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Definitions of Musical Terms

This page / section is dedicated to clearing up any doubts you may have about the definition of various musical terms.

If what you want to know is not included here, please ask via the contact page and I will include it.

Arpeggios

An arpeggio is simply a broken  chord, or to put it another way, it’s a chord where the notes are played one at a time (usually for one or more octaves) rather than simultaneously.

As with scales, learning and practicing these are excellent finger exercises as well as helping to improve theoretical understanding.

An arpeggiator is a function on some keyboards which automatically creates looped arpeggios.

Chords

A Chord is created when three or more notes are played simultaneously. A three note chord is known as a triad which forms the ‘basic’ chord. Two notes played simultaneously could ‘imply’ a chord.

There are four main types of chords: major, minor diminished and augmented. Examples of these can be seen in notation and keyboard view here and heard here.

All chords of a particular type (i.e. minor) share the same intervals between each note.

All of these could have variations by adding ‘extensions’ such as 7ths, 9ths, 11ths, or 13ths or suspended 2nds or 4ths.  These can be seen here.

Just about every chord that you will ever need in every key  in keyboard view are included in my main books Learn How to Play Electronic Keyboard or Piano in a Week’ or ‘Keyboard / Piano Improvisation One Note at a Time’ or if you are just looking for chords and don’t feel that you need all the other information then see my dedicated ‘Piano / Keyboard Chords in Keyboard View’ book.

Clefs

A clef is a portion of the staff or stave in music notation consisting of 5 horizontal lines and the various clefs determine which notes are which.  

In modern music there are now only four clefs: Treble; Alto: Tenor and Bass, but for piano / keyboard music only the treble and bass clefs are used (the treble generally with the right hand and the bass with the left hand.

See here for example diagrams.

Diatonic Chords

A diatonic chord is a chord consisting of notes from the key scale. For instance in the key of C major, the main diatonic chords will be C, D minor, E minor, F major, G major, A minor and B diminished. These triads simply follow the C major scale. More detailed information about diatonic chords can be found in my two main books. Please also see chords.

Intervals

The smallest interval in Western music is the Semitone and this is the interval between any note and its closest neighbour (black or white). For instance C - C# is a semitone as is C - B (as there is no black note between C and B). For a note identification diagram see here.

Further intervals are are as follows (examples starting on C):

Minor 2nd  -  1 semitones  - C -  C#
Major 2nd  -  2 semitones  -  C -  D  (1 tone)
Minor 3rd  -  3 semitones  -  C  -  Eb
Major 3rd  -  4 semitones  -  C  -  E  (2 tones)
Perfect 4th  -  5 semitones  -  C -  F
Diminished 5th  -  6 semitones  -  C - F#  (3 tones)
Perfect 5th  -  7 semitones  -  C  -  G
Minor 6th  -  8 semitones  -  C  -  Ab  (4 tones)
Major 6th  -  9 semitones  -  C  -  A
Minor 7th  -  10 semitones  -  C  -  Bb (5 tones)
Major 7th  -  11 semitones  -  C  -  B  
Octave  -  12 semitones  -  C  -  C  (6 tones)

Beyond the octave these are the most common intervals (examples starting on C):

b9th  -  C + octave  -  C#
9th  -  C + octave  -  D
b10th  -  C + octave  -  D#  (Eb)
11th  -  C + octave  -  F
13th  -  C + octave  -  A

Inversions

The term ‘Inversions’ in music are generally applies to chords. A basic triad has three inversions:  -   the root position, first inversion and second inversion.

Using these can often avoid unnecessary finger movements.

Examples with gallery can be seen here in keyboard view.

Octave

An octave is the interval of 12 semitones (6 tones) from C - C, D - D etc. It’s called an ‘octave’ i.e. ‘8’ as it  also the eighth (and last) note of  the major and minor scales.  See Intervals.

Scales

A scale is a series of notes played consecutively, usually for one, two or four octaves ascending and descending. There are several types of scales i.e. major, minor (harmonic and melodic) pentatonic (major and minor) and blues etc.

Each type of scale shares the same intervals between each note. And all of the scales ascend and descend using the same notes with the exception of the melodic minor scales. These use the major 6th and 7th intervals ascending, but descend with the minor 6th and 7th intervals.

All the scales that you are likely to need are included in my scales book as well as my other main books.

Scales are essential both as finger exercises and theoretical understanding.

Examples in both keyboard view and notation can be seen here - (zoom in close on the notation diagrams to see fingering - Ctrl+).

Or you can hear the following scales here:

Scale Modes

Generally scales are taught in their root position (Ionian), that is starting on the ‘tonic’ first note and in most cases it’s not necessary to learn further modes.

However for improvisation learning the various modes is useful if not essential. Basically this involves learning at least the most commonly used major scales starting and finishing on different notes of the scale. These are named Ionian (root position); Dorian; Phrygian; Lydian; Mixolydian; Aeolian and Locrian.  

Due to the different intervals created, each mode has a totally unique sound.

All of these are shown in my Piano / Keyboard Improvisation book.

Sharps and Flats

Sharps and flats are generally associated with ‘black notes’ which is usually (but not always) what they are. A sharpened note is one semitone higher than the previous note. Therefore F sharp is the first black note above (to the right of) the F key / note and G flat is the same note being the first black note below (to the left of the G key / note. Whether this note is referred to as F sharp or G flat is determined by the key signature.

Note also that as there are no black notes between B and C and E and F, B could sometime be referred to as C flat and C could be B sharp etc, but this again depends on the key signature. See note identification diagram here and symbols here.

The natural symbol is shown in the notation where a note that is flattened or sharpened in the key signature or incidentally in the same bar is naturalised.

A double sharp is when a note is sharpened by two semitones and a double flat when one is flattened by two semitones. These are only found in key signatures heavily endowed in sharps and flats.

Tones and Semitones

See  intervals.

Transposition / Transposing

To ‘transpose’ a piece of music is to raise or lower the pitch by one or more semitones, which would then change the key signature accordingly.

For instance, if a piece is written in C major and you raise the pitch by 2 semitones; it will then be transposed to D major and every note and chord would be changed proportionately so that it would sound exactly the same except at a higher pitch.

This is often used if a particular song is not in a singer’s comfortable range, or very often a piece transposes up one or two semitones after a couple of verses as an embellishment.  An example of this can be heard in my piece ‘Beary Glen’ where  it transposes from G major to A major towards the end.

Many electronic keyboards have the facility to transpose automatically at the push of a button enabling you to perhaps play in C major but sound in D major etc.

You can also transpose from a minor key to another minor key but you cannot transpose from a major to a minor key.

However, a piece can be changed from major to minor but this is not transposition as the intervals in the major and minor scales are different, so it will result in a different sound. An example of this can be heard in my piece ‘A Lullaby for Gonks’ which starts in G major, but changes to G minor halfway through creating a completely different feel. You could not fail to notice the difference.

 Triads

A triad is a three note chord.


Please bear with me as more improvements and additions are made to this section. Some of the Gonks might not look busy. But believe me they are all working hard!













Keys and Signatures

Staff / Stave Notes Note values (triplets) Rests Bars Timing variations   Fingering

Grace notes (incidentals)


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