The Circle of Fifths

For many people, key signatures can be a somewhat daunting prospect. You look at a piece of music with 5 flats on a page and you have no idea what to say. Maybe you have been playing this song by yourself and now you are playing it with a group. They ask you what key it is in, and you cant answer, you dont know.

The Circle of Fifths (click for full size)

Well I am here to tell you that there is a second way to do it besides the one mentioned in my previous post on the topic. In fact, Im surprised I did not mention it before. It is known as the circle of fifths. No, I would like to say that using this method in no way means you should not memorize your key signatures, being able to quickly recognize what key a piece is in can be very important. But it does allow you to figure out relatively quickly what key something is in. It is also a good aid for memorization.

The circle of fifths is built on intervals. Due to the way that. Going clockwise around the circle, every note is a perfect fifth above the previous one. C has no flats or sharps. G, on the other hand, has one sharp and is consequently a perfect fifth above C. To continue on, D is exactly a perfect fifth above G and has 2 sharps, and so on. This would continue on to D flat, which has 7 sharps and is a perfect fifth above F# (or G flat).

Now for the flats. The principle works the same way for flats, except in reverse. Instead of going a perfect fifth up, you go a perfect fifth down. An F is a perfect fifth below a C. Or, in other words. A C is a perfect fifth above an F. However, you should not that a perfect fifth down, is the same as a perfect fourth up. For this reason, the circle of fifths is sometimes called the circle of fifths and fourths.

The circle also works, naturally enough, for minor keys. If you know you are in a minor key, but are not sure which, simply start at A and work your way up or down. You will find the key you are looking for soon enough.

This allows you to tell, from any instrument (but especially a piano) what key you are in just by looking at the notes on the instrument. It can be incredibly helpful.

Use this enough and I know that you will get this memorized. Then, before you know it, you will have to reference it less and less. It will start out slow. One or two sharps is easy enough to remember, and eventually more and more key signatures will be added on until you know it by heart.

An Explanation of Scientific Pitch Notation

Perhaps you are reading this and not even knowing what I am reffering to. Or maybe you are, but just dont know how its used. Whatever it is, I hope this post will help you learn it. As you will find out, it really isnt that difficult.

Scientific pitch notation is a way of writing out not just what note is being referred to, but the octave as well. Although far to cumbersome to be used in sheet music, it does to a good job of letting us know exactly what note we are talking about. It is, as is indicated by the name, the scientific way of reffering to a note.

Perhaps you have seen, for example, the note B3 mentioned somewhere. My goal is that, by the end of this post, you would be able to see where that note is on a piano.

It may seem obvious as to what part of the notation is indicating which note should be played. In B3 it is rather obvious that the note that we are referring to is the note B, but which B? The piano has eight of them!

The answer is quite simple. The B three octaves above B0. Of course, it might be good to explain which octave is considered octave zero.

C0 is the lowest note normally audible to the human ear and, as such, is is also the where everything is based from. A C0 is actually located off of the piano. The first C on a piano is C1, and is exactly one octave above C0. The lowest note on a piano, A0, is 9 notes (half steps) above C0.

Because the system starts at C, each subsequent C means a change in octave. The C above C0, as already mentioned, is C1, but the B directly below C1 is annotated B0. This continues all the way up the scale, with a number added ever C.


Scientific Pitch Notations is most frequently used to indicate the range of a particular instrument or singer. As mentioned in my recent post on musical terms, an alto clarinet has a range of G♭2 to B♭5. Using our new knowledge, we can know that the lowest note that the alto clarinet can sound (G♭2) is the second G lowest G on the keyboard (the lowest being G1). The highest that it can go (B♭5) is the B almost two octaves above middle C, or, on a keyboard, the sixth B on the keyboard.

This notation can also be used for notes higher or lower then is in the bounds of human hearing (B-5). However this is not nearly as common.

Hooray! You know understand (at least to some extent) scientific pitch notation! This should mean that you can see one of these notes and know just about where it is (or, if its really high or really low, isnt). Good for you! This is just one of the many useful things that you will learn in your musical career.

A Few Musical Terms you should know

Sometimes musicians can be confusing. We tend to talk in code so to speak. We say things like arpeggio and sostenuto In fact, it can even seem like we are speaking in a different language. Sheet music is particularly hard to understand. What is being said? In this post I would like to give you a few musical terms that you should know if you want to be (or, at least, seem to be) knowledgeable in this area.

Arpeggio (pronounced with a soft G sound) This is a word you may find popping up a lot in musical conversation. It is quite difficult word for a rather simple concept. It simply means broken up. A chord can be played to ways. Either all the notes can be played at once, or they can be played one after another. A chord where the notes are not played at the same time is said to be c.

Falsetto This term applies exclusively to vocal music. It means, essentially, to higher then ones range normally permits. Singers that use this technique sing using different parts of there throat and mouth then they normally would. Perhaps the most well-know falsetto performance is in the song The Lion Sleeps Tonight, which is sung exclusively using this technique.

Crescendo  I have touched on this in an earlier post, but felt it would be good to recount it here. This word applies to sheet music for all different types of music. In fact. It means to just get louder. Quite often, this will be accompanied by dynamic markings that let you know how loud you should get. The opposite of this, the decrescendo, means exactly the opposite, to get softer.

Range Although this one is rather self-explanatory, it is a good one to know. Range defines how high and how low a particular instrument or singer can play or sing. An alto clarinet, for example, has a range of approximately G♭2 to B♭5 (for more info on this type of notation, go to this post), a span of a little over three octaves.

Legato Literally meaning tied-together in Italian. This word means to play notes in a smooth, graceful manner, with no pause in between.

Staccato This is almost the exact opposite of legato, but not quite. Staccato means to play the notes in a bouncy manner. This generally means to play the notes somewhat shorter then they are actually written in the music. For how this, and some of the other terms are marked in music, go read my Sheet Music 101 series.

Naturally there are many other musical terms out there, many of them far more complex. But this can get you started and give you some basic knowledge in how to understand the lingo. Hopefully you now can seem intelligent amongst a group of musicians.

Are there any musical terms that you are just dying to know the meaning of? Or is is there a word from this list that you still need help understanding? Leave a comment below and I will do my best to help you out!

Finding the Right Instrument for You

Suppose you want to learn to play an instrument. But the problem is you dont know which one! The choices are seemingly unlimited. How do you narrow it down? You cant play them all, in fact, to start, you probably cant play more then one. So which one to choose? Here are a series of questions that can help you decide which one is right for you.

This is a quick and easy way to narrow down your options. Do you want to play rock music? Then perhaps the Tuba is not the right choice. Do you want to play with an orchestra? Then maybe it is. You need to select something that you will enjoy playing. The best way to do this is to pick an instrument that is commonly used in the genre(s) of your choice. Do not let this be limiting, however. If you want to play Bohemian Rhapsody on a trumpet, then I say go for it.
1. What kind of music do you want to play?

2. How do you want to use your instrument?

Certain instruments are better for for certain things then others. Take portabilty as an example. If you want to be able to take your instrument to the park and play, then you should probably not select the piano as your instrument. The king of portability is the guitar. Yes there are smaller and lighter instruments, but the guitar allows, quite perhaps, the most expression of any instrument of its size.

3. Do you want to play with other people?

Another incredibly important question. If the answer to this question is yes, then you should consider picking an instrument that will go well with other instruments. Again, the guitar is an excellent choice if you want to do this. Chances are if you play guitar you will be able to find someone to play with. On the other hand, if you do want to play in, for example, a school band, then you have to choose accordingly.

4. What instruments do you like the most?

Of course, this is the most important question you could ask yourself. You should not play guitar because it is portable and good for playing with other people if you do not like the guitar. This completely defeats the point. The previous questions are only useful if you if you have several instruments you like, but arent sure which one to pick. Of those questions, the second most important one is the question of what type of music you want to play. But, as I said earlier, do not let that question be limiting to you. This one takes precedence.

Once you select you instrument, you are one step closer to getting good at it. Your next step is to either find a teacher or learn it on your own. May your days be filled with great fun and good music!

Do you think I left something out? Perhaps their are other ways of picking your perfect instrument. Or maybe you liked this guide and used it. I would love to hear from you. Leave me a comment below!

The 5 Step Guide to Learning Any Instrument Without a Teacher

Here, as promised yesterday, is the guide to learning an instrument without a teacher. The steps are remarkably similar to that of learning by using a teacher, but there are some distinct differences.

1. Decide which instrument you want to play

This is still number one on the list. You must know the instrument you want to play before you can get started. Look for a post soon on how to select the instrument thats right for you. Remember, you dont have to go for something mainstream, like piano, guitar, or violin. There are thousands to pick from.

2. Buy the instrument

When you work with a teacher, you have accountability, which is a great motivator. Without the teacher, motivation will be more tricky. By buying your instrument, you are making a big investment. You wont want to see your money go to waste. This will help you continue to work through the rough beginning.

3. Learn to read music

This is where the list begins to change. Many people are capable of learning to play an instrument by ear. This is fantastic. However, whether you are capable of this or not, the ability to read music will prove invaluable as you progress in your ability to play. I have a beginners guide that you can read, but this is only enough to get you started.

An important thing is to make sure that you understand how reading of music relates to your instrument. It does you no good to be able to look at a piece of music and tell me what notes are there, if you cannot play it on the instrument. You must learn how to play a particular note on your instrument when you need to. This can be accomplished many different ways. Books, internet lessons, or by simply experimenting.

4. Find some resources

Obviously you need something to play. Chances are your local music store(s) has beginner books for your instrument. This is the point in time where you need to swallow your pride and simply start small. If you begin by playing Mary Had a Little Lamb, dont feel stupid. It doesnt matter that its a childrens song. Its a start. When I started playing guitar, the first song I learned was simply the G string plucked over and over again to a backing track. Doesnt get more simple then that. If you stick with the instrument though, you will be playing more interesting stuff before to long.

5. Practice, practice, PRACTICE

This is still the most important part. It cannot be stressed enough. You will get better with practice. I promise you. One hour a day for a month, and you will make a huge amount of progress. Make yourself practice even if you dont want to. You will never get passed Mary Had a Little Lamb without it. If, after that month of practicing an hour a day, you have not improved significantly. You can come to me and I will refund the price of your instrument.

So, in short. You can learn an instrument without a teacher. You just have to want to bad enough.

What about you? Have you learned to play an instrument without the use of a teacher? I would love to hear about it. Leave me a comment below to tell me about your experiences

Sheet Music 101: Notes

Sheet music is very easy and simple to read. You just have to know the tricks. In this series I will teach you the basics of sheet music. This series can be best followed with a piano. You should know the names of the notes and where they are located on the piano in order to do this series.

The most important part in sheet music is obviously the notes. They tell us what to play, and when to play them. Notes are represented on a staff. You have probably seen one. A staff is simply a bunch of lines to mark things on. The staff itself does not tell us what notes to play. We add clefs to let us know where a certain note on the staff is and, consequently, where all the others are.

The two clefs that you will most commonly find in sheet music are the treble and  the bass clef which are pictured at right. The top clef, logically enough, is the treble clef, the bottom is the bass clef. Each clef points to a certain line on the staff. You can  see this also in the picture to the right. The two dots in the bass clef show one line, the encircled lines in the treble clef show another. These two lines are where you will find G above Middle C (for the treble clef) and F below middle C (for the bass clef). From there it is simple, for every line or space you go down or up, you go down or up a note. So, for example the note in the space bellow the G line would be an F, a note on the line bellow would be an E, and so on.

This is all very well and good, but another important thing to know is how long the notes need to be held. This is indicated by the type of note that appears on the staff. There are four basic types of notes. An eight note, a quarter note, a half not and a whole note. You can see them below.


I will go into more detail about rhythm in a later article, but a simple way of look at it is this. If a quarter note is worth one second, a half note will be worth two seconds, and a whole note will be worth four seconds. A eighth note on the other hand will be worth only 1/2 of a second. You can continue down. A 16th note will be worth 1/2 the time of an 8th note, or approximately 1/4 of a second, etc. You can tell a 16th note from an 8th note because it will have an extra flag.  You can see this to the right.

8th notes (and 16th notes etc.) are frequently beamed together to form a group. When this is the case, you can look at the number of beams to tell you how long the note is. This is shown to the left and bellow.


I hope this helps you understand some of the basics of how notes work in sheet music. Starting now, you should be able to play some rudimentary songs! On Sunday I will talk about rests and rhythm.

This is part 1 of my series on how to read music. You can read Part Two: Rhythm and Rests here, Part 3: Not Modifiers here, and Part 4: Other Things of Importance here.


Unlocking Key Signatures

Key signatures are one of those things in sheet music that many people have difficulty understanding. But really key signatures are very simple to understand, you just have to know a few tricks. But this begs a question first, what exactly is a key signature for?

The Purpose of Key Signatures

Key signatures, as you may have guessed, are used to indicate the key of a piece. When you are playing a piece of music, not just any note will do. Generally speaking, the piece will be in a particular key. I this key there will be eight notes that make up a scale. It is generally these eight notes (and their counterparts in the other octaves) that make up your song. The songwriter may throw in other notes that are not one of those 8 notes (called accidentals) but, in general, those are the notes you will find.

Reading Key Signatures

Now, the key the major scale is made up of all white keys is the key of C. In this key, no black keys would be played at all, unless they where accidentals. For this key, there would be no sharps and no flats in the key signature, because, as I have said, there are no black keys to play.

Now, when you add a sharp, it indicates that you need to always play a sharp on a certain note, instead of the normal white key. The way you know which is which is very simple (although, if you have no experience reading music, I suggest you go check out  Reading Sheet Music 101. Just look at where the sharps or flats are in the staff. In the key signature above, the sharps are in the F, G, and C space. This means that, when ever you see an F, G or C (no matter what octave) you should play a sharped note instead, unless you should see a natural sign.

But How do I Tell What Key it is in?

Now this is the point that most people get confused. Because how exactly do you tell what the key is.

Well, I hate to break it to you, but the best way to do it is just to memorize. That way you can look at one and just know right of the bat. But obviously we cant to that instantly. There is a way to do it.

Now, just so you know, for any key signature there are two possible keys a major, and a minor. The major is fairly easy to find. For sharps, look at the very last sharp in the key, and just move up a half step. So, for the example above, the very last sharp is a G sharp, if you move up a half a space you will get A (which is the key).

For flats, all you do is look at the second to last flat in the key, and that is  your name. If you only have one flat the key is F. Note, whenever you have more then one flat, you will get a key that has a flat in its name.

I sure hope this helped you further your understanding of key signatures. If you have any questions, feel free to leave a comment.


What Music Is Part 3: Rhythm

Rhythm is arguably the most important part of music. Its what drives the music, keeps it going, and keeps musicians playing together like musicians. Without rhythm, there is no music. You may say that notes are required to make music music, but this is not true. All you need is a rhythm and something to make sound with.
The most basic forms of music have no tune at all, just a rhythm. Take Native American drumming as a good example. Frequently all they have is those drums, and yet the make music just the same. Its just a basic rhythm, and it is enough to get your foot tapping.

The rhythm of a piece of music (sheet music that is) is made up of two things. The meter signature (more commonly known as the time signature) and the tempo. Both can be seen in the above image. The 3/4 indicates two things, how many beats in a measure, and which type of note gets one beat. The top number indicates the beats per measure (3) and the bottom number indicates which note gets a beat (4, which is a quarter note, 8 would be 8th note 2 would be half note etc).

Also in this image you can see Allegro followed by an image of a quarter note and = 126. Allegro is an Italian word (as are many words you will find in music) meaning fast, quickly and bright. And typically means to play at a speed of 120-139 BPM (beats per minute). The exact amount is show next to it: 126 quarter notes per minute. So, if there are 3 beats to the measure, and a quarter note gets one beat, and there are 126 quarter notes in a minute, we can expect one measure of the piece to take about 1.4 seconds. The whole piece (which is 50 measure long) should take about 1 minute and 10 seconds.

The most common rhythm instrument you would see would be a drum or drum set. You see them all the time, and you can recognize one instantly. And, if you are given say, a hand drum, you can probably keep a beat on it. But rhythm can be kept in many other ways. Take a solo pianist or violinist as an example. They have no drums to help them out, yet they have to keep the beat going properly. This takes time to acquire, but is very important.

So, case and point, the rhythm is quite possibly the most important element of music.

Im not sure what part 4 will be about. Well see.

Blog to you later!

This is part three of my series: What Music is. You can read Part 1 here and Part 2 here.

What Music Is Part 2: Harmony

Harmony is an integral part of music as we know it. In the dictionary, harmony is defined in this way:
The simultaneous combination of tones, especially when blended into chords pleasing to the ear; chordal structure, as distinguished from melody and rhythm.
In other words, whenever two tones are played or sung together, harmony results. Now note, this does not mean it sounds nice. Playing a C and a C# together is still harmony, even though the result is a minor second, one of the least nice-sounding intervals.


But before I get into detail about harmony, I want to talk a little bit about what makes a note a note.

You may think a not is simple, but it is not. As you probably know, higher sounds are caused by vaster vibrations, ans lower sounds are caused by slower vibrations. This is true, but there is more then that. Take an example, when you play a note on an oboe, it sounds distinctly different from the same not played on a cello. There is a reason for this.

A note is made up of not one frequency, but many. Lets say that you have an instrument playing an A above middle C, which vibrates at 440 Hz. The instrument will actually produce not only a 440 Hz sound, but also a little bit of a sound at 880 Hz, 1320 Hz, and so on. We perceive pitch as being whatever the lowest frequency is (440 Hz in this case). But the volume of the other harmonics (for that is what they are called) is what causes the note to sound like a certain instrument. We call this timbre.


Now that we know who notes are constructed, we can look at how notes work together to form chord and harmonies.

On the right is a chart showing the music intervals. If we consider our first note to be a C, a D flat would form an interval of a minor second. A D would form a major second and so on. A basic major chord (that is, a happy chord) is formed of a root note(in this case, C), a major third (E) and a fifth (G). The chord can be changed to a minor chord (that is, a sad chord) by changing the middle note from a major third (E) to a minor third (E flat). These notes can be combined in endless combination, but those two are the most commonly used ones.

Now, we cant just expect any two notes to sound nice together. Pythagoras figured it out. The intervals that are the most pleasing to the ear are the ones with frequencies that are ratios of small, whole numbers. The only intervals that the Greeks considered harmonious where the octave (ratio 1/2), perfect fifth (ratio 2/3) and a perfect fourth (ratio 3/4). So, in other words, an A has a frequency of 440. The frequency of a 5th above that is 660. This simplifies down to 2/3.

This is the reason that harmonies work the way they do. Harmonies can be combined in any which way. Some sound nice, some less so. But they are all harmonies.

Now, in modern music. The melody is whatever you hear predominately, and is usually sung by sopranos. For example you would know the melody of Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star. If it where arranged for a chorus, everything else would be considered harmony.

The next post will be about rhythm. That thing that gets your foot tapping and your hands clapping.

Blog to you later.

This is part two about my series about how music works. You can read the other parts here: Part 1, Part 3

What Music Is Part 1: Introduction

You know, first I thought I would write a blog about music and math. Then I changed my mind. I couldnt get started on the topic, I didnt know what to write. And when you dont know what to write about something, then you shouldnt force yourself. So I decided I would try to answer the question about what music really is.


This is the part that I decide that this needs to be in multiple parts. So think of this as an introduction to a 5 part or so (maybe more, probably not less though) series. Hopefully you can find this somewhat informative.

Music is a bit hard to pin down. There was a book I read (nonfiction) that mentioned another book (fiction). In this book, aliens came to Earth and decided to go to an orchestra concert. They listened politely, complimented the composer/conductor on his ingenuity, and left with no idea about what was so fascinating to humans about music.

You see music, as we know it, is simply a collection of sounds, arranged in a certain way. Our brains are what interpret it as music. A dog hears exactly what you hear when you listen to music over your speakers. But the dog just interprets it as a bunch of noise. Why is this? Well, that remains a mystery. But it is something that I hope to try to figure out over the course of the next week or two.

In the next blog, I will focus on harmony, and the way it works.

Blog to you later!

This is part 1 of my series, What Music Is. You can read the other parts here: Part 2, Part 3