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(my original question) I am well-educated. I'm new to, and trying to learn, music theory, but the constant hedging on what things mean is frustrating. Can you say ANYTHING that is 100% reliable about any of these musical terms? For example, in science, if you have an atom, then you have at least one proton, and that's certain; in math, if you have 2 plus 3, then you have 5, and that's certain. In music re scale, key, chord, tonal, note, etc, is there anything on which I can rely, from which I can use to reason or predict another reliable fact or definition?

(your original response)

Hello, and welcome to Musical Practice & Performance. This site uses a structured approach to asking and answering questions, which you can read about in help center. This space is used for answers to the question at the top of the page, so this post will be deleted. New questions can be asked using the button at the top right. I will let you know that a question like what you've written here would probably be closed as "too broad" -- my suggestion would be to start at some of the excellent wikipedia articles about Music Theory and then ask here where you need clarification. – NReilingh♦ 11 hours ago

(my reply) I've already been to Wikipedia. The info there, or more specifically, its self-admittedly confusing nature, is what prompted my google search, which brought me to this web page, which, having provided further similar confusion, prompted my question, which remains unanswered. The dismissive non-response I did get only adds to the confusion. My question really is straightforward and easily answerable. Really, it is. Just answer yes or no, and if yes, then please give an example or two. In fact I, gave two examples, from different subjects, of how you might answer it.

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closed as unclear what you're asking by Édouard, Dom, Shevliaskovic, MrTheBard, Meaningful Username Mar 20 '14 at 14:57

Please clarify your specific problem or add additional details to highlight exactly what you need. As it's currently written, it’s hard to tell exactly what you're asking. See the How to Ask page for help clarifying this question.If this question can be reworded to fit the rules in the help center, please edit the question.

A brief comment, in that 2+3=5.Yes, but only in base 10 !(and others, but not all) In base '4' it's 11. This is a way of saying that there are many different facets and ways music can be portrayed, and some will be dependent on others. There are absolutes, but there are relatives too.I've said it before, but theory is not very useful without the practical part to hang it on.Read a million books, and it may make some sense to you, but it won't make you a player till you play.I'm contemplating a proper answer to this seemingly broad question. – Tim Mar 15 '14 at 10:38
@Tim I would argue that 2+3 = 5, no relation to the base. 11 is just the representation of 5 (the number five, beyond the digit) in base 4. I would, however, point out that 2+3 = 1 in Z / 4 Z. – Édouard Mar 15 '14 at 12:31
Your question in of itself I think, is fairly clear, however, when viewed with the title of your question, it is unclear. Are you speaking about keys specifically? Are you asking about chords, intervals, or something else? Like science, music is extremely multi-faceted with multitudes of branches, and as I'm sure you're now aware (with the answers you've been getting) that an unclear question yields a wild variety of responses. In science and most other subjects, things are concrete to a point. After which, your education and knowledge guide you. Music is the same. Purchase a textbook. – jjmusicnotes Mar 15 '14 at 16:15

"Can you say ANYTHING that is 100% reliable about any of these musical terms?"

Yes, most of the term you mentioned, "scale, key, chord, tonal, note" have proper definitions.

However, an important difference between your idea of science and music theory is that music theory is descriptive rather than prescriptive. Music theory does not dictate how music should be - rather, it describes the things that have been done over and over, and the terms and definitions reflect precisely that.

There are some certainties in music theory like your example of the atom, but those certainties are entirely tautological and generally do not provide any extra insight or information.

For example:

"a key of C has c as tonic" "a note is a notational device that describes the sounding of a tone" "a chord is any combination of simultaneously sounding tones"

Any synthetic truths, like "the leading tone resolves into the tonic" are descriptions of rules that generally hold true. But there is obviously no law of nature that necessitates this state of affairs.

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Please be patient. I appreciate that you are experiencing frustration.

One's understanding of music grows gradually, and comes from practicing music and playing music. Theoretical or scientific treatises can help provide clarification, but in the absence of a lot of practicing and playing of an instrument or the voice, the theory is hard to reconcile with the experience, and vice-versa. Mastering the theory in the absence of musical experience is not worth much.

My suggestion is that you continue to learn to play an instrument, or to sing, with a professional teacher, and that you remain open to learning insights as you go. It will make more and more sense the further you practice. Don't worry so much about the theory for awhile.

However, I will refer you to my previous answer, at the link below. If you don't understand the terms I have used in the answer below, find a professional music teacher who can explain the concepts to you while you sit at your instrument and/or the piano, and can play examples so that you can listen to them, learn to play them, and ask questions.

What does it mean to write a song in a certain key?

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Okay. Thank you all very much. That did help quite a bit. FYI, with zero musical training, ie, self-taught only, I have been playing harmonica, by ear, for 12 years. I've played to audiences many times, including with bands, and professionally. People are astounded when I tell them I have no training. But now I aant – Good Rules Rick Mar 15 '14 at 18:15
So you are an accomplished musician who is self-taught, by ear. That is commendable! It may be that you've gone as far as you can by yourself with no training, and now it's time to get a little formal training. Learning some piano from a teacher who knows theory would be really helpful. Piano is the best instrument on which to learn concepts like chord progressions, which are essential to understanding concepts like what is meant by a key. – Wheat Williams Mar 15 '14 at 18:20
Sorry, power failure interrupted my last comment, which continues with .... But now I want to explore where I might go with some knowledge of music theory and the ability to speak and understand the language. I think some music theory fluency will serve me well with those who can best show me how to explore new artistic vistas. Thanks for all your time and wisdom. – Good Rules Rick Mar 15 '14 at 18:38

I think you'll find the answer to your question is essentially yes, but like Tim pointed out in his comment to your question, it's subject to a lot of interpretation and relies on what is essentially an arbitrary frame of reference—those of us who aspire to a truly broad understanding of music theory may then get a little esoteric about it for the tastes of a beginner.

But just as we don't teach about base 4 in most elementary school math classes, we needn't overcomplicate the issue here. In basic, popular usage, a tune's 'key' encompasses a couple of things:

  • A structured set of notes which form the bulk of the composition (I may choose to use no accidentals meaning I'm using A, B, C, D, E, F, and G, or I might choose to use some accidentals, for example C, D, Eb, F, G, Ab, and Bb. These accidentals tend not to be chosen arbitrarily, but that's a matter for a different question).
  • A chord, based on one of the notes above and (usually) composed of the notes chosen, to which the piece tends to resolve.

So when I say a piece's key is A minor, what I'm communicating is that the tonality of the piece will primarily come from one set of notes (in this case, A, B, C, D, E, F, and G) and will generally tend to resolve to a chord based on A (which, when composed of the notes chosen, will be a minor chord).

I think that should encompass the general meaning pretty nicely. For a brief coverage of some of the caveats, read on:

  • Some keys are based on the same set of notes: C major and A minor, for example, both use the set of notes with no accidentals that I've quoted a couple of times above. This is, essentially, an application of what we call modes. Each set of notes, then, will generally have as many modes as it has notes: one mode starting on each note. (in the case with no accidentals, they are A Minor/Aeolian, B Locrian, C Major/Ionian, D Dorian, E Phrygian, F Lydian, and G Mixolydian)
  • Some keys have more than one meaning. There are several kinds of minor harmony: Natural minor (as I've shown above), Harmonic minor (wherein the 7th note from the root is raised a half-step), and Melodic minor (which is different ascending vs. descending—unless you're a jazz musician, in which case you build each chord of a melodic minor piece out of a different key altogether!).
  • In many minor pieces, the composer will actually change the chord at the end to a major one instead of a minor one in order to give a sense of more final resolution, meaning the "resolved" chord at the end is not actually from the key that the piece is otherwise composed in.
  • Many pieces are written in more than one key. John Coltrane's "Giant Steps", one of my favorites to play, has a 16-measure form (which is played repeatedly, as in most jazz forms), in which the key changes... gosh, I want to say 10 times? There are even cases where two or more keys are played simultaneously.
  • Some modern musics and thus music theories abandon the concept of key altogether.

And of course, this is by no means an exhaustive list!

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By the by, in the '50s and '60s, lots of bases were taught in U.K. - 3 (ft./yds), 8(furlongs/miles), 12(ft./ins;shillings/pence),14 & 16(oz/lbs/stones),20(cwt/ton), etc.Off topic, but had to mention it !! – Tim Mar 15 '14 at 18:10
Indeed @Tim that is true. I'd like to think that we can start with the basics, at least, when it comes to answering the question, while still leaving the matter open for further discussion of the finer points. – Aaron Hipple Mar 15 '14 at 19:06

As with any domain, terms depend a lot on the framework you’re in.

When you’re a kid, you don’t learn that every atom need a proton. You learn that an atom is the smallest piece of a given material you can have. The definition still holds when your knowledge improves (split an atom, and either you have a different material, or you don’t have an atom any longer).

Same with music. If you are studying Music Theory 101, you learn that A is the note with this key on the piano, which sounds like (teacher plays a note on the piano).

A few years later, you learn that A is the note whose fundamental is 440Hz.

A few years later, you learn that not everyone use the same concert pitch: 442Hz for A is quite popular these days. In Baroque music, the frequency can go from 392Hz to 460Hz. You may also learn the various concert pitch used throughout history by various composer.

If you’re interested in the topic of temperament, you may also learn that the frequency of every note in a scale may vary with respect to another, depending on which chords you want to sound agreeable to your ears.

The stuff is: None of these definitions is wrong! Some are more precise than other, but hell if I try to teach a 5 years-old kid what temperament is. This key on the piano still is an A (even though you may now discuss the pitch and temperament chosen for the piano).

If you’re beginning music theory, you may want to hold on the details first. Just as, with math, you may want to have master the meaning 5 is before discussing which axioms you’ll use to define your arithmetic.

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In addition to the great answers so far - DO NOT attempt to build theories (your own), based on knowledge already gleaned.One of my pupils used to do this,making all sorts of suppositions that leaked like sieves.It took lots of extra effort to dispel these 'theories' and put the proper ones in place. To a degree, he tried to run before he could crawl, but his psyche was such that he HAD to have theory. All that effort for no progress !

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Oh I don't know. I wouldn't say it's wrong to do so; I would simply recommend to first investigate the body of theory that is well established, and study its history to understand why it is there. There is no harm in inventing your own theory as a means of exploration and experimentation. It's just that the change you'll invent something worth while are greated when you do so with the benefit of having knowledge of existing theory. – Roland Bouman Mar 15 '14 at 23:37

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