Chords and scales

In a previous lesson, intro to music notation, you learned music theory and notation almost exclusively from a point of view of rhythm. Most of the time that is enough for dancing: you dance to the rhythm, not so much to the melody. However, there are a few pitch-related issues that are relevant in some contexts.


A scale is an ascending or descending series of notes. You probably learned to sing do re mi fa sol la ti do in school: that is a scale. It is only a slight simplification to say that every piece of music is based on a single scale. The melody, the chords played by the piano or guitar, and the bass; they all pick their notes from that scale. That is not to say that melodies and such actually run up and down scales: they just pick notes from the scale. (They will also sometimes pick notes that are not in the scale, but we will ignore that here.) In some music, mostly the jazzy music that is used for foxtrot or swing, the bass will actually play parts of scales; that is called walking bass.


A scale has 8 notes, do re mi fa sol la ti do, but the first and the last have the same name: they are both do. If your voice has a good range, you can start the same scale again on the last note. In a way, you are then singing the same scale, even though the frequencies of the notes are higher. This phenomenon of "the same scale, yet different" also appears if a man and a woman or a child are singing the same scale: the man, having a lower voice will sing the same scale but lower. Musicians say he is singing an octave lower; which means that he sings eight notes lower. (Here is a movie that illustrates these ideas: small; big.)

Relative scale steps

Above, I was explaining scales using do re mi et cetera. There is an important reason musicians do not use this system. It would sound like all they know was learned in primary school! But seriously. The problem is that you can start your scale on every note that you can find on the piano, or whatever your favourite instrument is. Now, if you call the first note do regardless, this is not enough to communicate to another musician where you are starting.

What musicians do use is note names A B C et cetera, with possibly sharp or flat attached. For instance, the scale that uses the white keys on the piano is the C scale. And then there is C sharp, E flat, and whatnot. This takes ages to learn for beginning musicians, and it is completely irrelevant for what dancers are interested in.

The do-re mi is actually not so bad for our purposes: we only need to know notes relative to the first step of the scale. For this, musicians often number the steps using roman numerals. The steps of a scale are I II III IV V VI VII; step VIII is the same as step I (with an octave difference), and step IX of the scale is more conveniently called II again, et cetera.


There is another reason to learn a bit about scales. In a couple of places in this course you will learn something about chords, and the main thing that concerns us is what step of the scale they are based on. To put it simply, for every piece of music, there is a scale it is based on, and the chords you hear are also connected to this scale.

The fact that there are seven different notes in a scale implies that there can be seven different chords. (Reality is in fact a lot more complicated, but the details are not relevant for dance. Here is a movie playing the a chord on each step of the scale.) However, many pieces of music use only three of four chords: the chords on I, IV, and V, plus either II or VI. The clearest example is blues music, which pretty consistently uses only the I, IV, V chords. For more information see the page about blues music.

Now, I haven't told you yet how these chords are constructed. That is actually pretty simple. See how evenly spaced the notes in each chord are? There is a very simple regularity to that. The notes of the chord on I are I, III, V, and the notes of the chord on IV are IV, VI, VIII, or in other words, the I, III, V steps if you start counting at IV, the root of the chord. Does this regularity continue? Yes, just look at the chord on step V: taking steps I, III, V starting at V gives you V, VII, IX.

Most of the time, instead of talking about chords - a pretty intricate topic - we can limit ourselves to the bass note. And we don't even have to talk about note names: it is enough to state what step of the scale is being played. For instance, in the section about blues music you will encounter such statements as In the turnaround the bass plays V IV I.

With this knowledge of how chords are built on relative steps from the root of the chord, you can now understand how some bass parts are constructed. See the sections about walking bass, root-fifth, and chord outlines.

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This file is part of "Feel The Beat", a musicology course for dancers, by Victor Eijkhout (victor at eijkhout dot net), who appreciates being sent additions or corrections on the material in this course. Copyright 2000/1 Victor Eijkhout.

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Last modified on: Saturday, May 19, 2001.