The system we have here is really simple: My hobbies feed the blog. If I code, I write about code. If I play a game, I review the game. If I read a slightly annoying news story about a games publisher, I write a meandering 2,000 word screed denouncing the entire enterprise and everyone who took part in it.
The problem is that I’m composing music. I’d write about music, but I don’t know anything about music. Sure, I made some music, but that’s mostly because I am a hard-working and resourceful idiot, not because I have any musical talent.
Speaking of which, here’s another track I made:
Since I can’t share my knowledge with you, I’ll have to share my ignorance. Let me tell you about all the things I don’t know about music. Or to be more precise, all the things I think I know but are most likely profoundly, dangerously wrong.
So let’s say you want to make some music. To keep things simple, let’s say you’re doing it on a keyboard where 1 input = 1 note, and not one of those devious string or wind instruments where you can make a large number of notes from a small number of inputs. You want to make some music-type sounds, but when you ask people to explain how it works they baffle you with a bunch of nonsense about “Seventh augmented fifth” and “an augmented fourth/tritone”. They draw these “circle of fifths” things that have twelve points and are numbered with letters, and you can’t even tell if the gibberish they’re saying actually makes sense or if they’re just making stuff up to avoid answering the question.
Ignore those idiots. They’re trying to confuse you with knowledge and facts. Here is what you need to know…
You’ll hear people talking about what “key” something is played in. And “major” and “minor” keys. Major and minor keys have a different feel. If something is in a major key then it’s usually upbeat, triumphant, majestic, or whatever. Minor scales are moody, mellow, serious, depressing. Take a gander at your keyboard. If you don’t have a keyboard, use this Jpeg:
You don’t need to be a professor of mathematics to figure out there are 12 unique keys. But in a proper musical scale, you never use more than 7 of them. So in the song you’re writing, every single musician will be working with the same seven notes.
This is where the music majors want to jump in and say something like, “Well, ACTUALLY…” If they do, then punch them in the face and run away. They’re trying to confuse you. Just stay focused: Seven notes.
Don’t feel bad about the face-punching. Collectively, music types have it coming. I mean, when they designed music they decided that the keys would be numbered using letters, some of them have names based on their neighborsWhy would we give letters to the black keys? We might run out of letters! Let’s just call these A sharp and B flat because they’re near A and B., some of them have more than one nameYes, A sharp and B flat are actually the same key. I don’t see what’s so confusing about this. If you look at my circle of fifths diagram and note that in pentatonic scale… and the lettering starts with C. You can’t tell me that’s not a deliberate attempt to confuse people.
Anyway. Where was I? Right: Seven keys. So now you need to figure out which seven belong in your song and which ones are left out.
So to make a major scale, pick a key at random and start counting up from where you started, including the black keys. Take this many steps: 2 2 1 2 2 2 1
So if we start with (say) C, then our next note is 2 keys above it. The next one is two keys after that, but the one after that is only one key away. And so on. If you follow this pattern properly, then the last key you land on will be the same one you started with, just one octave higher. If you follow this pattern when starting from C, then you’ll land on every white key and skip over every black one.
This is C major. If you do that pattern when starting with A, then you get:
That’s A major. So now you know how to make a major scale. To make a minor scale, you do the same thing except the pattern is: 2 1 2 2 1 2 2
Now you’ve picked a key and figured out what notes belong in your scale. Just make sure to only hit those particular notes and you’re making music. As long as you’re hitting them one at a time and not just mashing the keys with your face, any arrangement of notes on the same scale should sound passable. It might not sound interesting or good, but it shouldn’t sound wrong or dissonant.
Maybe you’re feeling ambitious and you don’t want to settle for just making music that’s “not painful to hear”. Maybe you aspire to make something stimulating. For that, you’re going to need chords.
A chord is usually 3 notes. Don’t let the music nerds confuse you with exceptions, just remember that a chord is a group of three notes that sound really sweet together. If you’ve ever fiddled around with a keyboard, you’ll notice that this is not true of most groups of three. In fact, when you start mashing keys down at the same time, it usually sounds horrible even if they’re all part of the same scale. But there are a few magical groups of keys that really get along well, and we call those grouping chords.
To find one of these groups, pick a key from your scale. I’m going to use C as an example. If you’re building a major chord, then the next note in the chord is FOUR keys above it. (Remember to count ALL keys: White and black, whether they belong to your scale or not.) The last key will be three steps above that one. So if we’re playing a chord in C major, and if you’re playing a chord that starts with C, then our grouping is:
C E G. This is confusing for newbies because they look at the keyboard and see that the keys are evenly spaced out (with one white key between them) and assume you could just follow this pattern and make another chord with the same spacing, like D F A. THIS IS WRONG. Do not be fooled. You have to force yourself to count the black keys, even though musicians have done everything they could to hide them. Our major chord is C (skip 3 keys) E (skip two keys) G.
You may notice that not all groups work. Try starting a C major chord with D. Skip the next three keys and you land on a black key, which isn’t part of our C major scale. That means you don’t want to start a chord with D. You can still play D alone in your song, and D might show up in a chord that begins with another note (spoiler: Try G) but if you try to make a chord with D it will sound like you went to the face-mash-keyboard school of music.
You can use this to hunt for chords. Just work your way up the C major scale:
- E (skip three) Nope. That black key is G#, which doesn’t belong in our scale.
- F (skip 3) A (skip two) C. Yes! That’s a chord.
- G (skip 3) B (skip two) D. Yes! That works.
- A (skip 3) Nope. Lands on C#.
- B (skip 3) Nope. Lands on D#.
- C (skip 3) E (skip 2) G. Wait. We did this one already.
If you’re working on a MINOR scale, then it’s the same thing, except you skip two and then skip three. So an A minor chord would be A (skip two keys) C (skip three keys) E.
The cool thing about chords is that those three notes get on really well. You don’t HAVE to hit them all at the same time. Play them next to each other and it sounds just a little sweeter than a sequence played with other notes. Taking our C E G chord above: If some other instrument is playing a nice long C, then you can make great things happen by poking those E and G notes at the same time on another instrument. They sound great even if they’re played in different octaves. Try playing C E and then the G from way up near the top of the keyboard. It still sounds cool. (Eh. Perhaps it’s better to say it’s just more interesting than if you tried the same thing with non-chord notes.)
There. That’s everything I know. It’s not much. At all. But it’s apparently all you need to make something like this:
And yes, the male voice in there is mine. I hit it with a vocoder and auto-tuned it to death, because I have the singing voice of a sow being fed ass-first into a meatgrinder.
Enjoy. Or don’t. Whatever. I’m not your mum.
 Why would we give letters to the black keys? We might run out of letters! Let’s just call these A sharp and B flat because they’re near A and B.
 Yes, A sharp and B flat are actually the same key. I don’t see what’s so confusing about this. If you look at my circle of fifths diagram and note that in pentatonic scale…
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