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Basic Theory Page 1   

“Music theory” is a name that sounds rather threatening to many people. In my experience that's especially true for banjo players. The reality is a lot less scary. What we really want to know is how we can put notes and rhythm together to play something that sounds good. If you play an instrument in any style of music you are already applying “music theory.” Every time you listen to music you really like you are doing the same thing. “Music theory” is mainly just a way to talk about music and write it down in a way that other people can understand. It's used to describe all of the aspects of music that most of us just take for granted. The fact is that we are all hardwired to respond to certain sounds and rhythms from birth and don't really need anyone to tell us what we should like or not like.

Still, we do need to have names for the basic elements of any kind music we want to play. This lets us talk about them with other musicians and describe what we're trying to do when we're playing music together. It also makes it easier to understand new musical ideas we might want to learn about. This section explains the basic musical elements that all musicians should have a little familiarity with. Feel free to skip around to find things that you are curious about or need to brush up on. Here goes!

Music has several fundamental components:

  • The smallest element of music is the note. Notes are usually arranged in some kind of sequence to create melodies that can be simple or very complex.
  • We group notes in several ways. Notes usually come in specific sets called scales that have specific distances between each note. When we play more than one note at the same time we're playing chords. Chords are groups of notes that sound good when played at the same time.
  • Most music puts specific spaces between notes. We call this rhythm. Rhythm deals with the length, speed, and spacing of notes.

  • Harmony is how different notes sound when played or sung at the same time.

In order to talk about music we need a common system for writing music down. Western musical tradition uses notes written on five lines called staffs or sometimes staves. Each line and the spaces between the lines correspond to a specific note. This type of music notation is independent of the instrument playing the music. Most bluegrass music is taught using a system called tablature that uses a lines to represent each string and numbers on these lines to tell us which fret on that string should be played by our left hand. It's really a picture of the neck and strings. Tablature is easy to learn (visit my How to Use Tablature page if you aren't familiar with it already) but it only works for the instrument it's written for. Music notation is universal but harder to apply to a specific instrument.

Tablature tells us which strings to pick and which frets our left hand fingers are fretting. In addition to this information we also need to know how long each note lasts. Most tablature borrows from standard music notation to show us the length of notes. In music notation notes are written using small ovals that are either black or white inside and often have a vertical line attached going either up or down. Tablature uses similar lines to indicate note length.

Here is a measure of tablature and music notation showing the forward roll. The music section on top has a few symbols or numbers that we don't usually see in the tablature.

Music and Tablature Example

The squiggly symbol on the upper left is a treble clef. This refers to the range of pitches instruments play. Most of the bluegrass instruments would be written using the treble clef. The main bluegrass instrument that wouldn't use it is the bass. It and other instruments that produce very low pitches use the other clef which is conveniently called the bass clef. Piano music is written using both clefs. The right hand part is written using a treble clef and the left hand that plays the lowest notes uses the bass clef. These clefs are just a way to make it as easy as possible to fit music for a wide variety of instruments into a pretty limited system of notation.

Under the treble clef is something that says 8va. This doesn't normally concern us. It is called an octavo and means that the music for the banjo (as well as the guitar) is written an octave higher than their actual pitch. This just makes it easier to read.

The symbol on the top line to the right of the treble clef tells us about the key we're playing in. This is the symbol for a note that's raised a half step or 1 fret up from the original note. There can be up to 6 symbols here. We call this the key signature of the upcoming music. If the symbol looked liks a small lower case “b” it would indicate a flatted note. Time signatures are always either all sharps or all flats. They can't have both at the same time. In this example we se only one sharp. This means that our example is played in the key of G which has one sharp and all the rest of the note of the scale are natural notes. We won't go over other keys except to say that the one that doesn't have any sharps or flats is the key of C. Finally, the key signature is irrelevant in tab since we only need to know how the banjo is tuned to read the tablature. Also, many tabs tell you the key the song or tune should be played in and if you need to use a capo or retune to play in this key.

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