Making Music with Marshall Part Two

Notes, Keys, and Scales

Posted: 3 December 2019

You’ve nailed beats and tempo , now it’s time for Notes, Keys and Scales.


To properly understand what keys are, we first need to look at pitch. The pitch of a sound is how high or low the sound is. Particular pitches are associated with letters and we use these pitches to determine notes.  


Notes are the minimum element of a musical sound. When a string is played on a guitar, it vibrates and produces a sound at a certain frequency. The frequency, or pitch, of this sound corresponds to a musical note. For example, the frequency of 261.62Hz equates to the note of C. It is important to note (get it?) that this is not the only frequency that equates to a C. When that frequency doubles/ halves, it also plays a C note but in a lower or higher octave.


Most music is written in a particular ‘key.’ A key is the major or minor scale around which a piece of music revolves. To work out the key of the song, we usually aim to find out what note is the most stable within a piece of music. This note is sometimes referred to as the ‘home note’ or ‘tonic.’ For example, a song in the key of C Major comprises notes that are almost entirely, but not limited to, the notes that live within the C Major scale. ‘What is a scale?’ we hear you scream. Don’t worry, read on.


Scales are a collection of notes that all work harmonically with one another. You can look at scales as an artist’s palette of colours. It gives the artist a direction on how to work as they know that each colour on their palette will work with the others. Scales are most commonly split into Major and Minor and can evoke different emotional associations. Let’s look at the differences between the two.

Chromatic Scale

The Chromatic scale is simply all 12 keys that make up an octave: C, D?, D, E?, E, F, G?, G, A?, A, B?, B. It is quite uncommon to see a song written using the full chromatic scale as not all notes work harmoniously with one another. Most songs you hear today use subsets of the chromatic scale, such as the seven notes taken for the minor and major scales which we'll go onto below.

Flat and Sharp notes

Flat notes are ‘accidental’ notes that fall outside of the natural scale (above). The best way to visualise what they are is to know that they are the black keys on the keyboard. They are a semitone lower than their corresponding natural note. Sharp notes are the exact opposite to flat in which they are a semitone above. They are annotated with a hashtag symbol so C sharp would look like so: C#.

The slightly confusing thing about flat and sharp notes is that they occupy the same space on the keyboard. C# is the exact same note as D? in the sense that they occupy the same frequency, essentially halfway between C and D. If you wanted to play either of those notes on a keyboard, you would be hitting the same key for each.

But when do we use a flat or a sharp? The answer to this is a little bit complicated and, to be honest, it’s not all that important either. A good rule of thumb to follow is that if you are moving upwards in the scale, use a sharp and if you are moving down, use a flat. Realistically, you could use either for any circumstance and no one would really care or notice. You’re playing the same note regardless of how it is annotated.

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