James Saiz : The Naming of Musical Notes, Part III

James Saiz

journeyman of some

The Naming of Musical Notes, Part III

In the next few parts, I'll talk about things using a made-up naming system to make it clearer what's going on with note names.

Let's start off by naming the 12 ascending notes within the octave in 12-ET with numbers in angled brackets:

<1> <2> <3> <4> <5> <6> <7> <8> <9> <10> <11> <12>

We'll call these the absolute note names. Notice that this gets us around the problem of which enharmonic spelling to use when talking about a note in isolation.

Now a major scale starting on <1> would consist of the following notes:

<1> <3> <5> <6> <8> <10> <12>

A major scale starting on <3> would consist of the following notes:

<3> <5> <7> <8> <10> <12> <2'>

If we want to refer to individual notes within the major scale regardless of where we start, we can use a different naming. Let's use curly braces to distinguish that type of name:

{1} {2} {3} {4} {5} {6} {7}

Let's call these the relative note names.

The correspondences in our <1>-major scale would be:

<1> <2> <3> <4> <5> <6> <7> <8> <9> <10> <11> <12>
{1}     {2}     {3} {4}     {5}     {6}       {7}

The correspondences in our <3>-major scale would be:

<1> <2> <3> <4> <5> <6> <7> <8> <9> <10> <11> <12> <1'> <2'> ...
        {1}     {2}     {3} {4}     {5}       {6}       {7}

Notice that the absolute meaning of {5} depends on the key. In a <1>-major key it's <8> and in a <3>-major key it's <10>.

Notice also that some absolute notes don't have relative note names (or have them in one key but not another. We can overcome this limitation in the relative note naming system by using + to mean one (absolute) note above and - to mean one (absolute) note below.

So <9> could be expressed as either {5+} or {6-} in a <1>-major key and as either {4+} or {5-} in a <3>-major key.

In the next part, we'll continue to use this notation to explain some of the subtleties of note naming in Western music, including what we observed in parts I and II.

Categories: music_theory

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