Gap 1: The Black Keys

Up til now we have names for all the white keys (A B C D E F G) albeit in a funny order (C D E F G A B). So what are the names of the black keys? Stand by for some entertainment.

I think of the black keys as people who have dual nationality. If you are one then you understand that you have 2 passports, one says you are French and one says you are Canadian. Whichever country you are in at any given time, that is “home” and the other is “foreign”.

The black keys take their name from the white key next to them. And there are always 2 white keys next to any black key, ‘cos black keys live between 2 white keys.

Consider key “C” (key 1 of the group). To the right is a black key. Because it is “to the right” it is slightly higher in tone than key “C”, thus it is “sharp”. Its name, therefore, is C sharp (which is written as C#).

This holds true for all the other black keys.

But C# is also left of key “D” (key 2 of the group). Because it is “to the left” it is slightly lower in tone than key “D”, thus it is “flat”. Its name, therefore, is D flat (which is written as Db). NOTE: The real “b” is visually different from the way it prints on this page, but I don’t have the exact symbol on my computer keyboard.

So, every black key has 2 names. There are rules for which name you use, but we don’t need to worry about that yet.

Make a small mental note that there are 2 “quirks”. They are not critical right now, but an awareness will be helpful.

Quirk 1: There is no black key between “E” and “F”, so there is no E# or Fb. Or so you’d think.
Quirk 2: There is no black key between “B” and “C”, so there is no B# or Cb. Or so you’d think.

Both quirks arise because, if you remember from the tetrachord, the “Me – Fa” step is less than all the other steps. It’s only 1 “half-step” rather than 2 “half-steps”. And when you played the tetrachord, the “Me – Fa” landed on the “E – F” keys.

Similary, “Te – Do” is also only 1 “half-step”, and it landed on the “B – C” keys

The E is Fb (and vice versa). The “F” is E# (and vice versa). The “B” is Cb (and vice versa). The C is B# (and vice versa).

This might sound complicated but it fits with all the other rules, ie the sharp is 1 “half-step” right and the flat is 1 “half-step” left.

Get away from the idea that “black keys are sharps and flats”. That’s another piece of duff education. “E” and “F” and “B” and “C” are all white keys, but they are still E# Fb B# Cb.

OK. That was the easy bit. The next bit is messier and needs a bit of circumlocution.

Gap 2: Keys or Keys

The English language can be horrendous. We often use the same word to mean different things. One such item is “key”.

Up til now I’ve used the word “key” to mean the physical key on the keyboard, be it a white key or a black key.

Now I have to use it to mean something entirely different. I’m going to discuss “musical key”, which is all part and parcel of “scales” (which has nothing to do with either fish skin or weighing devices).

Music students spend hours and hours practicing “scales”. Boring, boring, boring. No wonder most schoolkids give up music when they leave school and never touch a piano again. What a shame.

In contrast, you already know all the scales there are. And you can play them in your sleep. They hold no horrors for you. They don’t bore you to death.

You don’t believe me? Here we go, then …

First off: – You played “Do Re Me … Do”, starting on the (physical) key “C”. That octave, that you played, was a “scale”. You played the scale “in the (musical) key of C”. You played “the C scale”, effortlessly and without breaking sweat.

You were successful because you followed the tetrachord pattern and you played [2, 2, 1], 2, [2, 2, 1].

That is a “scale”. That is all there is to “scales”.

Pick ANY (physical) key in the group, follow the tetrachord pattern [2, 2, 1], 2, [2, 2, 1], and you cannot fail to play the scale. The (physical) key becomes the name of the (musical) key for that scale. Soooo simple! Start on “F”, scale of “F”. Start on “A”, scale of “A”. etc

There are only 12 (physical) keys that you can start on. Thus you can play all 12 scales, effortlessly and without strsss.

Traditional “school” methods will have taken you a couple of years to get this far.

Gap 3: Majors And Minors

Again, you already know this. Let’s look back.

You played the C chord, using (physical) keys 1, 3, 5. You know that this was actually the C Major chord. And you know the names of the (physical) keys as C, E, G.

You also played the C minor chord, by moving your middle finger 1 note left. You have seen that moving your middle finger 1 note left of “E” landed it on Eb, (which has the alternative name D#).

You also played the C scale a few moments ago. It went C, D, E, F, G, A, B. Well, that was actually the C Major scale. So it comes as no surprise to you to realise that the C minor scale is C, D, Eb, F, G, A, B.

All you’ve done is flatten the 3rd note in the scale and you’ve moved from major to minor. How much simpler can it get? Magic!

A few moments ago you had 12 scales. Now you know they were major scales. Now you have 12 minor scales, making a total of 24 scales in your repertoire, and it took just a few moments of your time. Soooo simple!

You can see just how quickly we can grow once the key (excuse the pun) issues are highlighted and the extraneous issues ignored.

Man! I am so loving this and I can’t wait for the next topic.

A Bonus

This issue has to be covered at some point, and there’s never a good time, so now is as good a time as any. You could find it mind-numbingly boring. Or overly pedantic. Or skin-tinglingly exciting (as I do, but then I’m one weird dude).

There’s a tradition that a (musical) note can appear only once in any scale.

That probably sounds either b****y obvious or just plain stupid. But bear with me a moment.

The problem doesn’t arise in the C Major scale ‘cos it goes C D E F G A B, thus duplication isn’t possible. But what about C minor? That, as we know, goes C, D, Eb, F, G, A, B. Again, there is no duplication.

Or is there?

Remember that Eb is a black key, thus it has a second name. That name is D#. So we could (were we so minded) write the C minor scale as C, D, D#, F, G, A, B. This situation arises wherever a black (ie “dual nationality”) key gets used.

The C Major scale is, in fact, the only scale that has no black keys in it. All the others have at least one (which is another exciting topic we’ll be coming on to soon).

In many ways it’s slightly unfortunate that we spend so much time with C Major. We do so ‘cos it’s easy to understand, but that in itself does us no favours.

Anyway, getting back to the point, the note “D” appears twice – once as just “D” and once as “D#”. This is deemed to be “wrong”. Hence we write the C minor scale with Eb instead of D#.

When we get to the “Circle Of Fifths” shortly you’ll see that certain (musical) keys “cannot exist” because of this rule.


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