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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13 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.


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