Music theory: Double sharps

WARNING – This post is quite technical, so please only read it if you’re really interested in why I’ve written several double-sharps towards the end of “Do you know where you’re going to?” – otherwise, feel very free to skip this one!

One of the basic building blocks of music is something called an interval – not the bit in a concert where everyone grabs a drink, but the gap between two notes. If you picture a piano keyboard, to travel from one note to the note immediately higher than it (whether white or black) is to go up one semitone. Two semitones make one tone, so to travel from a C to C# is one semitone, and from a C to a D is one tone.

The next important note regards sharps and flats. A sharp raises the pitch of a note by one semitone. A flat lowers it by one semitone. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking of sharps and flats as “the black notes on a piano” – that doesn’t always hold true, as we’ll see later. Just remember that a “something sharp” is the note one semitone higher than the “something”.

We’re going to look at what happens when we play each white note on a piano in turn, starting on C. There aren’t black notes between every white note on a piano, so travelling from each white note to the white note above it doesn’t mean you always go up by a tone. The pattern is below:

  • C to D is a tone (travelling via C# or Db)
  • D to E is a tone (travelling via D# or Eb)
  • E to F is a semitone (there’s no black note between E and F)
  • F to G is a tone (travelling via F# or Gb)
  • G to A is a tone (travelling via G# or Ab)
  • A to B is a tone (travelling via A# or Bb)
  • B to C is a semitone (there’s no black note between B and C)

So, to travel between C and C along the white notes of a piano, the pattern is tone, tone, semitone, tone, tone, tone, semitone. This pattern defines a major scale. Using this pattern starting on C, we play a C major scale.

You can have a major scale beginning on any note, and the pattern is always the same. For example, if you start on D instead of C, the notes look like this:

  • A tone up from D is E (via D# or Eb)
  • A tone up from E is F# (via F)
  • A semitone up from F# is G
  • A tone up from G is A (via G# or Ab)
  • A tone up from A is B (via A# or Bb)
  • A tone up from B is C# (via C)
  • A semitone up from C# is D

So the notes of a D major scale are D, E, F#, G, A, B, C# and D.

A scale must contain every note-name (A, B, C etc) once and only once. That is why, in the D major scale example above, the third note is F#, and not Gb. F# and Gb are the same note, but it wouldn’t make musical sense to use Gb here, because that would mean there was no F of any type, and G would be used twice (Gb and G natural). This is really important when it comes to double-sharps (and double-flats, for that matter).

Before we get to double-sharps, which are a pretty rare and extreme case, let’s look at something which is less rare, but shows an important step along the way. What happens when we start a major scale on F#?

  • We start on F#
  • A tone up from F# is G# (not Ab – it must be a G something)
  • A tone up from G# is A# (not Bb – it must be an A something)
  • A semitone up from A# is B
  • A tone up from B is C#
  • A tone up from C# is D#
  • A tone up from D# is F – but we can’t use F, as it must be an E-something. A sharp merely raises the pitch of a note by one semitone, so we use an E sharp – this is the same note as an F, but we can’t write F as the previous note was D – it has to be an E-something, so it’s an E#
  • A semitone up from E# is F#

This is really important – even though an E# is the same note as an F, we have to have every note-name used once and only once, so we can’t skip D and have two Fs, one natural and one sharp. It would break the rules of music theory.

Of course, F# and Gb are the same note. So could we get around the “problem” of using E# by calling F# Gb? Let’s go through the tone, tone, semitone, tone, tone, tone, semitone pattern and see:

  • We start on Gb
  • A tone up from Gb is Ab
  • A tone up from Ab is Bb
  • A semitone up from Bb is B – hold on, we can’t use B twice – so what do we use instead? It has to be a C-something, as that’s the next note-name up – and B is just one semitone lower than C, so we use a Cb. We’ve got the same “problem” as we have with an F major scale – we have to use a “white” note that is a sharp or a flat.
  • To finish the pattern, a tone up from Cb is Db
  • A tone up from Db is Eb
  • A tone up from Eb is F
  • And a semitone up from F is Gb

Starting on F# or Gb makes no difference – we have to use an E# or a Cb.

At the end of “Do you know where you’re going to?”, we finish in the key of D# major. (There’s a reason I use D# major and not Eb major, which I’ll explain in another blog post if anyone is interested – let me know if you are). Let’s step through the notes of a major scale beginning on D#, using the tone, tone, semitone, tone, tone, tone, semitone pattern we’ve already established.

  • We start on D#
  • A tone up from D# is F – but it has to be an E-something, so we use E#
  • A tone up from E# (or F if it helps you to think of it this way) is… what? G. But it has to be an F-something. It isn’t F#, as this is just a semitone up from E# (F), and we need to be a tone up from there. This is where the double-sharp comes in – G is a tone higher than F, a single sharp raises the pitch of F by one semitone, so a double-sharp raises it by two semitones, which equals one tone. An F double-sharp is the same note as a G.
  • A semitone up from F double-sharp is G#
  • A tone up from G# is A#
  • A tone up from A# is B# (or C, but we have to use B#)
  • A tone up from B# is… D. Again, we can’t use D as it must be a C-something, so we use C double-sharp.
  • Finally, a semitone up from C double-sharp (or D) is D#.

This is why we have some double-sharps at the end of “Do you know where you’re going to?” – we end in the key of D# major, and the notes of D# major are D#, E#, Fx (double-sharp), G#, A#, B# and Cx.

I hope that has proved useful to at least someone – I know it’s rather technical, but the question was asked and I was determined to answer it! If anyone would like more posts explaining the finer points of music theory (like why I used D# major and not Eb major, or what the pattern is for a minor key and why some minor keys are closely related to other major keys), just drop me an email and I’ll happily oblige.

A great weekend

We had two really lovely events this weekend. On Saturday, we had our first ever Discussion Picnic – a kind of very informal Annual General Meeting, where we shared food and company, before sharing our thoughts and ideas about how we can shape BeVox for the next year or so. We’re grateful to everyone who was able to be there, and to the large number of people who couldn’t make it on the day but sent their ideas and viewpoints via email beforehand. We had a very lively discussion, as I’d hoped we would, with a good range of opinions aired. It was really reassuring that there was broad agreement on the majority of issues, and also fantastic to hear people’s ideas for how we can improve what we do. We’ll be reflecting on the whole experience over the next few days, and producing a document that outlines how we’ll respond to all this valuable feedback.

We spent Sunday celebrating the wedding of John and Lyn, two of our singers in Nottingham. We had a group of over 30 singers, beautiful sunshine, the relaxed surroundings of Langar Hall, and a very happy bride and groom! It was lovely to have the chance to socialise together for a while, and then the singing was great fun too – lots of slight panicking beforehand as people realised they hadn’t sung these songs for months, but then lots of relieved looks when they realised it all came flooding back as soon as we started singing! The sound was strong, the camaraderie stronger. Thanks to all who took part, and congratulations to John and Lyn – may you spend the rest of your lives blissfully happy with each other!

It’s all about the videos today

We’ve gone video mad today! A couple of days ago, the official video for our Victoria BID flash mob (#VBIDflashmob) was released – you can watch it at http://vimeo.com/74408454.

Over the last couple of days I’ve been working on the videos from our concert last Christmas, “BeVox at Buxton with Brass”. These have taken forever to process, for various reasons, but we should get them up over the next few days. We can’t produce a DVD of the whole concert, as we’d originally hoped, as there were technical problems with the filming. However, we’ll release the three or four tracks that are OK on YouTube. The first couple are available now – you can watch “One day like this” here: http://youtu.be/INUk1Lh4QX8 and “Have yourself a merry little Christmas” here: http://youtu.be/k9x0ZV60hnA.

I’ll be uploading the remaining videos from Buxton over the next few days – keep checking our YouTube channel at www.youtube.com/bevoxuk. I’ll then be looking at the footage we were kindly given from one of our singers at the Wakefield Cathedral “Music for Life” concert – we might be able to do a little montage from that too. I’ll keep you posted!

New season has begun

We started the Autumn season in Wakefield and Nottingham on Monday and Tuesday, and we’re looking forward to starting in Sheffield on Thursday. Welcome to you all – new singers and people who have sung with us before – it’s great to have you all on board.

We’ve got lots of exciting plans for this season, from traditional concerts in churches to entertaining punters in pubs, from charity events to singing in the engine room of a water pumping station! And of course, our big event for this season, the epic “Circle of Life” concert at Elsecar Heritage Centre – a truly unique theatrical event, telling the story of a life through music, from “Abide with me” to Alice Cooper!

I hope everyone is settling into the new season without any problems. As always, give me a shout if there’s anything you need. We’re also looking forward to the first of our “Discussion Picnics” in a week and a half – a chance for us to share our experiences and set our course for the following year. It’s kind of like an AGM without the boring bits, and with plenty of food and laughs!