Monday, August 27, 2012

Circle of Fifths - yes, it's your friend

The circle of fifths really is your friend.

 Example - you're playing in a jam session and they say, "this is in the key of A.", and you have no idea what sharps or flats are in the key of A.

 If you know your circle of fifths (yes, memorize it) or have it near you until it's memorized, you can take a quick look (in your head, on paper, ipad, smartphone, etc) and know immediately what sharps or flats are in the key the song is played in.

There is so much confusion about the circle of fifths, but it really is quite simple when you learn the formula. In case you don't know this, the reason it is called the circle of fifths is because it is arranged by fifths. Let's take a look at the C major scale with scale degrees:                                                      

C     D     E     F     G     A     B                                                                                                                
1     2       3     4     5      6      7                                                                                                                  

If we use the scale degrees, starting at C (1) and walk up the keyboard (clockwise on the circle) to the 5th degree we will land on G. Therefore, we have walked up a fifth. Then if we walk up a fifth from G we will land on D:

G     A     B     C     D     E     F#                                                                                                        
1      2      3      4     5      6      7                                                                                                                

Regardless of where you begin on the circle, you will go up a 5th from that key and the next key will have one more sharp or one less flat.

Here's a good diagram of the circle of fifths for the guitar:

One last thing I want to mention about the circle of fifths -  the major keys are one the outside of the circle and the minor keys are on the inside of the circle, but the rule of fifths still applies. A to E is an interval of a fifth, regardless of whether it is a minor or a major key.

Any questions or comments? Post it here or email me:

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Key Signatures

In looking back at the previous posts, I realized that I didn't cover key signatures. Knowing your key signatures is important. If you look at a piece of music and see two sharps (#) on the right of the treble and bass clefs, you need to know what that means. It all goes back to major scales.

Remember the major scale pattern? WS, WS, HS, WS, WS, WS, HS (WH = whole step;HS = half step). This is why we have sharps and flats in a scale. Let's look at our G major scale:                    
G, A, B, C, D, E, F#, G - notice that this pattern gives us an F#. So if you see a piece of music with F# in the key signature, you know that the song is in the key of G major.

Now let's look at the Bb major scale, using the major scale pattern: Bb, C, D, Eb, F, G, A, Bb        
See the two flats(b)? So, a piece of music with two flats is in Bb major.

Start on any note and use the major scale pattern. You will find any major key you need. In the future, we will go more in depth and study the circle of fifths. Did I hear someone groan? Regardless of what many may think, the circle of fifths is you friend. ;)

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Lead Sheets

Now that we've talked a bit about scales, scale degrees, intervals, chords, chord voicing, and roman numerals, let's take a look at lead sheets.

Here's a lead sheet of a piece written by Cole Porter:

Notice that a lead sheet has only the melody line, the chord names, and the words. Lead sheets do vary. Some may not have the melody lines. So what do we do with this?

You may be accompanying someone or playing lead with lead sheets, sometimes both. Whatever the case may be, the same rules pretty much apply. You use the chords for both bass and treble, for the most part. This is where chord voicing comes in and is important. If you are accompanying someone you can just voice the chord in both hands (or very open, on stringed instruments) while keeping timing. If you are playing in a band with a bass and/or drummer, remember to follow their timing. If you are the only instrument you must provide the rhythm. For instance, on piano play the bass of the chord on beats 1 and 3. If the voicing is C, B in the l.h. and E, G in th r.h. then play the interval of C, B on beat one and a G on beat 3, in the l.h. There are many variations of voicing. It's something you have to play around with and play what sounds best and what you like. 

You'll find lead sheets like this in jazz fake books, on line, from other musicians, etc. They are abundant.

The lead sheet above was found at You can find many lead sheets there and download for free. Check it out and try working out some songs on lead sheets. Don't think you don't know enough. You know how to build a major scale, how to build chords, and how to voice them. If you get stuck, come back and ask me for help. I love to see people learn....especially music! If you don't want to ask on a post, email me at

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

More on Intervals

We looked briefly at intervals a few posts ago and now we are going to go a little more in depth.

 Let's review a bit first:
What is an interval? = the distance between two tones. Therefore, C to D (1 to 2) is a 2nd, C to E (1 to 3) is a 3rd, etc. Now we are going to learn the difference between major and minor intervals.

We will begin with the interval of a 2nd. We know that two half steps make a 2nd (F to G). This is what is called a major 2nd. To make a major 2nd into a minor 2nd we simply go one half step (F to Gb).
So this is how to look at major and minor intervals:

Major 2nd = two half steps
Minor 2nd = one half step

Major 3rd = four half steps
Minor 3rd = three half steps

Major 6th = nine half steps
Minor 6th = eight half steps

Major 7th = eleven half steps
Minor 7th = ten half steps

Notice the intervals of a 4th, 5th, and 8th aren't there? That is because they are what is called a Perfect interval - they are neither major or minor. You cannot change them.

Perfect 4th
Perfect 5th
Perfect 8th (octave)

Now, in the future, when you see major, minor, or perfect intervals, you will understand the terms.

Thanks for reading. Hope you enjoyed this.

Monday, August 6, 2012

Chord Voicing

In the last post we learned a couple of things: one, how roman numerals are used in chords/scales and, two, the formula of breaking a major chord/scale down to its most closed form, the diminished chord/scale.

Now we are going to look at how to voice chords. What is voicing? It is simply playing chords very open or very closed. For example, let's look at a G7. In root position it would look like this: G, B, D, F. We can play all of these notes in bass and treble. On the piano it would look like this:

 L. H. (bass) G, F (fingering: 5, 1)
R.H. (treble) D, B (fingering: 1, 5)
This is an open voicing.                                                                                                
Or you can play closed voicing, which would look like this:

L.H. (bass) B, F (fingering: 3, 1)
R.H. (treble) D, G (fingering: 1, 4)
Or if you want it really closed you can play all notes in either bass or treble:

D, F, G, B  or F, G, B, D
or any combination of the notes in the chord.                                                                              
If you choose to play the entire chord in the bass, it is best to play all notes no lower than bass C (the C one octave below middle C).

If you are not familiar with reading chords with the note names written vertically, and see them like that,  you want to build the chord up from the bottom note. For instance, in the last example (closed chord, all in one clef) you would play it;

 F, G, B, D                                                                                                                      
fingering:        1,  2,  3,  5 (R.H.)   5, 4, 2, 1 (L.H.)
I realize this is keyboard theory, but if you play guitar (or any other stringed instrument) I'm sure you understand this concept of open and closed voicing. If not, let me know and I will be happy to post the information for you. We all learn differently, so don't ever hesitate to ask. :)                          

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Chords/scales and Roman Numerals

As I sit here, finally enjoying.....breakfast, my mind is full of music theory that I want to share with you.
So here we go!

In the last post we looked at three different major chords (C, F, G) and making them into dominant 7th (or 7th) chords. Now that we have three major chords of a major scale (C major scale) we can look at how Roman numerals interact with chords and scales.

Roman numerals follow the same pattern as scale degrees (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, etc). It just looks different:
I, ii, iii, IV, V, vi, vii, VIII (usually written as I). There is a reason we are using upper case and lower case Roman numerals and it's very simple. The upper case tells us which chords are major and the lower case tell us which chords are minor. It looks like this:                                                                
C         D         E         F         G         A         B         C                                                                          
I          ii          iii        IV        V        vi         vii         I                                                                            
1         2           3         4          5         6          7          1    (scale degrees)                                                

Now, I know we haven't gotten into how minor scales/chords are created, so we will look at that now.

Changing scales and chords from major to minor or diminished is really just a formula that you need to memorize. The first step in that formula has already been done when we changed the major 7th chord to a dominant 7th chord by flatting (lowering the 7th a half step) the 7th (B to Bb). The second step in the formula creates the minor scale/chord:                                                  

C minor scale - C        D        Eb        F        G        A        Bb        C                                                    
                         1         2         3          4         5         6         7           8 (or I)                                          

So the formula to change a major to a minor goes like this:                                                                  
1. flat the 7th  (Bb in C scale)                                                                                                    
2. flat the 3rd (Eb in C scale)                                                                                                                
Now you have C minor scale. To make the C minor 7th  chord you just use the 1, 3b, 5, 7b =            
C, Eb, G, Bb

So there is the first two steps in the formula that helps change chords. The next two steps will show us how to write/play diminished chords. There are two types of diminished chords. The first is a half diminished (symbol = usually a C with a circle-o with a slash through it). This is the third step in the formula:
C, Eb, Gb, Bb  OR  1, 3b, 5b, 7b = either way, you have flatted the 5th (lowered it a half step) and  your half diminished chord.
The formula to create a half diminished chord is this (using the C scale):
1. flat the 7th (Bb)
2. flat the 3rd (Eb)
3. flat the 5th (Gb)

The next step will make it a full diminished chord. You flat the 7th AGAIN. This is called double flatting or lowering the note (7th) two half steps:                                                                                  
C, Eb, Gb, Bbb   OR   1, 3b, 5b, 7bb = either way - full diminished chord.
The formula (C scale):
1. flat the 7th (Bb)
2. flat the 3rd (Eb)
3. flat the 5th (Gb)
4. flat the 7th AGAIN (Bbb)

Any confusion or questions? Let me know and thanks for reading.