It’s easy as 1, 2, 3!

True to my word, I’m going to cool off on the ridiculous theory topics that, while endlessly amusing to myself the composer/connoisseur of fine brandies, might not have the broadest audience. Instead, today we’re going to talk about the alphabet. No, not the whole alphabet, 26 letters is far too much for us musicians (leave the rest of them to the people with doctoral degrees in literary criticism). We’re just going to stick with 7 of then.

When we’re first learning the basic elements of music, we learn that the musical alphabet is 7 letters long – A B C D E F G, and that’s typically as far as we get as far as explaining the musical alphabet. What else is there possibly to learn? Notes are named based upon these alphabetical symbols, and that’s pretty much all there is to it. Something rather odd happens after this, however. Teachers of music, being the musicians that they are, tend to forget to explain (or forget all together) that the alphabetical system of naming notes extends extremely far into music theory and can make intially opaque concepts like double flats/sharps  much easier to understand. Everybody who is literate has a very intimate knowledge of the alphabet, a knowledge that new musicians don’t have about music.

Take intervals, for instance. One method for teaching intervals involves counting lines/spaces on a staff to derive the correct interval – a method that relies almost totally on the visual aspect of the staff and not on the logical deduction skills that are required to train the brain to think rather than respond to clever visuaProxy-Connection: keep-alive
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cues. Basic intervals are simply the distance between alphabetical letter names – A to F is a sixth because there are six letter names shared in between them counting A as 1.

The need for double sharps/flats and B#/Fb can be easily explained by applying the “unbreakable law of the alphabet” to the major scales (note to self: think of a more impressive title for this law. Perhaps, “the hallowed law of laws” or something like that). As long as its emphasized that all letters of the musical alphabet must be included in order for every major scale, things like enharmonic spellings make more sense in context. A# C C# D#, for example seems really weird in context, and any trained musician will intuitively tell you that it’s wrong, but it’s hard to explain why exactly without going back to the fundamental “alphabetical” nature of music theory.

Focusing on alphabetical letters is something that can help new students to music theory because they can relate so easily to it – they’re the foundation for the spoken/written language, and by taking that familiarity and applying it to another, potentially unfamiliar context.


1 Response to “It’s easy as 1, 2, 3!”

  1. 1 Mark Frazier October 3, 2010 at 6:22 pm

    Good way of explaining why we need those pesky double flats and sharps, as well as monikers such as “C flat”. “A Chicken in Every Pot” – An alpha character for every scalar pitch. (Sorry, Henry IV)

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