Instruction manual - Pizzicato 3.6.2 EN360 - Revision of 2013/05/29





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Key signatures

Subjects covered:

The major scale of C [Light] [Beginner] [Professional] [Notation] [Composition Light] [Composition Pro] [Drums and Percussion] [Guitar] [Choir] [Keyboard] [Soloist]

The notes series from C to C is called the major scale of C. Each note of the scale is called a degree of the scale. The degrees are numbered from 1 to 7 in Roman numerals (i.e. I to VII). The last note being the same as the first (C), it is also called "degree I". Here is the major scale of C with its degrees:

As we have seen, each one of these notes corresponds to a white key of the keyboard. When a black key separates two notes, there is one tone between these two notes and if there is no black key between them, there is one half tone. The following table shows the degrees of the scale with the tones and half tones which separate them:

This succession of values (1,1,1/2,1,1,1,1/2) characterizes the major scale. In this example, the first note is C and it is thus the major scale of C.

Tonality [Light] [Beginner] [Professional] [Notation] [Composition Light] [Composition Pro] [Drums and Percussion] [Guitar] [Choir] [Keyboard] [Soloist]

This scale defines a context of notes called the tonality of C major. A musical excerpt written in C major uses only the notes of the C major scale, i.e. the 7 notes here above, avoiding the black keys located between them.

The principle of tonality is thus to limit the usable notes at a given moment in the musical discourse and in the same time intensifying the influence of other notes. The most significant degree in a scale is the first degree. In our case, it is the C note. The musical discourse will use this note as a point of reference.

The most significant degrees in a tonality are degrees I, IV and V. The musical sentences will be built by taking these degrees as a foundation. They will often be found on the strong beats of the measures. The musical sentences will have a tendency to move towards the first degree of the scale.

We will see that 12 different tonalities can be defined and used. Tonal music is based on using a context of notes on which melodies and chords are built. During a piece of music, the context may change to another tonality. This transition from one tonality to another is called a modulation.

In theory, in a tonal music work, it is possible to determine which tonality is present at any place of the score. Practically, this tonality system is a theoretical system used to explain how composers use the notes which are at their disposal to compose. This system is very helpful to orient a composer through his first steps, but it should not be regarded as a strict rule which one cannot transgress.

All the rules you will find in music are most of the time deduced from the observation of what sounds well in the musical works. The new composer will find in it a lot of interesting advices that can be used by him as a guide to develop his taste and musical inspiration. The error would then be to regard these rules as absolute laws and not as simple advices. When inspiration or taste indicates you another path to follow, skip the composition rules !

Let us go back to tonalities. The essence of classical music is based on the use of tonality. Most modern variety music (rock, jazz, disco, blues, funky…) are also based on tonality. Most music consumed by our modern society is thus tonal music.

There are of course music styles that completely escape from tonality and develop different composition systems. Contemporary music creates new approaches of music, of sound and of its notation. It is interesting to note that most contemporary music composers are people who have a good knowledge of the tonal system, its possibilities and limits. It could then be considered as an evolution of music towards other sound horizons. The point is to communicate this music in such a manner that it will be perceived and understood by most people. It will be the only success test of a music: does it communicate something which can be understood?

Let us see now how other scales and tonalities are defined.

The major scales [Light] [Beginner] [Professional] [Notation] [Composition Light] [Composition Pro] [Drums and Percussion] [Guitar] [Choir] [Keyboard] [Soloist]

To define the C major scale, we took the C note as a starting point. It is possible to start from each keyboard note to define a major scale, as well white keys (7 different notes) as black keys (5 different notes), which makes up a total of 12 possible tonalities.

Let us start for example on the G note and consider this note as the first degree of the G major scale. By placing the notes starting from G to the next G, we obtain:

Let us remember that a half tone is the sound distance separating two consecutive keys on the musical keyboard, either black or white. The tone equals two half tones. Here is a diagram:

By taking into account the tones and half tones of the scale starting with G, we have:

We have learned that a major scale is characterized by the (1,1,1/2,1,1,1,1/2) series. The last two intervals do not correspond with the above scheme. The F note is thus not correct for the G major scale. If the F note is transformed into an F sharp note, degrees VI and VII will be separated by two half tones and we will thus have the G major scale because the intervals now correspond to the major scale sequence:

In G major, all F notes will thus be altered with a sharp. Instead of confusing the score by drawing this sharp in front of each F, a sharp is drawn right beside the clef, at the beginning of each staff:

It is valid for all F notes of the staff, even for F notes located at a different octave (as the penultimate note of the example). The sharps or flats placed next to the clef form what is called the key signature. In G major, the key signature contains an F sharp. It is thus important to look at the key signature next to the clef, because it influences the interpretation of the score.

Starting from an F note, we can build the scale of F major. To maintain the interval sequence of a major scale, a B flat note should be used:

The key signature of major F contains a flat B:

We can similarly build a scale on the basis of any note, including the black keys of the keyboard. We thus have 12 different major scales. The major C scale is the only major scale having no sharp or flat in its key signature. All others have sharp(s) or flat(s) in order to correct the intervals between degrees and to fit the sequence of major scale intervals. Here is for example the E major scale, with 4 sharps (F, C, G and D):

The 4 sharps of the E major scale are placed next to the clef:

Starting from a black key, the principle is the same. The scale bears the name of the altered note, such as for example the B flat major scale. The black key located between A and B can be called A sharp or B flat. The B flat major scale is therefore equivalent to the A sharp major scale, because the keys of these scales will be the same on the musical keyboard. Only the note names will be different.

By building a scale on each note and by taking care that the intervals between the degrees respect the major scale sequence, the following table can be deduced (the scales are classified according to the number of accidentals they have):

C Major              
G major F #            
D major F # C #          
A major F # C # G #        
E major F # C # G # D #      
B major F # C # G # D # A #    
F# major F # C # G # D # A # E #  
C# major F # C # G # D # A # E # B #
F major B b            
B b major B b E b          
E b major B b E b A b        
A b major B b E b A b D b      
D b major B b E b A b D b G b    
G b major B b E b A b D b G b C b  
C b major B b E b A b D b G b C b F b

Some are identical. There are only 12 different major scales. This presentation lets us highlight something. When sharps are added to form the scales, they are added in a quite precise order that is called the order of sharps:

F# C# G# D# A# E# B#

The flats are added in the order of flats, which is the reverse order of sharps:

Bb Eb Ab Db Gb Cb Fb

Each one of these scales form a note context in which the musical discourse can express itself. When the context is changed, a modulation occurs. This manner of creating a musical work is the guiding principle of tonal music. The first degree of the scale plays the main role and the other degrees tend to move toward it, as directed by its force of attraction.

All half tones of a musical keyboard are equal, i.e. they all produce the same impression of sound interval to the ear. When you listen to a melody, it is characterized by the number of half tones that exist between each note of the melody and not by the name of the notes which form the melody. Open Ex024.piz and listen to this well-known melody:

It is written in C major. The piece starts and ends with a C note (it is very frequent but not mandatory). No accidental disturbs the C major scale.

This melody can be written in another tonality. To do this, start the melody with another note and add a key signature after the clef. To start the same melody with an E note, we use the E major scale and we place 4 sharps after the clef. By copying the notes of the melody on the basis of E, we get:

Open Ex025.piz, corresponding to this example. Listen to the computer playing it. The melody is higher than the first one, but it keeps its original characteristic. It is the same melody written in another tonality.

Open Ex026.piz now. It contains the same series of notes, but without the key signature. Listen to the result:

The melody is similar to the previous melody, but it is not exactly the same any more because some intervals have been modified, altering the characteristics of the melody.

The minor scales [Light] [Beginner] [Professional] [Notation] [Composition Light] [Composition Pro] [Drums and Percussion] [Guitar] [Choir] [Keyboard] [Soloist]

The (1,1,1/2,1,1,1,1/2) succession of tones and half tones between degrees is specific to the major scale.

There is another type of scale, the minor scale. It is characterized by another succession of tone and half tones between degrees: (1,1/2,1,1,1/2,1,1). The simplest minor scale is the A minor scale, because it does not have any accidentals. Its structure is the following:

The C major scale and the A minor scale have the same notes, but the degrees are placed differently. In the A minor scale, A is the first degree and it occupies the main place. In C major, the C note directs the musical discourse. The A minor scale is said to be the relative minor of the C major scale.

The A minor scale is built by taking the sixth degree of C major and by looking at it as the first degree of a new scale. Each major scale has a relative minor scale built on its sixth degree. By taking for example E major, of which the sixth degree is a C sharp, we get the C sharp minor scale. Its structure is:

The sound colour of a passage in major is different than a passage in minor. In a general way, the minor is more inclined to express a dramatic atmosphere and the major is lighter and happier.

We thus have 12 major tonalities and 12 minor tonalities. A musical work will often use one of these tonalities as a base. It will start and finish in this tonality. The names of classical music works often indicate the tonality, such as for example Symphony number 9 in D minor.

The modulation (change of tonality during the course of a music piece) offers ways to enrich the musical discourse. Modulations can be very frequent and sometimes very short, such as for example 1 or 2 chords borrowed from a different tonality.

One speaks about adjacent tonalities when two tonalities have only one accidental differentiating them from the other. It is for example the case of C major and F major because the only difference is a B flat. A major and E major are adjacent because the only difference between their key signatures is a D sharp.

Arbitrary key signatures [Light] [Beginner] [Professional] [Notation] [Composition Light] [Composition Pro] [Drums and Percussion] [Guitar] [Choir] [Keyboard] [Soloist]

A scale is a series of notes which can be used to express a melody and chords. The tonal system offers 24 different scales. In each case, it is a notes context that can be used.

It is possible to imagine scales or notes contexts which do not fit the rules of the tonal system. Here is an example:

The key signature of such a scale, even if not conventional, may be written after the clef:





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