Music Theory with Richard Bleil (and, no, I’m not an expert)
Just a moment ago (as of writing this blog so roughly a week ago today) I put a challenge on my social media page for anybody who has never played piano or had given up on it. I told them to forget any specific song, forget the sheet music and forget the black keys. Just sit at a keyboard and play from the heart using only the white keys, and I’ll bet that anything they play will sound good. Then I told them that if they want to know why, they should text me after the experiment. If YOU want to play along, stop reading for now, and try it. The blog will be here afterwards if you want.
When I learn something, I need to know why I’m doing what I’m doing. I tried to learn sheet music (teaching myself), but never learned music theory, without which piano (or any instrument) simply becomes an exercise in memorization. I’m not good at memorization.
So the first thing that we have to realize about music theory is that keys, a set of notes that are played (like the C Major key, which is what you are playing with only the white keys) are simply notes that sound pleasing to the ear. Originally, they were constructed by trial and error. People just started playing, but a pattern eventually emerged. To understand the pattern, we have to understand the concept of “steps”.
Looking at the keyboard, a full step is always two keys (including the black keys) ahead of the previous. A half-step is the adjacent key. We’ll call a whole step (two keys) “W” and a half step (adjacent key) “H”. Pretty clever, eh? Looking at the keyboard, you’ll see sets of black keys, set in two, then three, then two, then three and so forth. Looking at the two black keys, the white key immediately to the left of the first in that pair is called the “C” note. The white notes then proceed alphabetically up (to the right) of the keyboard; D, E, F, G, A, B. The black keys are the sharps (to the right of a note) and flats (to the left of the note). We’ll not really get into that today other than to acknowledge that they exist and for use in understanding steps.
So, once you’ve identified the C note, you’ll notice that the D note is a full step (two keys, the black and then the D) ahead of C. Similarly, the E note is a full step ahead of D, but the F note is only a half-step ahead of E. G is a full note ahead of E, then A is a full step, and B is a full note. One more half step brings us back to C, but higher on the scale (we call that the next octave).
Now comes the music theory. Starting at one of the C’s, playing only the white note (and not counting that C), you’ll notice that a pattern emerges for the steps. If we look at the C Major, the pattern of steps that emerges is WWHWWWH. Music theory tells us that if we play this step pattern, it will sound pleasing to our ears. C Major (we’ll talk about major and minor momentarily) is the easiest key to play because it simply means playing only the white keys, but understanding this pattern, notice that we can start on any key, white or black, and play in a key provided we remember WWHWWWH. This, by the way, is a “C” key because it starts with the note of C; C, D, E, F, G, A, B. Starting on any other key, say the E key, means you start on E, but don’t forget that pattern. Looking at a keyboard, you’ll see that E Major is E, F#, G#, A, B, C#, D#, and back to E. It’s a more challenging chord to play because you have to remember which black keys to play, and which white keys to avoid, but the theory is the same. That’s why I suggest starting simply with the C major key.
Now, major keys are often described as “happy” keys. Christmas songs are probably mostly in major keys, but the Eagles wrote a very sad holiday song called “Please Come Home for Christmas.” Playing a bluesy song in a major chord is like sending a “Dear John” letter with a “heart” stamp. It just doesn’t fit. So, instead, you’d want to play in a minor key, which are usually described as mournful and sad. But major and minor keys are very closely related with only one minor difference in the pattern. Here, we switch one, just one, whole step with a half step. A minor key, then, would be WWWHWWWH. This means that C minor would be C, D, E, F#, G, A, B and back to C. Notice that the only difference in the C key is that F# that was an F in the major cord.
So there you go. It’s a matter of steps, stumbled upon by trial and error. What sounded good (the steps) and what sounded happy versus sad (major and minor) becomes the foundation of music theory. Happy playing!!!