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Key signatures, accidentals


(@tummai)
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Joined: 12 years ago
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Howdy,

Lately I've been teaching myself how to read music notation. I'm running through several books at the same time: Susan Palmer's "The Guitar Lesson Companion", Mel Bay Modern Guitar 1, and Leon White's "Sight To Sound" (all great, especially when used together). I'm getting pretty fluent at sight reading C major in open position. Pretty cool to be able to read some music after all these years.

Somehow I came up with the bright idea that I should try to write some music in standard notation for practice. It's a nice way to not forget riffs/lines that I come up with. I gave it a try and have a few questions. Here's a rundown of what I'm doing:

I wrote a little chord progression:
0x6456 2x1222 3x2433 5x565x (Eadd#11(?) - F#min6 - G6 - A7)

It's a little wacky, but on purpose. I wanted to practice soloing using different scales. I scored up some lines that I had written to play over this chord change. Here they are (hope the images show up!):

Example 1:

Example 2:

Example 3:

Questions:

1) What do I call that E chord? It has a #11 but no 7.

2) How do you go about choosing a key signature for a chord progression like this? I ended up using D major since F# and C# were common to all the scales I was using, but obviously D doesn't feel like "home". It seems obnoxious to change the key signature for each measure. Is there a better way?

3) Is there a rule for choosing accidentals? Should I flat an E or sharp a D? Should I let the scales guide me (ie, E Lydian has an A# not a Bb, so use the #)? or does it really not matter?

4) How do you notate a slide? In the last measure of the last example that F# to E is supposed to be a slide. In my notation software I just straightened a slur curve. Is this the right way to do it?

Thanks a lot!


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(@noteboat)
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Joined: 19 years ago
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1. Naming chords can be a little dicey for two reasons: first, not every note in the theoretical chord has to be played (x32370 = C7, even though there's no G note), and second, not every note we play needs to be in the chord (in those situations, the extra notes you're playing are called non-harmonic tones; they don't have a role in the harmony).

Calling this an E chord makes sense with your root motion (the roots follow an Em scale). But you end up with both B and Bb... that Bb must be called A#, because we never use two of the same letter in a chord name. So if it's harmonically important, I'd go with E(add b6); if not, I'd call it E major and consider the A# a non-harmonic tone.

2. Key signatures can be tough when something steps outside the typical diatonic scales in either harmony or melody. When that happens, we have three basic routes we can take:

a. follow the melody. In your first example you've got Eb, E natural, F#, and C#. The 2nd example uses A#, G#, and F#. The 3rd one uses G#, A#, D#, C#, Bb, and F#. Logical keys would be D for the first one, using Eb as an accidental, A for the second one, and E or B for the third (I'd favor E, because A natural outnumbers A# 2:1). The goal here is to make the melody as easy to read as possible.

b. follow the harmony. If the goal is to have a chart that will typically be improvised over, publishers usually make the key signature match the chords. We'd expect A7 to resolve to some sort of D chord, so the key of D gets the nod. You'll typically see these decisions in blues - a blues in A will require naturals in the melody for a lot of melody notes, but most publishers wouldn't consider the key of C, which would use very few.

c. scrap the signature. If you get enough chromaticism to wonder what key you're actually in - or if you're doing it by design, writing an atonal or bitonal piece - many folks just leave it in the key of C. Any choice will force readers to adapt, and if you're in C you've got nothing else to remember. If you've got notes that end up being consistently altered, you might also try a non-traditional signature. I've seen signatures with F# and Bb and other odd combinations. If you go that route, please include a brief instruction in the beginning so we don't think it's a typo - whenever a composer steps out of standard notation, it's helpful to know what he or she is doing!

3. Yes, it matters. Following the scale is a good starting point; if you're staying in the scale, using the accidentals of the scale will keep you consistent, and keep one note for each letter name - that's why we'd chose A# if there are B notes in the scale, and Bb if there are A notes.

But when we have chromatic movement, the rule of thumb is to use sharps if the line is ascending, and flats if it's descending. That minimizes the use of accidentals. In m1 of the first example, if you'd used D#, you wouldn't have needed the E natural that follows.

Rules are made to be broken (or at least bent), so don't be a slave to them. In m1 of the second example, if you'd used Ab for the half note, you would have followed the rule... but had two different accidentals on the same letter. Writing that note as G# makes it clearer, since there's no G that follows in the measure.

4. Yep, that's how it's written. The line should extend from note head to note head, so you'd need to move yours up a little bit. If you're using Finale, there's a slide notation tool in the smart shape palette.

Guitar teacher offering lessons in Plainfield IL


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(@tummai)
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Joined: 12 years ago
Posts: 10
Topic starter  

Calling this an E chord makes sense with your root motion (the roots follow an Em scale). But you end up with both B and Bb... that Bb must be called A#, because we never use two of the same letter in a chord name. So if it's harmonically important, I'd go with E(add b6); if not, I'd call it E major and consider the A# a non-harmonic tone.

0x6456 (E G# B E A#)

I'm a little confused. Did you mean b5 instead of b6? If I understand correctly a b6 would be a C, which isn't in the chord. Also, you said that A# should be used instead of Bb, since B is in the chord too. So shouldn't it be #4 rather than b5?

How do you determine if a tone is harmonically important or not? I like the solution of just calling it E major, but the A# on top is intentional - it gives the home chord a crazy alien sound.
b. follow the harmony. If the goal is to have a chart that will typically be improvised over, publishers usually make the key signature match the chords. We'd expect A7 to resolve to some sort of D chord, so the key of D gets the nod.

My goal making this progression was to have something to improvise over, so maybe this solution is best for me. Sometimes I take the progression further and play something like this:
x799(11)x x6x674 x5x453 x4x253 x3x453 x2x242 0x6456

(Eadd#4 - F#min6 - G6 - A7 - CMaj7 - B7 - Eadd#4)

The chromatic descending bassline here led me to a B7, which resolves back to the E. In this case, should the key signature be E?
c. ... If you've got notes that end up being consistently altered, you might also try a non-traditional signature. I've seen signatures with F# and Bb and other odd combinations.

This is the approach I took, except that the consistently altered notes (C# F#) let me to a traditional signature :)
3. Yes, it matters. Following the scale is a good starting point;

when we have chromatic movement, the rule of thumb is to use sharps if the line is ascending, and flats if it's descending.

Got it. That makes sense. Thanks!
4. Yep, that's how it's written. The line should extend from note head to note head, so you'd need to move yours up a little bit. If you're using Finale, there's a slide notation tool in the smart shape palette.

You mean that instead of being below the notes, the slide line should start in the F-space of the staff and end at the E-line?

I'm using a free, open-source notation program called MuseScore ( http://musescore.org ). I didn't find a slide notation tool when I was tinkering with it the other day. I think I'll sign into their site and do a feature request.

Thanks a ton NoteBoat!


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(@noteboat)
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I guess my brain wasn't engaged on the first one - the A# would be #11 (same tone as #4).

Whether a tone is harmonically important or not can be tricky at times. I'll generally ignore any tones that are clearly a pedal tone (like the E and B notes in the Allman Brother's tune "Melissa"), or if they're the result of including the melody line in a chord. If it's something I'm writing, I'll ask myself if I'd be satisfied if a performer didn't play a note, or played another one instead - if Cadd9 could be replaced by C6 and still keep the feeling, I'll just write it as C and let the performers (including me) decorate it at will.

For your extended example, you could make a case for E as the key of the harmony. And yes, the slide should start and end by the note heads - most publishers will place it so the line ends about 3/4 of the way up the head itself for the higher tone, and about 3/4 of the way down the head of the lower tone. They don't actually touch the notes, but that seems to be pretty standard.

Guitar teacher offering lessons in Plainfield IL


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