9 April 2008

Be sharp: advice for music transcribers

Occasionally, I go looking around on the internet for the chords for music I want to play. Tonight, I went looking for the chords for Warning Sign by Coldplay. Unfortunately, the pages I managed to find fell into one of two categories:

  • They specified the chords relative to a capo. I'm trying to play the song on a piano, and transposing the chords while I play is a challenge I'd be happy to avoid.
  • Like this one, they used chords like G♯, D♯ and A♯.

Now, there's nothing wrong with a chord like G♯. You can play it. It sounds good. The thing is, when you string a bunch of chords together, there's actually a reason that they sound good together. In this case, the reason is that the chords all fall in the same key. The chords in Warning Sign aren't really G♯, D♯ and A♯, they're A♭, E♭ and B♭ because the song is written in B♭.

The theoretical reasons for this go back to the theory of scales and keys in Western music. It's important to understand this if you're going to write chords for other people to play. So I've decided to spend my evening educating some of you amateur chord transcribers.

Let's start with the theory of scales. Scientifically, an octave is two notes where the higher one has twice the frequency of the lower. In music, an octave is shortest distance between two notes with the same name. C and C' are the C notes one octave apart. An octave is split up "evenly" into 12 notes, called semitones. (Actually it's a logarithmic scale, but from a music perspective they're considered equal.) Two semitones are a tone. The major scale is a "nice sounding" scale, and it's defined as a precise series of tone or semitone steps in sequence. The sequence which all major scales obey is:

tone, tone, semitone, tone, tone, tone, semitone

If you play the major scale on an instrument, you'll see that the gaps between the notes obey the series of steps above (tone, tone, semitone, etc). You'll also hear that it sounds quite good. Lots of music uses the major scale.

To give names to the notes, the C major scale is defined as the scale which has no sharps or flats in its scale, C D E F G A B C'.1 Where the gap between two notes in this scale is a tone, the note on the semitone in between is named as either sharp of the note below or flat of the note above (so the note between C and D is either C♯ or D♭). Where two notes in C major are separated by a semitone, like E and F, no extra note is remains to be named.

C D E F G A B C' D' E' F' G' A' B' C''

To define a major scale on any other note, it's a simple matter of starting at that note and following the steps. For example, a G major scale is G A B C' D' E' F♯' G'. Now you might wonder why the G scale is said to have an F♯ rather than a G♭. The reason is that the scale is considered to include all the notes, G A B C' D' E' F' G', you just adjust particular notes up or down to match the major scale pattern. What this means is if you want to make an F scale that matches the major scale pattern and includes all the notes between F and F', you'll quickly discover you need a B♭, not an A♯.

If you spend a bit of time writing our various scales and figuring out their notes based on this pattern, you'll notice that keys have either sharps or flats, but not both. In the situation of keys with many sharps or flats, you do in fact write notes like B♯, even though you'll play them as C.

To arrange keys into a logical structure, musicians group them by whether they have sharps or flats, and order them by the number of sharps or flats they have:

# AccidentalsSharpsFlats
0C
1GF
2DB♭
3AE♭
4EA♭
5BD♭
6F♯G♭

You can continue to extrapolate this table out, adding more and more accidentals. The sharp column goes up by fifths, the flat column falls by fifths.

Now that you know all this theory, you can understand my gripe with the chords transcribed as G♯, D♯ and A♯. To find a key in which these three chords feature and also fits with the song, you really do need to extrapolate the table above until you get to A♯ major. It has a ridiculous 8 sharps.2 Try writing out the song's chords in musical notation in this key and you'll find it quite hard work.

By contrast, if you consider the song to be written in B♭, it makes the musician's job much easier. B♭ major appears right near the top of the table, arguably making it one of the five easiest major keys to play music in. The chords become logical, the notation becomes simpler, and improvising around the chords also becomes practical.

So if you're going to write out some chords for your favourite pop song, please make sure you know the music theory. Work out what key the music is in so you can use the correct chords.

1Curious readers might wonder why the designers of Western music chose the note C rather than, say, A as a basis for the logical naming of notes. The truth is that the note naming is in fact based on the scale of A, but it's based on the natural minor scale of A. Launching into a discussion of the various minor scales and other modes was a diversion I thought best avoided. (back)

2Yes, I know, 8 sharps isn't ridiculous. Yes, you've played a piece on the piano with 10 sharps or flats in your sleep, and by comparison A♯ is trivial! But c'mon, we're talking about Coldplay here, not some impressionist music written by a brilliant composer like Chopin or Liszt. (back)