Bad and Wrong Music Lessons, Part 2

By Shamus Posted Sunday Aug 31, 2014

Filed under: Music 84 comments

Previously I talked about the difference between major and minor scales. So far all the tracks I’ve shown you have been in A minor. I also mentioned that songs written in major scales are (roughly) happy / upbeat and songs written in minor scales are moody, sad, angry, anxious, or suffering from irritable bowel syndrome.

I thought it would be fun to illustrate this, and at the same time share a little more of my badly misunderstood over-simplifications of music theory. As before, keep an eye out for the music majors. They will say things that are deeply confusing. If a music major tries to teach you anything using words like chromatic, octatonic, consonance, or “Shamus Young is a clueless hack who doesn’t know what he’s doing”, then slam your hands over your ears, close your eyes, and begin singing the Batman theme at the top of your lungs. Actually, you should be doing that sort of thing anyway. It’s like yoga for the musical parts of your brain: It makes you look silly but it feels good.

Here is a song I made in C major:

That’s pretty different from the stuff I’ve been doing. It’s bouncy, jubilant, and playful. That’s a result of it being written in C major. As I said before, to make a major scale you pick a starting key (C in this case) and walk up the keyboard this many keys at a time:

2 2 1 2 2 2 1


If you follow that pattern from C, you’ll land on every single white key and no black keys.

If you want to make a minor scale, then you follow this pattern:

2 1 2 2 1 2 2

If you do that from A, then… you’ll land on every single white key and no black keys? So A minor and C major use the exact same keys on the keyboard. Does that mean they sound the same? Actually, no. Very no. Here is the same song from above, translated into A minor:

I want to stress that aside from moving the notes around very slightly, this is the same song as that joy-gush at the top of the post. Same tempo. Same instruments. Same drum arrangement. Basically the same octave. Drawing from the same group of 7 keys.

When I was even more musically incompetent than I am now, I always thought the mood of the song came from how high or low the notes were. (Oh, that sounds too happy. Better drop it down a few notes!) But it turns out that moving the notes up or down doesn’t change the mood of the music. That would be like trying to make an email seem less hostile by changing the font size. In fact, 90% of the mood comes from how the chords are arranged.

Because black keys make everything confusing, let’s imagine a keyboard where all keys are the same width and painted the same color. (I have no idea how the musician is supposed to tell them apart, but that’s not my problem.)


This probably looks like an abomination to a real pianist. Like, I hope you have very long fingers and arms, because this thing would be a monster to play. But it’s really convenient for talking about note relationship. Also, this is the type of environment I work in when assembling songs a note at a time:


Everything is on a nice neat grid, without any worry over the physical dimensions of the instrument. (Although you can see the keyboard depicted over there on the left.) This type of uniform-width depiction of keys is really handy. It’s like an update to the old, confusing system of handwritten musical notation that was developed hundreds of years ago for instruments we no longer use, but has hung around until now out of habit and tradition. The obvious difference here is that time is literally depicted as horizontal space instead of using symbols. The longer the blue bar, the longer the note. Probably the most useful change is that now each row is a unique key, as opposed to the old system where you needed to use sharp and flat symbols to clarify if you were taking about a sharp, a flat, or a… natural? Whatever you call something not sharp or flat. I dunno. Go ask a music teacher.

This notation system takes up a ton of space, which would be horrible in an age where paper and ink were precious, but super-convenient on a computer screen where you can scroll and zoom at will.

For the curious, the grid above shows the bit of the song that starts about 32 seconds in.

Anyway, on our fixed-width keyboard a major chord, like the kind used in the happy song, is shaped like this:


A minor chord, like the kind used in the second song, is shaped like this:


That’s it. That tiny difference is what makes these two songs sound so radically different. You take the middle note in a three-note chord and move it down ONE notch, and the mood goes from “happy” to “brooding” just like that. (You also have to move the entire group up or down very slightly, just to avoid landing on keys that don’t belong in your scaleWhich are the black keys, in our case., but this shift doesn’t have anything to do with the change in mood.)

So yes, C major and A minor use the same keys. But the reason you call it C major is because you build major chords, and you start building them on C. And the reason it’s called A minor is because you start on A and build minor-shaped chords. So the naming of your scale is less about what notes you’re using and more about how you use them. It’s not a hard-and-fast definition – like “metric” versus “imperial” – but a soft, stylistic system – like “Sci-fi” versus “fantasy”. Most work sticks to the conventions, but there’s plenty of stuff that plays around in the margins, thumbing its nose at expectations.



[1] Which are the black keys, in our case.

From The Archives:

84 thoughts on “Bad and Wrong Music Lessons, Part 2

  1. silver Harloe says:

    Sorry that is off the topic of chords and whatnot, but one thing that always confused me about music. 3/4 time is somehow different than 6/8 time. Even though you’re allowed to play 8th notes in a 3/4 time measure. What The Frak?

    1. Zukhramm says:

      It’s kind of a hint of what’s emphasized, I guess. It’s when people start talking about differences between 6/4 and 6/8 they start to lose me.

      1. VelCthulhu says:

        Generally yes; 3/4 is 3 groups of 2 8th notes, 6/8 is 2 groups of 3 8th notes. 6/4 is (usually) used for pieces that switch between the groupings frequently. Obviously, these are all just conventions rather than rules, but if a composer doesn’t follow them, he risks being misinterpreted and/or called unpleasant names by the players.

    2. David F says:

      As Zuhramm said, the difference is in the emphasis of the notes. In 3/4, every other 8th note is emphasized, giving a feel of 3 beats per measure. In 6/8, every third 8th note is emphasized, giving a feel of 2 beats per measure. 6/8 often feels more bouncy than 3/4. One of my band directors would refer to anything in 6/8 as a “sailing song”.

    3. A Gould says:

      I’ll take a crack at this.

      3/4 music is your classic waltz (ONE-two-three-ONE-two-three). Amazing Grace and Clementine are both in 3/4 time.

      6/8 time tends to run a bit faster (ONEtwothreeFourfivesix), and tends to have a bit more.. gallopy(?) a feel. The Farmer In The Dell, Hickory Dickory Dock, and Jack and Jill are all 6/8 tunes. (Also Here We Come A Wassailing).

      The other difference is on emphasis. Generally the first beat gets the emphasis, and the “halfway” beat (if any) gets a lesser emphasis. Take your standard rock 4/4 drum beat (ONE-two-Three-four-ONE-two-Three-four). You get a hard beat on one, and a lesser one on three (and two and four are usually just snare hits). Switch it to 2/2, and you get ONE-two-ONE-two. (See also: every army marching song EVER). Same music, but the beat sounds a bit more driving.

      (I can’t believe I still remember all this music theory. I may actually have to pick up an instrument again…)

    4. Zak McKracken says:

      As others have said, it’s all about emphasis and the “feel” of the rythm.

      To make matters worse: It’s impossible to formally tell the difference between a very fast binary 3/4 and a very slow ternary 4/4.
      (ternary rythms have 3 “1/8” notes between the 1/4s rather than two).
      Jazz is often ternary (or worse…), but my favourite example is “no one knows” from Queens of the Stone Age and most stuff from the Fratellis. Those are quick ones, though.

      Sometimes (binary) songs will go to “double time” in the middle of the piece, and then it’s up to the person writing the sheet music whether to just half all of the notes or to indicate to play twice as fast …

      The cues to decide which to call it are often in the melody because that often consists of repeating phrases, each subdivided into four bars. Listen to “Don’t you” from Simple minds: He starts singing, and when the melody starts repeating, that’s exactly four bars, so one bar is 4/4.

      To even further complicate things, interesting music sometimes features little melodies using a different rythm, played over the dominant one. Depending on which beat each note falls, it sounds quite different, although it’s the same melody. Classical Rock’n’Roll/Rock has 3/4 guitar motives (really just 3 1/4 notes) played over 4/4 rythm.

      In other words: This is creative stuff. Rules are there to be broken. But only after following them just long enough that they count as rules so their breaking can be noticed.

      1. Chuk says:

        I love the Fratellis.

  2. Fabrimuch says:

    I dunno, I might be abnormal, but “It Ended Badly (A Minor)” still sounds happy and upbeat to me :/

    Also, first. YAY! (EDIT: not really. Curse you silver Harloe!!!!!! *shakes fist*)

    1. Zukhramm says:

      The major = happy, minor = sad is of a very rough simplification, moods like that are usually accomplished through the use of all tools available in music. I’d probably say minor sounds soft and dark while major sound hard and clean. In some languages we even call them dur and moll, from Latin durus and mollis meaning hard and soft.

      1. Disc says:

        That’s what we call them in Finnish; duuri and molli. Personally I find the tone is always ultimately dependent on the selection of keys. Some combinations sound sadder than others. For piano keys, there’s also a difference whether you’re using the “regular” minor or what they call “harmonious (or harmonic) mol” (I’ve no fucking clue here with the English terminology) where you play it “2 1 2 2 1 3 1” instead of “2 1 2 2 1 2 2“, which sounds significantly sadder.

    2. Dragomok says:

      It also sounds somewhat upbeat to me, albeit with slightly darker undertones.

      But I’m always abnormal. So, does the two of us make a normal?

    3. Volfram says:

      “It Started Well” is very celebratory, while “It Ended Badly” sounds like the theme for a boss fight. It uses the same construction, but the resultant stress level is higher, and it adds a hint of pressure to the listener.

      Say “It Started Well” is the main theme for a game, “It Ended Badly” is what you would be using for the fight with the final boss.

    4. The Rocketeer says:

      One of my favorite examples of this- changing recurring phrases from major to minor and back again for dramatic effect- is also the central mechanic of one of the most famous scores in gaming:

      The Main Theme of Final Fantasy VII

  3. MadTinkerer says:

    This was also nicely illustrated by the Gregory Brothers a few months ago.

    1. Kamica says:

      Well, they do quite a lot more than just change they… Major/minor to the opposite, they also seem to be changing tempo and maybe some other things…

      Now, I am completely music illiterate, but that’s just something I seem to notice.

      1. Arkady says:

        Yeah, they’re basically keeping the melody (except for changing the key) and chords the same but re-orchestrating everything.

        Happy songs tend to have a busier arrangement with more instruments, and more going on in the background, they’re normally faster paced, sung louder and more open mouthed. They add new instruments playing around with the chords or the melody. The instruments are often fun instruments, like the ukulele, xylophone, they might add drums or horns. (I don’t think any examples there added horns, but you know…)

        For sad songs they’ve normally pulled the backing music right back – often to just a piano with little else, maybe a softly strummed acoustic guitar, very little drums. The tempo is slowed down, the singer might add some vibrato to their voice (which is when they waver the pitch around the note, instead of holding it steady).

        I’d suggest if you made a lot of these changes without changing the key you’d get a similar effect.

  4. urs says:

    When my kid wants a good night song, I let her decide whether she wants the happy or sad version :) It works *so* well with nursery rhymes.

    1. Burning says:

      Itsy-Bitsy Spider is pretty disturbing in a minor key.

      1. arron says:

        I did translate the song “The Sun has got his hat on” into a minor key once. It was terrifying. You can do some very interesting experiments translating tunes from major to minor keys and vice versa.

        Also this from The Mary Whitehouse Experience comedy programme where The Cure try to do “cheerful songs”.

  5. Daemian Lucifer says:

    That may be your old dudes batman theme,but for me this is the batman theme.

    1. Dragomok says:

      For me it is BATMETAL. The music video sells the idea so well that only during the second viewing I realised this song was not written as a Batman fan song.

      1. krellen says:

        Being familiar with Metalocalypse and Dethklok, I knew the song wasn’t a Batman song immediately.

        Also, at the end there, counting down Batman’s sexual prowess, I just have to say “could you seriously not find eight female DC characters to use?”

        1. Retsam says:

          Metalocalypse never looked that interesting; combination of the sort of humor I really don’t like with a subject I’m not interested in. That being said; I love me some Duncan Hills Coffee Jingle.

    2. Eric says:

      This is my idea of the Batman theme.

  6. Dragomok says:

    Doing that with Chopin’s Funeral March also produces fantastic results. Especially when you add party blowers. (Thanks, POTEM/Hrabi.)

    1. urs says:

      Now I’m thinking about the Imperial March ;)

  7. Daemian Lucifer says:

    But changing the font slightly does change how what you say sounds.Doesnt it?

    1. Shamus says:

      I was thinking more along the lines of:

      “Hey asshole, that’s a stupid thing to say.”

      What font-face changes do I need to make in order for this to sound friendly? Sure, bold and italics nudge it one way or the other a little, but just as the chords dictate the mood of the music, the words dictate the tone of the text.

      1. MelTorefas says:

        …Dude. You just blew my mind.

        And both words and music can be expressed via Keyboards! This means something…

      2. silver Harloe says:

        “What font-face changes do I need to make in order for this to sound friendly?”

        font-family: wingdings;


        1. Daemian Lucifer says:

          Hey,it really does look friendly like that.Especially if you put it in pink as well.

      3. swenson says:

        Punctuation is what would make the difference, I think. Put an exclamation point and a :) at the end and you’re set… either that, or you sound passive-aggressive and terribly annoying.

        Eh. Same thing.

      4. Isy says:

        If you used an over-the-top elegant handwriting font it might wrap around into joyously facetious, but that’s an extreme case and doesn’t invalidate the point.

  8. Trevor says:

    Chromatic keyboards are actually a thing.

    They solve the problem of making the musician move around so much by having five rows of the same notes, but staggered, so you can move up one note by moving horizontally, or by five notes (“a fifth”) by moving up or down a row.

    This matches how most stringed instruments are laid out (each successive string will be tuned a fifth higher), such as guitars, so they’re more popular with people who learned music on a stringed instrument, or are perhaps self taught and started with the math instead of theory, like me.

    The standard piano layout came about because the musical community, around the time the harpsichord was being designed, basically just decided C Major was the only “real” music, and everything else was this weird hippie music not worth worrying about intellectually.

    1. Flock Of Panthers says:

      Guitar and Bass guitar are in fourths, viols are in fifths.
      The double bass is, confusingly, tuned like a guitar instead of a viol.

      I had not heard of those keyboards before, cheers!

      1. urs says:

        re: Guitars. You’re both right. To varying degrees ;) But then again, Guitars can be tuned to whateverthefuck suits, so…

      2. Eric says:

        The double bass is tuned differently from the other string instruments because it’s not technically from the same family of instruments. This image is a good illustration.

        The double bass’s lineage isn’t fully understood, but the shape of the body (sloping shoulders at the top, more rounded bottom) marks it as different from the other three, which have basically the same shape, just scaled up and down. (And violins are tuned differently from violas and cellos, which are tuned the same, just an octave apart.

        Guitars have a weird ancestry, involving lutes and viols, among other things.

        1. Flock Of Panthers says:

          The viola is a fifth lower than the violin (which is an octave higher than the cello.

          We’re getting close to a kotor puzzle now.

          36 sith stand in an equal circle, each competing with the devil. 8 Sith have violins, divided into 1st, 2nd and solo; 4 siths have violas but they all play the same note in unison (because the viola never gets a good part). 24 Sith have an even mix of Cellos and Double basses, mixing their fourths and fifths in equal twos.
          The devil holds a fiddle, which is almost exactly a violin, unless you ask a violinist (a… Schrà¬∂dinger’s viol?)

          And we could have bloody dealt with that until Kai Leng shows up with a clarinet in Bb, because he had to be special and different and damn the consequences to the integrity and cohesion of the whole.

          So then the devil says just fuck right off, I’m not dealing with this shit. You bloody monkeys can make a clarinet 66cm in length, which plays every note it has wrong -D is C, F is Eb, the law is inside out, the world is upside down- but the scientific know how to make one 63cm in length that actually plays the right notes is a hopeless pipe dream.

          1. Eric says:

            I know how the different strings are tuned. I just left it out because I’m already dangerously close to getting my former music major face punched in.

            Having been a string player, I’ve never quite gotten my head wrapped around the whole “transposing instrument” thing (even though I technically play a transposing instrument, since I play bass).

            I remember hearing from one of my professors that the main reason C trumpets, clarinets, and so forth never caught on is because they have a weird timbre (pronounced “tamber”, for those reading who don’t know) and people just didn’t like the way they sounded. I have no idea if that’s true or not, but it’s the best explanation I’ve heard.

      3. Zak McKracken says:

        Most doublebass players I know don’t really tune them, just stretch the skin enough to have no folds, and of course both of them should make the same tone, maybe put something fluffy in to dampen the higher frequencies but not too much or it sounds like wet cardboard :)

    2. Dragomok says:

      Isn’t that basically the keyboard found on every accordion?
      I have only seem accordions from a distance, so I’m not sure.

      1. Trevor says:

        Traditionally accordions used this layout, but now you can buy them with piano style layouts as well.

    3. Joe Informatico says:

      Or just get rid of the separate keys altogether and make one continuous interface surface.

  9. Robyrt says:

    Music notation is still laid out primarily by duration, but it has the extra symbols so that they can cheat a little for layout purposes. For example, a complex passage will be “zoomed in” by placing the notes farther apart than they normally would be, while the big chord at the end that you hold for 10 seconds will be packed tightly together. It’s like using a variable-spaced font instead of a fixed-width font: humans find it way easier to read the variable way, unless you’re doing something that really counts characters, like coding.

    1. Flock Of Panthers says:

      As a rule of thumb, the more effort it took to draw the note the quicker it’s played.

      Hold this note for ages? Eh, I’ll circle where the note should be and move on.

      Play 17 notes in the next two beats? I’m gonna need my calligraphy set for this one. Percival! Fetch my fanciest quills!

      1. Richard says:

        Bravo! Bravo!

        *picks self up from floor*

  10. Doomcat says:

    Just my 2 cents being a FORMER music major:

    I feel like when composing, alot of music majors really over emphasize the theory like your talking about (Pentatonics man! Augmented fifths!) But when I myself just improvise I prefer to just play what feels and sounds right. I very highly doubt that all the great composers of our past and present methodically plan out their pieces of music with all the theory and such, they just do it, and play what sounds right.

    Sure, maybe being someone trained I’ll go “maybe a perfect fifth here rather then a minor third” but I never stop myself and analyze exactly what I’m doing.

    Granted I’ve also never made music with a program like this (I never found one I liked, and Finale can just go die) but yeah, I do love my improv.

    1. Mathias says:

      Well, that’s the thing with music theory – even if you’re not deliberately using it, you’re still using it.

      1. Doomcat says:

        I didn’t mean to say they weren’t using it, of course they are! I’m saying you shouldn’t let yourself get bogged down in the minutiae of how its all going to piece together while you’re composing a piece.

        1. Sabrdance (MatthewH) says:

          As I mentioned earlier, I’m a pretty successful amateur musician. I’ve learned piano, tuba, violin, and bass (I can’t seem to get my mouth to work with woodwinds), but never learned music theory. I mean, my teachers taught it, but I didn’t pay attention.

          When I play in orchestras with people who do have some music theory, I can keep up, but they are all better at detecting errors in the music, improvising, or even detecting what voice a wrong note is in (such that when a chord sounds off, it will usually be someone else who can identify that the problem is in the 3rd or the 5th, where as all I can detect is that it sounds hinky). Of course, many of them have 2 decades on me, playing and they are professional musicians, so that also helps.

          Nonetheless, given time and opportunity to experiment and poke about, I could do everything they do. They, however, can do it on the fly.

      2. Zak McKracken says:

        I think you need to have some rules in order to be able to break them, otherwise it just becomes arbitrary.
        Most audiences won’t realize consciously but will feel the difference between a piece that simply uses chords number 1,4,5 all over again, and one that breaks key at just the right moment. The really good songwirters know how to do this, and make it match with the lyrics. I’m pretty bad at identifying chords or notes by ear but realize when a song sounds “not normal”, and everyone who’s grown up with western music knows the rules on some level and realizes when something is off, though some are more sensitive than others (and of course preferences vary).

        That’s not to say you can’t make good music with just two chords: There’s still punk, but those people broke musical rules in other ways, and that made it interesting again.

  11. Mathias says:

    Ah, this brings me back to music classes in high school.

    A few addendums that might be interesting:

    C Major and A minor are both, at least in the case above, built as 7-note scales. These are really easy to perform on a piano because of the way the instrument is organized.

    Anyone who’s ever picked up a guitar in their life, on the other hand, probably knows about the pentatonic scale. True to form, the pentatonic scale only consists of five notes. The A minor pentatonic (the most famous and one of the first scales you learn as a guitarist.) They always consist of the first, second, third, fifth and sixth intervals in a scale. The entire blues genre (and thus much of modern rock) is built on this scale.

    In addition, there’s actually a whole series of scales that follow the C major pattern of only using the white keys on a keyboard, only they start on a different note: Modes.

    Unlike other scales, each mode has its own “name.” So for example, this scale, starting on D (meaning the scale goes D-E-F-G-A-B-C) is called the Dorian Mode. Some of these are very widely used in attempts to recreate period music from the Middle Ages because it’s believed that they were used for folk music at the time.

    1. John the Savage says:

      I remember my “Eureka Moment” in music theory, when I realized that all of the modes were based on the pentatonic scale. Pentatonic is built of major 2nds (two half-steps) and minor 3rds (three half-steps). All that the church modes do is fill in those minor thirds in different ways.

      Except for Locrian, but fuck Locrian.

      1. Mathias says:


  12. urs says:

    I’ll have a punch in the face, please!

    “[…] A minor because you start on A and build minor-shaped chords”

    You can perfectly well have a song in X-minor but not ever use a minor chord. And that includes X-minor itself. Case in point. Stuff for music theorists but purportedly, “Pyramid Song” is in B-minor. That chord is not used once.
    Plus, the only minor chord only appears every second line in the verses and the whole is (imho) as sad/gloomy/melancholic/takeyourpick as it gets.

    Whee! Food for thought (and experimentation)

      1. Wait, we can post images? Since when!?

        1. Dragomok says:

          No, only Shamus can. If you go through The DM of the Rings, you’ll notice that the comment page for all later pages starts with Shamus posting a pun-based image mocking “First Post!”.

    1. Paul Spooner says:

      It just draws into relief that keys and chords are fundamentally an illusion. There are only frequencies and intervals. There are only time, amplitude, and maths.

      1. The Rocketeer says:

        It just draws into relief that letters and words are fundamentally an illusion. There are only frequencies and intervals. There are only time, amplitude, and maths.

      2. Neil W says:

        Illusion is a little strong as a description. I would say that are a convention or systemisation of time, amplitude and maths; a human imposed view to help understand a set of complex phenomena.

      3. Zak McKracken says:

        I wouldn’t quite call it an illusion.

        When you hear two notes of frequencies a and b, you also hear a sound of frequency a-b. You could call it an illusion, but in a frequency analysis of the signal, a-b is still present, and that’s pure math.

        Now if you write a song in a certain key but never use that key’s base chord, all the other chords still have something in common that points to the key. The intervals, the changes between one chord to another… If you’ve listened to enough children songs (which mostly follow the keys strictly) while growing up, you could probably find the key of any song by just going through the chords, putting each one at the end of the song and trying out which one sounds “right”. Like the last word in a sentence, a full stop. That’s the one.

        1. Bryan says:

          …And a+b, of course. Don’t forget a+b.

          What do you mean that’s too high for your ears to hear? :-P

          1. Loonyyy says:

            (a+b)/2 actually, IIRC. Beat frequency (Amplitude modulation of sound) is del(f), frequency of signal is usually described as mean(f)

    2. John the Savage says:

      Uh, sorry, but no. I’m one of those pesky music majors, and I can safely say that if the song never plays b minor, it is NOT in b minor. Sometimes the key of a song is uncertain or up for debate, and I have written theses about such pieces, but this would not be one of those cases.

      In this case, “Pyramid Song” might have a b minor key signature, but it’s only in b minor if it behaves like it’s in b minor, which would include resolving, at some point, to b minor. I would have to look at sheet music to say for sure, but my guess would be that the song uses some kind of church mode to play on the same scale, in the same way that A Minor and C Major share the same notes. Just from listening to it, I would guess Dorian mode, which would make the key “E Dorian”, which would share the same scale as b minor and D Major. But like I said, I would have to have sheet music or listen to the song and play along on the piano to know for sure.

      1. Eric says:

        Also speaking as a former music major, I have to agree. It’s in a mode, but I’d need to see the sheet music or put on my ear-training hat to say which one for sure, neither of which I feel like doing.

        But if a song’s supposed to be in B minor and B minor is never played, then that song is not in B minor.

        1. urs says:

          But I think it’s precisely the trick here; that the “resolving” never happens. If I play the chords from the intro (F#, Gmaj7, A6, Gmaj7) and then end on a Bm – that sounds very much like ‘Home’ to my ears.

  13. Tizzy says:

    Music is complicated. The heart of the problem is that we have to ilter everything through what is “pleasant” and “unpleasant”. And it is even worse than for visual arts because we’re never able to tune out music, or effectively concentrate on a subpart the way you can look at a corner of a canvas. And our reaction to sound is probably more visceral than our reaction to visual stimuli.

    Music theory should be seen as our efforts to reverse-engineer our ears to understand why we like what we like. Given that these efforts were started way before we had any idea of the science behind it, or even of the scientific method in general, no wonder it’s all so messy and daunting and confusing. and it’s not ever going o become simple, that’s for sure.

    On top of this, there is a huge cultural component that affects how music is perceived. For instance, the tempered scales discussed here (where A#=Bb) took a while to get used to when they were first invented. It’s very hard for someone who grew up on western music to get a good feel for quarter tones as well, though you can definitely recognize when music is based on these intervals.

    It took me years to accept that, on the guitar, the fact that are different places whre you can play the exact same note does not make these ways equivalent. I’s not true for individual notes, and it even less true for chords.

  14. Scott Schulz says:

    Heptatonic. [Dives for cover]

    1. wumpus says:

      Hexatonic, man, that’s where it’s at. (As all Stravinsky fans know.)

      1. Scott Schulz says:

        Shhh! You wouldn’t wish to start a riot

  15. Bropocalypse says:

    Shamus, I just want to say that it’s nice to see you blogging about this subject for a number of reasons.

    First is personal, I’ve always had an interest in music making but it’s especially hard to get into, I find. It’s easier, I think, to find tutorials on any given programming language that someone who doesn’t program can digest, which leads to the second reason I’m glad you’re doing this.
    Not only do you have no idea what you’re doing, but you’re willing to admit it AND not letting it deter you. Music is a very opaque subject, and even more subjective than visual arts. You’re learning and telling us what you’re learning, and describing it in the way that you do- concisely and clearly.

  16. John the Savage says:

    Psst, Shamus, I’ve got a little tip for you:

    When you play in A Minor? Try moving the seventh note in the scale up one note, to the black key just below A (this is called “G Sharp”). What you’ve been doing is called “Natural Minor”, which is fine, but replacing the G-natural with G-sharp shifts the scale into “Harmonic Minor”, which can really spice things up and be easier to work with. To use your counting system from before, this scale would be counted as 2 1 2 2 1 3 1. See what chords you can get out of that scale.

    Glad you’ve taken an interest in this stuff.

    1. Freddy says:

      Agree completely, barely anyone uses natural minor these days. Mostly harmonic minor or melodic minor (which raises the 6th and 7th notes on the way up and lowers them on the way down).

  17. Dennis says:


    What software are you using to make this music? Haven’t played with music creation since using Finale in high school, which was a miserable experience.

    1. John C says:

      He said on an earlier post that he got it on Steam… I think the name was something like Magix Music Maker.

    2. Daemian Lucifer says:

      The MMM,or magix music maker.He talks about it here.

      EDIT:Damn ninjas plaguing this blog!But hey,at least I gave the link.

  18. Zak McKracken says:

    Best example I can remember of a minor -> major conversion is this:
    (REM’s Losing my religion) … sounds so much more hopeful!

    Though this one is nice as well (Girls just wanna have fun):

  19. Eric says:

    Shamus, I now the black keys are scary right now, but I would suggest trying to make a song using only the black keys. Basically anything you play on those keys will sound good together.

    1. Scott Schulz says:

      [Sticks head up from cover, and whispers] Pentatonic.

  20. Isy says:

    I really like “It ended badly” which is kind of funny since “It started well” doesn’t do it for me. Them minor keys are like crack to me.

  21. EricF says:

    To me, they sound different, but I can’t tell which is supposed to be major/minor without looking.

  22. nm says:

    There’s something to be said for formal education. This is hilarious though.

Thanks for joining the discussion. Be nice, don't post angry, and enjoy yourself. This is supposed to be fun. Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked*

You can enclose spoilers in <strike> tags like so:
<strike>Darth Vader is Luke's father!</strike>

You can make things italics like this:
Can you imagine having Darth Vader as your <i>father</i>?

You can make things bold like this:
I'm <b>very</b> glad Darth Vader isn't my father.

You can make links like this:
I'm reading about <a href="">Darth Vader</a> on Wikipedia!

You can quote someone like this:
Darth Vader said <blockquote>Luke, I am your father.</blockquote>

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.