Very, Very, Very Basic Understanding of Music for Absolute Beginners

21 Sep

In this article I shall attempt to lay out the very basis of how music works in a straightforward, easily understood fashion. Please, if you’re a beginner, don’t be put off by the idea of learning and understanding anything about music. The basic stuff is really easy to grasp and will enhance your playing and following of what’s going on when you play with others. If you’re already into music this isn’t for you, it’s for those with no understanding at all.

Musical Notes – The Octave & Chromatic Scale

If you play a note and then double the frequency (ie the number of times a string vibrates in one second) you get the same note but higher. This is called an octave and can be heard on a ukulele if you play an open string and then count 12 frets up the fingerboard and play that note. It’s the same note an octave higher.

Listen to an octave being played from Wikipedia:

The octave is then divided into 12 semi-tones or half-tones. This is called the chromatic scale. The resulting twelve notes are then assigned letters to identify them. By convention they start at C and are C, D, E, F, G, A, B and then C an octave higher.

The more astute among you will have noticed that this is only 8 notes and not the 12 notes mentioned earlier. This is because there are extra notes between some of these notes. They are given signs called sharps (#) and flats (b) which are either one half-tone lower or higher, according to the sign, than the notes either side.

So the full chromatic scale becomes C, C#, D, D#, E, F, F#, G, G#, A, A#, B, C.

But the in-between notes can also be expressed as flat notes and, for reasons beyond the scope of this article, to all intents and purposes C#, for example, is the same note as Db and so on. Therefore, the chromatic scale could be written C, Db, D, Eb, E, F, Gb, G. Ab, A, Bb, B, C.

Each half-note is one fret on your ukulele. So if you consider the C string (the third string from the bottom on your ukulele), as you move your finger up the fingerboard you get:
C (open string), C#/Db, D, D#/Eb, E, F, F#/Gb, G, G#/Ab, A, A#/Bb, B, C.

Chromatic Scale - Western music, 12 half-tones make all the notes:
0    1    2    3     4    5    6     7    8     9    10    11   12
C    C#   D    D#    E    F    F#    G    G#    A    A#    B    C
C    Db   D    Eb    E    F    Gb    G    Ab    A    Bb    B    C
C  C#/Db  D  D#/Eb   E    F  F#/Gb   G  G#/Ab   A  A#/Bb   B    C

It is important to remember that this series is always the same for all music.

Listen to a chromatic scale from Wikipedia:

Major Scales

Now all tunes are made up of notes from this series. Most of the time not all of the notes are used and the most common set of notes that we have, in the West, all grown up with, is a set of 8 notes called a major scale. A scale can be any set of notes drawn from the chromatic series but the major scale is the one we are most used to in popular music.

Listen to a C major scale from Wikipedia:

So if we start on the note C, the scale of C major is C, D, E, F, G, A, B, C.

You will notice, if you refer to the chromatic scale, that the number of half-tones differs between adjacent notes. We have 2 half-tones between C and D, 2 between D and E, but only one between E and F. Similarly, there are 2 half-tones between each of the others, until we reach B where there is just one half-tone between B and C.

Given that 2 half-tones equals one tone, the relationship of the distances between the notes can be expressed then as:

Tone – Tone – Half-Tone – Tone – Tone – Tone – Half-Tone.

C Major Scale - the same pattern holds for all major scales
1      2      3      4      5      6      7      8
C      D      E      F      G      A      B      C
  Tone   Tone   Half   Tone   Tone   Tone   Half

Second important fact: this relationship holds good for all major scales.

You will notice that there are no sharps or flats in the above scale and the scale of C major is the only major scale like this. Thus, if we use this scale we say we are in the key of C major – sometimes just called the key of C. By the way, this is all the white notes on a piano keyboard and the sharps and flats in between are the black notes.

Piano keyboard with frequencies from Josef Karthauser's The Western Music System

Piano keyboard with frequencies from Josef Karthauser’s The Western Music System

Now, if you take a different set of 8 notes from the chromatic scale, but retain the same relationship between the notes, you get a different major scale.

For example, if the new scale begins on G we need a tone between G and the next note, ie A, and a tone between A and the next note, ie B, but only a half-tone between B and the next note, ie C. We can go on building the scale in the same way. You will find, by reference to the chromatic scale above, that you get a scale thus: G, A, B, C, D, E, until you reach the penultimate note and then you need a difference of a tone. Therefore you have to use the note between F and G in the chromatic scale and that is F#.

The scale beginning on G then becomes G, A, B, C, D, E, F# and G.

G Major Scale - this is in the same pattern as C major
1      2      3      4      5      6      7       8
G      A      B      C      D      E      F#      G
  Tone   Tone   Half   Tone   Tone   Tone    Half

We call this the scale of G major and note that F is always sharp for this scale. Tunes based on this scale are said to be in G major.


Now if we have a tune based on the C major scale, ie in the key of C major, and then play the same tune based on the G major scale we have changed key to G major (also called transposing).

Changing Key from C Major to G Major 
               - match up the same pattern of notes
1      2      3      4      5      6      7       8
C      D      E      F      G      A      B       C
G      A      B      C      D      E      F#      G
  Tone   Tone   Half   Tone   Tone   Tone    Half

If the starting note of a tune in C major is, for example E, then in the key of G major the first note would be B and, providing we play F# instead of F, the relationships between all the notes in the tune will be the same and the tune will have moved into the new key of G major.

In the same way, scales can be constructed starting on any note of the chromatic scale and keeping the same tone, tone, half-tone, tone, tone, tone, half-tone relationship between adjacent notes. The number of sharps and flats will vary according to the scale constructed and these are usually indicated at the beginning of a piece of music giving the key of the piece.

The above is fairly basic but would repay a second or third reading and you should try to relate it to your ukulele fingerboard. Once you have grasped these basics you should have a better understanding of what goes on in a bunch of musicians.


Other postings related to this topic: PLUC – Learn Uke Notes Without FrettingezFolk – Major Scales Tutorials; WonderHowTo Ukulele Lessons – How To Play A C Major Chromatic Scale Warm-Up Exercise; WonderHowTo Ukulele Lessons – How To Play A C Major Scale Warm-Up ExerciseBrett McQueen – Uke Scales for Beginners; Brett McQueen – How To Play A C Major Scale on UkuleleBrett McQueen – How To Play A G Major Scale on Ukulele; PLUC – Transposing Tool (ie change keys easily)


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16 responses to “Very, Very, Very Basic Understanding of Music for Absolute Beginners

  1. The Aspie and the NT

    September 22, 2012 at 5:44 am

    Really nicely done! That is not an easy topic to explain simply. Kudos!

    • webmasterpluc

      September 22, 2012 at 1:24 pm

      Thanks for your kind comment, Tom – I’ll pass it onto Chris B (Catgut).

  2. Rufus

    September 27, 2012 at 11:46 am

    And it’s ALL TRUE! Most bodacious, Christopher. Award yourself a sticky bun.

  3. raincloud

    May 23, 2015 at 8:45 am

    It was really helpful! Thanks for keeping it simple.

  4. RezaHosseinpour

    February 15, 2018 at 5:01 pm

    I am very disappointed in this article. It does not live up to its title at all. I am 53 years old and a complete musical illiterate. All my adult life has been dedicated to medicine to the point that I never had time to do much else. I work as a paediatric cardiac surgeon. But I always loved music. A year ago, I decided to put an end to my musical illiteracy. I bought a piano and started having lessons. But I struggle no end, not technically but in terms of understanding its theory. So, when I saw the title of this article, I got very excited hoping that this would finally sort me out. It did not.

    What is an octave? This article says if you play one note and then another that has twice the frequency is an octave!!! What does this mean? What is a scale, what is the difference between scale and octave…

    The article also states things like: If you use a C major scale (or a G scale….)… or if you are in a G major scale…. what do these mean? How is one in a scale? What does it mean to use a scale? And other detail is given about scales which would only make sense AFTER you understand more basic principles, which I don’t.

    I you do know a source of truly basic teaching for musical illiterates, please let me know. I am suffering.

    Many thanks


    • webmasterpluc

      February 15, 2018 at 8:53 pm

      Hello Reza,

      Thanks for your comments & sorry you haven’t found Chris’s article as helpful as you’d hoped. We have had a lot of very positive feedback on this entry & I think if you persevere & give it another try you may understand things a little better.

      Do have another read through, play the examples, follow the links we’ve provided to more detailed articles (where you can learn more) & listen to the audio clips. You should find things clearer doing that, rather than just reading.

      Sit and familiarise yourself with what the notes are called on your instrument and experiment with the examples as you read through. We’ve given an link to an annotated soprano ukulele fretboard & have written this with reference to the uke, as this is a ukulele blog. We’ve also provided a keyboard layout with the names of the notes on them (for those who don’t know them). Obviously, anyone playing a different instrument needs to obtain a diagram that gives the note names for that instead.

      You mention you’ve bought a piano so should be able to use the info accordingly to play along. If it’s easier, have a look online for an online piano, such as this one – or if you are on a tablet or smartphone, download a free app and use that (eg Real Piano by Gismart or something similar).

      For example, at the start of the article, we mention the term ‘octave’ & you query what that means. Try the exercise we suggest on your ukulele (or other fretted stringed instrument) to play one of the open strings, count up twelve frets & play the note you end up on. On a keyboard, count up twelve notes, including the black keys. That second note sounds like the first but is higher in pitch. The gap or interval between them is called an octave. We also have an audio clip so you can listen to what an octave sounds like between two notes – click on the arrow to hear it.

      We then go on to describe that if you split the gap up between those two notes that are an octave apart, you get a series of notes that are described as a ‘scale’. We have audio clips for you to click on to listen to what some examples of scales sound like and describe to you how to play them on your instrument.

      If you follow our three examples, you will first play a ‘chromatic scale’ by plucking every note on the fretboard (or keyboard) and understand what that sounds like. Next you can play the specific pattern we give you that uses a particular sequence of gaps between each note, which is known as a ‘major scale’. This.starts on the open C string (or one of the notes called C on your keyboard), which we explain means it is called C major, Finally, we give you instructions how to play the same major scale pattern but starting on a different note – this time G. The result is you will hear a G major scale.

      Try these out and I’m hopeful you’ll understand a little more. Hopefully that will then encourage you to look up more on the topic once you’ve made an initial start on things.

      Good luck!


    • Rhan Wilson

      July 11, 2018 at 5:23 pm

      Reza – If I may comment on your comment: learning and understanding the basics of music takes time and commitment. The fact that you read this article means that you started the process – and that’s good. The fact that you now know some terms like octave and scales, for instance, is also good. Did you know those terms before? So… you are already learning something. Now you can find out what they mean.

      I believe that you are confused by this article, but consider it merely a beginning. You have asked a lot of follow up questions – now try to get some answers. By asking the questions, you have given the author and myself (I also teach music to beginners) some really helpful information, and hopefully we can both , in our separate blogs, begin to answer them.


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