Music Theory

Introduction to the world of music theory: basic concepts, nomenclature, chord formation, scales. Understanding how these operate may be useful on your journey with the ukulele.

1
The Ukulele Vamp
2
Musical Meter and Rhythm
3
Circle of Fifth
4
Chord Progression within a Key
5
Chord Formation
6
Connection between Major and Minor Key Signatures
7
Major third and minor third concepts
8
Minor Scales
9
Major Scales
10
Music Nomenclature

The Ukulele Vamp

In music a vamp is not a bloodsucker… it is a form of Ostinato. Ostinato is a repeating phrase used throughout a piece and in between songs. For those of you who are guitar players you may be familiar with riffs, riffs are another form of Ostinato as they are musical figures that repeat throughout a song, and sometimes alone define a song. Some of the most famous riffs out there are “Johnny B Goode”, “Sunshine of Your Love”, and “Smoke on the Water”. When it comes to the ukulele we have the vamp. Back in the 30’s and 40’s when ukuleles were very popular, bands would often see the words “vamp till ready” placed in between songs and sheet music. The vamp was a musical filler for musicians to keep the upbeat feeling going before transitioning to the next song. In a previous article we mentioned common chord progressions,[…]

Read More

Musical Meter and Rhythm

So far we have seen that music is made up of notes, that interact together and join to make chords etc. But music is not just a succession of notes. Music is rhythm. A same line of notes can sound in a complete different way, according to the rhythm it is played on. We are going to introduce the notion of measure, tempo, and we will hear the various music figures. Measure The measure or meter is a musical unit that tells us how music is subdivided. On the score, we will see that at the beginning of the staff, usually expressed by a fraction. If the meter changes during the course of the song, this will be notified and the new value of the meter will be specified. The meter enables us to divide the score in measures. The measure bars correspond to each subdivision made within the score,[…]

Read More

Circle of Fifth

The circle of fifths is a way to represent the relationship between the 12 tones found in western music, as well as the alterations that each tone has. It is represented as a circle, like a clock, displaying tones instead of hours, with the C scale located on the “twelve” spot of a clock. Each tone is separated from the previous one, clockwise, in an interval of a fifth. If we go counter-clockwise, it is the interval of a fourth. Surprisingly, this kind of representation allows to classify the different scales by ascending number of alterations. If we go fifth by fifth (clockwise) the number of sharps increases. If you check on the previous image, C has no alterations, G has one sharp, D has 2 sharps… until reaching F# that has 6 sharps. On the contrary, if we go fourth by fourth (turning counter-clockwise), the number of flats increases.[…]

Read More

Chord Progression within a Key

The chord progression within a key is a succession of chords that concur with each scale degree. In a word, each scale interval or degree has its corresponding chord. We are going to study the chord progressions in a major key and in a minor key. Let’s start from a major scale, for example the C scale: C D E F G A B We assign a chord to each interval, just as follows: I -> major chord -> C II -> minor chord -> Dm III -> minor chord -> Em IV -> major chord -> F V -> major chord -> G VI -> minor chord -> Am VII -> half-diminished chord-> Bm7b5 (forget about it) All right, well, if we are in the key of C, any of these chords could work just fine (some better than others), but we would always be playing within the harmony.[…]

Read More

Chord Formation

A chord is nothing more than the union of 3 or more different notes played at the same time. If it’s a union of 3 notes, we call it a triad. If we press 3 different keys of a piano (different meaning that they are not the same note, not even in a different octave), we will have a chord, we won’t know what his name is, but it is a chord. Depending on how we form the triad (specifically, the interval or number of semitones there is between the notes forming the triad, we will have one type of chord or another. Usually, and this applies to all chords, we will have a “base” note, which we’ll call “tonic”, from which the chord will be named after, and from which semitone distances will be calculated to the other notes of the triad, in order to define the type of[…]

Read More

Connection between Major and Minor Key Signatures

When we mentioned major and minor scales, we saw that an X major scale shares the same notes with a Y minor scale. This is because they are relative key signatures, and they share the number of alterations among their scale (number of sharps or flats), and therefore they have the same notes. Each major scale has its related minor (and the other way around, of course). The interval that stretches from a relative minor key signature to its corresponding relative major key, is always of a descending minor third, which is, as we’ve seen, a tone and a half. We are going to take the C major and A minor scales as an example, which share the same number of alterations (literally, none), as we know, and which are therefore related. If we descend one tone and a half starting from C, we exactly get an A: C  B […]

Read More

Major third and minor third concepts

Now that we know what major scales and minor scales are, we are going to define what a major third is, and what a minor third is. A major third is a note that is located two full tones away from the tonic (or 4 semitones), as it occurs on major scales. In other words, it is the third degree of the major scale. In C major scale, the third (an E) is just 2 tones away from the C. A minor third is a note that is located one tone and a half away from the tonic (or 3 semitones), as in a minor scale. So, it is the third degree of the minor scale. If we take the A minor scale as an example, the third (a C note) is exactly 1 tone and a half away from the A note. The interval of third is very important[…]

Read More

Minor Scales

A minor scale (its full denomination should be natural minor scale) is a scale is which we have semitones between intervals 2 and 3, and between intervals 5 and 6. The other intervals are a full tone. Following the rule that we apply to the major scales, with whole and half, the minor scale should be w-h-w-w-h-w-w. Let’s take an example. We are going to write the A natural minor scale. We put the 7 notes beginning with A, and we correct interval distances when needed, using sharp notes. A B C D E F G That was pretty easy, right? As a matter of fact, we didn’t have to alter any note. Does it remind you of something? That’s right, the C major scale doesn’t have any alteration either. This is because these two scales, C major and A minor, are actually the same thing seen through a different[…]

Read More

Major Scales

Before we move on, let me introduce the notion of scale. A scale is a set of different notes that have a certain relation together. Depending on that relation, we will define the name of the scale. The first note is called tonic or root. The rest of the notes, called intervals or degrees are assigned by order: second, third, fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh (we could have the eight, which is the same note as the tonic, just an octave higher). Normally, intervals are written in Roman numbers, for example if we see V it refers to the fifth degree, which for instance among the C scale, is G. A major scale is a succession of 7 notes, one tone away from one another, except between the third and fourth degree, and between the seventh and eighth (exactly the same note as the tonic) which are separated by a semitone.[…]

Read More

Music Nomenclature

Even though you are new to this, and the ukulele is your first instrument, I guess you know that music is formed by a succession of notes, as if they were letters forming a text. In western culture, this musical “alphabet” is made of 12 notes. Yes, you heard me well, from J.S Bach to Iron Maiden, it’s all based on 12 unique notes. We can trot these notes out, thanks to Mary Poppins : C, D, E, F, G, A, B Wait a minute – you’re probably asking “Didn’t you say 12 notes? I only see 7 here…” That’s right. What Julie Andrews used to sing was actually a C major scale, formed by 7 notes (like all major scales, and many other scales). These seven notes are also known as the natural notes. Actually, what’s missing is a series of notes placed in between some of them. This[…]

Read More