Music Theory: The Musical Alphabet

Music Theory

Level: Beginner

This article presents an introduction to the way musical notes are named and referred to. If you already know even a little music theory, this may seem pretty basic for you, so you may want to skip ahead or come back for more advanced lessons. If you’re a “play by ear” musician, you may not see the need to learn any theory at all. In many ways, music theory is giving names and complicated explanations to things we already know instinctively. Still, the next time you’re jamming and someone asks you to play an A sharp, it would be good to understand what that means. In addition, this lesson provides a base for later, more interesting, lessons.
Even those who have never studied music or an instrument can appreciate that music is made up of different notes, different pitches. The musical “alphabet” has twelve notes. All of the music that we care about can be spelled using these twelve notes. There are twelve notes on a guitar fretboard (and a piano keyboard, and a flute). Twelve unique notes, that is, that repeat themselves at higher and lower pitches. This distance of twelve notes is called an octave. I’ll discuss in a future lesson why it’s twelve and not some other number, but for now, just remember that there are twelve notes in the musical alphabet. Now here’s where things get kooky. Because of history, we’re stuck with a pretty illogical method of naming these twelve notes. Probably one of the reasons so many people get bored with music theory is because of the silly naming conventions that we have to deal with. Trust me, though, that you get used to it. If logic prevailed, the notes be named 1 through 12, or A through L, or even I through XII, but they’re not; they’re named A through G. That presents a slight problem, since A through G only gives seven letters. Some of the notes need to be named using two letters. Well, actually a letter plus another symbol: either a flat symbol, which kinda-sorta looks like a lower-case letter b, or a sharp symbol, which looks pretty much like a pound sign, #. So, for example, A# is pronounced “A sharp,” and Bb is pronounced “B flat.” Here’s how the notes are named, from low to high starting from A, and using sharp symbols:
A A# B C C# D D# E F F# G G#
Then it starts over at A an octave higher. Here are the exact same notes, named using flat symbols:
A Bb B C Db D Eb E F Gb G Ab
There are a couple things worth noticing there. The first thing is that five of the notes are named twice. For example, A# is the same note as Bb. That’s because a sharp symbol just means to go up one, and a flat symbol means to go down one, so they end up in the same place. Every sharped note can also be named as a flatted note. The next thing to notice is that not every pair of letters has a sharp/flat note in between. There is nothing between B and C, and there is nothing between E and F. It’s a silly way to arrange things, but when we study scales it will make (slightly) more sense. There is nothing magical about the choice of the letters A through G and the sharp and flat symbols to represent these twelve notes, or about which notes get decorated with a b or a #, and in fact at different times in history and in different cultures, different systems have applied. It’s good to learn this system, though, since it’s the one you’re most likely to encounter. So what do you suppose the distance between two notes is called? Once again, logic seems to be lacking. In a logical system, maybe it would be called a step. Nope, it’s a “half-step.” (Also sometimes “semitone.”) Yeah, there is a reason for this silliness, but it’s a historical thing and really not very interesting at this point. Just accept it: two adjacent notes are separated by half-step. Two half-steps make a whole-step, which actually makes sense, surprisingly. So there is a half-step between A and A#, and there is a whole-step between A and B. And, as discussed above, a half-step between B and C and between E and F. So that’s the musical alphabet. Yes, this has been a pretty basic lesson, but stick around, as this is just a foundation on which we’ll build more of what you need to know. Next up: intervals and chords! Discuss this in the Guitarator Forums.