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Musical theory: a tool to understand music

Music theory will give you a better understanding of music. It is not a set of rules but a tool to help you understand, create, and communicate music.

The best is to learn music fundamentals first. The building blocks of musical compositions include:

  • Harmony - When multiple notes play at the same time to produce a harmonious new sound.
  • Melody - Notes in succession that are arranged into a musical phrase.
  • Rhythm - A recurring movement of notes and rests and a pattern of strong and weak notes.
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Harmony combines chords and chord progressions. Not all harmonies sound pleasing to the ear.

  • Dissonant harmony doesn't sound pleasant when played together. It adds tension and makes the chord sound unstable.
  • Consonant harmony sounds balanced and pleasant.

Musicians combine consonant and dissonant harmonies to make music more interesting.

Rhythm is the backbone for other musical elements. Understanding rhythm can help you make great music.

  • Beat: A repeating pulse.
  • Meter: A specific pattern of strong and weak pulses.
  • Time Signature: The number of beats per measure.
  • Tempo: How fast or slow the music plays.
  • Strong and Weak Beats: The downbeats are the strong beats, and the offbeats are the weak beats.
  • Syncopation: Rhythms that accent or emphasize the offbeats.
  • Accents: Where the emphases are placed on the notes.

Chords are the harmonious building blocks of music. Knowing how to build chords and how they interact is essential when learning music theory.

There are four basic types of chords in music:

  1. Major – It has a major third and a perfect fifth above the root
  2. Minor – It has a minor third and a perfect fifth above the root
  3. Diminished – It has a minor third and a diminished fifth above the root
  4. Augmented – It has a major third and an augmented fifth above the root.
The fundamentals of music theory
  • The musical alphabet consists of seven letters: A, B, C, D, E, F, G, and repeat. They are the white keys, and each note has a specific pitch.
  • There are 12 notes on the piano keyboard: A, A#/B♭, B, C, C#/D♭, D, D#/E♭, E, F, F#/G♭, G, G#/A♭. The sharps (#) and flats (♭) are often the black keys on a piano.
  • Octaves are the next highest or lowest pitch of the same note.
  • Key signatures indicate what notes in a scale are sharp (♯) or flat (♭).

There are five types of intervals in music: major (M), minor (m), perfect (P), augmented (A), and diminished (d). They are measured by the number of half steps and whole steps, and their position in the scale.

Intervals are the foundation of harmony (paying two or more notes together) and melody (playing single notes in sequence).

The melody of the song is often the most recognisable part. Most compositions have multiple melodies that repeat.

Two primary elements of a melody:

  1. Pitch is how high or low a note will sound.
  2. Rhythm is the duration of each pitch.

There are two types of melodic motion that musicians combine to give melodies more variation:

  1. Conjunct motion is when notes move by whole or half steps with shorter leaps between the notes.
  2. Disjunct motion has larger leaps between the notes.
  • Chord extensions add notes to the basic triad beyond the seventh. They extend into the next octave and are richer than basic triads.
  • Chord inversions are variations of the same chord. Transferring the bottom note in a chord to the next octave makes an inversion.
  • Chord progressions is an ordered series of chords and support the melody and the rhythm.

Musical modes are scales and are made from a parent scale. They use the same notes and interval patterns, but the scale is started on a different note.

The seven musical modes are:

  • I – Ionian: major scale
  • ii – Dorian: major scale starting on the 2nd degree
  • iii – Phrygian: major scale starting on the 3rd degree
  • IV – Lydian: major scale starting on the 4th degree
  • V – Mixolydian: major scale starting on the 5th degree
  • vi – Aeolian: natural minor scale or major scale starting on the 6th degree
  • vii – Locrian: major scale starting on the 7th degree

A music scale is a set of notes within an octave and arranged by their pitch. The notes from a scale form melodies and harmonies.

The two main types of scales are major and minor scales and can start from any note.

  • Major scales are happy sounding and follow the same interval pattern of whole-whole-half-whole-whole-whole-half.
  • Minor scales sound dark and sad and follow the same interval pattern of whole-half-whole-whole-half-whole-whole.

There are twelve minor scales with three variations: natural, harmonic, and melodic.

  • The most basic chords are triads - a chord made of three notes.
  • The seventh chords add a note above the basic triad. For example, C major seventh has the notes C-E-G-B.
  • Major chords have a root note, a major third, and a perfect fifth, for example, a C major triad has the notes C-E-G.
  • Minor chords have a root note, a minor third and a perfect fifth, for example, a C minor triad consists of the notes C-E♭-G.
  • Diminished chords sound tense. They have a root note, minor third, and diminished fifth. For example, a C diminished triad has the notes: C-E♭-G♭.
Craters On The Moon
  • The 17th century saw Galilieo exploring the moon using his telescope, wondering how craters were formed.
  • Two centuries later, astronomers like Franz von Gruithuisen proposed that asteroids were responsible for the same, a theory that was rejected.
  • The perfect circular shape of the moon’s craters misled scientists into believing these are mountains. Later the Russian astronomer Nikolai Morozov concluded through a series of experiments that the craters were indeed formed by asteroids.
  • If an asteroid the size of Chicxulub hit earth on the same spot in Mexico, one could get killed in Texas, be deaf in New York, and lose the car window panes at Buenos Aires (Argentina).
  • If a resulting tsunami doesn’t get you, you might have a better chance near the ocean to survive. It is also a good idea to hide in a cave, shielding from the impact of trillions of shattered glass bullets(which in large quantities cause firestorms in the air).
  • Surviving the resulting heat is tricky, and a large tropical island might be the safest place to be. Another option is to find a mountainous region with a livable temperature, deep caves and less rainfall. One can eat the plants and animals (carefully) to survive.
  • When a high-impact asteroid or smaller rocks known as meteors rush towards Earth, the atmosphere behaves like it is water being hit by pebbles.
  • The rocks burn away in the friction when colliding with the atmosphere, with the giant asteroids (those the size of a mountain) having the ability to wipe out entire life from the planet.
  • The fall is at a speed of more than 10 miles per second, and ensures that even air cannot escape the impact area, and gets heated thousands of degrees in an instant.
  • The compressed, super-hot air vaporizes the surrounding area. The impact does not give time to rocks to shatter or crumble, and they start to flow, instantly turning liquid.
The Crater’s ‘Peak Ring’

A vertical ‘sploosh’ results from an impact with an asteroid, with the earth rising at 1000 miles per hour to create mountains taller than Mt. Everest, only to instantly collapse due to continuous explosions, leaving behind a ring known as the ‘Peak Ring’.

The impact’s energy measurement is approximately 1,300,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 kilojoules for the size of a rock that can destroy our planet. The temperatures created on impact exceed that of the surface of the Sun.

Religions are divisions, making people separate from others. Most religions follow the concept of belief, that the truth is already there and you simply have to believe in it.

These religions have imposed beliefs, doctrines and sets of ideas that are supposed to be holding the truth, and some even have deities and other entities with divine power that supposedly protect us from the harsh truths of life: uncertainty, impermanence, death and change. These harsh truths are paradoxically essential for understanding life.

Nothing exists except the present moment, as even the past or the future need the present moment to take shape. It seems shorter than a microsecond but encompasses all eternity.

Apart from this moment, one cannot be anywhere else.

Alan Watts

“Life is a dance, and when you are dancing you are not intent on getting somewhere… The meaning and purpose of dancing is the dance.”

Tao is the way of nature, and the way to be in accord with it is Wu Wei that is non-doing. This non-action, effortless effort, or actionless action goes past most western societies who are having a ‘doing’ mentality rather than a ‘being’ one.

Acting out of the result in mind is not being in accord with the way of nature, as we are already imposing something in our actions. The agenda is already there.

Alan Watts

“Only words and conventions can isolate us from the entirely undefinable something which is everything.”

  • There is no us without others, and there is no here without any there. Even darkness cannot be defined without light.
  • We go on labelling our feelings or our activities, saying things like I am sad, I am listening to music, or I am happy, but to really do something, one cannot label it.
  • Even labelling an activity is making us separate from the true and real experiences of performing the activity.

Most people are afraid of breathing, unable to exhale after they inhale, due to the uncertainty and insecurity of life. They are afraid to live, to let go and are not sure that the next breath will come, so they do what is logical: Hold their own breath.

Our fundamental misunderstanding is that we are alone in this world and must face the reality. This creates a fight between us and the world and is the basis of the ‘us vs them’ thinking that reinforces the feeling of separation, lack and disconnection.

  • More knowledge doesn’t equate with more wisdom, even though that is presumed by most western societies. The universe is not ambitious or with a purpose, but we are blind to that.
  • The meaning of the universe cannot be understood by the intellect, or by breaking down stuff into small parts. That is like biting your own teeth or eating your own mouth.
  • That the universe is meaningful or meaningless is not the point. Your trying to figure out the same by an endless cycle of questioning and solving problems is only to satisfy your own ego and become a believer or a nihilist, as per your conclusions.
Alan Watts: Spiritual Entertainer

Alan Watts was not confined to a single label and wasn’t even an expert in what he philosophized. His various recordings and books related to Buddhism, Hinduism, Zen and Taoism, however, he wasn’t an academic or a monk, not following any system rigidly.

He called himself a spiritual entertainer, though his unorthodox style, a flamboyant life and other unique traits made him one of the leading philosophers of the 21st century.

Human life and all the other life does not work in harmony when we try to force or impose something that we assume is under our control. Man has always imposed his own will and mind over nature, making a basic error of judgement in considering himself as an all-knowing God.

This also creates a barrier, a conflict between objects which are otherwise in complete harmony. Nature is not against anyone, but if a species like ours has gained sentience and decided to conquer nature, it will revert back aptly.

  • Western society equates nature with the countryside or the mountains. Nature is everywhere, even inside us.
  • Any attempt to intentionally be one with nature (or Tao) results in us moving away from it because the attempt itself shows that we are not one with it already.
  • The Chinese name for nature, ziran means the natural, spontaneous process of life and is not differentiated from man.

Emotional contagion is linked to many psychological studies on social behaviour.

  1. Anger at the workplace has been linked to more workplace accidents and cognitive errors.
  2. Taking breaks from social media leads to a positive effect, as there is less social comparison and less of negative exposure.
  3. The 1967 ‘Summer Of Love’ in the United States was a series of large gatherings of young people spreading peace, love and generosity, leading to positive emotional contagion.

Extensive studies and social experiments indicate that emotional contagion occurs across the digital landscape, in the various social media platforms on a huge scale and speed.

Emotional contagious content, both negative and positive creates strong responses and spreads like wildfire.

  • Leaders tend to spread emotions in a powerful, widespread manner at the workplace, with negative emotional contagion being more contagious and also common.
  • One needs to be aware of the toxic and mentally draining nature of certain coworkers and avoid contact with them.
  • If the whole workplace is toxic, and the emotional exhaustion is unbearable, one can think of leaving the job as well.
  • Try to balance the negative by deploying positive emotional boosters.
  • We can also be nice to fellow workers, diner waitresses, or other people serving us, who may have had a rough day.
Emotional Contagion: Emotions Are Contagious

Emotional contagion is a phenomenon that occurs when a person or groups emotions and behaviours affect the emotions and behaviours of some other person or group. This can be negative or positive.

We often mimic or imitate the emotional expressions (smiles and frowns) of other people without even realizing it. Mimicry and copying the body language, voice or facial expressions of other people is natural among social creatures, due to 'mirror neurons’ in the cerebral cortex region of the brain.

To be empathetic, we need to feel the other person's situation, while keeping our own autonomy intact. There is a certain distance between us and the other person whom we feel empathy for.

Emotional contagion removes the barrier and the person who is trying to be empathetic starts to show the same problem themselves, drowned in the negative feelings of the other person.

Turning an idea into a tradition
  • Reporters described the electric lights on Edward Hibberd Johnson's Christmas tree as "a most picturesque and uncanny aspect." "It was brilliantly lighted... One can hardly imagine anything prettier."
  • Johnson turned his stunt into a tradition, doing more each year.
  • By 1894, President Cleveland put electric lights on the White House tree, and by the 1930s, coloured bulbs and cones were everywhere.
The first electric Christmas lights
  • Edward Hibberd Johnson hired Edison in 1871, and later invested in Edison's Lamp Company to sell bulbs, even though widespread electrification was still decades away.
  • In 1882, in New York City, Edward Hibberd Johnson had an idea. While flickering flames were festive on a Christmas tree, they were also a fire hazard.
  • He strung 80 red, white and blue light bulbs together around a tree that he set up by the street-side window of his parlour. He then placed the trunk on a revolving pedestal and powered it all with a generator.
  • Then he called a reporter.

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