How enharmonic intervals work

Okay, so scale degree names can get wacky. Just like the letter names for notes, the numbers we use to label scale degrees can go by different enharmonic names. And the term you use to describe a scale degree depends on how sharp or flat it is.

For example, here’s a lovely graphic that summarizes every possible scale degree in music. Double-sharp (x) numbers are in the outer ring, followed by the different sharp (#), natural, flat (b), and double-flat (bb) numbers for various intervals in the chromatic scale.

All enharmonic intervals in the chromatic scale

Looking at the scale degree “3,” for example, you might just refer to this interval as “3″ … or as “##2″ … or maybe you’d call it “b4.” But it doesn’t really matter because these different number names describe the same interval in a given key—that is, one that’s two whole steps above the tonic note. So no matter what you call it, you’re describing the exact same interval.

Of course, some of these scale degree names are a little obscure. For example, I can’t think of anyone who calls scale degree “1″ “#7″ or “bb2.” After all, the tonic is the tonic (!), so it usually just goes by the name “1.” And 7 hardly ever goes by the names “b1″ or “x6.”

So, for simplicity, these are the most common scale degree numbers you’ll hear musicians use music. The better you get at learning these musical terms, the better you’ll be at playing songs.

Common scale degree numbers in the chromatic scale

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Why use squares and circles?

Some of you have asked why we use squares and circles in ColorMusic. And it’s a good question. This video gives you the quick answer. You can also find an illustrated explanation in the blog post, “Why the shape code works.” Keep the questions coming!



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How intervals work: Major-thirds and Minor-sixths

You hear it all the time … major-thirds have all the fun. But minor-sixths get the cold shoulder!!

Okay, maybe you don’t hear that all the time. (Unless you hang out exclusively with mega-music nerds.) But if you step back and think about it, that’s a really good question. Why does the interval of a minor-sixth get less play than its cousin, the major-third? After all, both of these notes are spaced at equal intervals from the tonic note of a key.

In the key of C, for example, the major-third (E) and minor-sixth (Ab) are both spaced at two whole-tone intervals from the tonic. The E note is just below the subdominant (F), while Ab is just above the dominant (G).

Major-third and minor-sixth intervals in a ColorMusic piano chromatic scale

Yet the major-third (E) is honored with much more of a presence in the key of C … while the minor-sixth (Ab) hardly shows up at all.

Well, this has to do with the consonance and dissonance of each note. And how good each pitch sounds when paired with the tonic. Or, better said, how nicely each note plays with the other pitches in key.

E (M3) sounds great when paired with both C (1) and G (5) in a major chord … and that’s important. Because it means the major-third is friends with both the tonic and its dominant – which are, decidedly, the most powerful kids on the block in a given key. So M3 is naturally favored in the songs of that key.

Major-third and perfect-fifth intervals in a ColorMusic piano chromatic scale

Ab (m6), on the other hand, sounds good with C (1), but downright crummy with G (5). And, as a result, it doesn’t get invited to as many musical parties when C is the host/tonic. (It’s all about who’s friends with who, you know?)

Minor-sixth and perfect-fifth intervals in a ColorMusic piano chromatic scale

As you might expect by now, it’s easy to see this pattern of major-thirds and minor-sixths in every key. Take a minute to soak it in – noting the fascinating symmetry of pitches in the chromatic scale.

All major-third and minor-sixth intervals in a ColorMusic chromatic scale

In total, the chromatic scale has four groups of major-thirds or major-sixths. There are two groups of squares and two groups of circles. The squares include all of the primary colors and secondary colors … while the circles include all of the tertiary colors.

Major-third and minor-sixth intervals in ColorMusic

Oh yeah, and each note connects with its major-third in a clockwise direction and with its minor-sixth in a counterclockwise direction. So, so cool, my friends. If you get a lay of the land by understanding these patterns, you’ll advance very quickly in your mastery of music theory and its use in the art of writing songs.

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Proof that tritones are dissonant

Okay, so in an earlier video about tritones, I mentioned that a given tonic and its tritone are rarely paired together. And it’s true … because these two notes are highly dissonant.

In the key of C, for example, the tonic (C) and its tritone (F#/Gb) are like polar opposites. ColorMusic makes this super easy to see, of course, because these two notes are complementary colors.

ColorMusic tritones in the chromatic scale

And because they’re very dissonant, they sound extremely tense together. But what would you expect?

After all, they are polar opposites.

I mean, imagine putting two mismatched musicians together in the same studio … like, say, Weezy and Rod Stewart. The resulting sound wouldn’t be too pretty, right?

Weezy and Rod Stewart are like tritonesWell, it’s the same with a tonic and its tritone. Because each note sounds so different from the other, people rarely try to combine them into a single harmony. It’s just not what most people want to hear.

To see what I mean, check out this list of chords in the key of C. Of course, a note like G shows up all the time because it’s the tonic’s favored dominant note. But the tritone? You find it in only a handful of chords … and even those are relatively obscure. Out of a full 62 different chords – only 17 include the note F#/Gb. That’s only 27% … wow!

Tritones in ColorMusic chord chart

So if anybody ever tells you the tritone sounds good with the tonic, you’ll know they’re lying. Or worse, maybe they’re crazy. Otherwise, you’d hear these two notes paired a lot more often.

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Latin note names in all 12 keys

Without a doubt, it’s good to know the Latin terms that musicians use each day. That way, you’ll know how to navigate the mean streets of music vocabulary.

For example, if you’re sitting in a jam session, and one of your buddies calls out “move to the dominant chord!” you’ll know exactly what to do. If you’ve already studied Latin terms, then you can swiftly move to the fifth chord without missing a beat.

dominant fifth is the fifth chord in a key

Or if somebody shouts “hit the minor submediant!” you’ll simply slide to the sixth with total confidence … knowing that your killer music theory skills just earned you an invite back to the next session. But to truly master these terms, you must know how they apply in all 12 keys. In a previous post, I explained how they work in the key of C. But what about other keys … tlike G, D, A, etc.? To answer that question, here’s a more complete look at how these note names apply to every key in music:

all Latin note names in ColorMusic

Because the Latin terms are like scale degrees, they are consistent in each key. For example, the tonic is always the first note … the supertonic is always the second note … and so on. Seriously, you should commit this information to memory. Because it’s super useful to know. After all, music theory is civilized pursuit. And with a solid understanding of these Latin terms, you’ll know how to communicate with ease – like the high-class gentleman or lady that you are.

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The royal drama of subdominants and dominants

In every musical key, there are special relationships between the notes. And all these relationships evolve around a central – and uber-powerful – tonic note. In the key of C, for example, the C note acts as the tonic … the tonal center of the key that presides over all the other pitches in its kingly domain.

No, really … the tonic note of a key truly is like the lord of the castle. It exerts a strong influence on the other notes, which act as its subservient subjects.

Royal tonic with subdominant, dominant, and tritone in ColorMusic chromatic scale

Taking this analogy a bit further, you can find all sorts of royal intrigue in a key. Some of the tonic king’s courtiers hold more sway than others – while others act as the king’s foes. The tritone, for example, is the tonic’s arch nemesis. It sounds highly dissonant when paired with the tonic … and therefore, rarely gets invited to the king’s parties.

But the tonic’s close relatives – the subdominant and dominant notes – are favored kin. So they are often seen cavorting with the royal king. In the key of C, for example, the subdominant (F) and dominant (G) even share the tonic’s “red blood” … so they sound very consonant when played with the tonic. In fact, you might even say they sound downright beautiful together.

The tonic is closely related to the subdominant and dominant because these notes are all neighbors in the circle of fifths. So the royal C note feels nice and snug when nestled between F and G.

Royal tonic note in ColorMusic circle of fifths and chromatic scale

But when the circle of fifths pattern is rearranged into the chromatic scale, the subdominant (4) and dominant (5) notes are moved to straddle the tonic king’s tritone (#4/b5). And that makes for some fascinating royal intrigue. As a result, all of these tonal friends and enemies in the chromatic scale are forced to be in close quarters … which heightens the musical drama.

But wait – it gets even better!

That’s because every note can have its day in the sun. That is, every note in music can serve as the king of its own key. And because the relationships between notes are symmetrical in each key, the connections between pitches are super rich and intriguing.

To see what I mean, check out this illustration of the chromatic scale – with lines connecting every tonic with its respective subdominants and dominants. The symmetry is astounding. And the multiple layers of tonal relationships are, frankly, mind-blowing.

All subominant and dominant notes in ColorMusic chromatic scale

Ahhh, the ever-compelling story of music theory. The ongoing battles for consonance and dissonance. The shifts in tonal power. The harmonic loyalties, and conflicting betrayals. It’s images like this that give meaning to the phrase, “Oh, what a tangled web we weave.”

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What are tritones?

Have you ever been talking with another musician when they started speaking crazy jargon? You know, fancy music gibberish … unintelligible gobbledygook.

While it’s true that musicians are technically insane, there’s a method to the madness of our vocabulary. A perfect example is the word “tritone.” At first glance, it’s a strange and potentially confusing term. But with a quick explanation, it’s pretty simple to understand.

In the chromatic scale, every note is separated by two basic types of intervals – whole-tone intervals and semi-tone intervals. If you start at C, for example, the two notes on either side of this pitch are Db (moving up the scale) … and B (moving down the scale). Each of these notes is just one semi-tone interval away from C.

Semitone intervals from tonic

A whole-tone interval is just made up of two semi-tones. So the two notes that are spaced at whole-tone intervals from C are D (moving up in pitch) and Bb (moving down in pitch).

Whole-tone intervals from tonic

If you keep moving out and away from that central C note, you’ll pass through various intervals … like a semi-tone + a whole-tone in either direction … and two whole-tones in either direction … and so on.

And if you move up or down three whole-tones from C, you you’ll hit the same note – which goes by a couple of names:  F#/Gb. Because this pitch is three whole-tones away, we call it the “tritone” … get it? Three (tri) whole-tones.

Tritone interval in the ColorMusic chromatic scale

Because the note patterns in music are symmetrical, this interval is significant. A tonic note and its tritone are polar opposites, which means they are highly dissonant. And, as a result, they are rarely paired together in songs.

In ColorMusic, this special relationship is easy to see because the tonic and its tritone (in this case, C and F#/Gb) are complementary colors. But what’s really cool is that you can see this same complementary pattern for every key in the chromatic scale.

In other words, D and Ab are clearly tritones … as are Eb and A … E and Bb … F and B … etc. Whoa!

All tritones in the ColorMusic chromatic scale circle

So if some fancy pants musician starts going on about “tritones,” you won’t get lost. Because you’ll know (and see!) exactly what it is they’re talking about.

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A musician’s guide to Latin note names

If you’re new to music, then you might be scratching your head at the strange vocabulary of musicians. When I first tip-toed into the land of music theory, I felt like I’d entered a foreign country. I’d hear phrases like “A-double-flat” or “Sharp-five” and was utterly lost. Or sometimes, I would read words like “mediant” and “supertonic” and I’d get dizzy … because it all sounded Greek to me.

Well, I was close anyway. Because some of these musical terms are actually Latin. And once you understand what they mean, they’re not scary at all.

Alternative scale degree names

I explain the letter and number names of notes in another post. But here you’ll find a refreshingly simple explanation of Latin interval names in music. (If only someone had told me this when I was starting out!)

Just like the number labels in music, Latin terms describe intervals in the chromatic scale. The most common of these terms are “tonic,” “subdominant,” and “dominant.” But, as you can see, each major scale degree has its own Latin name. And every term has its own special meaning.

music scale Latin terms

Of course, no matter what names you use, they all describe the same musical intervals. For example, whether you say a note is the “tonic,” “P1,” or just “1″—or that another note is the “dominant,” “P5,” or “5″—each name just means the same thing. So practice using all the different musical terms and you’ll be sure to sound like a genius at your next jam session.

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Enharmonic note names … demystified!

In music, the letter names for notes can be a little confusing. So here’s a nice, concise explanation to clear things up.

As you’ve seen before, letter symbols are used to name specific notes. Natural notes have simple names like A, B, C, etc. — while other notes (like C# and Db) are labeled using extra sharp and flat symbols. With enough practice, it’s easy enough to wrap your head around that.

But things get a little crazy when musicians start talking about “double-sharp” or “double-flat” notes. What’s that all about?! Well, it turns out that any note in the chromatic scale can have a different letter name depending on how sharp or flat it is.

Here’s a snappy illustration of how this works. This graphic presents every possible name for each note in music:

Enharmonic letter names with ColorMusic notes

Double-sharp (x) names are in the outer ring of the figure, followed by the sharp (#), natural, flat (b), and double-flat (bb) names for each note. There are still only 12 basic notes (or pitches), mind you … but each one can have two or three different “enharmonic” names.

For example, another name for “C” is “B#” — or, depending on the key, “Dbb.” Likewise, “A” sometimes goes by “Bbb” or it’s alternative alias, “G##.” Each name is different, but the note is actually the same.

Of course, this would all be super confusing without ColorMusic. Because all these different symbols can make your head swim. But with ColorMusic, it’s easy to see how these enharmonic notes are really identical.

The colored shapes quickly clarify that the chromatic scale still has only 12 notes. And you can see that notes C, B#, and Dbb are simply the same pitch … or that A, Bbb, and G## are identical. So by focusing on the actual patterns in music — using ColorMusic — you don’t get tripped up on the strange musical terminology of yesteryear.

Oh, yeah … and in everyday use, only some letter names are used for certain notes. For example, C is rarely called B# or Dbb. And B hardly ever goes by Cb or Ax. So here’s a look at the most common letter names for notes. These, my friend, are the note names you’ll typically see in music. So step back, soak in this pattern, and then make some music!

Common letter names with ColorMusic notes

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New videos on YouTube

Hey, guys! I just posted six new instructional videos on our YouTube channel. Check them out!

You’ll find some nice, bite-sized nuggets of wisdom on how to play tunes on the piano and uke. Here’s my favorite of the batch. Rock on!


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