Theory







Editorial

For playing any instrument you don't need sheets. You really don't need a single note!
Our system of written notes arises from the 16th century. But people have played music long ago, from the beginning of mankind. Tunes belong to things we remember by ear. Maybe we forget the lyrics of our children songs, but never the tune, its melody.

Some musicians, among them virtuous players, have never seen a note - f.i. because they are born blind. On the other hand, you also have learned talking long before you have learned reading and writing! If you learn to read music, it can help you understanding what happens, and it allows you to learn a song by sheets. Once again: it is helpfully but not needed for starting.

Now, if you want to understand more about music, or if you just want to learn transpose keys and chords, this little lesson on theory might help you.
However, if you learn ukulele, guitar, or any other instrument, you need a teacher. The teacher, a good teacher, knows methods. The teacher helps succeed with your own efforts. A good teacher learns himself/herself in every lesson from students. He/she knows the most frequently questions - and gives his/her experience back to the students.








zum Anfang The Circle of Quints

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The Circle of Quints is a system for understanding the relation from one key to another. The animation in the left was made from a friend in Germany, therefore it is in German only. However, you can use it too, just have to know: "Dur" means "major" and "Moll" means "minor". There's still another difference to the American system: German "H" is American "B", the German "B" is American Bb (B flat). C-Dur (Major) and a-moll  (Minor) have no sign of signature in the beginning like # (sharp) or b (flat). By clicking the green arrow you can change the key to the next, which is a quint (five steps) higher or a quint (fifth) lower and see which sign of signature the key has.

Bluesharp players, f. i., need to know this system for taking the right key of their harmonicas for cross playing technique, which is usually for playing the blues.

You can buy a printed circle at your music shop, often with additional details such as chords for guitar.

One can view these relations of keys also in the Table of Chords.




zum Anfang Harmonics


Harmonics is the part of music theory which describes the functional relations of chords belonging to a tune. Almost every tune (99%) end with the basic chord (also called: tonic) which is identically with the key of the tune. Also the first chord of a song is mostly (90%) identically with the key. However, if you want to know the exact key you must learn the Sign of Signature
from the Circle of Quints or from the Table of Chords.

Old children and play songs, but also some old folk songs, only have two chords, but nevertheless have a beautiful melody. If a song has only two chords then one is the basic chord (
tonic), the other is the dominant chord. These songs mostly start with the tonic and always ends with it. In between you have the dominant chord several times. The dominant chord often has an additional tone on the seventh step of the tone stair. If so a "7" is added to the chord. For instance, if the key is C major, then the basic chord is spelled C, the dominant-seven chord is G7.

Most of all  tunes, f.i. blues and country songs, have three chords, the two chords mentioned above, and the
subdominant chord, in the key of C major it is F. These three chords (tonic, subdominant, dominant) are the main chords. A usual chord pattern of a tune therefore is: C - F - G7 - C. You can see the main chords of every key in the light blue columns of the Table of Chords. Some songs have minor chords. In the key of C major the most used minor chord is A minor, spelled Am. This, at least, is the most used spelling in song books with international content. In German song books only the major chords are in capitols, minor chords are spelled in little letters. A minor (Am) in German song books is just spelled as "a". This spelling is used in the Circle of Quints (Quintenzirkel).

  • Now, if you want to change (transpose) the key of a song, f.i. because of the given key has a hard fingering on the guitar/ukulele (whatever else), or is to high or to deep for your voice, you simply exchange the chords from the given key to the wanted key.

zum Anfang Table of Chords


In the left column you see the sign of signature (# or b) of the key which is identically with the basic chord (tonic) of a tune. The same sign of signature is used for the parallel minor key which you find in the dark blue column.
1. 2. 3. 4. 5. 6.
Signature Tonic Minor Subdominant Tonic Counter Chord Subdominant Dominant Seven Tonic Minor Parallel
C Dm Em F G7 Am
G Am Bm C D7 Em
D Em F#m G A7 Bm
A Bm C#m D E7 F#m
E F#m G#m A B7 C#m
B C#m D#m E F#7 G#m

F#

Gb
G#m

Abm
Bbm (A#m)

Bbm
B

B
C#7

Db7
D#m

Ebm
Db Ebm Fm Gb Ab7 Bbm
Ab Bbm Cm Db Eb7 Fm
Eb Fm Gm Ab Bb7 Cm
Bb Cm Dm Eb F7 Gm
F Gm Am Bb C7 Dm



zum Anfang Sign of Signature (of the Key)

The sign of signature lets you know which key is given for the tune. C major (C) and its parallel minor key A minor (Am) don't have any signature. If you jump from the C major to the fifth step in the stair of tones (C-D-E- F-G) you come to G major (G), and there you have the first key with a signature, which is # for G major and E minor (Em). If you jump again from G to the fifth step (G-A-B-C-D) you come to the key D major (D), which has the signature ## - also used for its parallel minor key B minor (Bm). If you continue this jumping you come to the next, which is A major (A) and F# minor, the signature for both of these keys is ### - and so on.

At row 6 in the Table of Chords above the sign of signature changes from # to b. At this key you can use both signatures, F
# (speak: F sharp) as well as Gb (speak: G flat). There is a simple reason to change the sign at this point: Even if you read music sheets every day, you won't be able to recognize quickly how many # you see. You would have to count them. So it is more practicable to read a single b instead of something like this: #######.

This system "of jumping" to the next fifth step in the stairs of tones is in fact a circle, because if you jump up from one key to the next you will come back to the first key which is C (major) and its parallel minor key Am. This system is called Circle of Quints (Circle of Fifth)


zum Anfang Major and Minor


Every tune can have major and minor chords mixed. But if a song beginns or ends with a minor chord the tune is in a minor key, if it beginns or ends with a major chord  (f.i. "C") it is in a major key. Each major key has a parallel minor key, but it is not like C major and C minor! To C major belongs A minor. Which other minor keys belong to which major key you can learn with the Circle of Quints or with the Table of Chords.

A chord is a sound of at least three different tones, f.i. C major sounds if you hear the notes C, E, and G together (at the time). Instead of the tone E in the C major, C minor has a deeper tone, exactly a half tone deeper, which is E
b (E flat). Minor chords sound a kind of melancholic. Therefore sad songs are often, but not always, written in minor keys.

Major chords are the most used chords, therefore it is not needed to call them major chords. Chords in song books are given in capitols, a C means C major. But to differ minor chords from major chords a little "m" is added: Cm = C minor. In Germany, maybe in other countries too, minor chords are given in small letters, f.i. Cm = c.


zum Anfang Notes on Piano

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The tones of the key C on a piano are placed as shown on the picture above. Since this picture (and the animation in the left) was made for German readers you see here an "h" instead of the "b" of the American system. You must take aware of the same difference at the animation in the left Also the spelling of the half tones (black keys on the keyboard) is different: "cis" means "c sharp", "dis" means "d sharp" - and so on.

Click on notes or on the keyboard to let tones sound.

C-Dur-Tonleiter
                c       d       e        f         g       a       b        c

In the left you see how the notes are placed in the system of notes. These are the eight tones of the octave of C major). You can split this octave into two parts, each called quart (four tones). The last step in every part is only a half tone higher, so "e" to "f", "b" to "c".

On instruments with frets like ukuleles or guitars every fret higher is only a half tone higher. For a whole tone higher you have to move your finger two frets up - and not to forget that there is only a half tone from "e" to "f" and from "b" to "c"! Finally you must understand this system by transposing the key from C major to D major. The octave of D major is: d-e-f#-g-a-b-c#-d.

Now this is the system of notes we use in the Western world. There are different systems in Africa or Asia. There have been different systems in ancient times, some are still used performing classical music. If you want to learn more about old music you should study for that's more than a hobby...



zum Anfang Intervals

Interval is the distance from one note to another. The distance from "c" to "d" is called second, because there are two tones. From "c" to "e" is called terza (third), from "c" to "f" is a quart (fourth), to "g" a quint (fifth), to "a" a sext (sixth), to "b" a septime (seventh), from low "c" to high "c" an octave (eight). But as you can see on the keyboard there are some more tones in between, the black keys on the keyboard. These intervals are called f.i. miner terza, major seventh). The last is important for chords in Jazz tunes. Along the seventh chords (such as G7) Jazz ballads often use major seventh chords (spelled: Gmaj7) - the difference between G7 and Gmaj7 is only a half tone of one of the four tones belonging to this chords, but it sounds very differently. You will never hear a seventh chord at the end of a tune - they are reserved for dominant chords in the middle of the song or before the last, which is usually the basic chord. However, Jazz ballads often use the major seventh of the basic chord, in case of C it is Cmaj7. It sounds wonderful, melancholic. - See also the part about Harmonics - Table of Chords.

3



  


c#





d#
   



f#

 

g#
 



a#

        notes on piano

c

d

e

 f

g

a

b

c  


interval (distance, steps)
name of the interval based on the key of C major)   half tone steps from c to...
1 prime   0
1 second   1
1 2 major second   2
1 2 minor terza   3
1 2 3 major terza   4
1 2 3 4 (true) quart   5
1 2 4 major quart = minor quint   6
1 2 3 4 5 (true) quint   7
1 2 3 4 5 major quint   8
1 2 3 4 5 6 (true) sext (sixth)   9
1 2 3 4 5 6 major sext = septime (seventh) 10
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 major septime (seventh) 11
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 octave (eight) 12


zum Anfang Chords 

Chords are sounds built up from three basic tones sounding together (at the same time). The C major chord, f.i., is the together of the tones c - e - g. The relation from one tone to the next in this example is a "terza". A terza is the distance between tones, the interval. From "c" to "e" is a terza as well as from "e" to "g". Major chords have always this relation, they are based on the terza. In C minor chord there is a "d#" instead of the tone "e", which is just a half tone deeper. It sounds very different, minor chords sound somehow melancholic.

All chords, no matter major or minor, can be added by extra tones.
If you add the tone "b
b" (which is same as a#) you create a so-called septime chord (seven chord) because the additional tone is on the seventh step of the tone system. This chord is spelled C7. Such seven chords sound more exciting. Therefore they are used as dominant chords, never as basic chords. Basic chords (tonic) must dissolve the exiting of all other chords. Therefore they always finish a song. There is just one exception. Jazz ballads often finish with a major seven chord, which includes a higher tone on the seventh step of our note system. Instead of the "bb" in C7 it has the tone "b". To differ it from C7 it is spelled Cmaj7. These major seven chords sound beautiful. Finishing with such a chord keeps the end a little open, so the listener can finish the tune in his mind... There still are more tones you can add to chords. You will learn them sooner or later from tables of chords, not needed to explain all here.

There are only three main chords for a major key. It is, f.i., in C major the chord C as basic chord (tonic), F as subdominant chord, and G or G7 as dominant chord. With these three chords most of all songs can be played. In the great era of Jazz, from 1920 to 1950, the harmonics of songs have won more complexity. The popular songs of the 1960s still have their roots in this development, f-i. the songs of the Beatles. These songs have more chords than the main chords. But also these additional chords have a certain relation to the main chords. To understand these relations a Circle of Quints that gives all main and side chords is helpfully. You may check out my Ukulele Circle on this website and get an idea that way - or go to your music shop and ask for any detailed Circle of Quints.

Understanding of chord names - and the practice of chord fingering - is, in fact, all you need for accompanying a song on guitar or ukulele. If you ever would start writing your own songs, you better don't use all chords you can play in one song. A lot of beautiful tunes have only two or three chords. Less is sometimes more!

The most important chords for ukulele
you can find on the Ukulelelzirkel



zum Anfang Rhythm


Rhythm is a pattern of beats characterizing the whole tune. Waltzes, f.i. have 3/4 beats, it means three quarter notes within a section (bar), the first tone of each bar is accented. Since this pattern is typically for the whole song it is announced in the beginning of the note system. If this changes somewhere in the middle of the tune it is signed at the beginning of that part. However, there are less songs with changing rhythms. In my opinion rhythm is the most important aspect of performing music. If you play a wrong tone, it will be forgotten soon if you don't play wrong tones again and again..., but if your rhythm has "potholes" your auditorium runs away, no matter if they are musicians themselves or never sung a song - everybody feels there's something bad. Therefore always take much care on rhythm. A right tone at the wrong time is more awfully than a wrong tone at the right time!

The two most important rhythms are based on 4/4 and 3/4 beats. Anything else is a slower or faster variation. You can play "Tom Dooley" as a slow ballad in 4/4 beat or faster as a 2/4 beat. Polkas are typically for 2/4 beats. So this is more or less a question of speed.

How long a tone sounds - how long the syllables of a word sound, we usually remember by the melody we listened to once before. If we don't know the his melody we can see it by the form of the notes on sheet music.
Whole notes sound the whole time of a section (bar).
Half notes sound the half time of a bar.
 Quarter notes sound the fourth time of a bar.
Eight notes sound the eight time of a bar.
Sixteenth notes sound the 16th time of a bar.

Dots after notes indicate that the tone should sound a half time longer than the note says,
f.i. . means it sounds like a and together. This brings a special kick into the rhythm.

The silent pendant to the note is the pause - no tone is sung at this part, but the rhythm runs further.
half pause, quarter pause, eight pause

The together of beats and breaks, is in fact just a kind of mathematics. With some practice you will make music of it...


Chords are mostly, but not always, changed at the first position of a bar, it is the accented note (or sung syllable).
In the example below this syllable is red. The notes among the lyrics only let you know how long the syllable has to be sung. Since there are no lines for the notes, you can't see how high the tone should sound. I think it isn't needed here, guess you know this traditional song anyway.

2/4-beat 1st bar 2nd bar 3rd bar 4th bar
chords A - - -
notes and lyrics Hang down your head,   Tom Dooley
- - E7 -
Hang down your head,   and cry
- - - -
Hang down your head,   Tom Dooley    
- D A -
Poor boy you're bound  to die 



Conclusion

This is all you need for accompanying songs on guitar or ukulele, it is, at least, all I can explain for the moment. If you feel as you would like to play fireworks of virtuoso music, then you have to start with practice early in morning, every day. And if you go to bed, you better take your guitar along, or your ukulele, and keep the cat, or the dog, out.

Last Note: This page is written for my own students. Anybody else who finds it helpfully may use it, too. If there is somebody who thinks there was something explained wrong or bad may email and tell what I should explain differently. If you just have questions about some topic on this page, please understand that I can't answer because I won't have enough time for a correspondence. 

zum Anfang Have fun to learn - and keep in practice!
      Alex

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