Keyboard Note Names & The Chromatic Scale
by Allen Cook, Musician
Music is a language that’s very easy to learn. Becoming fluent takes dedication and lots of practice. A large vocabulary is unnecessary. In fact, you already know most of what you need to know. Remember the ‘Alphabet Song’ you sang as a kid? Go ahead. Sing it right now. I bet you’ll remember that melody as if you sang it yesterday...“A-B-C-D-E-F-G”. You just sang the basic building blocks of music. There are no alphabets after ‘G’, and don’t go to ‘H’. Just wash, rinse and repeat the magnificent seven.
These letters are combined in a variety of ways to “spell” all of the various scales and chords of music. And, yes, I will always tell you the truth, there is a bit of a learning curve. The steepness of the curve may not be that much for you. The main thing to do is simply move forward, mastering each step as you go. You’ll figure out how to wrap your mind around it all. Words of advice: don’t over think it, just dig in, follow the script, do the work. A solid foundation must be built first.
A-B-C-D-E-F-G are used to name the white notes of the piano keyboard. They’re referred to as Natural notes. The group of two and group of three black notes on the keyboard help you locate the white notes. The black notes in turn get their letter name from the white notes. Think of the group of two and three as a sort of GPS. Without this note grouping pattern, it would be practically impossible to figure out which note is which. You have a built-in learning aid right before your eyes and finger tips. It doesn’t get any easier than that! Guitars have dot markers on the side of the neck toward the player, but the patterns on the fret board aren’t as visually obvious as the keyboard. Wind blown instruments are learned via the senses, other than visual.
If someone were to ask you the names of the notes on the keyboard without pointing to them, what would you say? Using the groups of black notes as your reference point, you’d say this, after you've learned them yourself, of course: (be sure you're sitting at your keyboard as you read this)
“C is located to the left of the group of two (black notes).” Now, locate, play and listen to all the C’s. Do this now. Have the person who asked the question do this exercise also. Teaching others is one of the best ways to learn.
“D is in the middle of the group of two.” Likewise, play all D's.
“E is located to the right of the group of two.” After playing all E’s, again play C’s, D’s and E’s. The goal is to memorize these locations by sight. Saying the note names out loud really does help.
That takes care of the group of two. Now turn your attention to the group of three...
“F is to the left of the group of three.” Locate, play, listen.
“G is to the left of the middle (or center) black note.” L, P, L...
“A is to the right of the middle black note.” Ditto above.
“B is to the right of the group of three.” Ditto again.
OK. The next step is to practice locating, naming aloud, and playing each of these seven notes all over the keyboard. Use both hands, left hand for low notes, right hand for high notes. Locate, play and listen. It gets easier the more you do this. Challenge yourself to work through this exercise as quickly as possible. Commit note names/location to memory. Do this before proceeding to the Chromatic section. Never, never, ever use labels, sticky notes or write the letters on the keys. That’s the absolute best way to never learn them. You can easily deal with 7 letters, right?
CHROMATIC SCALE (SHARPS & FLATS) - The black (shorter and higher) notes are referred to as sharps and flats. Moving one note to the right (from a white note to a black note), the note becomes what is called Sharp and is higher in Pitch and takes on that letter name. Moving to the left the note becomes what is called Flat and is lower in Pitch, likewise, taking on the letter name. This movement is Half Step or Chromatic Motion.
The black notes are either Flat or Sharp depending on the Root or starting note as it relates to scale spelling. The two exceptions to black notes being sharp or flat are where two white notes meet: at E & F, and B & C. This is still half step or Chromatic motion. As mentioned earlier, if there were black notes between E & F, and B & C, there would no groups of two and three black notes. It would be difficult to locate the correct white notes, or any of them for that matter.
The pound/hashtag (#) sign is used to signify sharps when written on sheet music. A symbol that resembles a small (b) is used to indicate flats. Play slowly and listen carefully. It doesn't matter which finger you use right now. Just play the twelve notes according to the instructions so you can begin to train your ear to hear chromatic motion.
Starting with C, play the black note to the right, C sharp, the left note of the group of two.
Next play D natural. Then move up to D#, the right note of the group of two.
Then E to F (F is also E#).
Then F to F#, the left note of the group of three.
G natural to G#, the middle note of the group of three.
A natural to A#, the right note of the group of three.
And finally B to C (C is also B#).
In general, the black notes are referred to as Sharps when ascending,
and Flats when descending.
Now, using ‘C natural’ as the starting point, descend (go down) in pitch to the very next note to the left...
Cb, which is the same as B natural.
Proceed to the left of B to Bb (also A#, as indicated above)
Go to A natural, then to Ab. Are you starting to see the pattern here?
Play G natural then on to Gb. Move another half step down to...
F natural. Then on to E, which is also Fb
To the left of E is Eb.
Play D natural, then Db.
And that brings you back to C. Likewise, practice finding and playing these notes up and down the keyboard using fingers from hands.
The term for notes with the same pitch but different notation is “Enharmonic Equivalent.”
C#=Db D#=Eb F#=Gb G#=Ab A#=Bb
[the group of two black notes] [the group of three black notes]
The only rule at this stage is to memorize the 12 notes and their names so you can connect your eyes, hands and ears to the sounds of music. Mix it up, experiment, make it fun as you can, regardless of how boring it seems right now. Keep in mind that melodies are created from these twelve (boring) notes, so give it your best shot. Create something. Make sure your recorder is on. Try randomly jumping around the keyboard. Never be concerned about making mistakes. The more ‘bad’ notes you play, the more you train yourself to hear, and then make the necessary corrections. It’s part of the learning process. So make lots of mistakes in these beginning stages. As your skills improve, you’ll understand what it means when someone says “there’s no such thing as a mistake.”
So, there you have it-the 12 tones of music and how to name them on the piano!
In summary, it’s very important that you...
-memorize the notes names once and for all (if you ever quit piano, you should still be able to name the notes; you never know who’ll be impressed by your expertise!).
-understand the sharps and flats of the black notes, and of the white notes as indicated.
-visualize, play and hear chromatic motion.
Why is this important? Patterns and formulas. The keyboard is the best way to visualize the basic patterns and formulas of music. The more you learn, you’ll find out just how beneficial this is. Also, once you learn these basics, you can more easily transfer this knowledge to other instruments. Piano may not be the instrument you choose to stick with. But having some basic knowledge and skill will prove beneficial should you choose to switch to (or add) guitar, sax, cello, harmonica, kazoo, etc.
Think of chromatic motion as baby steps. Major and minor scales are next, which are the basic sounds to train your eyes, fingers, ears, as well as for practicing to build your technique. You’ll have a solid foundation to keep building upon. There’s always more to learn.
Here’s a bonus lesson for you...
As you’ve learned, the first seven letters of the alphabet create a repeating pattern for naming the 88 notes of the piano. An 88-note keyboard spans a range of 7 octaves, and has three additional notes. The lowest note is ‘A’; the highest is ‘C’.
Each of the notes can be designated by the octave to which it belongs. Here’s how it works.
Each octave contains the 12 chromatic notes (tones) you learned earlier.
‘C’ is the reference note for each 12 tone octave. The lowest ‘C’ on the keyboard is designated as ‘C1’. In chromatic order next comes ‘C#1’, ‘D1’, ‘D#1’, so forth and so on until you reach ‘C2’, one octave above. The pattern continues as before: ‘C#2, ‘D2’, ‘D#2’, etc.
Middle ‘C’ is...you guessed it...’C4’. The highest ‘C’ is...’C8’. Thus, C1, C2, C3, C4, C5, C6, C7, C8.
What about the three lowest notes? These alphabets are followed by the number 0 (zero). Thus, ‘A0’, A#0, and ‘B0’ (the enharmonic equivalent name is applied as needed); then begins the family of octaves starting with ‘C1’, ‘C#1’, etc. You’ve probably figured out by now ‘C8’ stands on its own. There are no other chromatic tones that come after it.
These particular alpha-numeric symbols are also used to show the pitch range of other instruments. If you have a piano and guitar (or something else), you can check this out for yourself. For example, the open strings of a guitar have a range of E2 to E4 (open string 6, and open string 1)...two octaves. At fret 12 of the first string, the range extends to E5...three octaves. 24 fret guitars have a top range of E6 (on the first string)...four octaves!
Here are some other pitch range examples:
-12 hole chromatic harmonica: C4 to C7...3 octaves (*use of the slide adds two notes above ‘C7’, C#7 & D7)
-16 hole chromatic harmonica: C3 to C7...4 octaves (*)
-Male tenor voice (example): G2 to D5... 2½ octaves (as with some wind blown instruments, vocal ranges can be extended with training and practice)
Many instruments are made in a variety of keys or designs, having different starting and ending notes. Their ranges will be designated according to the lowest and highest notes.