The Dirty Trick Hidden Inside Every Music Class

The biggest difficulty that both beginners and advanced musicians alike have with understanding harmony is the atrocious naming system that we use. Our system of naming notes is so stupid and poorly thought out that most beginners simply can’t believe it. They just figure that music must be very complicated since the language we use to talk about it is so complicated. But there is a dirty trick hidden inside every music lesson, and it has to do with the actual names we use for the notes. They are so misleading that it is almost impossible to see even the simplest relationships between them. This is one reason why people can study music all their lives and never even notice that they are always playing the same seven notes. It’s as if our entire society were under a spell that prevents us from seeing what is right before our eyes.

To begin with, you should understand that music is relative. The absolute pitches of the notes in any song do not matter. What makes the song sound the way it does is the relationship between the notes. You could transpose the entire song up or down a half step and nobody would even notice, even though the name of every single note would change in the process. In fact any piece of music can be perfectly reproduced in any key you want, whether it be a simple blues or the entire Requiem Mass of Mozart.

For this reason, the language we use to think and talk about music must also be relative. If you hope to make any sense at all of music, you need to look beyond the absolute note names like F# and Bb and adopt a language that corresponds to the way music really works. In every single key the seven notes of the major scale always sound exactly the same. So the first step to understanding music is to give these notes permanent names that do not constantly change depending on what key you’re in. You could give these seven notes any names you like, but I use the numbers 1 through 7 because it’s the simplest way I know to talk about seven things and easily remember their order:

It’s very easy to learn to visualize these seven notes anywhere on your instrument. But that will be the subject of another article. First we need to look at the entire set of notes in our musical system. This is where we come into contact with the very unfortunate naming system we have inherited. But don’t despair. They are only names. If you can learn to look beyond the names you will have no trouble at all.

In all there are 12 available notes in our musical system. They have the following names:

Notice that there is no sharp note between B and C, nor between E and F. This is an important detail. Now, the sharp notes can also be called the next note flatted. For example A# is the same as Bb. So we could also list the notes in the following way:

Notice that there is no sharp note between B and C, nor between E and F. This is an important detail. Now, the sharp notes can also be called the next note flatted. For example A# is the same as Bb. So we could also list the notes in the following way:

Because of this, our naming system makes it very easy for us to see which notes belong to the key of C. And this would be wonderful if we always played in the key of C. But the problem is that we almost NEVER play in the key of C! Do you have any idea how few classical pieces are actually written in the key of C? Hardly any jazz tunes are written in C either. The only tunes I know in the key of C are a bunch of country songs and some reggae. And most of those guys don’t even use sheet music!

The sad reality is that our entire naming system is designed to facilitate talking about notes in a key in which we almost never play. The key of C is only one of twelve possible keys, and yet we name all of our notes relative to this one key. This is why, for example, a perfectly simple melody in the key of E will appear to have all sorts of “sharp notes.” In fact there is nothing “sharp” about the notes at all. The notes themselves are just the seven notes of the E major scale, and they sound just as simple and sweet as the notes of any other major scale. The only thing complicated about them is their names, because we are stuck with this bonehead naming system which tries to describe everything relative to the key of C.

Unless you have been playing and thinking about music for some time, you may not completely follow what I am trying to say. But you can still understand the important point that you can take away from this article. For the moment we are stuck with this confusing naming system for our musical notes, but I want you to understand that they are only names. You should try to start thinking of every single note as a completely separate entity, exactly equal to its neighbors in value and importance. Bb, F# and C are all exactly equal. They are just three different notes among the twelve that exist in all.

Your concept of the notes on your instrument needs to become as clean and pure as the following drawing:

In the Improvise for Real method, developing this consciousness is the work we do in Exercise 1. You could start this work on your own by simply improvising freely in the chromatic scale. Practice dancing freely all over your instrument, moving only by half steps. It may seem like kind of a silly game, but what it’s really about is learning to relate to the notes on your instrument in a new way that is not complicated by their unfortunate names. This is the first step to breaking the spell that has prevented us from understanding music.