Why are there only 12 notes in Western music?
May 11, 2021, 4:24 PM
A scale that runs from C to B, with five equivalent flats and sharps in between, makes up just about all melodies in Western music – but how did we come up with these 12 notes?
All melodies and harmonies in Western music are generally constructed from just 12 notes.
Whether it’s a sumptuous symphony, a blossoming concerto, or your favorite song, it will contain 12 familiar sounds – and be based on familiar intervals between those tones – identified, honed and used throughout it. history of Western music to create the melodies we know and love today.
But why only 12 notes? Why don’t we use more of it, and how can the awe-inspiring depth and breadth of music offered to us come from such a limited collection of sounds? Everything will be revealed, so keep reading …
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What are the 12 notes used in western music?
Western music typically uses 12 notes – C, D, E, F, G, A, and B, plus five equivalent flats and sharps in between, which are: C sharp / D flat (these are the same note, just named differently depending on which signature key is used), D sharp / E flat, F sharp / G flat, G sharp / A flat and A sharp / B flat
Thus, the final order of the 12-note chromatic scale, going up, is C, C sharp / D flat, D, D sharp / E flat, E, FF sharp / G flat, G, G sharp / A flat, A, A sharp / B flat, and B (see image above).
Why are there only 12 tickets and how did they arrive?
These 12 notes have generally been used to compose most of the western music we listen to. The reasons the music landed on these specific notes can be summed up as a convergence of convenience, science, and listener preferences.
And – how we divided an “octave”. So how do we get this?
All sounds are the result of waves, and the frequency of the waves determines the pitch of the sounds we hear. Pitches or notes that sound high, for example, have a high frequency. But when it comes to our familiar 12 notes, it’s not just about frequency – in fact, frequency didn’t create that set of 12s.
We usually only use 12 notes in Western music because of the spaces – or intervals – Between the notes.
The pieces of music are familiar entirely because of these intervals. Think of the children’s song “ Baa baa Black Sheep ” – it’s always the same “ Baa baa Black sheep ” when you start on the C note as if you start on B, or even if it is sung by a person with a deep, low voice as if it were being sung by a person with a very high voice. For performers and music theory fans, this is what “transposition” is all about.
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Certain intervals generally sound better – or rather more harmonious; Natural; corresponding – to the human ear than others.
The most harmonious interval between the notes we hear is the octave, that is, two tones played at eight notes. In what is known as “octave equivalence,” notes eight tones apart have the same name and sound roughly “the same” to the human ear, but only in higher or higher versions. lower.
Scientifically, there is also harmony: producing one note per octave above one at 220 Hz, it suffices to double it to 440 Hz. Everything fits together like a fairly practical musical mathematical puzzle.
What are the most “harmonious” intervals?
Most tuning systems around the world tend to prioritize creating music around that nicest octave interval. And once we have that octave, it’s about how we divide it. And this division in Western music takes priority around those intervals which are “harmonious” like the octave.
The next most enjoyable intervals are the perfect fifth and the perfect fourth. Most Western melodies are built around a journey between these relations of octave, perfect fourth, and fifth perfect interval.
Other intervals that are generally pleasant, safe, and purposeful to the human ear are the major and minor thirds, and the major and minor sixths. All music with these intervals sounds “harmonious” and pleasant, rather than dissonant and jarring.
Dissonant intervals are minor and major seconds (also called tones and semitones) and major and minor sevenths. Two notes side by side, played together, are difficult to listen to – and it is with these spaces that composers sometimes add a shade of dissonance to juxtapose the light of harmonious sounds. It creates the tension and release that are vital in making music catchy and engaging to listen to.
If a room has only harmonious intervals, it will sound pleasant, but nothing more. Ask Beethoven – he was the absolute master of meeting dissonance with harmony to create an irresistible and enduring body of melodies.
So that’s how we landed on our 12 notes – a mix of enough harmonious and pleasant intervals, with just one or two extra tense intervals to add a dash of color.
Read more: Classic FM glossary of useful musical terms
Is music composed using more than these 12 notes?
More than 12 notes exist in actual sound waves, and these are most often explored in what is known as “ microtonal ” music – music that uses notes. Between the notes.
If the 12 notes of the typical scale exist because of intervals and the way we divide the octave we talked about, it’s about finding a new way to divide that octave to find alternate pitches. There are Western composers who have done this, including Ivan Wyschnegradsky who created 24 notes between one note and the octave above, and Harry Partch who tore up the rulebook and composed 43 different notes in the octave. .
The catch with microtonal music, and music that explores adding extra notes with uneven intervals, is that it tends to sound less pleasing to the ear because of its content over intervals that aren’t our perfect straight and our perfect fourth (see above).
The melodies and harmonies created by microtones can seem too dissonant, so they don’t tend to be broadcast widely.
Notes outside the typical 12 can of course also be accessed by instruments that do not rely on a set of keys, for example violins and trombones. And out of tune playing, of course!
Read more: Alto saxophonist shares his amazing trick for playing 128 notes in an octave
What about pop and rock music?
Yes, the same 12 notes. Popular Western genres tend to use the same notes and intervals that we hear in classical music.
Some popular genres have artists experimenting with microtonalism and using the “ notes between the notes, ” Australian psychedelic rock band King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizard and British singer-songwriter Dua Lipa being among those who They succeeded.
What about music all over the world?
Talking about 12 notes in music generally applies to music from the West and some other parts of the world, but it is certainly not a comprehensive system for all music.
Arabic music had a range of 17 tones dating from around the 13th century, with the modern Arabic sound system now dividing the octave into 24 instead of 12 notes.
And Indian classical music, including raga, creates color between notes far beyond the limited 12 notes heard in Western music. Indonesian gamelan also uses a different scale.
And there are of course many more diverse ways that music makers have “split the octave” into different notes to create sensational melodies throughout human history.