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Music Theory for Grownups: A Start

OctaveOf all the things I’m good at in piano class (attending, counting out loud, making my classmates laugh), playing the piano is not one of them. I do OK after a week of serious practice, but show me a new piece, say “OK, everybody, let’s try it with two hands,” and I freeze up. Translating symbols into motor skills in real time? Right. That feels suspiciously like reading a map in a moving car.

My fellow student, Mike, was no doubt trying to make me feel better last week when, after class, he asked me to explain to him again what a harmonic minor scale was. Gratefully, I accepted the task. “I’ll write something,” I said. “Then I’ll understand it.”

Honestly I’ve been trying to understand music theory ever since one of my boys said to his brother, “I’m pretty sure that’s a D-flat diminished 7th” and I thought to myself, “I’m pretty sure they’re smarter than I.” The problem is that people who teach music tend to be people who learned music as children. They learned by doing and figured out why later. They don’t know how to start from the beginning, with the big picture—which is what grownup beginners need. At least grownups like me with an insufferable need to understand.

So what follows is a bit of music theory—just the octave and scales—from someone who didn’t understand any of it until very recently. (I was helped tremendously by David Harp’s Music Theory Made Easy.) Tell me if you’re interested, and I’ll bravely move on to chords.

The Octave

It all starts with the octave, an interval between two pitches that’s a actual law of nature. The tone we call a middle A, for example, has a frequency of 440 Hz (vibrations per second); double that frequency to 880 Hz and you get a sound that’s somehow the same but different—high A. Double that and you get another same-but-different sound. The same-but-different quality of two tones at each end of an octave (aka octave equivalence) is recognized across all human cultures.

So, when developing their musical languages, all human cultures begin with same-but-different pitches and the need to identify all the pitches in between them. Every culture divides the octave distance into steps (“scala” is Italian for “step,” so that’s where “scale” comes from). The Chinese divide it into 5; the Indians divide it into 22.

The Chromatic Scale

Western culture, starting with Pythagoras, divided that space into 12 steps, known as the chromatic scale. In other words, to get from middle A to high A, you take 12 evenly spaced steps: A, A#, B, C, C#, D, D#, E, F, F#, G, G#, A.

This is where it starts to be confusing, because this is where the language of music totally misleads. First of all, there’s no conceptual difference between sharps/flats and regular notes (and yes, every sharp is also a flat: it’s “sharp” relative to the note below it and “flat” relative to the note above it. I could have written the above 12 notes as A, Bb, B, C, Db, D, Eb, E, F, Gb, G, Ab). In other words, between black keys and white ones. I always assumed sharps/flats were assistant notes, not the big bosses. They simply do not seem equal—a Bb seems subsidiary to a B. But it’s not. It’s just one of twelve tones, which should simply be represented by 12 different letters of the alphabet—A through L.

OR, if we have to use in-between letters, then why isn’t it A, A#, B, B#, C, C#, D, D#, E, E#, F, F#? Why is there just one step between E and F and between B and C, although there are two between C and D, D and E, F and G, G and A, and A and B? This is either sadistic or irresponsible. (And graphical notation–printed music–carries on the farce, as the on-paper distance of B from C on the scale is represented as the same as the physical distance of C from D, even though the pitch distance is half as far. And this is supposed to be the mathematical art!)

Major & Minor Scales

But what are you going to do? We can’t change it now, any more than we can make through rhyme with cough.

So to recap, we have the chromatic scale—12 steps evenly dividing up the space of an octave. From that scale, we as a culture derived lots of other scales or patterns, the most common ones being the major and minor scales. “Major” and “minor” simply identify certain patterns of tones selected from the chromatic scale.

Both of those patterns, by the way, include eight notes, beginning with a root note and ending with the “same” note an octave above. Hence the term octave, which means eighth.

To get to those eight, though—again—we start with 12. Tragically, we must start calling those 12 steps “half steps” since (because of the crazy notation) we’re accustomed to the interval between A and B being referred to as a “whole step”—although they are actually two tones apart on the chromatic scale (A—Bb—B). From now on, we’ll refer to one tone up or down as a “half step”; two tones up or down is a “whole step.” Sorry.

If we pick a note on the chromatic scale and call it “1”, then major scales use the half steps 1, 3, 5, 6, 8, 10, 12, 1 (back to beginning). It skips 2, 4, 7, 9, and 11. Another way to put this is, beginning with the first note, major scales follow the pattern whole step, whole step, half step, whole step, whole step, whole step, half step.

Notes:                                 1—3—5—6—8—10—12—1

 Steps between:                 W  W  H  W  W    W   H

In other words, beginning with C:


  W   W   H  W  W   W   H

That, my friends, is a C Major scale. Each scale is named for the first note in the pattern—the “root” note—followed by the kind of pattern it is. An F# Major scale is a scale that begins on F# and follows the major pattern.

You can figure out any major scale by starting with the root note—you can use any of the 12 (A, A#, B, C, C#, D, D#, E, F, F#, G, G#)—and following the major pattern. Here’s G Major, another popular beginner scale:


W     W   H   W  W  W   H

Of the 12 tones of the chromatic scale, the minor scale uses tones 1, 3, 4, 6, 8, 9, 11, 1 (back to beginning). So this pattern is whole step, half step, whole step, whole step, half step, whole step, whole step.

In other words, as we see in A minor:


  W   H   W  W   H   W  W

You can figure out every minor scale, from A through G#, simply by following the minor pattern.

As to Mike’s question, a harmonic minor scale is simply another pattern derived from the original chromatic scale; it’s the same as a (natural) minor scale, with the seventh note raised one half step. In other words, the harmonic minor tone pattern is 1, 3, 4, 6, 8, 9, 12, 1, and the step pattern would be whole step, half step, whole step, whole step, half step, whole-and-a-half step, half step.

Here’s D natural minor:


  W   H   W  W   H    W   W

And here’s D harmonic minor:


   W  H   W  W  H   WH    W

A nice way to remember “WH” in this case is the expression “What the Hell?”

Promises, Promises


August 31, 1997

We wrote our wedding vows so long ago that I couldn’t find them on my computer. Surely I meant to transfer them from the first clunky PC desktop we had to my sister’s hand-me-down Mac laptop to her next hand-me-down Mac laptop to my current one. Those vows were on my mind because our anniversary is coming up, and two friends are getting married soon after. I’m fascinated, as you may recall, by the challenge of creating ceremonial language outside of a religious context; our wedding vows were probably my first attempt. But I couldn’t find them anywhere, except printed out and framed along with our wedding photo.

So I set out to copy them for you—five sentences of prologue and then the actual vows—but I couldn’t quite do it. Not the whole thing. I was 27 then, and reading the vows now at age 44 makes me cringe a little. Though Adam and I together decided on what we wanted to vow to one another, I was the one to decide on how. And, 17 years later, the writer in me has some complaints. The prologue sets up an elaborate analogy about building a home (with the help of our friends, on the foundation of our families, etc.), and though I still like the image of leaving the door of our marriage unlocked so our loved ones can enter, the general effect is a little careful and (am I allowed to say this?) tedious. When you read it, you’re just waiting to get to the good part.

The vows themselves are so hopeful they break my heart. Like reading your New Year’s resolutions in August. Or worse: reading resolutions from five or ten years ago. The promises we made were serious and demanding and we have broken all of them. But the most forgiving one—the one that shows that, although we were young, we knew ourselves and each other pretty well before we married—promises to “try.” That’s the word that keeps the vows alive despite the wear and tear. “Try” is how I look at New Year’s resolutions, too: that they should guide and inspire you to move in the right direction over the course of the year. Or a marriage. Not make you feel shitty because you didn’t immediately become—or can’t always be—your best self, but give you the courage to wake up the next morning and try again.

♦ ♦ ♦

We promise each other: I will turn to you when I am in need and care for you when you are.

We promise each other: I will take strength from who you are, forgive who you are not, and remind you who you want to be.

We promise each other: I will try to remember, whether sunk in sorrow or distracted by the day-to-day, what I feel at this moment—my sense of good fortune, my sheer joy at being with you.

We say to each other: Knowing my family and friends surround me, knowing who I am and who I want to be—with this strength and certainty I say to you,

I have only one life, it is only so long, and I choose to spend it with you.

♦ ♦ ♦

Come to think of it, we’re still working on the home, too.


Note: if you like these vows, you can use them at your own wedding, as long as you buy a few copies of A Walk Down the Aisle: Notes on a Modern Wedding. Or get a few friends to subscribe to my blog. Or send me a picture of your wedding and a copy of your version of these vows so I can post them here. 

Let the Old Traditions Fail

RedskinsVirginia, my home state, has celebrated Lee-Jackson Day every January since 1904. State and city offices close; Confederate flags unfurl. After 110 years, this seems unlikely to change. In fact, in 1983, when Martin Luther King, Jr., Day, became a federal holiday, Virginia appended the Civil Rights leader to its traditional Heroes of the Confederacy observance.

I kid you not: the third Monday in January was officially Lee-Jackson-King Day. State and city offices closed; Confederate flags unfurled.

From Virginia I went to Dartmouth College, official motto:  Vox Clamantis in Deserto (“The Voice of One Crying Out in the Wilderness”). Unofficial motto: “Lest the Old Traditions Fail.” Dartmouth’s illustrious history included excluding women, elaborately hazing fraternity pledges, and nicknaming its sports teams “the Indians.”

My own home team was the Jews, whose time-honored customs include snipping off the foreskin of newborn males.

The argument in defense of much of the above-mentioned behavior was (and is) “tradition.” But of course just because someone did it before you doesn’t mean it’s necessarily a good thing to do. Tradition is not an excuse in itself. It has as much moral weight as “well, they did it.”

A tradition is just something that’s been passed on to you, like a chain letter. And like the senders of chain letters, institutions and cultures threaten dire consequences if you don’t pass their traditions along and promise good fortune if you do. (If I don’t circumcise my child, he can never really be Jewish! If I puke my way into this frat, my “brothers” will one day get me a job!)

I hate chain letters. If you’re wondering who broke your recipe chain, it was I. It was I who failed to forward that email telling ten women in my life how important they are. I used to feel torn about it, as if I were letting people down when I tossed the letter out. The older I get the more I want whatever comes from me either to come from me or to be something I would be perfectly proud to have thought of.

That’s the thing about tradition: if it’s coming through you, it’s coming from you. Even if you’re just going along unwillingly or uncertainly, as I did when we had Noah circumcised, it’s still coming from you. You can pretend you are merely the conduit —or even the victim—but you are actually the one perpetuating it.

Of course, that’s no big deal when you are perpetuating the eating of nachos to celebrate the end of school or the wearing of white at a wedding. When the tradition is frivolous. But when the tradition you pass along is harmful or suspect or offensive, you should be able to defend it with reasoning beyond “well, they did it.” You should be able to defend it as if you had just thought of it. “You know what we should do with our baby’s penis?” . . .  “Hey, I’ve got an awesome name for our team: The Redskins. Huh, guys? Isn’t that great?”

If you can’t defend a behavior as your own, you shouldn’t behave that way.  The institution that insists you do will not wither as a result of your refusal—or maybe it will, and should. More likely, it will suffer the dire consequence of . . . evolving.

In 2000, Virginia unshackled MLK Day from the day commemorating Stonewall Jackson and Robert E. Lee (which is now the Friday before). In Lexington, where both Confederate leaders are buried, there is still a parade, a ball, and plenty of Confederate flags on Lee-Jackson Day. But, since a court decision in 2011, no Confederate flags have flown from city poles. And this June, Washington and Lee University moved the Confederate flags from Lee Chapel—where the college has many of its official events—to the Museum below ground. The Sons of Confederate Veterans organized protest rallies, but the college seems to be standing firm.

Dartmouth College began admitting women in 1972 (there were protest rallies, but the college seems to be standing firm). By the time I got there in the late 80s, the Indian symbol was officially banned,[1] but still visible. Now, as with the Confederate flag, you can still display it, but its stated meaning has been overshadowed by its subtext: “I’m OK with your thinking I’m an asshole.” That’s progress, in my book.

And believe it or not, Sigma Alpha Epsilon, a fraternity whose disgusting pledge hazing traditions were detailed in a 2012 exposé in Rolling Stone, changed its policies this past March. According to the Supreme Council, there are officially no more SAE pledges—no underlings, in other words, who can be forced by their “brothers” to chug milk and vinegar until they throw up.

We’re still working on the Redskins. But I’m happy to report that some Jews are making progress on the foreskin front. Israel’s High Court just ruled that the Rabbinical Court couldn’t force a mother (who is opposed to circumcision, divorcing a father who favors it) to circumcise her infant. Dire consequences may befall her yet. But good fortune has already come to her son: he has a strong mother to defend him against the vagaries of tradition. Her refusal to perpetuate behavior she doesn’t condone is the best thing she could possibly pass along.




[1] The school’s nickname is now The Big Green, which is supposed to represent its picturesque central yard, but I’m so hoping someone will eventually show up at football games dressed as a dollar bill (OK, you’re right: a one hundred-dollar bill).