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Music Theory for Guitar - Notation

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An explanation of notation

Every guitar player is probably used to chord notations as Am, Cmaj7, G7, etc. There are variations to this system, and I will explain some when needed. But when discussing chord-progressions, it is better to use generic chord names that relates to their musical function.

We can start with the C-major scale, that have the notes
C, D, E, F, G, A, B and C.

Instead of giving letters to the notes, we can assign numbers:
1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 1 (8).
These numbers do not refer directly to C, D, E etc., but to the first note of the scale, the second note, etc.

The relationship between notes are the same in any major scale. When referring to the fifth note of a scale, which is called dominant, it is better to say fifth, (or dominant), than to say G if you are in C-major, A if you are in D-major, B if you are in E-major, etc. Equipped with some basic theoretical knowledge, you should be able to translate (transpose) that into any key.

In the 12 major keys, the notes will be:

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 1 (8)
C-major C D E F G A B C
G-major G A B C D E F# G
D-major D E F# G A B C# D
A-major A B C# D E F# G# A
E-major E F# G# A B C# D# E
B-major B C# D# E F# G# A# B
F#-major F# G# A# B C# D# E# F#
Gb-major Gb Ab Bb Cb Db Eb F Gb
Db-major Db Eb F Gb Ab Bb C Db
Ab-major Ab Bb C Db Eb F G Ab
Eb-major Eb F G Ab Bb C D Eb
Bb-major Bb C D Eb F G A Bb
F-major F G A Bb C D E F

Those of you who bother to count, may notice that there are 13 keys listed, not 12 as I just said. The reason is that F#-major and Gb-major are enharmonic keys. This means that the notes are the same but they are spelled differently. We could also have spelled C#-major, which will be enharmonic with Db-major. And we could have spelled Cb-major, which is enharmonic to B-major. And yes, we could also have spelled B#-major, A#-major, Fb-major, etc., but there is no reason to do that.

We can build a chord on each note in the scale. To identify chords within a key-context, we use roman numbers. A chord built on the fifth get a V, the root (built on the first note - the root) is I, etc. Again these numbers refer to the chords function in the musical context of a chosen key (and mode). A C chord will be a I chord in the key of C, a IV chord in the key of G, and a V chord in the key of F.

You will see that some roman numbers are written with lower case letters, and others with upper case. If an old roman should pop up and read this, he would probably say that we are wrong - they only used capital letters. But we use lower case letters to indicate a minor chord.

If we build chords on all the notes of a C major scale, we will get:
C, Dm, Em, F, G, Am, Bdim and C.

In generic terms, it will be:
I, ii, iii, IV, V, vi, viidim and I.

You may wonder why some are major, and some minor, and even one diminished. And you may wonder how we can know when it should be a major, and when it should be a minor chord. It is all explained in the lesson on the harmonized scale.

You will see that not all progressions are based on the notes of a major scale. But I will use the major scale as a backbone in the reference system. So you might find references to for instance I - VIIb progression. This means that the VIIb chord is built on the note one half step below what would have been the 7th of a major scale. If we are in the key of C, the seventh note is a B. But if the progression calls for a Bb in some kind of a C-based scale, I use the VIIb notation. It is not really one definite standard when it comes to this kind of notation.

When referring to notes within a chord, I use arabic numbers. And the 1 is the root of the chord. The 1 of a G chord is G, no matter of it's function. In the key of G, G is the root chord (tonic), and will consist of the scale notes 1, 3 and 5. If we are in the key of D-major, the G is a IV chord. It consists of the notes 4, 6 and 1 (8) of the D-major scale, but G is still the root of the chord. It may sound confusing, but you will get it as we go along.

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