The Musical Alphabet
What is a note?
This is a question – though rather simple – that must be answered before we attempt to learn music theory. A note is a vibration in the air. Each of these vibrations oscillate at a different speed. This speed, known as frequency, defines each note.
Music does not generally consist of just one note. When we hear music, our ears are often listening to the interactions between multiple frequencies, rather than just individual frequencies alone. Below is a diagram of this concept:
Move the slider to change the interval.
Musical distance is the distance from one note to the next. The distance itself actually represents a change of frequency. As something gets higher in pitch, it is generally referred to as going “up.” As something gets lower, it is referred to as going “down.”
The shortest unit of musical distance in western music is the half step. Below you will find the musical alphabet written out in half steps, otherwise known as the chromatic scale.
Sharps (#), Flats (♭), and Naturals (♮)
First, you’ll notice that we represent notes with letters from our own alphabet. Next, you will likely notice two symbols that do not belong to our own alphabet.
The sharp sign, #, raises the given note by a half step. The flat sign, ♭, lowers the given pitch by a half step. Another symbol you’ll encounter, ♮, the natural symbol, represents a note that is neither sharp nor flat.
This pattern repeats itself in both directions.
G# will move on to A, coming full circle again. It is common to see a numbering system that represents this. Usually you start at C0, then when you reach C again it becomes C1.
The point at which this alphabet repeats is called the octave. The reason the alphabet repeats has to do with the frequencies involved with the octave.
In addition, notice that there are two versions of this alphabet, one with sharps and one with flats.
Later in this text, I will discuss the appropriate time for using each of these. For now, however, it is important to understand that each note sitting vertically adjacent to the next has the same frequency as its partner.
That is to say, A# is the same as B♭. We will further explore this concept, known as “enharmonic spelling,” at a later point.
Congrats, you have finished the first section!
Now that you have a firm understanding as to what a note is, as well as what the musical alphabet looks like, we will build the major scale.
We will be looking at other types of scales, as well.