Leveling up my music theory

If you told me in 2010 that I would start 2020 working on a sonata in notation, I would definitely ignore you. I’d tell you there’s no way I could do it. All those lines! Who can remember it all? What even is a sonata? Ridiculous.


Gay Babies Doing Fine Anyway (bass clef lines)

Always Checking Email, Gaily (bass clef spaces)

Every Good Bean Deserves Foxes (treble clef lines)

Foxes Are Cute Eeeeeeee (treble clef spaces)

I’ll need to figure the others out, but this will take me far.

I got this Udemy music composition and film scoring course bundle on sale and it quickly improved my music. The film scoring part will be especially helpful. I’ve wanted to get into making theme music forever, but it’s hard to piece together a real understanding from random blog posts and videos. The author also gives steep discounts to people who buy it, and I really dig his style, so that opens up a lot of potential expansion on a limited income.

As I watched the videos and put the things I learned to work, so many things I was on the brink of understanding clicked. For example: the diatonic chord progression. This is where notation helps a lot. I had trouble understanding the relation between chords and scales with a piano roll. I could see their shape, but I didn’t understand chord notes are just scale notes separated by three keys (as in piano). I kind of got this when I realized I could fold keys (as in scales) in Ableton Live and see there’s an equal number of spaces between notes in chords, but I still didn’t get 7ths, or chords that are diminished and augmented.

MuseScore’s piano roll view helpfully shows the relation:

Every single one of those can be the root of a chord. I recognize the shapes on the roll, but now I understand them in the notation. They have the same shapes on notation even if one note lands on a flat or sharp—usually black keys.

That also finally helped me understand what key signatures and relative keys are about. Since the shapes stay the same, you only need to know which notes get a flat or sharp. G major and E minor are the same notes (for example), but they start from different places. So if I want to memorize the scales and modes (and I do), I don’t need to start by memorizing every note in each one. I can just remember which keys are flatted and sharped, which keys share notes, and let the memorization unfold on its own while I jam on my keyboard. And since chords look the same, always, you only need to know which notes are flatted or sharped by looking at the key signature.

This also led to me getting the circle of fifths. You go to keys adjacent to the one you’re writing in to find off-key chords—the chord/chords that the two keys don’t share—to add a little life to your progression. I use an app called Piano Companion Pro that shows you all available chords in a key and even lets you build progressions to export as MIDI files. I don’t export; I set whole notes in MuseScore, type out all the root notes, then build the chords on it. Ctrl and an arrow key will move it up or down an octave if it’s too high or low. It’s faster than moving exported MIDI files around.

I’m not even halfway through the videos as I write this. More to come in the new year! Stay tuned, and get on the Patreon goodness for discounts.

By Kye Fox

A person who takes pictures, writes, and makes music.

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