"Songwriting and the Creative Process"
An Internet Tutorial

Lesson 4. A Survey of Musical Elements

"Music is the space between the notes." Claude Debussy

The essential elements of music are fairly easy to learn. Our songwriting will be limited by our knowledge in this area and by learning just a little bit more, or by getting just a little more facility on an instrument, we can experience a breakthrough in the quality of our writing.

There is, of course no end to what can be learned in the field of music, but it is never too late to begin. Some more experienced readers may be able to skip ahead at this point. What follows is an outline of the basics of music.


Notes are the basic units of music and each note designates a single musical event. The pitch of the note depends on the position of the note on the staff and the type of note (eighth note, quarter note, etc.) determines its duration.

One way we can represent the different notes is by singing do, re, mi, fa, so, la, ti, do, etc. This method of ascribing syllables to the notes of the scale is called solfege and comes from France.

The Staff

The notes of the musical scale are written on or between the five horizontal lines of the staff and may extend above or below on leger lines. The first thing you will see at the far left of the staff is usually a treble clef. Also know as the "G" clef this symbol looks like an ornate letter "S" and sits on the line for the note "G".

Sometimes when sheet music has a pair of staff lines as in a piano arrangement, the lower of the two sets of staff lines will have another kind of clef called a bass clef. This clef looks like a large comma and is centered on the note "F" and shows the part to be played by the left hand. There are several other clefs which are used for specific instruments and orchestral parts.

From bottom to top, the lines of the treble clef represent the notes, E, G, B, D, and F. A mnemonic device taught to help remember these notes goes, "every good boy does fine." The spaces, again from bottom to top are F, A, C, and E, or "face" If a note falls above or below the range of the staff, small lines called "leger" lines are added.

These notes correspond to the white keys of the piano and with them songs can be played in the keys of "C", and "A Minor".

If a song is written in any other key it becomes necessary to alter some of the notes slightly upward or downward, and mark them with a sharp "#" or a flat "b". The reason for this is that our ear is used to a certain pattern of whole steps and half steps which give a scale its identity and if the scale begins on any note other than "C" we have to alter some of the notes to make the relationships of whole steps and half steps seem correct.


If we divide the eight notes of the scale into two groups of four, called tetrachords, we find that each group is made up of identical patterns of intervals.

Between C and D there is one whole step or two half steps (each move to the next adjacent key is a half step) and there is a black key, (C#) between C and D.

The interval from D to E is again one whole step or two half steps and again there is one black key "D#" between them. The next step, however, is only one half step, from E-F. On the piano there is no "E#" or "F-flat".

This is the pattern of intervals which our ear accepts as the familiar "do, re, mi, fa".

After allowing one whole step between the first and second group of four, we see that the second tetrachord is structured exactly the same way with whole step, whole step, half step between G and A, A and B, and B and C.

This order of intervals sounds to our ear like "so, la, ti, do" and is what we recognize as the last four ascending notes of the major scale.


A pattern of intervals can be called a "mode". If we play from D to D using the white keys only, the intervals will be in a different order and have a very different, more minor sound to our ear. This is called the Dorian Mode.

C to C, the mode we think of as normal is called the Ionian mode. From G to G on the white keys only is called the Mixolydian mode.

From E to E is the Phrygian mode, From F to F, is the Lydian mode and from A to A, the Aeolian.

The Aeolian mode is the basis for most minor scales, although some minor scales are altered in the seventh or sixth and seventh scale degrees to give a sense of resolution more like a major scale. These points will be more fully explained later in the book.

Sharps and Flats

If we sing do-re-me, etc. starting on the G note we find that the first group of four notes falls nicely on the first four white keys but the next group of four needs one slight change to make it sound right.

When we get to the so-la-ti-do, we find that the "ti" if we play it on the F key sounds wrong. It is a half step too low. We must change this note up to the F# which is the black key between F and G. This change restores the whole step, whole step, half step pattern our ear needs to hear to sound "right".

This is why when a song is written in the key of G, there is a (insert a sharp #) sharp sign written over the F line at the beginning of the first measure of the song. This is called the key signature and tells the musician to change every F note to F#. This also applies to songs in the key of E minor since the E-minor scale uses the same notes as the G scale. E minor is the "relative" minor of G.

If we started the scale on the note F, and sang do-re-mi-fa, we would run into a problem when we got to the fourth note, the B. This note would not sound right because it is too high to fit the sound we are used to when we get to "fa". In the key of "F" we have to lower the B notes to B-flat or B.(insert flat) So if we see a (insert a flat symbol) on the line for B in the key signature we know that the song is in the key of F major or D minor.

If a note altered by the key signature either by a sharp or flat needs to be heard in its "natural" or un-sharped or un-flatted tone at some point in the song, then the natural symbolis used.

This symbol only applies to the measure in which it appears and effects all notes of that pitch for the remainder of the measure.

In D, the F and the C both have to be raised a half step to F# and C# and so the key signature for D has two sharps in it. Three sharps designate the key of A and the third sharp is G#.

You can see that in this way we can account for all the keys and that a sharp is added every time we go down four notes or up a "fifth".

Going up five notes in the scale, of course we land on the same note we would find if we went down four notes, and we can say that the one interval in an "inversion" of the other.

A circle of fourths or fifths can be created which will demonstrate not only the relationships of all the keys but their relative minors keys as well.

The scale of a minor key is built on the sixth scale degree of its relative major key. The key of A minor is built on the C scale starting from the A or the sixth note, E minor is built on G, starting from E, its sixth, D minor on the scale of F, and G minor on B flat, etc.

It is said that Irving Berlin had a piano specially constructed so that he could move the keyboard to the right or the left so that the hammers would strike different strings. This enabled him to play in any key without having to learn the fingering for any key but "C".

The Circle of Fifths.

It is helpful to have an understanding of the circle of fifths. It explains the order of sharps and flats, major and minor keys, and is helpful when transposing or moving a song to a different key, or when a capo is used on the guitar to raise the key.

If one player has a capo on the fifth fret of his guitar and another player is playing on a guitar with no capo, the first must play the chords which are a fifth above or a fourth below, the other must play the chords which are a fifth below or a fourth above the other.

That is the guitar with the capo on the fifth fret will have to play a "D" chord to be in tune with a the guitar with no capo playing a "G" chord.

C flat has the same sound as B, and F sharp has the same sound as G flat. It is possible to go into double sharps and flats but these are not often encountered.

Just as a color wheel shows the harmonious relationships of colors, the circle of fifths shows the relationship of harmony elements used in songs. When a song is in the key of C, the C chord is called the tonic chord. The G chord is the dominant chord, which is based on the fifth degree of the C scale and F is the sub-dominant, based on the fourth scale degree.

In the chord progression of most blues songs the tonic, fourth, and fifth chords are played in a fixed pattern that repeats continuously until either the song ends or another pattern is encountered in a chorus or bridge.

Musicians playing an unfamiliar song or improvising on stage might say, "It's a simple one, four, five song." or, "It goes to the two minor in the bridge", or "stay on the five chord for two bars in the turnaround".

All of this implies that there is a logic to keys, chords and numbers which can facilitate playing and can help to avoid getting stuck in predictable changes.

It is said that the balance between what is expected and what is not expected is the secret of a successful work of art.

Study the circle of fifths until you can apply its resources to your music.


The distance between two notes is called an interval. Intervals are most often expressed as the number of notes between the lower and the upper note.

The distance between C and F is a fourth. Counting up the keyboard from F to C, the distance is a fifth. If the distance is expressed as between the upper and lower it is called an inverted interval.

A second, can be a minor second, that is just one half step, as from C to C#. Or a major second, two half steps, as from C to D.

A third, can be a minor third or a major third depending on how many half steps it contains.

From C to E is a major third because it is made up of four half steps. Another way to think about a major third is that between C and E there are two black keys and one white key.

The interval between A and C is a minor third. There are only three half steps or one white key and one black key between A and C.

The interval between C and A is a sixth, a major sixth. The interval between E and C is a minor sixth and you can see that the inversion of a major third is a minor sixth, and the inversion of the interval of a minor third is a major sixth.

The octave always has the same number of half steps in it so these intervals will always have their complement.

The fourth and fifth are "pure" and always contain five half steps and seven half steps respectively. The only exception to this is the interval between F and B, and its inversion B to F. This is known as an augmented fourth or a diminished fifth and only occurs once in each scale.

Other intervals and their inversions are the minor and major second, and their compliments the major and minor seventh. From C to D is a major second but from E to F is a minor second. Conversely, D to C is a minor seventh, but F to E is a major seventh.

This course is based on materials from the book, "Songwriting and the Creative Process" by Steve Gillette. Published by Sing Out! Press. Used by permission.

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