Music Theory for RAV: Notes, Intervals, and Accidentals

Learn a little music theory to better understand your RAV.
So you got your RAV, you're rocking and rolling, and you've even shared a couple of videos with your friends. Everything you play sounds great, and you can't seem to hit a wrong note - probably because there aren't any on a RAV!
Why bother learning music theory?

While you can definitely have a great time and compose some pretty sophisticated stuff without knowing any music theory, understanding what you are doing and why you are doing it can help you advance your improvisation to the next level, write longer and more ambitious pieces, play with other musicians, and help you remember and write down your music, to name just a few benefits. And, if you want to pick up another instrument, these tips will also come in handy and help you learn faster!

This series of articles on the blog will be a friendly introduction to music theory for RAV players. No fluff, no arcane terms, just clear, simple knowledge you can start applying right away. We will be focusing on Western music theory. While there are many other theory systems around the world, such as for Indian classical music, we will be using traditional Western Theory as it is the most universally adopted and one of the most comprehensive systems. Let's get started!
Just as there are 26 letters in the English alphabet, the Western musical alphabet consists of 7 notes: a, b, c, d, e, f, and g. (There is no h!) Each note represents a particular sound frequency, which is how quickly the sound waves travel.

An interval is how far one note is from another. For example, from A to B is a second, from D to G is a fourth. This will become very important when we talk about chords, which are based on notes that are a particular interval apart. Most chords consist of a fundamental (lowest note) and two additional notes a third and fifth above the fundamental.
Another way to measure the distances between notes is whole tones and semitones. You can think of these as steps in a staircase: a semi tone is one step, the shortest possible distance between two notes. A whole tone is two steps. What makes the alphabet a little tricky is that the difference notes are not equally spread out. Some notes are a semi tone apart, and some are a whole tone apart. An easy way to remember, is that all the notes are a whole tone apart, except B to C and E to F are both a semi tone apart. That means, for example, that A to B is a whole tone apart.

In addition to the standard version of each note, you can also raise or lower each note, called a sharp and flat respectively. These are also called accidentals. For example, raising the note A by a semi tone is called A sharp, notated A#, and lowering it by a semi tone is called A flat, notated Ab. You can easily tell sharp/flat notes from others: those are the black keys on the keyboard. Here's a picture to help you understand it:
This brings us to the last part of the section: enharmonics! Recall from before, that A and B are a whole tone, or two semitones apart. What happens if we raise A by a semi tone, and lower B by a semi tone? You may have realized by now that A# is the same frequency as Bb! These are said to be enharmonically equivalent. You can think of them as the same note, but we still call them by different names, for reasons we'll get to later involving scales and chords.

Remember how we said that the only notes in the musical alphabet that are a semitone apart are B and C, and E and F? Raising B by a semi tone makes it C, so usually we call it C instead of B#. Lowering F, as another example, by a semi tone would give us E, so similarly we would usually just call it E, not Fb. By the same logic, Cb=B and E#=F.

There's your crash course in notes, intervals, and accidentals! Now, you can understand what is meant by the note names making up each RAV scale. But what is a scale exactly? Tune in next time!
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The article is written by David Duan, all rights reserved, copyright 2018.
David Duan
Composer, cellist, and sound healer
A Dean's Recognition Award recipient and multiple concerto competition winner, he has performed around the world with a variety of ensembles and orchestras. A graduate of New York University and the Peabody Preparatory of the Johns Hopkins University, he lives in Maryland.

Please contact for information, gigs, commissions, collaboration, and more.

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