Friday, January 18, 2013

Theory of Ethos

So here’s the plan.
Twice a week, I’m gonna post a lesson.  Once a week a guitar lesson, another day a theory lesson.  At least that’s the plan.  The theory lessons are going to be oriented to guitar player, though beneficial to any musician.  See the end of the lesson for more information about my ideas on music theory.  

The theory lessons are, hopefully, going to be in two parts.  First, some fundamentals, and then a cool application of it.  There’s gonna be some semblance of gradation to it, but the lessons won’t necessarily be intended to be seen in order.

First up is modes.  This lesson is going to be pretty basic, but I’m going to make a few key assumptions.  
1) You know what a scale is.  If you're a little rusty no worries. I’ll review briefly, but if you have no idea then you’ll probably get lost.
2) You know the layout of a piano keyboard.  

Below is a major scale, with the intervals between each note indicated.  

I'm going to be posting the musical examples on NoteFlight so you can hear and see them played back. You can find the first example here:

You can click on any the examples to view them full size.

Scales in western music are comprised of a series of whole and half steps.  What gives a scale its character is this order.  The familiar major scale consists of:
Whole Step, Whole Step, Half Step, Whole Step, Whole Step, Whole Step, Half Step

Note: Since a whole step is two half steps, you can easily memorize this by memorizing the phone number “221-2221.”  2 is a whole step (two half steps), and 1 is one half step.

No matter what note you start on, if you progress through these series of intervals, you end up with a major scale.  Below is D Major.

Note that the intervals are the same, but now the notes aren’t all natural notes.  C major and D major are obviously different, but there is something similar about them.  These scales are “relative,” a topic we’ll get into in later lessons.  

Below is a list of all 12 major scales

Every one of these scales is comprised of that same series of intervals from the beginning: Whole Whole Half Whole Whole Whole Half.

So that’s step one.  Now here’s the fun part:  What happens if I mix that order up?  More specifically, what if start in a different place in the order?  

Scales repeat, right?  So let’s write our familiar series twice.
Whole Whole Half Whole Whole Whole Half Whole Whole Whole Half Whole Whole Whole Half

If we divide it in a different place, we get a different sound.  Still clearly a scale, but now it does not have that “relative” similarity to C major.  
Whole | Whole Half Whole Whole Whole Half Whole | Whole Whole Half Whole Whole Whole Half

This is the Dorian mode.  If we take this order of intervals, we’ll always get a Dorian scale.  If we start on D:
D (whole step up) E (half step up) F (whole step up) G (whole step up) A (whole step up) B (half step up) C (whole step up) D

No matter how you divide that series of intervals up, you get a different Mode.  Mode is the word musicians use for taking a type of scale and starting on different parts of it.  Don’t worry if that’s tripping you up, I’ll make it clearer in later lessons.  

But that might be enough for now.  In the meantime, as promised, here’s a fun way to apply it.  If we take the intervals of familiar melodies, and use whole steps and half steps in different orders, we get the melodies in different modes.  

Check this out.  
Here’s the melody to "Paint it Black."

It’s in a mode called Harmonic Minor, that is these intervals.  
Whole Half Whole Whole Half Minor-3rd Half

If we reorder these intervals, we can get a scale called Phrygian Dominant, one of my favorite scales.  It’s intervals look like this:
Half Minor-3rd Half Whole Half Whole Whole Whole

So, what if we put Paint it Black in Phrygian Dominant?

Heh.  Weird.  It’s recognizable as something that used to be a Stones tune, but now it has a psuedo-Middle Eastern vibe to it.  Make sure you go to NoteFlight and listen to this one, as hearing it is the best way to understand what change has happened. If you’re feeling adventurous, try taking some of your favorite melodies and change the mode.  

Check out Doctrine of Ethos on facebook and our debut album on

Joe, Corey, and myself all have lessons available through Star Music. Send me a message or call Star Music at 843 448 2819 for more details.  

Oh yes, my ideas on theory.  Ok, here’s the relevant bit: Guitarists have been developing their own brand of music theory, mostly excluded from academia.  The rules are cobbled together from Western art music (read: classical), folk traditions and jazz, all filtered through the physical nature of the guitar.  
It has a defined syllabus, contained in the pages of guitar magazines, (formerly) instructional tapes, and (more recently) YouTube.  It has virtuosi and celebrity.  What it doesn’t have is codification and academic recognition.  I intend for these lessons to be both a starting point and a drafting of a large work to be done on this theory. Perhaps it will eventually be published and bring music theorists attention to the monumental effect this practice is having on popular music and western culture as a whole.
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