Teach Yourself Music Theory – 15.) Building Pentatonic Scales

As of right now, the only scales we have covered are those with 7 different pitch classes with a repeat of a note at the octave.

But there are other common scales that use less notes.

The pentatonic scale (the “penta” prefix meaning “five”) is a scale built from 5 different pitches within its pitch class collection with a repeat at the octave. This scale is commonly used in many genres of music from rock, to jazz, folk, pop, world, etc.

A good argument as to why these scales are so widely used is because they avoid certain dissonances. You will see why shortly.

First, let’s start by building the major pentatonic scale.

A major pentatonic scale is made up of a pattern of notes set apart from each other in an ascending manner of M2-M2-m3-M2-m3 from the root to the octave:

Notice how the scale and intervallic distances do not contain anything to form dissonances (m2, A4, d5, M7, etc.). Also, take a look at how the scale is very similar to that of a regular major scale, but is missing the fourth and seventh scale degrees.

Just like every major scale has a relative natural minor scale, so will every major pentatonic scale have a relative minor pentatonic scale.

To build a minor pentatonic scale, you just have to use the same pitch class collections as the relative major pentatonic scale, but start on the sixth scale degree. Or, you can also build it by using the intervallic pattern of m3-M2-M2-m3-M2:

Similarly, it looks like a natural minor scale, but it is missing a few members. Hence, that is why the pentatonic scale is called “penta;” because it is 2 pitches short of a major or natural minor scale, making it 5 instead of 7.

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Tip #121 – Double Meter Mindfulness

What is the difference between in playing this melody below correctly…:

And this one as well?:

Honestly, barely anything. Even though the tempos and note value lengths are written different, they are played exactly the same.

This is called a double meter, when the notes can be doubled in value and doubled in tempo to create the same affect as the original. Yes, this is an augmentation – but the tempo change evens it out.

It is important to be mindful of this and how you want to write out your score so that:

  1. The beats/rhythm best fit what you imagine.
  2. The musical ideas clearly presented to the performers to avoid any confusion.

So in other words; while the two examples above are the same thing, be mindful as to which you choose that will best help get the message across to the performers.

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Teach Yourself Music Theory – 14.) Key Signature

A key signature is a marking of sharps or flats found at the beginning of a piece of music (or section) right after the clef. It is used to tell the performer what pitches are to be sharpened/flattened throughout, which pitch collections are used, and what is the center of tonality.

First, let’s take a look at the sharp keys:

With every sharp, the respective major/minor key goes up a perfect fifth. Also, notice that the addition of sharps in the key signature form a pattern of { F# – C# – G# – D# – A# – E# – B# } and are placed in there respective place on the staff lines.

So, if the piece has one sharp in the key signature, we can tell that it is in either G Major / e minor and that we must play F# throughout the entire composition.

Now, let’s take a look at the flat keys:

Once again, we can see a similar pattern with the respective major/minor key going DOWN a perfect fifth with each flat added to the key signature. Also, the flats work in a backwards pattern from the sharps, going { Bb – Eb – Ab – Db – Gb – Cb – Fb } and still be placed on the correct line of the staff.

So, if the piece has four flats, we know to lower those notes down and play in the equivalent pitch collection of an Ab Major / f minor key.

Okay, so now how do we tell what key a piece of music is in?

  1. First, check the key signature to decipher how many sharps or flats it has.
  2. Second, look at the beginning and end of the piece and see what scale degree it lands on.
  3. Third from the information gathered, make a educated conclusion as to where the music is focused around – a major or minor key.

And there you go. Unfortunately, there are some exceptions to the guideline, but above all gather information and make a supportive conclusion as to where you think the piece of music lives in – being either a major or minor key within the given key signature.

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Teach Yourself Music Theory – 13.) Pitch-Class Collections of Natural Minor Scales

Continuing with the idea of pitch-class collections and how they can form scales, let’s introduce a new scale: the natural minor scale.

To make a natural minor scale, one has to have a collection of pitches that in ascending order go in an intervallic pattern of whole-step, half-step, whole-step, whole-step, half-step, whole-step, and whole-step back to the original pitch. One can also think of this as M2-m2-M2-M2-m2-M2-M2.

Take a look at the composition below, write the pitch-class collection, and then arrange the pitches into an ascending manner fitting the pattern of the natural minor scale:

If you did it correctly, you would get {F#, G#, A, B, C#, D, E, F#}, which means this composition uses a F# minor scale…

…but wait, don’t the same pitches used also make up the A Major scale?

That is correct! For every major scale, there is its own relative natural minor scale. All you have to do is go down a minor-third interval (or up a major-sixth interval) from the original major scale to find the relative minor scale. So C major is A minor, G major is E minor, E major is C# minor, etc.

Now, how can well tell if a song is using a major or minor scale? well, that will be saved as a topic for next time.

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Tip #113 – Avoid Rewriting with a D.S.

Sometimes when you are reading a score, you will notice a section that says D.S. al Coda or D.S. al Fine. Both can be used as a way to indicate to the performer of your music that you want a section to repeat in a particular way without having to rewrite the section yourself.

Not only will this save time and energy, but it will clearly communicate the message – if done correctly.

D.S. is short for Dal Segno, which means “from the sign.” When you come across a measure in the score that has D.S. above it – it means to repeat back to the measure with this sign right above it:

If the sign is D.S. al Coda, that means there is an extra step. Once returning to the sign shown above, the performer will play till they reach this sign:

…and then jump forward to an area marked “coda.”

If the sign is D.S. al Fine, the performer will play till they reach a measure marked Fine – or end.

Once again, this is a simple tip to help save time to avoid rewriting repeated sections.

Thank you so much for taking the time to read! Feel free to comment, share, and subscribe for more daily tips below! Till next time.

Tip #112 – Avoid Rewriting with a D.C.

Sometimes when you are reading a score, you will notice a section that says D.C. al Coda or D.C. al Fine. Both can be used as a way to indicate to the performer of your music that you want a section to repeat in a particular way without having to rewrite the section yourself.

Not only will this save time and energy, but it will clearly communicate the message – if done correctly.

D.C. is short for Da Capo, which means “from the head.” When you come across a measure in the score that has D.C. above it – it means to repeat back to the beginning!

If the sign is D.C. al Coda, that means there is an extra step. Once returning to the beginning, the performer will play till they reach this sign:

…and then jump forward to an area marked “coda.”

If the sign is D.C. al Fine, the performer will play till they reach a measure marked Fine – or end.

Once again, this is a simple tip to help save time to avoid rewriting repeated sections.

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Teach Yourself Music Theory – 12.) Pitch-Class Collections and Major Scales

Read, analyze, play, and/or listen to this compositional segment below:

Now, write out all of the note letter-names that you see where used in this small composition.

You should get (in order of appearance): { A, C#, E, F#, D, B, G#}

What we have written above is the composition’s pitch-class collection, or a collection of all the pitches listed by their letter-names used.

Time to introduce a new concept. A scale, which is a pitch-class collection but organized in a ascending/descending manner in an alphabetized way.

Which… using the same example above, if we put the pitch-class collection in an alphabetical order, it would be: {A, B, C#, D, E, F#, G#}

So, what kind of scale is this? Well, to spoil the answer – this is a major scale. But how can we tell? Just look at the intervallic distances between the notes.

A major scale is made up of a pattern of notes set apart from each other in an ascending manner of whole-step, whole-step, half-step, whole-step, whole-step, whole-step, half-step (which returns to the starting pitch). You can also think of this as M2-M2-m2-M2-M2-M2-m2.

So now, let’s take a look back at our pitch-class collection:

Does it match the pattern of the major scale interval formula? Yes it does!

Try now for an exercise by taking any starting pitch and see if you can build a major scale of your own!

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