The word “Theory” has too many people running scared (in my opinion). This seems true in general, but I do not understand why; a little theory can be really helpful. If no-one is demanding (nor expecting) expertise, then what’s the big deal?
My pet hate is how difficult everyone makes music theory. There are two camps it seems – those who play music “by ear”, and those who “read music” and make everything seem exotic and difficult. Both positions are unhelpful, really.
I have always used a little music theory when I play the guitar, and now that I have children working their way up through the piano grades, I just might have something here that could help someone somewhere get a handle on something we have found extremely simple and useful.
The first thing is to memorise a short sentence:
FATHER CHARLES GOES DOWN AND ENDS BATTLE
Once you have memorised it, try it backwards:
BATTLE ENDS AND DOWN GOES CHARLES’S FATHER
No terribly difficult is it?
This sentence will help you understand music theory! It will also teach you every note on the guitar fretboard. This little bit of music theory really does go a long way.
Later I will explain notes, intervals, scales and keys (these are easy and really useful – so nothing to run scared of), but for now, look at the following table of all seven notes in each key. This is the familiar do-ri-mi-fa-so-la-ti-do. The lowest note is also the name of the key, each note rises in pitch in alphabetical order.
Although each do-ri-mi-fa-so-la-ti is tabulated as alphabetical starting on a different letter or root, can you see the pattern F C G D A E B? Try reading vertically downwards.
The letters spell:FATHER CHARLES GOES DOWN AND ENDS BATTLE
Did you see the Father Charles pattern?
Great. Now, look at the guitar fretboard:
This shows all the notes on each string and in each fret position. Again, each string is tuned to a different starting note/ root. The pitch rises as you go to the right from the nut to the bridge on the guitar body (right-handed guitar) in alphabetical order. Can you see the FCGDAEB pattern? It’s harder than before, but it’s still there.
Again, it is read vertically downwards from the thinnest string to the thickest one at the bottom
FATHER CHARLES GOES DOWN AND ENDS BATTLE
All you have to do is to use “memory pegs” – for example, the open tuning is: ENDS BATTLE GOES DOWN AND ENDS. On the third fret you have G for GOES, so below that is D for DOWN, then the pattern slips down a fret for AND ENDS BATTLE.
“Memory pegs” are a personal thing, so do what works for you – it really will help you to figure out what note is played simply by locating your peg nearby and remembering FATHER CHARLES GOES DOWN AND ENDS BATTLE.
You might have noticed sharps (#) and flats (b) in the fretboard diagram or the scale list, and wondered why a note can have two names, or why they have a sharp or flat at all. You may even have wondered why there is no regular pattern, for instance, no F flat or B sharp.
To explain, you have to know that originally, it was thought that there were only seven music notes were arranged in alphabetical order and rising in pitch – A B C D E F G then repeated A B C D E F G. They knew there was a Low or bass A and a high or tenor A, the note sounded the same, but higher in pitch.
The annoying thing is that after they came up with the alphabet system, they realised that the human ear could clearly discern some notes in between. So they had to add them in afterwards. They reckoned it was easier than going: A B C D E F G H I J K L M. These new notes were actually squeezed in as Black notes on the piano.
However, they kept with the seven-letter alphabet. So instead of seven notes, we ended up with twelve:
A (black note) B C (black note) D (black note) E F (black note) G (black note)
Yes, the ear couldn’t detect a clear black note for between B and C nor between E and F for some reason.
Anyway, it doesn’t really matter, because in a piece of music not all the notes sound good. So every song has only the good sounding notes – and that turns out to be just seven again.
The intervals between the notes in a scale are like a phone number you have to remember: 221 2221 – This is also given sometimes as TTS TTTS (tone tone semitone tone tone tone semitone). But for guitarists, like me, it’s 2 frets 2 frets 1 fret 2 frets 2 frets 2 frets 1 fret. And this will give me do-ri-mi-fa-so-la-ti on any string.
The key of the song gives you the starting note (root or lowest note) of a scale, so the key of C has seven notes arranged in alphabetical order from low to high pitch:
C D E F G A B and repeat. See the table above.
To play this, play a C note and – remembering 221 2221 – D is two frets up, another two frets is E and so on.
When you change the root to a different note you will always get a black note because you are still playing 221 2221 fret gaps.
Take the key of G for example.
G A B C D E F looks like the answer, but you know that the last interval is 1 fret before it repeats, meaning the F has to be sharp… G A B C D E F#, and now you know the key of G has one black note – and it’s F#.
F sharp is also G flat, but it is wrong to spell the scale of G as G A B C D E Gb G because it breaks the alphabet rule: Gb next to G.
In a musical stave, you have a basic graph – the x-axis is time from left to right. The y-axis is pitch from low at the bottom to high at the top. Each line and space is given an alphabetical letter as it rises up the page. For most instruments, the range is contained in a few lines – collected as a treble clef or bass clef (or in the case of a piano, both)
The spaces spell out F A C E as you rise, the lines are: E G B D F.
All you do for black notes is put a sharp or flat symbol against the note mark, sticking with the alphabet rule.
It gets tedious doing this, so a shortcut is to declare a KEY SIGNATURE – where you put the sharps and flats to indicate that whenever a note appears on that line or space, it is a black note. The intervals are always 221-2221 for the do-ri-mi-fa-so-la-ti- pattern and this gives you the note letter that has to be blackened.
There is a concept famously called The Circle of Fifths, and often a chart is drawn – similar to this:-
Can you see the FATHER CHARLES GOES DOWN AND ENDS BATTLE pattern? Try starting on F major and going round clockwise.
Now, interestingly, the pattern is also involved in the number of sharps and flats – and which ones are sharpened or flattened.
C major has no black notes. G major has one sharp. The note that is sharpened is F (FATHER) so a sharp is put on the F line.
The key signature that has TWO sharps is D major. The F line still has the sharp symbol – but an additional black note is added, the C space gets a sharp symbol. Every F and every C has to be sharpened – a fret up or a black note up on the piano.
Three sharps? Well that’s easy – put a sharp symbol on F C and G (FATHER CHARLES GOES).
Four sharps has F C G D (FATHER CHARLES GOES DOWN).
So you know your memory peg for C major is all white notes – no black sharp or flat notes. That’s CHARLES. From there you know the next thing is GOES (G major key) and it has one sharp. The sharp is always the letter before the key name, so F is before G major, so the note to be sharpened is F for FATHER.
Four sharps? – start at the peg of CHARLES (0 sharps) then GOES (1 sharp) DOWN (2 sharps) AND (3 sharps) ENDS (E major). Four sharps is E major. The notes to be sharpened for E major? Easy – the last one to be added is the letter before E, so it’s D sharp. The sequence is always FATHER CHARLES GOES DOWN, the sharps for E major is F# C# G# D#.
For Flats go backwards/ round the other way- BATTLE ENDS AND DOWN GOES CHARLES’S FATHER.
One flat is B (key of F), this is BATTLE, two flats (going around the circle of fifths counter-clockwise this time) keeps the B and adds the E for ENDS.
Three flats – BATTLE ENDS AND – so the black notes are Bb Eb and Ab.
You have to remember to go around anti-clockwise and that the relationship between the flat note and the key is different from sharps. See the pattern and get your personal memory pegs:
The key of Bb has 2 flats, Bb Eb
The key of Eb has 3 flats, Bb Eb Ab
The key of Ab has 4 flats, Bb Eb Ab Db
The key of Db has 5 flats, Bb Eb Ab Db Gb
The key of Gb has 6 flats, Bb Eb Ab Db Gb Cb
Minor Keys are pretty much all that’s left now. There are THREE minor scales – that’s annoying and irrational. This is the one area that needs a little care. The normal minor scale is called NATURAL MINOR or sometimes AEOLEAN. The notes are easy enough because you just find the sixth of a major key. Take for example C Major, count up six – C(1) D(2) E(3) F(4) G(5) A(6) – the answer is A, so the relative minor of C major is A minor, and the notes of A minor are the exact same as C major just starting on the A note instead of the C note. Anyway, it’s not used that much, but it’s there.
Then there is the Harmonic Minor. In terms of intervals, this is a whole, half, whole, whole, half, augmented second, half – or 212 2131 – yep, it sounds exotic and Arabian.
The Melodic Minor is weird because it is different going up from coming done. The Descending scale is the same as the natural or aeolean, but the notes going up are called “heptatonia seconda”, “the JAZZ minor scale” or “the Ionian flat third”. Up and down don’t usually get mixed.
Up is 212 2221 Down is 221 2212
The Dorian mode is a minor mode with a major sixth, while the Phrygian mode is a minor mode with a minor second. This crap is just for nerds who want to refer to happy accidentals in guitar or sax solos. Don’t worry about it.
So there you have it. The alphabet, FATHER CHARLES GOES DOWN AND ENDS BATTLE, and 221-2221 (major) 212 2221 (Harmonic Minor) are the most important things in musical theory.
A little theory goes a long way – scales, keys, musical notation, learning the keyboard, learning the fretboard, and just understanding better what’s going on.
I hope I explained it well enough if not, I hope it provides sufficient keywords for web searches that do a better job.