The single most important thing to learn in music is the Musical Alphabet. Don’t move on until you have this memorized. Be able to recite it forwards AND backwards without hesitation.
Let’s start off simple. How many notes are there in music? Imagine all the songs you have heard in your life and consider all the stylistic and cultural differences. How many notes would it take to create this seemingly limitless body of music? THE ANSWER IS TWELVE.
12? That can’t be right…but it is. You can play any melody or song using a dozen notes.
Think of these 12 notes as increments on a ruler.
As we move to the right on a ruler, the numbers go UP. Move left and the numbers go DOWN.
If for some bizarre reason you had an unlimited supply of rulers, you could theoretically place them end to end (in either direction) to infinity. The 12 note sequence always remains the same. It just keeps starting over. The only difference is if you are going right (UP) or left (DOWN).
This perpetual 12 note sequence is the basis of understanding music. The only difference is that in music we replace these numbers with letters.
We use the first seven letters of the alphabet (ABCDEFG) to name all 12 notes.
* I know 7 letter names doesn’t seem like enough to name all 12, but bear with me. This is one of those musical concepts that don’t seem to make sense at first.
We can fill in the missing note names by using something known as sharps (#) and flats (b). Sharps and flats can be likened to “generational suffixes” that add “Jr.” or “Sr.” to someone’s name to distinguish them. We’ll add sharps and flats to the existing letters to finish naming the 12 notes.
Sharps (#) raise the pitch of a note- moving it one space to the right.
Flats (b) lower a letter one space- moving it one space to the left.
The space between A and B could be considered one space higher than A (making it an A#) or a B lowered one space (making it a Bb). Both names are considered correct. This is what is referred to as enharmonic equivalents. This means that A# and Bb are the same note expressed differently. Later you will find that one name or the other will be preferable in a given situation.
Let’s try to fill in all 12 notes now.
Notice how we don’t have spaces between B to C and E to F. The reason is we only needed 12 names for our alphabet. If we added a sharp to all 7 letters, we would end up with 14 names. We only need 12, so B and C will always be adjacent to each other. The same thing goes for E to F.
Most people are familiar with the layout of a piano. It’s a great visual aide to see how our musical alphabet lays out. The original 7 notes of the alphabet that we used to name notes are always white keys. Black keys are for sharps/flats.
Here is the complete 12 note sequence on the keyboard (NOTE that B goes right to C and E goes right to F with no black note between them):
Here is what that 12 note sequence repeated on a keyboard looks like:
*Note that every letter has a sharp or flat after it EXCEPT B-C & E-F!!!
To find out how these notes appear on the guitar, check out the “Notes on the Guitar” page.