Dr. Ferrandino, it is helpful to find the last note of a song – it is usually (almost always) the most important note – tonic, which helps you identify the key signature. For example, one flat does not make a scale D minor. Look at the last pitch of the piece – if it is D and there is one flat, then it is a D minor scale.
Remember! C major and A minor have no sharps and flats in their key signatures.
Another fact to memorize: F major has one flat in its key signature as well as D minor.
Relative scales are scales that have different tonics (also the scale degree alignments are different) but they have the same key signatures and same pitches. For example, A major and F sharp minor scales are relative scales, F major and D minor are also relative scales (they have one flat).
Parallel scales are scales that have the same tonic (they also have the same degree alignments) but they have different pitches and key signatures. For example, C major and C minor scales are parallel.
Dr. Ferrandino first defines several terms:
Duration is the length of time a sound lasts.
Rhythm is a series of durations.
Beat is repeated durations usually of equal length.
Tempo is the rate of a beat.
Meter is a grouping of beats usually groups of 2, 3 or 4 beats. We call them duple, triple, or quadruple meter respectively.
Subdivision is a division of beats that are usually divided into two (simple time) or three (compound time) parts.
The term syncopation can be used in two contexts:
- Beat syncopation is an emphasis between beats.
- Metrical syncopation is an emphasis on an unexpected beat (for example on a note that does not start a group).
The rhythm tree for simple durational note values shows relationship among a whole note, half notes, quarter notes, eighth notes, sixteenth notes etc. See an example here.
The rhythm tree for compound durational note values always starts with a dotted note that is divided into three parts (for example, a dotted half note is divided into three quarter notes). Then the tree continues with simple subdivisions (each note is divided into two notes).
How to Recognize Meter Types?
Meter is noted by two numbers: the top number represents the number of beats in a group.
If this number is 2, 3 or 4, it’s a simple time.
If the number is 6, 9 or 12, it’s a compound time.
The bottom number represents the note value that gets the beat.
When identifying a meter type, you need to answer three questions:
- How many beats are in a group (duple, triple, quadruple time)?
- What type of beat gets the duration?
- Is it a simple or compound time?
The course then gives several opportunities to practice identifying each of these aspects – number of beats, types of beats and identifying the meter type. For example the meter 4/4 (also known as C) is a quadruple simple meter with a quarter note that gets one beat. Or 3/2 is a triple simple time with a half note that gets one beat. Or 6/4 is a duple compound time with a half dotted note that represents one beat.
Pros: I recommend this course for any beginner in music theory who struggles to understand basic concepts. The course is good for all types of learners: auditory (lectures are pre-recorded videos), visual (many visuals are used throughout the course) and experiential (there are many opportunities to apply newly acquired knowledge to concrete examples). The course is split into 32 short videos (from 2 to 15 minutes long) that you will have unlimited access to after you purchase the course.
Cons: The only downside to this course is that it does not provide any worksheets or course notes that you can print out. But I have done that for you in this post.
Final verdict: This course gets my approval.
If you are ready to improve your knowledge in music theory, you can click on any banner in this post and learn even more about the course and purchase it. If you decide to purchase this course, you first need to sign up for a free account on Udemy that takes only a few seconds, maybe minutes.
Even if you don’t buy anything, visit the website and look around. I am impressed with the quality of their programs. I will be reviewing more programs for singers from this website and I will keep you posted.
Let me know what you think. And of course, don’t forget to share this post with your friends who may be interested in this topic.