The aQWERTYon pitch wheels and the future of music theory visualization

The MusEDLab will soon be launching a revamped version of the aQWERTYon with some enhancements to its visual design, including a new scale picker. Beyond our desire to make our stuff look cooler, the scale picker represents a challenge that we’ve struggled with since the earliest days of aQW development. On the one hand, we want to offer users a wide variety of intriguing and exotic scales to play with. On the other hand, our audience of beginner and intermediate musicians is likely to be horrified by a list of terms like “Lydian dominant mode.” I recently had the idea to represent all the scales as colorful icons, like so:

Read more about the rationale and process behind this change here. In this post, I’ll explain what the icons mean, and how they can someday become the basis for a set of new interactive music theory visualizations.

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Frank Ocean – Pink and White

I’m working on a new music theory course with the good folks at Soundfly, a continuation of Theory For Producers. We were looking for contemporary songs that use modal interchange, combinations of different scales to create complex blends of emotion. Soundfly producer Marty Fowler suggested a Frank Ocean song, which I was immediately on board with.

Frank Ocean - Blond

Frank is one of the freshest musicians and songwriters out there–his song “Super Rich Kids” is one of my favorite recent tracks by anyone. For the course, Marty picked “Pink And White,” a simple tune with a deceptively complex harmonic structure.

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Freedom ’90

Since George Michael died, I’ve been enjoying all of his hits, but none of them more than this one. Listening to it now, it’s painfully obvious how much it’s about George Michael’s struggles with his sexual orientation. I wonder whether he was being deliberately coy in the lyrics, or if he just wasn’t yet fully in touch with his identity. Being gay in the eighties must have been a nightmare.

This is the funkiest song that George Michael ever wrote, which is saying something. Was he the funkiest white British guy in history? Quite possibly.  Continue reading

Making chords from scales

A chord and a scale are two different ways of looking at the same thing: a group of pitches that sound good together. If you organize the pitches sequentially and play them one at a time, you get a scale. If you stack them up and play them simultaneously, you get chords. Here’s a guide to the most commonly-used scales in Western music and their moods.

To make a chord, you start on the first note of a scale and then move up it in thirds, meaning that you skip every alternating note. To get more notes for your chord, just keep adding thirds on top.

  • If you start on the first scale degree, add the third scale degree, and then add the fifth scale degree, you get a simple three-note chord called a triad.
  • If you add the seventh scale degree on top, you get a seventh chord.
  • Next you come to the ninth note of the scale, which is really just the second note an octave up. Adding it gives you a ninth chord.
  • Then you come to the eleventh note of the scale, which is the fourth note an octave up. Adding it gives you an eleventh chord.
  • Finally, you arrive at the thirteenth note of the scale, which is the sixth note an octave up. Adding it gives you a thirteenth chord.
  • The next third after the thirteenth is just the root of the scale. You’ve now used every possible note in your chord.

Click each image to play the scale on the aQWERTYon.

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How the heck do you know what scale you’re supposed to use for lead guitar?

There’s a broad diversity of harmonic practices being used out there in the world of blues-based popular music, rock in particular. While a given song may not use a lot of scales and chords, the relationships between those scales and chords is rarely simple or obvious. You really just need to learn all of them. It takes a lot of practice. Fortunately, there is a single scale that works in every situation, which I’ll get to at the end of this post.

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The saddest chord progression ever

If you’re interested in learning more about chords and emotions, take my online course.

Vassily Kalinnikov and Willie Nelson

The short-lived Russian composer Vasily Kalinnikov wrote this particularly lovely piece of music:

If you listen to this piece at 6:16, there’s a particularly beautiful and tragic chord progression. It’s in the key of E-flat, but I transposed it into C for ease of understanding:

I mentally refer to this progression as the Willie Nelson turnaround, because I first heard it in his classic recording of “I’d Have To Be Crazy”, written not by Willie, but by Steven Fromholz. I had the pleasure of performing this tune many times back in my country music days, and it makes a great lullaby for my kids.

The version of the progression in “I’d Have To Be Crazy” uses a different harmonic rhythm, and starts on the I chord instead of vi, but the emotional effect is the same. Willie’s tune is in E, but again, I transposed into C for easier comparison.

Here’s a mashup of Kalinnikov and Willie:

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Secondary dominants

When I was a kid, I’d listen to music and wonder, why is this chord progression so much more satisfying than that one? Now I know the answer: secondary dominants, chords that temporarily change the key in a logical-sounding way. If you want to take your songwriting in a more sophisticated direction, you definitely want to get hip to secondary dominants.

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The major scale and the circle of fifths

I studied music theory for a good long time before it dawned on me that you can read the major scale right off the circle of fifths. Here’s the C major scale on the circle. The white notes are the ones in the scale and the black ones are the ones outside the scale. The white notes correspond to the white keys on the piano, and the black notes to the black keys.

Circle of fifths

The circle of fifths trick works for all the major scales, not just C. Pick any note on the circle and think of it as the root. The note immediately counterclockwise from the root will be the fourth of the key. The five notes going clockwise from the root are the fifth, second, sixth, third and seventh of the key respectively. The other five notes will be the ones you omit — the “black keys.”

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Diminished chords and the blues

The blues is a good entry path for beginner guitarists. If you learn the standard fifteen chords and the blues scale, you’ll be well on your way. However, there’s one crucial piece of additional music vocabulary you need to fully inhabit blues tonality, and that’s diminished chords.

To make a diminished chord, you start on any note, go up a minor third, then another, then another. Here are the notes in C diminished — the scale tones are in red.

C diminished chord clockfaceHere are some good guitar fingerings for diminished chords.

Diminished chords are highly symmetrical, which gives them a peculiar property. The circle above shows C diminished, but the same notes also make Eb, F# and A diminished. The only difference between these four chords is their respective bass notes. This symmetry means that there are only four diminished chords total. The diagrams below show what I mean. On the left is the circle of fifths; on the right is the circle of half-steps. Each square is a diminished chord.

Minor thirds on the circle of fifths and the circle of half-steps

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