Teach Yourself Music Theory – 31.) Figured-Bass and Lead-Sheet Notation

Even though we have been using the staff and writing notes to communicate which notes to play, there are other ways of notating music.

The first way we are going to talk about is figured-bass, which is a more “classical music way” of using Roman numerals and symbols to notate what chords to play in relation to the key.  To notate with figured-bass, you take the following steps:

  • Start by finding the key that you are in (with the example below, we are in C major)
  • Next, determine the chord harmonies with their qualities and inversion
  • Place a Roman numeral underneath each chord, with the numeric value corresponding to the root of the chord in relation to the kay
  • If it is a major triad, use uppercase letters
  • If it is a minor triad, use lowercase letters
  • If it is a diminished triad, use lowercase letters plus an “ o “ symbol
  • If it is an augmented triad, use uppercase letters plus a “ + “ symbol
  • Finally, add extra figures if inverted
  • If it is in first inversion, add a “ 6 “
  • If it is in second inversion, add a “ 6 “ with a “ 4 “ below it

Notice how the “ 6 “ and “ 4 “ correspond to the interval made with the root during an inversion.

Another way is lead-sheet, which is a way commonly found in jazz, pop, and rock tunes of writing out the letter names, chord qualities, as well as inversions of the harmonies.  To notate in a lead-sheet style, you take the following steps:

  • Determine the root of the chord and write it in an uppercase letter above the chord
  • If it is a major triad, do nothing more for its chord quality
  • If it is a minor triad, add “ min “
  • If it is a diminished triad, add an “ o “ symbol
  • If it is an augmented triad, add a “ + “ symbol
  • Finally, add extra figures if inverted
  • Add a slash mark “ / “ and write the bass note after it

Tah-dah!  There you have it.  Give it some practice, but we will be using these forms of communicating and writing for now on.

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Teach Yourself Music Theory – 29.) Identifying Triads

You probably have heard this term before, but maybe haven’t been able to completely define it. Especially as an aspiring musician, composer, producer, etc., you have heard this word before:


A chord.
Which is a group of pitches played at the same time (or played in succession of one another in overlap) to create harmony.


Harmony, which we have talked about before in terms of harmonic intervals, are sounds (two or more) sounding at the same time.


Chords are defined by their collection of pitches, order, arrangement, etc. Today, we are going to talk about the basic kinds of chords in modern music. Those are triads, which are chords comprised of three different pitches, with the notes (from lowest to highest) are a third apart from each other.


That might be a confusing definition, so let’s take it a deferent approach…


Let’s list off the different kinds of musical intervals of thirds. There is the m3 (minor third) and the M3 (Major third). Now, let’s come up with the different interval combinations between the three possible notes:

  • m3 – m3
  • m3 – M3
  • M3 – m3
  • M3 – M3

Great, now let’s actually right them out. Start on middle C, and then write the pitches above with the possible interval combinations above:


These are triads. Three note chords built on thirds. Play them and listen how different they are. They go by these names:

  • m3 – m3, Diminished Triad
  • m3 – M3, Minor Triad
  • M3 – m3, Major Triad
  • M3 – M3, Augmented Triad

When talking about the quality of a triad, we look at the root, which is the lowest note the chord is built upon, and call it by its letter name. Then, we look at the third and fifth (respective pitches above that are a third and fifth apart from the root) to see the intervals to define the quality.


So, if we write D-F-A, we get a D minor triad. That is because the root is D and the interval combination of the thirds are m3 – M3. Try writing triads and seeing what you get!


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Teach Yourself Music Theory – 28.) Interval Characteristics

Previously, we have talked about naming and grouping intervals.

Another characteristic we can classify intervals by is if they sound “good” or “bad” to the ear.

Now, this topic is VERY subjective. However, in theory, we have rules to classify the intervals.

An interval (melodic or harmonic) that generally sounds pleasing to the ear and stable is called consonant. Any interval that doesn’t sound “right,” has a need to resolve, classes sonically, or is outside diatonic tonality* is called dissonant.

Within consonance, there are perfect consonances that feature the perfect intervals, and there imperfect consonances that feature everything else.

If this sounds confusing, do not worry. These are labels to help understand the sonic quality of intervals as well as their stability/resolving motion.

Perfect Consonances

  • P1 or Unison
  • P5
  • P8

Imperfect Consonances

  • m3
  • M3
  • m6
  • M6

Dissonances

  • m2
  • M2
  • Tritone
  • m7
  • M7
  • Any diminished interval
  • Any augmented interval

Noticed how the P4 wasn’t included in any of these lists. That is because in the pre-historic times before the Renaissance the P4 was considered a perfect consonance. Then into the Renaissance era, the P4 was regarded as a dissonance. Now, scholars have evaluated the P4 interval again and pretty much made it a wild card.

Listen to the intervals and see if you agree with their classification.

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Teach Yourself Music Theory – 27.) Digging Deeper Into Intervals

If you are still not comfortable with the topic of intervals, I suggest reviewing previous posts. Otherwise, let’s go for a quick refresher:

An interval is the distance between two different pitches/notes. The two different notes can either occur at the same time (called a harmonic interval) or consecutively one after another (called a melodic interval).

Another way to classify intervals is by the span. Simple intervals are those that span an octave or less in length between any two pitches. Those that are of a greater distance than an octave are called compound intervals.

Previously, we have only named up to an octave. To name compound intervals, do the following:

  • Take out the octave(s) distance apart
  • Decide what is the leftover simple interval quality
  • Name it (i.e. M2 )
  • Then at a 7 to the value ( M2 +7 = M9 )

Intervals can also be classified by being grouped into their inversion relation; meaning, that when you take two notes and invert them by either having the lower note go above the higher note… or having the higher note go below the lower note, you produce another interval.

Let’s practice this concept. Start by writing middle C on a staff followed by the E4 pitch above it. Notice that this interval makes a M3. Now, take the middle C and move it up an octave to C5. You have now inverted the pitches, creating a m6 interval. So, M3 and m6 are inversionally related.

Practice writing two different pitches and naming the interval. Then, invert them and find the new interval.

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Teach Yourself Music Theory – 26.) Modes of the Melodic Minor Scale

Not only are there modes built from the diatonic scales of Major and natural minor, but there are modes of the melodic minor, too.


Similarly, they are constructed with the same pitch-class collections, but starting on different pitches and spanning an octave from there.


Below are the different modes and names built from the A melodic minor scale in the key of C:


NOTE:
these are the names I use for the modes. You will encounter multiple names for the same scale, so always be open to change.

Further NOTE: it should be a b6 in the Hindu Scale, my apologies.


Practice building the modes, playing them, and memorizing the names.

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Teach Yourself Music Theory – 25.) Modes of the Harmonic Minor Scale

Not only are there modes built from the diatonic scales of Major and natural minor, but there are modes of the harmonic minor.


Similarly, they are constructed with the same pitch-class collections, but starting on different pitches and spanning an octave from there.


Below are the different modes and names built from the A harmonic minor scale in the key of C:


NOTE: these are the names I use for the modes. You will encounter multiple names for the same scale, so always be open to change.

Practice building the modes, playing them, and memorizing the names.

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Teach Yourself Music Theory – 24.) Diatonic Modes

Now, there are more scales in music than just the major, natural minor, harmonic minor, and melodic minor. In fact, I have came across a reference book that listed over 2,000 different scales. That being said, we are not going to cover all those (just yet), but we do want to cover a new way to look and build scales.


Modes are scales the encompass the same pitches as a key area, but are not technically our known major or natural minor. Their “tonic” and tonal sense of gravity is elsewhere away from the accepted tonic. Diatonic modes are ones constructed from the diatonic pitches of a key – we will go over this shortly.


There are 7 diatonic modes (6 to some people that do not include Locrian), with one scale built on each pitch of a key. Taking the key of C Major for example, here are the modes with their names:


Notice that each mode is a scale that travels an octave length in distance; basically C major scales starting on different pitches. However, they are all obvious different scales even though the contain the same pitch-class collection because of the intervals in the scale.

NOTE: the major scale is the Ionian Mode, and the natural minor scale is the Aeolian Mode.


To build a diatonic modal scale, you can do one of two things:


Say you wanted to build E Dorian. Dorian is the second mode – so, we know that Dorian comes from D Major, just keep the accidentals and start a scale on the second pitch. Or, you can memorize that Dorian is | 1 – 2 – b3 – 4 – 5 – 6 – b7 – 8 | and construct it from there.


Practice building the modes, playing them, and memorizing the names.

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