Wednesday, 16 April 2014

Sharps, Flats and General Ignorance

I have been around music since before I could climb onto Mum's piano stool and put nice shiny lipstick on the piano keys (art wasn't my thing).
I started playing the piano at around 10 and learned to read music before that.  Despite this early knowledge of reading notation and knowing how to play sharps and flats on the piano, until very recently I still did not really understand key signatures and the relationships between sharps and flats.  They were just there and I played the corresponding notes.  In the world of music that I have somehow found myself in, this made me feel extremely inadequate and not worthy of the title 'musician'.  

It probably didn't help that I hated scales and didn't understand how they related to each other, arpeggios were nearly as bad and broken chords just made me cross - why would you want to stretch your fingers like a spider?  Here's the interesting bit - I never had lessons with Mum because of that family arguing thing, but I had several teachers throughout my musical youth and not one of them taught me how any of the notes I played related to each other and what they meant.  A sharp was just a sharp, scales were learned by rote and if you had asked me to name which sharps/flats were in a particular scale or key signature, I would have looked at you blankly.  The sad thing is, I know so many people who have music teaching in one way or another whose education has the same gaps as mine did.  

Why is this?  Surely an intrinsic part of teaching someone music is giving them the tools to then go away and be able to interpret the music yourself? Isn't it?  As a teacher I would feel awful if any pupil of mine went away not understanding anything other than learning by rote.

Anyway, as a remedy to my ignorance, I have decided to start re-learning my music theory with the end goal of taking A-Levels in music and music technology.  This is quite a scary step because in some ways it feels like I'm going backwards, having already spent three very long years studying for a degree.  I am very lucky to be able to ask my friends and Mum for help with my music theory marathon, and have been using the ABRSM Grade 5 Theory practice papers as a baseline, along with The Pink Book of Doom (otherwise known as The AB Guide to Music Theory - sorry Eric Taylor).

A major part of this has been reformatting the way I look at sharps and flats.  Mum and I had a session looking at them and the so-called Circle of Fifths.  She doesn't like the Circle, instead, we have a line of fifths which for some reason is a lot easier to understand, and helps you see the areas you can modulate in as well, so thanks Mum!  Also, it never twigged until recently that the reason it's called a Circle of Fifths is because every step is five notes higher/lower than the one preceding it, sounds stupid - but I didn't realise.  Hence the idiot's guide.

Another easy way to remember how many sharps a key has is this:

How many 'lines' does the letter representing the note have?

G - 1 line = 1#
D - 2 lines = 2#
A - 3 lines = 3#
E - 4 lines = 4#
B - 5 lines = 5#

So you use the number of lines that make up the letter to identify how many sharps the corresponding key has.  I like this because it is an easy and foolproof way for my brain to remember, complicated is not my thing.

Now to look up the flats....

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