I.e. music derived from European traditions. With occasional exceptions,
in the vast world of 'popular' music, 99.99% of what you hear is pure
western music (even in other parts of the world). This should not be
confused with 'Country-western,' although that certainly falls within
Pipe organs can go both higher and lower than a piano, and MIDI (see
Software) defines notes more than
an octave above and below, beyond 'normal' hearing range.
I have discussed the physics in the chapter on 'Waveforms and harmony,' but if you are new
to all this, I would recommend waiting until later for that.
Of course, the term octave assumes the traditional sub-division discussed
in the next paragraph, but the phenomenon is built into the nature of
sound (see Waveforms and harmony).
Ancient Greeks used letters for numbers, so the number-name vs.
letter-name issue, which we will encounter later, would probably not
have occurred to them.
Western music1 has certain basic features which we should
address right at the beginning, although I realize that if you are
coming to a site about 'music theory,' you almost undoubtedly already
know this stuff, or at least intuit it from what you have heard. So you
are welcome to skip this part if it seems overly simplistic.
century rock band trying to learn a song their manager
(looking on) thinks would be good for their image. (Rembrandt - The
music party, 1626).
As music has developed in the West, we have limited the range of
'possible' notes to somewhere near the range of a full keyboard piano.
There are a few instruments that go higher or lower, but not many and
not many.2 The piano gives us 88 notes, but physics and
tradition have allowed us to subdivide them in a couple of different
ways.3 I have discussed the physics in the chapter on 'waveforms and harmony,' but if you
are new to all this, I would recommend waiting until later for that. For
now physics divides the 96 or so generally available notes (including piccolo
and bass) into about eight octaves.4
Tradition sub-divides those octaves into uneven divisions of seven notes
each which we call scales. There are different ways of dividing up the
octave, and so there are different scales, which we will unpack further
down the road. Most music you hear likes to stay close to these scales
most of the time, but there are actually 12 different notes to choose
from. The seven note scales are called 'diatonic' ('through the notes')
scales. The twelve-note subdivision is called a 'chromatic' ('colorful') scale.
Some, particularly 20th century, music actually uses chromatic scales,
but most people don't find it very pretty, so diatonic music still
dominates the popular world. The one caveat is that composers will often
temporarily wander out of their diatonic limitations to include
chromatic embellishments. These provide interest. As we progress, we
will see how this works.
The way we name notes reflects the diatonic dominance. From very early
times notes have been given the titles 'a' through
'g,'5 after which we start over at the octave (eighth
note). If we want to refer to one of the other notes from the chromatic
scale, we name it relative to the diatonic scale. If up a note we call
it 'sharp'; if down a note it is 'flat.' Such note alterations are
called 'accidentals' ('non-essential,' or 'unexpected').
Getting to it
This going to get confusing quickly without practical application, so I
am going to ask you to move on to music
notation at this point. One thing I am going to suggest right away,
though, is that if your instrument is something other than a keyboard
(piano, organ, etc.), you should get access to one (a kiddie-keyboard
from the thrift shop should be fine, as long as it as it has a couple of
octaves [including black keys], and works). You don't actually need to
learn to play it, but it will make your life much easier making sense of