Musical mnemonics

Western music is built around 7 English letters. This makes the creation and use of mnemonics stories simple and enjoyable. This article is dedicated to musical mnemonics. Since I am a memory expert and a scientist, not a musician, I might miss some nuances.

Octaves and scales

For me, music lives between math, physics, and magic. As a BEng student, I built a machine for objective testing the human middle ear. It was firing frequencies and measuring the nonlinear response. For example, if I fired 880 Hz (A5) and 660Hz (E5), the measurement would be at 880+(880-660)=1100Hz (Db6). The higher the response, the healthier the ear. Artillery soldiers often had a degraded response at high frequencies. The strongest reactions are caused by x2 and x3/2 frequency combinations.

The whole musical theory is built on a similar experiment. Pythagoras took a string, and try to take other strings 3/2 times longer. Then he took strings 2/1 times longer. At some point, both sets nearly converged. The sequence was 7 strings long. In English tradition, it is named A,B…G. The x3/2 sequence is known as notes and its subdivision by 2 is known as octaves. The result was uneven, so semitones were added creating a chromatic scale. Then the semitone was approximated as a power 2^(1/12).

We say that the note A of the 4th octave is 440Hz and build everything else around it. The voiced speech of a typical adult male will have a fundamental frequency from 85 to 180 Hz, and that of a typical adult female from 165 to 255 Hz. Note A of the first octave is 55Hz, which is a comfortable position slightly below the deepest human voice. A1 = 55 is very easy to remember using any peg representation for A=1 and for 5. From there the formula is simple.

Semitones and intervals

The keys of a piano are organized in such a way that for 7 white notes there are 5 black semitones. It is easy to visualize this on a piano. The sequence of white and black is WBWBW WBWBWBW. Strangely the first note in the progression is C which is also called Do.  For me, the English notation is easier than Italian or German, and most books are in English. I remember that C is the left white friend of the two black keys. Like 2212221.

I don’t particularly like modes a lot.” This is the mnemonic to 7 greek regions Ionian (golden battery), Dorian (Dorian Gray as a hipster), Phrygian (freaky jew), Lydian (an etherial lid),  Mixolydian (blue mixer), Aeolian (worn-out airplane ), Locrian (crazy Loki). Ionian starts with C, Dorian with D and so on, but the 2212221 intervals do not change, e.g. some notes are replaced with semitones. This is equivalent to a different fundamental frequency in a human voice – and the reaction is highly emotional, like colors, with corresponding music styles.

Father Charles

The next huge musical headache is the circle of fifths. Seven keys (white or black) on a piano are equivalent to 3/2 frequency ratio of Pythagoras. The clockwise mnemonic is “Father Charles Goes Down And Ends Battle” (sharps). The counterclockwise mnemonic is BEAD (flats). This Father Charles mnemonic can be used in reversed order to count added semitones (flats or sharps). The corresponding minors key are moved by 4 keys, e.g. “Father is down”.

The same sequence guides chord progression. I=center, IV=left, V=right, and when we go to minor iv=center, ii=left, iii=right.

This is something relatively hard to stomach, at least for me. If you are like me, it will take you some time to get used to this theoretical monstrosity.

Guitar tuning

Every Amplifier Deserves Good Beats Everyday” is a standard guitar tuning, while “good Cats Eat Apples” is a standard uke tuning.  The standard tunings are a bit strange to allow open string chords. Some perfectionists tune their guitar EADGCF to facilitate work with musical intervals like the circle of fifths. Because standard guitars are not perfectly tuned, various areas of the guitar act strangely.

Guitar fretboards are freaky. The standard notation is according to the frequency range from down up, but the right-handed guitar is just the upside-down mirror of it. After the 12th fret the notes repeat themselves up one octave. In a perfectly tuned guitar, an octave is over a string and over a fret (1st fret 6th string and 3rd fret of the 4th string). The irregularity in B string causes a jump.

Standard guitars are not perfect and hard to memorize

Very few people use guitars with more than 6 strings or alternative tunings for a very good reason.

Majors and minors

There are all sorts of chords, and some are more complex than others. Again, the piano is much more straightforward than other musical instruments. The simple chords are majors with semitones spaced 32 and minors 23, are almost universally experienced as happy and sad.  Then diminished is 22 and augmented (devil’s) are 33 are unsettling for the western ear. 

Dominant 7th is 322 (perfect, that’s the fifth!) and major 7th is 323 sound very determined for me. I do not understand why. Maybe the right way to view this as a physiological reaction to rising and lowing pitch in animal vocalization.

Everything gets crazy as notes start to travel between chords using suspension and resolution. The table below has very little importance for anyone who does not play jazz or compose music.

Guitar fingering

As always, guitars get the hard part of the music theory. Every chord can look pretty simple on a piano, yet extremely complex on a guitar. The guitar chords start from the root. The root note can be on the 6th string (the lowest), the 5th and the 4th depending on the chord. Typically a chord has an octave repetition and a note from the circle of fifth. Then there are some more notes to make things more complex.

There are some commonly acceptable finger positions for common chords. The fingers can move up and down the fretboard using barred cords or a capo to change the position of the “open” chord. Frankly, this is very confusing for me, to the point that I rely on muscle memory. For better fretboard visualization try CAGED system.

Power chords are much easier to remember as “next string over a fret” as they contain only the fifth. They are in a way incomplete. Distortion is a way to add non-linearity, partially doing the work of the human ear within the amplifier. So chords sound richer when pushed through distortion, and power chords sound better.

Guitar scales

I prefer to think about guitar scales as broken chords or arpeggio. Most guitar players practice a minor pentatonic scale in various positions. In fact, each musical style uses its own scales and transitions. The interesting part is not so much which tones are kept, as which tones disappear. If we use all the tones we get a chromatic scale, e.g. 11 locations per root note. If we lose all the flats, we get a diatonic scale of 7 locations per root note, multiplied by all the modes.   Then we can lose two more tones and get a pentatonic scale with 5 locations per root note. At the same time, we get much more freedom setting up the root note.

To tell you the truth, I think the scales are used as general guidelines and regularly abused by bending, vibrato, sliding and legato techniques.  People who want their notes to “sing” or  “growl” are not extremely punctual with respect to the musical theory, and rightfully so. Nobody truly understands why the music works on human emotion.

Music as a language

In one of his lectures, a guitar god Guthrie Govan compared music to language. We listen to certain music and talk a language which is common to other people who hear the same music. The language can have a grammar, but it can have exceptions. People who are native speakers do not even notice these irregularities. Those who learn the language initially notice its quirks, but after a couple of years forget them.

If we take different musical traditions, we get a different set of microtones. They are perfectly fine for their language and allow to speak differently. A different language may have different nuances and messages. All languages contribute to the rich palette of human experience. Losing each of these traditions we as humans become slightly poor.

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