Theory 101

There are two major components in a song--the lyrics and the melody. We've talked about lyrics at length, and now we'll talk about melody. Like the lyrics, the melody is what makes a song memorable. If you hear someone play "Mary Had a Little Lamb" on the piano, you will no doubt recognize the song right away. But what makes a melody? Well, to answer that, we're gonna have to get technical.

The most notable aspect of a melody is how the sound goes up and down. You may start singing low and then switch to a higher note, then go back lower than you were before. This is called pitch. Pitch is simply how high or low a sound is, relative to other sounds. If you have a piano, try this: play a note on the far left of the keyboard, and then play a note on the far right of the keyboard. You'll notice the difference easily. The note at the left of the keyboard has a lower pitch than the one on the far right. Now, if you play a note in the middle of the keyboard, you can say that it has a lower pitch than the right key, but a higher pitch than the left most key. So, then, a melody is made up of sounds that go up and down in a certain way. But they don't just move around in any old way--there's a pattern .

In Western music (i.e. European and North American music) melodies are based on a series of 12 pitches, or notes. If you start on any key of the piano, say, the white key just before two black keys, and play the 11 keys (white and black) above it, you will be playing those 12 notes. These notes are named after the first 7 letters of the alphabet, starting with A:

A, A#, B, C, C#, D, D#, E, F, F#, G, G#

This is called a Chromatic Scale. Generally speaking, the distance between one letter name to the next (i.e. A to B) is called a tone. Half that distance is called a semi-tone. The "#" means that the note is sharp, that is, a semi-tone higher than the note before it. Sometimes we use a symbol that looks kind of like a small "b" to indicate that a note is lower by one semi-tone. This is called a flat note. The #'s and b's in the chromatic scale coorespond to the black keys on the keyboard. There is a semi-tone's different between each key. So, we must skip a key in order to play a full tone. For example A to B is a full tone, but B to C is only a semi-tone. Confusing? Yes, but that's the way it is.

The easiest way to find the notes on the piano is to start with the white key in the center of the keyboard that comes before a pair of black keys. This note is called middle C. You can figure out the rest of the white keys by counting up with each letter name: the white key above C is D, and above that is E, and so on. Eventually you'll get back to C and start the scale all over again.

You can think of the chromatic scale as a rainbow. It has all the colors of music in it. You, the songwriter just has to decide which colors to use. Next time, I'll break down the musical rainbow into different pallates of colors that are easy to use when coming up with a melody.

Tim Heider

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Blogger Christa Heider said...

Techinical, indeed! But necessary!

6:03 PM  

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