Ask your musical questions here!

Every once in a while, non-musician Dopers ask questions about how music works: what’s the difference between E# and F, what do chord notations mean, what does 4/4 time mean, and so on. These threads usually devolve into discussions between musicians, and sometimes I fear the original question isn’t answered sufficiently for the novice.

I was thinking of putting together a small website that had some sound samples that would help illustrate the answers to some of these questions with audio.

If I were to do so, what questions would you want to hear examples of? or should I just made a whole bunch of stuff and see what sticks?

Oh cool! I’m an idiot when it comes to music theory… so here goes:

• Is there a sharp and a flat for every note? (I’m guessing there’s a BIG clue here as to how the white & black keys on a piano are set up [so I’m guessing no]… but trying to figure it out makes me tired)

• What’s the difference between sharps and flats?

• Are they so named because the sound “sharpish” or “flatish”? (kinda how you would say it sounds “bright” or “full”)

• Never got the whole 4/4 (et al) thing. It was explained to me when I took band in the 6th grade… but now it’s all gone.

• When writing music notation, can you do so without “noodling” it out first on your instrument of choice? Can you hear it in your head? Especially when composing different parts for different instruments.

• I’ve seen the music staff with the G-Clef, and one with a Bass Clef. Sometimes the former is above the later… what’s the “middle note” between these two staffs… or is there really no difference, and it’s just based on octaves or the instrument being used.

I’m sure I have more, but I’ve already embarrassed myself enough with my ignorance. And while I realize not all my questions were spot on with your OP… I figures I’d throw them out there. :wink:

This will sound completely idiotic, I’m sure, but then again, I’m a drummer, so I don’t know shit about music.

When I was in a band, I used to write songs by humming the melodies to the guitar player. He always laughed and told me I used the same chord progression for every song (except the very last song I wrote, which apparently used my usual chord progression backwards). According to him, it was the same chord progression used in “Walking On Sunshine”, “Louie Louie”, “Wild Thing”, and billions of others. My question: those songs (as well as the songs I wrote) don’t sound like the same song, so what difference does it make if they’re the same chord progression? That’s not the same thing as using the same chords, right? I guess what I basically want to know is: what exactly is a chord progression? I mean, it sounds self-evident enough, but I’ve had friends try to explain it to me, and I can’t see why the chord progression matters if the actual songs using the chord progression sound so different. Is it just that it seems lazy to musicians to keep doing it over and over? Non-musicians, such as myself, obviously don’t have a clue.

  1. Why do we use treble and bass clef, instead of just putting all of the notes onto the treble clef? I understand that there’s a vaster range per instrument, but I’ve never understood why a bass clarinet can’t just use the treble clef, with the notes transposed accordingly.

  2. What’s the deal with modes? I understand what they are - different scales that exist within pre-existing scales - but what makes them so great? By extension, why was modal jazz (where players picked one key and mode, such as D Dorian, then improvised by sticking to it) so “freeing” and so revolutionary? Playing D Dorian seems to be the same thing as playing C major - it’s just one scale repeated over and over.

  3. Why was there SUCH resistance to equal temperament? With so many potential dissonant notes in Just intonation and in the pythagorean “tuning the fifths” method before it, how could anyone claim that it was more pure and beautiful sounding?

Fish, you mind if I answer some of these, seeing as how your website might take a while?

[li]Is there a sharp and a flat for every note?[/li]
Well, yes and no. Strictly speaking, A,B,C,D,E,F,G can all be flat, natural, or sharp. However, the difference between flat and natural, and between natural and sharp is a half-step. Most of the natural notes are separated by a whole step: A, A#, B. In addition to that, with two adjacent notes (except for the ones I will shortly address), the lower one sharped is the same note as the upper one flatted: A, A#/Bb, B. The exceptions to this are B-C and E-F; each pair is separated by half a step, and so B# is C, and E# F.
[li]What’s the difference between sharps and flats?[/li]
A sharp raises the note to which it is applied a half-step, and a flat lowers it half a step: see my previous answer.
[li]I’ve seen the music staff with the G-Clef, and one with a Bass Clef. Sometimes the former is above the later… what’s the “middle note” between these two staffs… or is there really no difference, and it’s just based on octaves or the instrument being used.[/li]
Technically there are three different clefs; the most common are the treble clef, also known as the G-Clef because in normal position it curls around G, and the bass clef, curling around F (incidentally, that F is just over an octave below the aforementioned G). Usually the treble clef is placed above the bass, because (simplifying somewhat) one ledger line below treble clef is C4, which is one ledger line above the bass clef. Clefs are technically independent of instruments, but in practice because of range many instruments have music written almost exclusively in one clef.
[li]Why do we use treble and bass clef, instead of just putting all of the notes onto the treble clef? I understand that there’s a vaster range per instrument, but I’ve never understood why a bass clarinet can’t just use the treble clef, with the notes transposed accordingly.[/li]
To some extent see my previous answer; as I understand it, though, the issue is often not of a larger range but simply a different one. Shifting octaves withing the same clef isn’t going to help if you’re going to be dealing with a lot of ledger lines anyway. Bass vocalists, for example, can easily range from F below bass clef to C above it; this involves only one ledger line in bass clef, but at least one in treble, with the clef itself shifted two octaves down. There are three different clefs: bass, treble, and tenor/alto; they all center on different notes, and so do instrumental ranges.

Nothing makes modes “great” per se. They’re just another way of organizing tones for music, and have long been used in ancient music–after all, the modes (at least most of them) originate with the Greeks. We’re used to making all our music primarily in major and minor keys, which correspond to the ionian and aeolian mode. (The minor is a little bit more complicated than that, but let’s not get into it). Bringing back the modes has brough back some tonal relationships that sound more exotic and foreign to our ears. The minor second of the phrygian and the raised fourth of the lydian would be good examples. Modes are just another color and mood (like major or minor).

Modal jazz was a radical departure from the jazz that preceded it. Before, jazz improvisations were based on chordal (harmonic) changes, with modal jazz, the emphasis shifted back to the melody and freed up the soloist because the constraints of having to follow chord changes had been eliminated (although the constraints of working freely within a mode now were imposed.) That said, every good improvisor occasionally plays “out” (outside the chords or mode), so modal jazz truly was liberating in many ways for the soloist. This link on Wikipedia has a far more eloquent explanation.

Because it was. You don’t have perfect fifths and perfect fourths in equal temperament. Critics of ET call it a tuning system in which all keys sound equally bad. Mozart was furious with the notion that anyone would dare play his music in ET. Just intonation was a tuning that allowed chromatic playing and transpostition, but not all keys are created equal in that system. Thus, you have nuances and real colors of key that don’t exist so much today. While some people say that D-flat sounds a certain way and A sounds a certain way to them, it’s hard to appreciate the difference in ET unless you have perfect pitch. With just intonation or any of a number of tuning systems (like J.S. Bach’s Well-tempered intonations–these were NOT equal temperament), you preserve a difference in the relationship of intervals, thus different keys did sound different and were not just a matter of pitch simply being transposed a fixed amount.

Also, remember, dissonance is a BIG part of music, as is consonance. Fourths and Fifths are not pure in ET, but (depending on where they fall), they are in other tuning systems. While I have not heard a lot of music in historical temperaments, the pieces I have heard do in fact sound “sweeter” and “cleaner” than their ET recordings. I believe Wendy Carlos did a CD where she preserves Bach’s tunings and you can hear the difference. There’s just more color to the music, for lack of better expression.

Yeah, and there are some instruments that have music written almost exclusively above one clef. When I got my piccolo, my band director pulled out some music featuring the piccolo. Notes lines and lines and lines above the treble clef, and I’m sitting there thinking, “What are these notes anyway?”

Some piccolo music makes extensive use of 8va and that helped at first. But some of us need more lines, or even a whole nother clef.


Actually, bass clarinet usually does use the treble clef, with the notes sounding a ninth lower than written…unless the composer followed the “German system,” in which the bass clef is used. Serious players–and there aren’t a whole lot of casual bass clarinetists out there–need to be proficient in both clefs.

The song melodies are completely different obviously, but the underlying chord structure is similar. That is, the chords that on a piano would be played by the left hand or in a band by the bass player, are the same. So someone could play the chord progression and overlay different melodies without creating unintentional dissonance or tension. Does that make sense?

(Bear in mind that I’m going off of one semester of music theory, so don’t take what I say as gospel. Or even, apocrypha.)

4/4 time means that there are four beats in a measure and a quarter note gets one beat. 2/4 time would mean that there are two beats in a measure and the quarter note gets one beat. Etc.

Actually, all of the modes were medieval inventions. During the Renaissance they were given Greek names because the music theorists at the time assumed they corresponded to the modes that they were reading about in classical writing. However, we don’t have enough evidence to determine WHAT the classical writers meant by musical mode – clearly there were different musical styles from different parts of Greece but we have no way of reconstructing them.

Thanks! But songs can have the same chord progression and still play different chords, can’t they? For instance (purely hypothetical; I know jack about chords, so this is not meant to convey any actual chord progressions), say one song has the chords C, G & A in its progression, and another has B, D & F. Is it possible they could have the same progression despite the fact that the chords are completely different? Or did all the songs I “wrote” have the exact same chords in the same progression? My ex-band-member tried to explain to me about IV-III-! (again, hypothetical) progressions, but I was completely lost.

As far as time signatures: as a drummer, that was the one thing about music I did understand (though I never had any formal training).

Oops. That should be IV-III-I chord progressions, not IV-III-!.

When somebody says they’re talking about a I-IV-V progression, they’re doing this:

Take the C major scale, which is C D E F G A B.

Now construct a triad on every note in that scale: CEG, DFA, EGB, FAC, GBD, ACE, BDF.

What you’ll get is: MAJOR minor minor MAJOR MAJOR minor diminished°

Or you could write that this way: I ii iii IV V vi vii°

That is, the chords of I IV and V are always major, ii iii and vi are always minor (so we write them in lower case). vii° is always diminished. Of course you can add sharps and flats in there and mess the whole scheme up, but let’s just leave those out for a second.

A I-IV-V chord progression always works no matter what key you’re in. In the key of C, it’s C-F-G. If you’re in the key of Ab, it’s Ab-Db-Eb. If you’re in the key of E, it’s E-A-B. The relationships are always the same.

Talking about chord progressions by number means relative to your starting point, that’s how it goes, irrespective of what key you’re in.

That also means it’s possible to play a I-IV-V progression in every key.

Oops, forgot to say:

A progression that goes C, G, A would be a one-five-six progression, written either I-V-VI or I-V-vi depending on whether A is major or minor.

A one-five-six progression in the key of B would be B, F#, and G# — nowhere near the B, D, F progression. They would be two totally different chord sequences.

One thing I’ve never grasped is the concept of “keys” - like in the context of a Karaoke bar they ask me the song I want to sing and what key I want to sing in. Don’t I want to sing in whatever key the original was? What kind of impact does it make to sing a song normally in the key of, say G, in the key of C. Isn’t that just singing the notes incorrectly?

  1. Why do we enjoy listening to music with vibrato, rather than without? Is it a cultural thing or physiological?

  2. When a singer has a long note, why does he start out with no vibrato, then add it halfway through? Are there instrumentalists who do this?

  3. Why does it matter which key something is written in?

  4. What causes some people to be tone-deaf, and can it be corrected?

Huh? I’m an amateur guitarist/ukuleleist, so I know a little bit about scales and such; is there a difference between E# and F? Fb and E? B# and C? Cb and B?

(Corrected the exclamation point)

Well, the roman numerals refer to a type of chord, not a specifc chord. So a I chord in C major would go C E G and a V chord would be G B D while in F major a I chord is F A C and a V chord would be C E G. Follow? And while musicians and audiophiles may argue about the moods and emotive qualities of various keys, for the rest of us, a I IV V I chord progression in two different keys will basically differ only in pitch. That is, one progression will sound lower than the other.

So while one of your songs uses C, G, & A and the other uses B, D, & F if they both use the same chord progression, they will sound the same. (Remember that we are not talking about melody here, although melody does influence chord progression.) So if one song is in C and the other in F with the same chord progression and you transpose the one in C to F, then the chords you play to augment the melody are the same. Does this make sense?

I’ve been working on this a bit, and though I haven’t got to the recording of actual sounds yet, I’ve got some graphical representations that might help you a bit with some of the lingo.

It’s nowhere near exhaustive, and I’m still working on it — I’ll probably want to shrink the graphics before I’m done, too.

Here it is.

Aaaaand Fast-Fingered Fish beats me to the punch. And does a much better job explaining chord progression, I might add.

HoboStew, a key is an octave of notes that follows the do-re-mi pattern. (Music Theorists, please don’t hit me.) It is a specific pattern of whole steps --C to D–(abbreviated w) and half steps–E to F–(abbreviated h). A major key’s pattern is wwhwwwh. That last half step is important because the half step pulls your ear to do(aka a leading tone) and makes the scale (and thus the song) sound complete. The key a song is in determines how high and low a song goes. If you know your range you could determine which keys suit you best. For example, you probably don’t want to sing a song by Journey or the BeeGees in the original key.

And on preview, daaang, Fish.