Music Theory – 0010

This is an overview day. We are going to look at Half Steps and Whole Steps and how to build a Major Chord. Ultimately I want you to know that a C Major Chord is comprised of the notes C – E – G. I expect the rest to be intimidating. We’re on the internet so . . . trust me. I will be skirting other issues and I want you to treat everything else as a preview, a first impression of things that will be explained slowly and in detail one thing at a time as we go forward.

First, here is the C Major Scale notated on the staff:


The numbers below each note are Scale Degrees. The distance between any two of those notes is called an interval. Without explanation, I will say that an interval can be minor, major, perfect, diminished, augmented, or unison. The dickens you say! That’s a lot of mystery and I’m going to leave all that be for now. You don’t need to remember any of that today, but you have been forewarned.

The reason to talk about Scale Degrees is that if we transpose a piece of music from C Major to E Major, the third scale degree in C Major is going to mean the same relative thing in E Major. More mystery, I’m afraid.

We will now look at Half Steps and Whole Steps. With a basic understanding of those we can recognize what kind of chord we are dealing with, even if we don’t know what key we are in.

If you play every single note, all the black and white keys in order, from Middle C to the C above, you have played a Chromatic Scale. If you move from one note to another note playing every black and white key in between then you are moving Chromatically. Again, we aren’t going to worry specifically about Chromaticism today, but there are two chromatic moves within the C Major Scale. A chromatic movement is a half step. Let’s look at the piano keyboard to see what on Earth I’m talking about:


If you play every key from one C to the next, all the black and white keys, you are playing all half steps. Notice how E and F do not have a black key between them. Also B and C are the same. From E to F is a half step, and from B to C is a half step. However, from C to D is two half steps. C to C# (C sharp) is a half step and from C# to D is a half step. This I need you to know and know well.

From C to D is a Whole Step. From C to E, count them, is four Half Steps or two whole steps. Two whole steps is a Major Third. C to E is a Major Third. Today is vocabulary day.

How many Half Steps is it from E to G? Count the keys on the way up and don’t skip the black key. You should get three Half Steps, or a Step and a Half. A Step and a Half is called a Minor Third. I need you to know this too.

When we look at three-note chords, six of the seven chords natural to the C Major scale are either Major or Minor. A Major Chord has first a Major Third and then a Minor third built on top of that. In the key of C Major, the Chord C-E-G is a Major Chord. Check it out:

C to E is a Major Third, and E to G is a Minor Third. This is important! We are only going to focus on this one chord today and next time, but let me show you all seven just to scare you:


You need not remember this for today, but all those symbols will be extremely important. Chords are represented theoretically as roman numerals where a major chord is a capital Roman numeral and minor chords are represented by small Roman Numerals. Let me show you the difference:

Capital Roman Numerals: I, II, III, IV, V, VI, VII

Small Roman Numerals: i, ii, iii, iv, v, vi, vii

These Roman Numerals correspond with the Scale Degrees I mentioned and pictured earlier. If we say the Chords are C Major, F Major, and G Major, then we are lost if we try to play the same thing in a different key than C Major. But if we instead call them I, IV, and V, then if we try to play them in a different key we will (someday) know how to handle it.

In the picture above, the vii° has a degree symbol after it. That means diminished which is a Minor Third with a Minor Third built on that. Check it just for fun. B to D is a Minor Third, and D to F is a Minor Third.

A plus sign would mean Augmented, which is a Major Third with a Major Third built on that. An Augmented Chord is not natural to the C Major Scale because there is no way to make one using only the notes of the C Major Scale. We will not be using an Augmented Chord for quite some time and you should feel free to forget all about it for now.

This is getting long and complicated. Here’s what I want you to take from today:

You should know what a Half Step and a Whole Step is. You should know what a Major Third and a Minor Third is. And you should know that to build a Major Chord you need first a Major Third and then build a Minor Third on top of that. Finally, you really really need to know that the chord C – E – G is a C Major chord.

Forget everything else for now, it will all be covered later and in more detail. You might want to reread this article.

Next time we will write a “song” in C Major using only a C Major Chord. I expect we will discover that to make a better song we need to use at least two chords.

2 thoughts on “Music Theory – 0010

  1. I keep on coming back to this lesson. I have a question. Why is it that it seems as all these musical terms are built around the piano? I can count keys and determine major and minor thirds but why are the keys laid out as they are? Surely other instruments came before the piano? Why does all this terminology seem custom made for the piano?

    I know, I said ONE question …

    • If you were to go to college and major in music, no matter what instrument is declared as your main instrument, you will be required to learn “functional piano”. The theory is inextricably linked to a music keyboard.

      I cannot say exactly why a piano keyboard is laid out the way it is, but given it is the way it is the names for sharps and flats then make sense. Without this layout, there are 12 distinct tones before you reach an octave and the cycle of notes repeats. The chromatic scale has 12 notes, playing every black and white key.

      It was with JS Bach and the even tempered tuning that formalized the major and minor scale so that you can transpose a piece of music to another key and it would work. Before then you could not transpose because there were “sour” notes in the scale such that, say, the Bb note was “off” to our contemporary ear. This Bb expected to be weird when playing in a key where the sixth note of the scale was that Bb, but if you transposed it and that sour note were now the fourth note of the scale then it wouldn’t work. With the even tempered tuning a consistency was introduced that made a song sound the same even though it was being played in a different key. This is one of the great revolutions in western music and allows the sort of analysis that we have today. Before then, one musician could not simply say to another, I – IV – V in the key of A Major because it would not perfectly translate from the key of C Major as it will today.

      The problem with the music keyboard is that to play the same thing in a different key, the hand has to make different movements since in one key you play only white keys and in another key there might be a number of black and white keys that are required to produce the same result. Contrast that with a guitar player where if there are no open strings they could play the exact same song in a different key my moving up or down a number of frets and then doing identical movements related to all the frets. That makes playing a keyboard harder than playing a guitar. When open strings are needed, the guitar player simply uses a capo to move all the strings upward in pitch.

      There does need to be a recognizable pattern to the music keyboard in order to visually see where you are at. If there were a black key every other note then it would not be easy to know where Middle C or any other C was on the keyboard. Also, the major scale is a very important scale and to play it on all the white keys from C to C, it becomes obvious why the black keys are exactly where they are.

      Clear as mud?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s