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. Here we are at the final episode of this series! We ran the whole marathon and now we’re here to walk a mile around the track and be proud of what we’ve accomplished. We’re also going to connect the dots between all of the concepts we’ve been talking about over the past five episodes. If we imagine our musical journey as a puzzle, right now we’ve got five puzzle pieces for each of our episodes. Our job today is to put these pieces together and assemble a wonderful picture through them. Without further ado, let’s take a trip down memory lane!
Listen to the Podcast:
Episode 1: Rhythm
We launched our musical rocketship by discussing rhythm. Musical rhythm is the space between notes, which gives a song structure and keeps everything together—like a bit of water in a sandcastle. Rhythm exists not only in music, but also in much of the world around us, like with the four seasons cycle and the ba-bum, ba-bum thuds of our heart beats. We explored all sorts of rhythms, including Morrocan grooves and American rags. Then we talked about how music is written. When reading and playing music, we deal with whole, half, quarter, and eighth notes. There are two half notes in a whole note, two quarter notes in a half note, and two eighth notes in a quarter note. Finally, we discussed time signatures, which organize all of these types of notes in bars or measures. We worked with the 4/4 time signature, which means that in every bar, there are four beats, and the quarter note is worth one beat. Look at the musical pizza for a yummy reminder of how musical beats work! Also, experiment with Chrome Music Lab’s ‘Rhythm’ feature to build your own rhythms!
Episode 2: Melody
This leads us to melody, the next stage of our journey. We came up with a neat formula: Melody = Rhythm + Pitch. Rhythm, as we just discussed, is the structure that keeps it together, and pitch is how high or low a sound is. Together, they’re like peanut butter & jelly; they make the perfect meal. Then we learned about the musical alphabet, which consists of seven unique lettered notes (A through G) and five unique accidentals. This combination of seven and five gives us the Western 12-tone system. Finally, we studied scales. A scale is one of the ways in which we use this alphabet, and it’s like an eight-step staircase which takes us along the spectrum of low and high pitches. Look through our musical staircase visual for another representation of scales.
Episode 3: the Keyboard
After learning about the foundational music theory concepts of rhythm and melody, we were ready to apply them in the third episode where we dove into the keyboard (aka the piano). We learned about the seven white keys and five black keys which make up the 12-tone system we’re now so familiar with. We also talked about major and minor scales. Each scale has a key signature which identifies the sharps or flats in that scale. Here’s a neat video I made showing you behind the scenes footage of how the piano works. Seeing it really helps you understand, so check it out if you haven’t already!
Episode 4: the Color of Music
In the fourth episode, we learned more specifically about the different sounds we hear and how they’re produced. We established that we can think of the 12-tone system as a musical language. The musical language is different from any spoken language because it is a pure expression and is universal, meaning anybody can understand it. This language has the power to take us on colorful journeys in ways words sometimes can’t express. We can express ourselves using touch: loud, soft, legato, staccato. The instrument we choose is also responsible for what type of sound comes out. In spoken language, the instrument or family of instruments would be kind of like an accent. Same language, just a different expression. We learned that in an orchestra there are string, brass, woodwind, and percussion families. Each of these families has its own timbre, or quality of sound. This quality is largely up to how it sounds to you: whatever a sound makes you feel is valid because the musical language is all about interpretation. To become more fluent in the musical language, try out Chrome Music Lab’s ‘Song Maker’ feature. Try wacky things! Let your imagination take you to all sorts of places.
Episode 5: the Circle of Fifths
With all of this info about rhythm, melody, scales, chords, and harmonies, we decided we were ready to uncover the secrets through the treasure map of music theory: the circle of fifths. The circle of fifths is a diagram designed to map out the loop of 12 tones, all fifths apart. The reason the circle shows tones a fifth apart and not some other interval like a fourth or a seventh has to do with the harmonic series. This is probably the most complex concept we’ve learned about, but don’t let that scare you because we’ve got a video about it. Basically, the harmonic series says that when you play a note on any pitch-producing instrument, you’re actually playing a whole series of overtones that faintly resonate over the main note. This is because of the physical vibrations which produce sound. Playing a note produces vibrations which come out in wave shapes. The main vibration represents the main sound we hear. But there are also vibrations which go twice, three, four, five times as fast which produce overtones. The fifth is the interval between the first and second overtones, so it’s really convenient to base the circle of fifths off of. The fifth also sounds good to your ear because it is rooted in nature. Understanding this clued us into why certain things we hear sound better than others. It all has to do with physics! This is a huge discovery; when I learned this, my mind was blown. We then learned that the circle of fifths has two sides to it: the bright side and the dark side. The bright side is on the right and has key signatures with sharps in them. These tones are generally brighter. The dark side is on the left and has key signatures with flats in them, making for darker sounds.
We split up the lesson on the circle of fifths into two parts. The second part dealt with how you can find major and minor chords through the circle of fifths. We also talked about the circle’s shadow, which gives us minor keys. Lastly, we explored Greek modes and how we can give one key the signature of another key and completely alter the sound. For a cool visualization of how the circle of fifths and the harmonic series are related, take a look at our circle of fifths diagram.
At the beginning of this series, I told you I wanted this to be not only about learning music theory, but also about learning how the world works through physics, math, history and cultures. I hope “The Shape of Music” has given you a better understanding of what it means to truly study something. It’s awesome to see how much of what we learn is connected, especially in ways we don’t expect. It’s safe to say that you wouldn’t know as much about rhythm if you hadn’t heard different rhythms from around the world, or about the harmonic series if you didn’t know it was rooted in the physics of sound vibrations.
I hope that this series has taught you more than anything that studying one subject can be a doorway to learning more about 10 other subjects. For instance, learning about gothic architecture could teach you about the history of Europe during the Plague. Or exploring psychology can alert you to why you agree with certain philosophies and why you act the way that you do. Learning doesn’t take place in a bubble; it takes place in an ocean of knowledge, where it’s your job to decide where you wanna go: do you want to go where the current takes you and stick with one subject? or do you want to follow different sea creatures and see which subjects they take you to? The possibilities are endless. So go dive in.
About the author:
Mete Bakircioglu is a senior at Lakeridge High School who strives to empower his generation in his American and international communities through promoting the arts and celebrating cultures. His primary academic interest is political science, and understanding how people can shape society for the betterment of underrepresented communities. As a member of his school’s speech and debate team, Mete loves to study the art of argumentation. Outside of school, he enjoys going on afternoon walks with his dog Lucy and serving on his school district’s school board as the student representative for his high school. Mete also enjoys playing piano and violin. He is currently preparing for OMTA Syllabus evaluation for level 10 piano.