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Music Computer Tutorial

:: Music Theory (I)

Timing

Although it is not absolutely necessary to read music for being able to create our own compositions in a computer, there are some fundamentals that cannot be avoided. To start, it is essential that you learn a bit about timing. The musical staff is divided, by vertical lines, into sections called measures, being each measure equal in time value. At the beginning of the staff is the time signature, represented by a fraction. The upper number tells how many beats a measure has, and the lower number tells what kind of note gets one beat. You can see as well the treble clef (upper staff) and the bass clef (lower staff); though it is not necessary to understand this for composing music in a computer, it is always good to know what they mean. They represent, as their names say, the higher or lower notes of a composition; some instruments can play all the notes written in both staffs, but many other instruments are more limited and can play only more reduced ranges of notes.

Staff example This image to the left shows the beginning of a staff. From the time signature we can tell that each subsequent measure will be equal to four quarter (1/4) notes. The first measure has a whole note, the second has two half (1/2) notes and the third has four quarter (1/4) notes, being the last one a sharp note. The image shows as well the different types of notes and their time values. In the lower staff we can see a whole silent note placed in the beginning of each measure. For each musical note, there is an equivalent silent note for indicating silences of diverse durations. I will not explain about these silent notes here, since they are not necessary to know for the purpose of this tutorial, but it is always good to know that they exist, so you can check anywhere and learn more.

The images below show the beginning of a staff and its equivalent in a piano roll. We can see two eight (1/8) notes, one half (1/2) note and one quarter (1/4) note.

Staff example Piano Roll example

Remember that although modern music is written in 4/4 measures, in the immense world of music, along space and time, diverse types of measures have been used. In Europe, apart from the 4/4, a well known measure structure was the 3/4, because it was used for waltz music, but that structure was also in use for popular (folk) music in many places of the world. Music sequencers should allow to change the structure of measures, though I was not able to find this feature in FL Studio 5... You can check as additional information the article Timing And Mixing which shows a practical example of the usage of timing in music creation.

Scales

Now that I covered the concept of timing, it is time to explain about musical scales. The importance of scales with respect to creating our music, is that they are sets of notes that will work well when played together, avoiding dissonances. If you look at a piano keyboard, you will see that there is a pattern of keys that repeats itself every twelve keys. This is because music in western civilization has twelve notes. Start at any key on a piano, count up or down twelve keys and you will return to the same note, but an octave higher or lower. The whole of those twelve notes is known as chromatic scale. So a chromatic scale is just starting on a note and playing each consecutive note up or down until you reach the same note again.

The notes are named for letters from A to G. You might have observed that there are only seven letters, but twelve notes. Well, some of the letters have notes in between called flats (b) or sharps (#). These correspond to the black keys on the keyboard. You can think of sharp as meaning one note above, and flat as meaning one note lower. Notice that the black keys all have two names for the same note. The name is relative to which direction you approach it from, but whichever you call it, the note is obviously the same.

Chromatic scale - Octave In the image to the left, if we move up, the complete chromatic scale would be C, C#, D, D#, E, F, F#, G, G#, A, A#, B; or if we move down, it would be B, Bd, A, Ab, G, Gb, F, E, Eb, D, Db, C. The twelve notes of the chromatic scale are called an octave; in each successive octave, all the notes double their pitch in respect of their equivalent notes on the previous octave. You can see that keyboards are built with several octaves, so you can tell that keyboard-based instruments have a wide tonal range.

In the previous example, if you were to play only the white keys in consecutive order, starting and ending on C, you might recognize the melody as C, D, E, F, G, A, B, C (Do, Re, Mi, Fa, Sol, La, Si, Do). This would be an example of a major scale, and because we started at C, it is the "C major" scale. Note the pattern of notes included in the major scale, with * representing the unplayed notes...

[C * D * E F * G * A * B C]

Can you guess how a "D major" scale might look? Well, the interval between the played and unplayed notes remains the same, but because we start at D, now some black keys are played...

[D * E * F# G * A * B * C# D]

As you know, the eighth note of the scale is the same as the starting note, only an octave higher. But does it seem confusing to memorize all the notes in the twelve scales? To simplify this a bit, many musicians tend to think in terms of the interval between the notes rather than the actual note names. For this, each note of the scale is assigned a roman numeral. Here is the recipe for a major scale and an example of how it is used to build the "C major" scale...

I I# II II# III IV IV# V V# VI VI# VII I


C C# D D# E F F# G G# A A# B C
I I# II II# III IV IV# V V# VI VI# VII I


Then when we start a scale on a different note, we do not need to care what the notes are called, we simply think in numbers, and play the same intervals. See these two examples...

C# D D# E F F# G G# A A# B C C#
I I# II II# III IV IV# V V# VI VI# VII I


D D# E F F# G G# A A# B C C# D
I I# II II# III IV IV# V V# VI VI# VII I


See how in the "C# major" and "D major" scales (above) the notes change because we are starting on different notes than C. But the roman numerals and the intervals between them stay the same. So when building a scale, the notes may change depending on the starting place, but the intervals and the roman numerals will stay the same, so we have a generic pattern to build scales.

Major scales are very common, and their combination of notes sounds pleasing and correct to our ears. There are however, other scales, so pleasing and correct to our ears like those, that can be used as well for writing melodies. Minor scales are slight variations from the major scales. As I had said in the previous chapter, it is widely recognized that major keys usually give an optimistic feeling to melodies, while minor keys have the opposite effect. This is not totally true, but just orientative... Here is the recipe for a minor scale and an example of how it is used to build the "C minor" scale...

I I# II IIIb III IV IV# V VIb VI VIIb VII I


C C# D D# E F F# G G# A A# B C
I I# II IIIb III IV IV# V VIb VI VIIb VII I


This minor scale is nearly the same as its counterpart major scale, except that we have flatted (b) the III, VI and VII notes. Remember that the II# is the same as the IIIb. As an additional resource, you can see a compilation of all the seven notes (heptatonic) scales, in both major and minor keys, along with - doubtful - descriptions of their personality, in the link Heptatonic Scales.

Now, as an example, here is a Blues scale:

I - IIIb - IV - Vb - V - VIIb - II

To simplify things, I have left out the unplayed notes. You have the first or root note, followed by a flatted third, a fourth, a flatted fifth, a fifth, a flatted seventh, and back to the first...

Once we have decided on a key and scale, we have narrowed down which notes we will be working with. We can then take these notes and improvise with them to create a melody. I have put in the links Musical Scales and Indian (Hindu) Scales a long list of scales that you can use for your projects; most of them are ethnic and will produce melodies with an exotic taste. You will see that those scales are not based in series of seven notes, as western civilization music usually is, but in series of three notes (tritonic), four notes (tetratonic), five notes (pentatonic), six notes (hexatonic), eight notes (octatonic), etc... Those scales can be great for creative projects. Note that simple tritonic or tetratonic scales are related to primitive, tribal music, while pentatonic and hexatonic scales are commonly related to medieval or oriental music. This is just orientative, but often true. You would have to try to compose melodies around these scales and discover what they can contribute. Music is an abstract art, and scales are a key to open its secrets...



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