A beginner bassist's foray into the unknown

Coursera – FoMT Week 1 / Video 2

The 2nd video for Week 1 of Fundamentals of Music Theory deals with musical notes. We’re greeted by the instructors seated in front of a whiteboard and piano with a guitar, bass drum and saxophone in sight. They explain that they’re going to use the piano a lot during the course because it provides a nice visual illustration of the things they’ll be talking about. They then recommend that students get a hold of a keyboard or even download an app so that they can press keys to follow along. This is similar to the Developing Your Musicianship class as well. Piano seems to be the most common way to illustrate a lot of these concepts because its linear.

Sound & Pitch

The lesson then starts with Dr. Worth making a sound by clicking two sticks together followed by Dr. Moir making another one with the aforementioned bass drum. Worth’s sticks make a high sound, and Moir’s drum makes a low one. They explain that even though we can differentiate between the high and low sound, we can’t sing the notes that we hear. They then demonstrate high and low notes on a flute and a saxophone, which they can identify and sing and explain that those two notes have something called pitch which renders a singable, musical quality to their sound.

I’m not convinced that we can’t assign a pitch to any of the percussive sounds they played – xylophones and steel drums are both percussive and have pitch, but I know relatively little about how pitch is defined on drums. I watched a video years ago with Victor Wooten on bass and Steve Smith on drums, and they each perfectly mimicked what the other was playing, taking turns on their respective instruments. It was uncanny – the phrasing and tones – so I’ll leave this odd point unsettled for the time being.

They then begin to describe the idea of representing these high and low sounds in a written or graphical manner, beginning by using a graph with horizontal and vertical axes. Needless to say, without specifying a scale of measure for both pitch and time, its impossible to accurately depict what notes are being played… although now that I think of it, with some further refinement, using a two-dimensional graph actually could work – its essentially what a musical staff provides. Further detail, like note duration, comes in the form of the actual notes plotted on the staff.

1-1 graph

Graphing high and low tones with a scatter chart

History & Treble

We then get a history blurb about how in the 7th century, Archbishop Isidore of Seville (writer of the Etymologiae, which was something of an encyclopedia at the time) said, “Unless sounds can be held in the memory of man, they are lost because they cannot be written down.” As an interesting tidbit, he’s now considered the patron saint of computing and the internet. Worth goes on to explain that even as far as the 9th century, composers couldn’t record their music in a way in which it could be conveyed to another person some distance away.

Finally, in the 16th century, the 5-line staff was introduced, which could be used to lend relativity to tones that were plotted on it. For those of you who are interested in the history of all of this, when I first started blogging, I came across a fantastic series of posts from Melanie Spiller that goes over the details of much of the history of musical notation.

Worth shows us the G-clef, or treble clef, and explains how monks started naming the notes on the staff using the Do-Re-Mi system that we still remember today thanks to Julie Andrews in The Sound of Music. In English-speaking countries, letters from the alphabet were also adopted, hence the current musical alphabet: A, B, C, D, E, F, G. He also lets us know that the G-clef gets its name because the circle at the bottom centers around where the note G is on the staff. He doesn’t say why this particular note was chosen though.

Worth draws all of the letters of the musical alphabet on the whiteboard and Moir plays one on the piano. He then continues the explanation while Worth sings the notes aloud and draws their position on the staff.

After G, ledger lines are introduced, to show how to plot notes that are higher or lower than what the standard 5 lines on the staff can represent, and we’re told that the alphabet doesn’t continue with the letter H. Instead, after G, it repeats itself, beginning again with A. This is the same going backwards. Before our initial A, if we move into lower notes, there’s a G, then F, E, D, etc. Ledger lines are used both above and below the staff to indicate what these notes are. Worth then tells us that the really important idea that we need to look at is the phenomenon of multiple notes with the same name existing in music. So, the existence of two A’s or C’s or any other note.


Next, Moir grabs a guitar and introduces us to the concept of the octave. He explains that on a guitar, 12 frets up the neck from any given note is another note with the same name. It vibrates at precisely double the frequency of the original note. This is an octave. He shows us where to find an occurrence of one by playing an open A on the A-string of the guitar and then an A on the same string, but on the 12th fret. He says that these notes, although they’re in different places on the guitar fretboard, sound equivalent in some way, and that its something we’ll recognize naturally as we hear it and can even duplicate with our voices. Personally, I can do this to an extent, but I don’t know if its entirely natural (the listening/identifying part; my singing voice is unarguably unnatural). I think its a learned skill, not necessarily an intuitive one. It can be strengthened with ear training – specifically by practicing something called interval training. Both Moir and Worth then join together and sing a few seconds of Happy Birthday, to illustrate how octaves work – they both sing in the same key, so their voices don’t clash, with Worth singing higher up, where he says children and some women generally sing, and Moir, with his deeper voice, singing low, where men traditionally sing, Paul Reuben aside.

Moir goes on to show us an A on the piano. He then plays the rest of the musical alphabet in sequence and arrives at another A, showing us a higher octave. Then, he goes back to his original A, plays the notes in front of it, in reverse sequence (G, F, E, D, etc.), and arrives at yet another A – a lower octave.

Remembering the notes on the staff

Finally the duo explain that if we don’t already read music, we need a way to remember which notes are on each line and space on the staff. We can deduce the notes by finding where the G is on the staff, based on the circle on the bottom of the G-clef, but instead, they suggest a way to remember the lines using a phrase and the spaces using a word.

For the lines, they suggest Every Good Boy Deserved Food, or EGBDF. The spaces already spell out FACE. I personally have my own acronym/phrase, but its nothing that should be uttered in polite company. Feel free to impress your friends and disgust your significant others by coming up with your own though.

Also, for those of you who are learning bass, we typically play using another clef called the F-clef. That G-stuff is for guitarists. Our clef is different and centers on where the F-note is on the staff. Its not in the same place as on the G-clef. So, if you’re new to this and are learning bass, it might be easier for you to ignore the musical staff entirely when it comes to non-bass-centric music like anything with a treble clef and just focus on the note names, which can then be transposed onto the “right” spots in the bass clef.


9 responses

  1. Pingback: Coursera – Fundamentals of Music Theory Week 1 | Ugly Bass Face

  2. Shelby Stronger

    Proof of our previous conversation, I think. Reading this, my first thought was ‘so, those are their names.’ Lol. Apparently even that much is ‘fluff’ info to Shelby-brain. 🙂

    I didn’t remember the pneumatic device, either, but I guess they’re only worthwhile if you can remember them, anyway. I’ve basically been going ‘if the bottom line is E, and the top is F…then…’ and counting everything in between. It’s a pretty slow process, but the extras on lesson 2 introduces musictheory.net, which has interactive exercises that I can practice. That’s going to be handy in learning to read. It introduces the site in a totally different context, but one I don’t think I can really delve into much while I’m still struggling with ‘what note is that?’. I found a note identification exercise on the site, though, and was like ‘score! This should be useful. It tells me when I’m wrong.’

    September 8, 2015 at 9:59 am

  3. Pingback: Coursera – FoMT Week 1 / Video 2 extra: Pitch | Ugly Bass Face

  4. Pingback: Coursera – FoMT Week 1 / Video 2 extra: Treble Clef | Ugly Bass Face

  5. Pingback: Coursera – FoMT Week 1 / Video 2 extra: Ledger lines | Ugly Bass Face

  6. Pingback: Coursera – FoMT Week 1 / Video 2 extra: Octaves | Ugly Bass Face

  7. Pingback: Coursera – FoMT Week 1 / Video 2 extra: Intervals | Ugly Bass Face

  8. Pingback: Coursera – FoMT Week 1 / Video 2 extra: Keys | Ugly Bass Face

  9. Pingback: Coursera – FoMT Week 1 / Video 2 extra: Bass Clef | Ugly Bass Face

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