In western music there are 12 musical notes. A B Bb C C# D Eb E F F# G G#. Think about this. Every popular song you have ever heard, every piece of classical music, opera, television theme song or radio jingle etc was derived from some or all of only these 12 notes arranged in very different ways. Pretty amazing huh?

Nearly every musical instrument used in popular western music was designed to produce these 12 notes from lower to higher registers. A piano, for example, has the 12 notes laid out all in a row (made up of black and white keys) and repeated over and over from lower to higher forms of those same 12 notes. It is the same with a guitar, saxophone, flute etc.


In Western music, we have selected 7 of those 12 notes and arranged them into a certain order or PATTERN that we call a SCALE, a MAJOR scale. Perhaps you remember the Major scale from school or music lessons, you know, do re mi fa sol la ti do, “do a deer, a female deer…” etc. That is the SOUND of those 7 particular notes of the Major scale. It was and is the sound of Western popular music.

Now, songwriters can choose any of the available 12 notes and arrange them however they like, and give that particular scale PATTERN a special name, and they have. There are many different SCALES in use around the world. However, in the Western hemisphere, we prefer to base our popular music on the Major scale and so here’s how it works.

Of the 12 notes available, A B Bb C C# D Eb E F F# G G# the Major scale uses 7 of them arranged in a certain fashion. If we were to assign each of the 12 notes a NUMBER (1–12) the Major scale would use notes 1 2 5 6 8 10 and 12.

That’s the Major scale PATTERN and it has a particular SOUND because it leaves a particular number of SPACES in between the 12 notes — A B C# D E F# G#. Changing the SPACES in-between notes will of course change the SOUND of the scale.

The note NAME of the Major scale depends on what note you BEGIN the scale from. Start on a C note and its a C Major scale. Start on a Bb note and its a Bb Major scale etc. The spacing or note pattern remains the same no matter where you begin, maintaining that special sound, but the TONAL CENTER or KEY will change as the STARTING NOTE changes.


Next, each one of the 7 notes of the Major scale is given its own CHORD, 7 CHORDS for the 7 NOTES. A CHORD is simply 2 or more notes played simultaneously. Basically, there are two types of chords, MAJOR and MINOR, all other chords are simply variations of these two types which is accomplished by the addition or subtraction of notes in the chord.

Here’s how the Major and Minor chords are constructed.


Of the 7 notes contained in the A Major Scale (A B C# D E F# G#) we simply borrow notes 1, 3 and 5 (A C# E) and then play them simultaneously. This is the HAPPIER sounding of the two chords.


We derive this chord in nearly the exact same way as the Major chord except that we do something special to the 3rd note, we FLATTEN it. That simply means we LOWER it by one note. This gives it a SADDER sound. In the case of our A Major scale, where the third note is a C#, we would simply FLATTEN in down one note to C (A C E). Its just THAT simple.

*BTW, the same principle holds true with the Major and Minor SCALES. Flatten the 3rd note of the Major scale and you have yourself a fancy little MINOR scale!

Now, as we said earlier, each of the 7 NOTES of the Major scale receives its own CHORD. Some of those chords are major and some are minor. Here’s how the Major scale chord system works.

7 Major Scale Notes: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7

1 chord is Major, 2 chord is minor, 3 minor, 4 Major, 5 Major, 6 minor, 7 minor

or…M, m, m, M, M, m, m. Easy peasy, lemon squeezy!

Using our A Major scale, we would end up with the following 7 chords…

A Major, B minor, C# minor, D Major, E Major, F# minor, G# minor.

Now we have a Major scale that we can play not only in 7 single NOTES but in 7 CHORDS! THIS is the foundation for Western pop songwriting. Begin this pattern from a C note and you get the chords of C Major. Start on the note F and you get the chords of F major etc. This is what is meant by “KEYS” — The Key of C or F or G etc.

So, now, what do we actually DO with these 7 notes and 7 chords now that we have them? Why we create songs of course! “But how do we do that?”, you ask. Great question. Here is how.

We take the 7 NOTES, along with the 7 CHORDS now available in our bag of tricks, and we ARRANGE them (songwriters are sometimes called ARRANGERS) in a specific order. We mix and match them however we like in order to craft pieces of music (songs) that sound appealing to us and to others.

All or some of the 7 CHORDS from the Major scale are arranged into specific patterns called chord PROGRESSIONS, and these progressions become the foundations for our songs. As an example we might use the 1, 4 and 5 chords to create a progression or 6 2 5 1 or 1 6 45 etc.

Next, we begin to organize the NOTES contained in each chord however we like to create MELODIES that float over the top of the various chords in our progression. We can even use ALL or SOME of the 7 Major scale notes of our particular KEY over each chord since all of the notes and chords in a given key play very nicely with each other! These NOTE ARRANGEMENTS or melodies can be either sung by a human voice (vocal lines) or sounded on a musical instrument.

Let’s walk through the songwriting process by using a very popular but simple little song as an example…

Notice the songs CHORDS (G, D C) over the top of the music bars and then the NOTES that create the melody of the song shown on the staff lines below the chords. These are the NOTES to be sounded over the top of each CHORD. Boom!

Now, it should come as no surprise to you that the MELODY of the song Happy Birthday is derived from the actual NOTES that are contained in the CHORDS playing underneath the notes. THIS IS VITAL TO GRASP!

Take for example the first group of NOTES in the song, (D D E D G = “Happy birthday to…”) which are to be sounded over the first CHORD (G Major). These 5 notes are the very notes that make up the G Major CHORD that they are being sounded over — The 1st, 3rd and 5th notes of the G Major scale. Be sure you grasp this.

So, the songwriter who created Happy Birthday picked a chord to START with and then — he created a melody to sing OVER that chord by using the 3 individual notes contained WITHIN that chord. Makes sense right? You can’t go wrong when you are matching the notes ON TOP of the CHORDS with the notes found IN the Chords. Simply do the same thing for EVERY chord in your song and BOOM!, your a songwriter!

The real trick here is the ability to be able to arrange the CHORDS and NOTES in ways that SOUND REALLY GOOD to a lot of people. Easy right?The truly great songwriters are those who have a special gift for arranging chords, notes and words into patterns that people love to HEAR and SING!

Try singing a few of your favorite songs right now and imagine the songwriter trying to figure out which notes to use and how he/she was going to arrange them to create THAT particular melody. Once the songwriter is happy with the melody or the “tune”, they will put words/lyrics to the notes.

Often times pop music contains RIFFS or LICKS. These are notes from a chord or scale arranged to create a cool sounding pattern that the listener will enjoy and remember. An example of a great lick is the guitar opening to Aqualung by Jethro Tull or Life’s Been Good by Joe Walsh.


When an instrumentalist takes a SOLO in a song, the same basic principles apply. He or she will be using the NOTES from the CHORDS playing underneath and creating melodic phrases from those notes. Sometimes the artist has pre-written the solo and sometimes (usually in Jazz) the solos are improvised (made up on the spot).

In more complex forms of music (such as Jazz), the soloist will often play notes that are NOT in the underlying chords in order to give the music a more OUTSIDE or interesting sound, something unusual for the listener. Check out this blazing fast jazz solo from the legendary saxophonist Charlie “Bird” Parker and be sure to listen for the piano CHORDS underneath the sax solo.

Chords can be made more complex by ADDING more of the available 12 NOTES to them. Those additional notes can be sounded in higher or lower registers and placed either on the top or bottom of the chord etc. For example one can take a Major chord and ADD the 7th note of the Major scale to create a Major 7th chord. We could add the 2nd note of the Minor scale to a minor chord and get a cool sounding minor chord, we could REMOVE the 5th note of a Major chord and replace it with the 6th note and on and on. The ways to create different sounding chords are innumerable.

To Recap:






I sincerely hope this little article has helped you to make some sense of music and perhaps you will never listen to music in the same way again. Now go crank up your favorite tunes and enjoy them like never before!

Frank Speer