Written by Mete Bakircioglu
Welcome back to “The Shape of Music,” a five-part series where we take you through the magic of music—how it works and what makes it sound so good. So far, we’ve learned about rhythm (the heartbeat of music) and melody (the “meat and potatoes” of music). Now that we’ve got the basics down, let’s take it up a notch. Join me as we examine the keyboard!
To follow along as I describe the keyboard, click on this link. It’s a great guide, and your own mini electronic piano!
Let’s start with what you notice right off the bat: there are two types of keys—black keys and white keys. If you count ‘em up, you’ll find that there are five (5) black keys and seven (7) white keys. Think back to the last episode, when we talked briefly about scales. We learned that our musical alphabet consists of seven letter notes, and five accidentals. What you see on the piano is the exact layout of that! Isn’t that convenient?!
We can break the black keys up into two groups: the set of two and the set of three. I like to call them bunny ears and chicken feet. These keys represent what are called “the spirituals.” They have a spooky yet powerful quality to them, which comes from African culture. One of the most memorable spiritual songs is “Amazing Grace,” a tune we often hear celebrating America. Originally, this song was played only on these five black keys. I was surprised when I learned about the power these five keys have. If you want to learn more about these spirituals and early African-American music, check out this video by Wintley Phipps.
This pattern of bunny ears and chicken feets repeats up and down the keyboard, until you get seven sets, or seven octaves. There’s that word again! An octave is one of the organizational tools for the keyboard. It’s the space between two notes with the same name. One of the most important concepts of this episode is that the octave is the most important interval. In music, eight is the number of completion.
Let’s now take a look at some intervals, or spaces between two notes. The smallest note interval is called the half step. It’s the space between one note and the note immediately next to it on the keyboard. You can try it too by playing any two notes that are next to each other; most of the time it’ll be a white key and a black key. The next smallest interval is the whole step; as you would imagine, it is the same interval as two half steps. Try it out on the virtual keyboard! These two intervals make up two of the most important scales in music.
Major, Minor, and More Scales:
Starting on any note, it goes whole step, whole step, half step, whole step, whole step, whole step, half step. Try this combination on any note and you’ll get the major scale for that note. Try the C major scale: it’s the easiest to do because its major scale is just the white keys starting on C. The two half steps are from E to F and B back to C; the rest are all whole steps.
Then we’ve got the next most important scale: the minor scale. Starting on any note, it goes whole, half, whole, whole, half, whole, whole. This time, there are three accidentals, or black keys: E flat (the black key before E), A flat (the black key before A), and B flat (the black key before B). Here we see A minor.
Let me introduce you to a few other fun scales that are good to know about. The chromatic scale is made up entirely of half steps. The pentatonic scale is made up of the five spiritual, or black, keys. One set of bunny ears and one set of chicken feet and you have yourself the pentatonic scale! Another groovy scale is the jazz scale. One last fun scale is the whole tone scale. As the name suggests, it is made up of only whole steps.
Think of each of these scales like an item on a menu. They each have their unique musical flavor, and which scale you choose depends on the situation.
If we’re talking about a bright day, we might choose a major scale; if we’re looking for a mysterious scale for a spy movie, we might choose a jazzy scale.
Listen to the Podcast:
Make sure to check out the podcast version of this episode on the website for a deeper review of the keyboard and an exclusive interview with music instructor Dr. Anne Young! Thanks for reading, and I hope you’ll continue your musical journey in the next episode, where we go over the colors of different sounds, analyzing touch, instruments, and harmonies.