Copernique on Classical Music

This series is dedicated to Caro E.

Click here for an Introduction

Part 1

1 - Musical annotation

Unless you were brought up in some remote area of a lost-forever-continent of the world, you should be visually familiar with the following :

Top drawing : a piano keyboard. At the bottom, two drawings of "musical staffs" or staves ("portées musicales" in French) or two sets of five lines and four spaces that each represent a different musical pitch which, as defined in Wikipedia, is "a perceptual property that allows the ordering of sounds on a frequency-related scale", the "higher" up the staff, the higher the frequency. - Frequency, we'll get to later.

On the keyboard, from left to right, letters :

From left to right : G, A, B, C, D, E, F, back to G.

In French, G stands for "sol", A for "la", B for "si", C for "do" (sometimes called "ut"), D for "ré", E for "mi" and F for "fa".

Now don't tell me you've never heard of :


Surely, you must remember Julie Andrews in The Sound of Music singing to kids what do-ré-mi was, as opposed to ABC :

Here's the beginning of that song : (click on the note) do-re-mi

Try this if you're having problems visualising what pitch, notes and keyboard are all about :

Reading music

Both (ABC etc. and do-ré-mi, etc.) are called "scales", in English or "gammes", in French. They are usually referred to as consecutive "eight notes" (although a scale only consist of 7 notes, the eight being the same as the first (but one "scale" higher in what is called an "octave" or "eight notes"). - Scales are explained below.

On the keyboard, above you have three such "octaves". The one on the left lower and the one on the right higher than the one in the center

So, the next time you sit in front of a piano, you won't be lost anymore.

Perhaps, you might not have heard of the middle C. Well, that's were it is : in the middle of the keyboard.

Please, don't ask me why they choose C ("do") to be in the middle, nor why A wasn't used to start off scales way before letters were used. It has something to do with history.

You can read all about this on this page :


On musical instruments :

The piano keyboard in the above illustration contains a certain quantity of keys, part of a standard 88 keys piano keyboard which is made up of 7 and 1/3 "octaves" but all musical instruments are capable of reproducing 7 and 1/3 "octaves". Some of them can only play one plus a single note (a bagpipe), two, sometimes three, or in the case of a clarinet, as much as four. This is why you have instruments with ranges that vary a lot like the saxophone, of which there exits no less than eight models, from the "subcontrabass saxophone" (a real monster if I ever saw one) to the "sopranino" although four or five are commonly used : the "bass saxophones", the "baritone saxophone", the "tenor saxophone", the "alto saxophone" and the "soprano saxophone". with overlapping range, of course, but with different signature or sound.

Now, you may have noticed that vis-à-vis the G-A-B-C-D-E-F (white keys), notes have been placed on the above staffs at precise locations.

This is where Clefs (or key signs) come into the picture :

To the left of the staffs, two signs : a G key - usually called G-clef (clé de sol) - that looks like this :

It indicates where the middle or upper G note should be : on the second line from the bottom of the upper staff.

And then you have, on the lowers staff, another sign - called an F key - or F-clef (clé de fa) - that looks like this :

It's there to indicate where the middle or lower F note should be : on the second line from the top of the bottom staff.

You may have noticed already that in between both staves is where what is known as the middle C resides. It's on an added line called "ledger" or "ledger line") which one can add above or below both staves.

All conventions, mind you, as the above system wasn't really used until the Middle Age. Before that, all sorts of other methods were agreed upon to note write music, including a system of dots on three to seven lines staff. You'll find that information on the WEB.

Question :

What about the black keys and why there are none between B and C and E and F ?

Answer :

Because black keys are used to play semi-tones which exist between all white keys except between B and C, and E and F which are only semi-tone apart.

What's a tone ? A tone is the variation of vibrations between notes. - Remember when we spoke of frequencies earlier ? - Well that's were they come in :

Middle C, for example is the equivalent of 261vibrations per second, the following D is  293 (+ 32), then you go up to E (329 or + 36) and F (349 or +20) followed by G (391 + 42), and so on. Not exactly pure math but you can see that the difference between E and F is roughly half of that between F and G. - Now that you have learned this, forget about it. What's important is than on a full scale in half-tones (playing from C to B using both the white and black keys, there are 12 notes , part of a scale (gamme) known as chromatic.

How are the black keys named ? - When a key or note is half a note higher than the preceding key, it is called by the name of the said preceding note to which is added the word "sharp" (dièse in French). So the first black key to the right of C is known as C-sharp which is written as follows : C♯; but since it's also half a tone lower than D, it can also be called D-flat, written as D♭. - See "scale" below for a way to circumvent the additions of these flat and sharp signs.

Got it ? - Question : how would call C-flat ? - If you answered B, you answered correctly. This ought to tell you that no composer would call whatever he's writing as being in C-flat.

End of the boring part.

Except that it is important to note that a standard scale (or gamme) is made of seven keys separated as follows :

Tone, tone, semi-tone, tone, tone, tone, semi-tone

(The last semi-tone to go to the the beginning of the following or higher scale).

One final detail :

How does one annotate lengths or how long should one play each notes ?

If you look at a partition, you'll notice keys of different shapes. A black note such as the ones in the above staffs, indicate a certain amount of time (we'll discuss this in a moment), a white note twice that amount and a round white note four times leaving a quarter note being a quarter the length of a whole note, etc., etc.

is for a double note to be played twice as long as a whole not, i.e. :

... which in turn is twice as long as a half-note, i.e. :.

Then you have the quarter note, , the one-eight note, , the one-sixteen note, and so on.

For a full description, including how silences or pauses are indicated, go to this page :

Musical symbols (Wikipedia).

And that's it.


2 - Scales

What's a scale ? A scale is a series of seven notes (eight counting the last one which is the repetition of the first note but an octave higher).

There are several types of scales . The two most important are MAJOR scales and MINOR scales. - We'll mention two others after we will have explained what major and minor scales are.

Go back to the keyboard on the previous section, sit in front of a piano and press, one after the other, any C key and then go on to the right and play the D key, then the E, the F, the G, the a, the B and, finally the adjacent C key.

You know what you just played ? A C MAJOR SCALE. - Congratulations !

Now can you play the same thing starting with the D key ?

D-E-F-G-H-A-B-C-D, you'll say ? Nope : a Major key, has got to follow the same tone-tone-semitone-tone-tone-tone-semitone that is played by starting with a C.

What's a full tone separating D from the next note ? - If you said E, you were right. - The next key should however be a semitone higher, not F but F sharp, and so on. As follows :

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

That, my friend, is a D MAJOR SCALE.

And as there are twelve notes (black and white keys) between C and B, there exists 12 major scales. :

C Major - Notes: C, D, E, F, G, A, B, C

C# / Db Major - Notes: C#, D#, F, F#, G#, A#, C, C#

D Major - Notes: D, E, F#, G, A, B, C#, D

D# (Eb) Major - Notes: D#, F, G, G#, A#, C, D, D#

E Major - Notes: E, F#, G#, A, B, C#, D#, E

F Major - Notes: F, G, A, Bb, C, D, E, F

F# (Gb) Major - Notes: F#, G#, A#, B, C#, D#, F, F#

G Major - Notes: G, A, B, C, D, E, F#, G

G# (Ab) Major - Notes: G#, A#, C, C#, D#, F, G, G#

A Major - Notes: A, B, C#, D, E, F#, G#, A

B Major - Notes: B, C#, D#, E, F#, G#, A#, B

A# (Bb) Major - Notes: A#, C, D, D#, F, G, A, A#

So what's with MINOR scales ?

There are three of them but we'll only deal with one, here.

Same principle as major keys, except, that the notes are not separated by tone-tone-semitone-tone-tone-tone-semitone but :


No need to illustrate all of them, let's just compare a C-Major scale and a C-Minor scale :

Major : C, D, E, F, G, A, B, C

Minor :  C, D, Eb, F, G, Ab, Bb, C

Not much of a difference, you might say, but listen to them :

Major C : (click on note)

Minor C : (click on note)

Notice the difference ? You should.

Try it with two Chopin Preludes :

The first in C major : (click on note) (Prelude no. 1 - Claudio Arrau)

The second in C Minor : (click on note) (Prelude no. 20 - Claudio Arrau)

Ok, then, try the Beatles (excerpts only)

First in a major scale : (click on note) (Here Comes the Sun)

Then on a minor scale : (click on note) (Eleonor Rigby)

Explanation ?

Generally speaking, major scales are usually associated with rather joyous or uplifting music whereas minor scales are used for more sombre stuff. You wouldn't want to compose a funeral mass in a major scale, for example, nor a drinking song in minor scale.

And to prove that what I just said is horse manure, here's a rather jumpy little thing written in a minor scale by Telemann. It's the fourth movement of his Concerto in E-minor for flute and recorder :

Minor mode

Rather impressive is it not ?

And here, in a sad mood, something written by Chopin, in a major scale (Prelude No. 7 in A Major - Claudio Arrau):

Major mode

Two final words :

1 - When you write music down, you don't have to indicate a sharp or a flat sign besides each note.

In the key of G Minor, for example, all B's are to be played flat and so are all E's. Tiresome to put a ♭sign besides all of them not to mention the clutter it would cause on the staff. So, you indicate this by putting right besides the Clef signs (remember those), a ♭on the lines where the B's and E's will reside. This indicates to the would-be player that the notes appearing on these lines are to be played one semi-tone lower.

2 - There exists other scales (amongst which are two more minors). The two most used are :

The chromatic scale, mentioned earlier, in which all notes are separated by half tones. Listen to what Bach did with that one (link to YouTube) :

András Schiff Plays Bach: Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue in D (BWV 03)

The whole tone scale in which all notes are separated by [whole] tones. Debussy experimented with it (Cloches à travers les feuilles) but one of its main user was by Thelonius Monk (on YouTube as well) :

Thelonius Monk playing Ask Me Now

3 - Two famous composers (and others, less famous) composed music "sets" in all 12 minor and 12 major scales :

Chopin in his Preludes and Bach (twice) with his Well tempered Clavier Suites. Both can be found on YouTube :

Chopin by Askenazy (in concert)


Bach by Maurizio Pollini

And to close this section, would you believe that Beethoven wrote all his symphonies in major mode, except two : his fifth and his ninth (!), his two most played.


Had enough ?

If you have followed carefully the above, you can now :

a) read music (well sort of).

Want proof ?

Go to the following site and read the top staff (the bottom is more or less the same) as the pertaining music is being played :

Chopin - Scherzo no. 2 - op. 31 - Arthur Rubenstein

b) understand now what those "C Major", "B-flat Minor" (and so on) mean on those hard to decipher titles on CD's or Long Playing Records ? - It is very important for you to know this as it will, generally speaking, tell you that the recording you want to buy is most likely joyous or simply sadder than a funeral.

And then you have speed. Ah speed ! - Next installement, but before leaving you, I'd like you to hear one of my favorite slow music by one of my favorite composer, Frédéric Chopin pieces. - You must have heard it before, in dire times, and it would be pointless for me to tell you if it was written using a major or a minor scale. It's played by

Arturo Benedetti Michelangelo

The next step is to undertand the various formats used by composers over the years and why so many different trios, quartets, quintets and even symphonies exist and who are the most famous composers were and why they are still listen to today.

That will be the subject of future installments.

In our next, we shall deal with Bars, Tempos, Chords, Styles and Modes.

Then on to Instruments and Types of Compositions.


Click here to go to installment no. 2

Or here to go to our introduction

Or here, if you want to return to your favorite magazine

Last revision : 2014-11-14