George Gershwin incorporated elements of blues and jazz into his very schooled orchestral pieces; John Lennon incorporated elements of classical music theory on top of a blues foundation; Miles Davis developed a very improvisational jazz, which nevertheless had strong structures; even the coldest serialist sequences evoke memories of musical idioms.
Of course there are exceptions to all these rules and examples. They are given here as a kind of model with which to approach musical structure.
So many musicians (including myself, for a long time) spend most of their time sitting with our guitars or keyboards or whatever, listening to a record, and pulling riffs, licks, chords progressions, and other ideas off of it. Then we string these ideas together when we're jamming in the hopes that we will homogenize them into a personal sense of style. This is a good thing. There is nothing that can take the place of being informed of one's roots, and creating music that presents those roots in a meaningful fashion. Because if music isn't connected to emotion, then it's just a bunch of notes. We'd be better off practicing typing than jamming. Emotion is always connected to memory. This is why roots music is so powerful and so popular.
But what happens when a musician (like myself) who is oriented this way wants to progress further? How do you get beyond your roots and riffs into some new, unexplored territory?
When I reached a point in my life when I wanted to get beyond rock, blues and folk in order to bring other musical realms back to my music and make use of them (to increase the number of tools at my disposal), I started studying jazz. And I found out very quickly that jazz guitar teachers don't really teach much theory. (This came as a big surprise, because I'd always thought of jazz as being pretty cerebral). They mostly just want to give you a song to learn and then when you come back again next week, you work on that song and they give you another song.
For me there were two problems with this. This first problem was that this process never seemed to answer any of my questions about why jazz is the way it is. (Why is that called a sharp five when it seems like it would be must easier to call it a flat six? How can you have a major third and a minor third in the same chord? Why does this chord have both sharps and flats in it? Etc.). The second problem was that I wasn't that crazy about most of the songs I was learning. I'd just wanted to get into jazz to learn more, not cause I really loved the idea of sitting around playing, "Misty", etc. (not as much fun as "Roll Over Beethoven" - at least for me).
The thing that amazed me was that when I asked jazz teachers these questions,
they fell back on their roots, too. It was that way simply because
that's the way jazz is played. If you ask a blues musician
why there are twelve bars in a twelve bar blues progression, he'll just
say, "That's the way you play the Blues, boy!" (Here's why: when
were working out in the fields, the "leader" would call out a line, everyone would repeat that line, and then the leader would call out a response to that line. That's how blues got it's A A B structure - 4 bars for each section. If nineteenth century slaves had a reason for what they did, certainly Duke Ellington should have a reason too!?(.
I wanted to see what it was like to compose music based on the building blocks of music - from the ground up. I was tired of figuring out this or that blues, reggae or rockabilly riff. I still loved that music, but I wanted to go someplace new.
So here's some stuff that I came up with. It's been a big help to me. Maybe it'll be of help to you, too.
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Basic Building Blocks:
The smallest building block that we usually use in Western music is the half step. The half step is simply the interval between any two keys of the piano (including the black keys), or any two frets on the guitar. The half step is also called "semi-tone".
Two halves make a whole, and two half steps make a whole step. Half steps and whole steps are what we use to create modes and scales in music composition. More about modes and scales later. The diatonic formula, at the cornerstone of the western musical tradition, states that an octave is made of seven steps. What is an octave? This is a phenomena of sound that dictates that if a note is vibrated exactly twice as fast as another note, it repeats the same pitch, only higher. We are all used to octaves, and seldom consider what a peculiar arrangement this is.
Nevertheless, assuming the diatonic scale to be the primary configuration of the basic building blocks of music (half steps - or semitones, and whole steps - or wholetones), we will proceed to illustrate how modes are arranged.
These building blocks are just that - building blocks. What one person does with them may be entirely different from what another person does. This information is presented purely to give a musician tools to work with. What you do with these tools is entirely up to you.
In any event, the seven steps of the diatonic scale are arranged as follows:
whole step whole step half step whole step whole step whole step half step.
two whole steps and a half step, three whole steps and a half step
In this form, the diatonic formula creates the Major scale.
If you look at a piano keyboard, this configuration accounts for why there is no black key between the B and the C, and also no black key between the E and the F. Counting up from C, one whole step (two half steps) brings you to D, another whole step to E, then one half step (to retain the diatonic formula) to F (notice, no black key). One whole step from F to G, (two half steps, including the black key again), one whole step from G to A, one whole step from A to B, and a half step (completing the diatonic formula) from B to C (again, no black key).
C (whole step) D (whole step) E (half step) F (whole step) G (whole step) A (whole step) B (half step) C
Here's another way to look at it:
In keeping this formula intact, we can map out every key signature.
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Let's look at the G major (diatonic) scale.
If we retain the diatonic formula in the key of G:
two whole steps and a half step three whole steps and a half step
we realize that in order to maintain this formula beginning with G, the F has to be sharped. The sixth to seventh scale step in a diatonic scale has to be a whole step, and the seventh to eight is a half step. This cannot happen if the F remains natural.
So, a G diatonic, or major, scale is :
Let's look at what happens if we start on a D note.
If we maintain the diatonic formula, here's what we get:
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Let's look at one more scale, the A scale.
If we use the diatonic formula moving upward from the A note, we get:
So, each major scale has a specific number of sharps (or flats - we'll get to those in a minute).
But how did I know which notes to pick that would give us an increasing number of sharps?
Here's the key:
This is the phenomenon known as the Circle of Fifths.
Here's the complete formula:
So, the key of C has no sharps, the key of C# has ALL sharps.
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I said I would talk about flats. If we go down five scale steps
from C, here's what happens:
Down another five scale steps and we get:
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There's a lot of superstition concerning modes. I mean there are a lot of times when someone will say, "That's very modal." And it might be hard to understand what he or she is saying. Of course there's always the possibility that they're not sure either, but, anyway, a mode is a very simple thing, and an understanding of modes can really increase one's array of musical tools.
A mode is just a scale formed on the diatonic formula, but starting at a different point in the formula.
Let's take our diatonic model and spread it out twice identically over
|1||1||½||1||1||1||½||One Octave||1||1||½||1||1||1||½||Two Octaves|
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