Music Theory for Squeezeboxers
In spite of the fact that button boxes are a folk instrument, and that a lot of people play them without any formal training whatsoever, there are certain aspects of music theory which can be applied and can actually help your playing significantly. To be absolutely honest, the more theory you know, the better, but some things are more important and more basic than others. Some of the things that I would recommend knowing are: Those are the biggies. I realize that not everybody is going to learn these things, in fact not everybody is even interested. Truth is that you can get by without ever knowing any of this. But once you start to understand what is going on in your music, you can try new things to make your music more interesting. More than that, maybe you'll discover that you can play some things that you didn't think you could play. Ultimately, all this knowledge can help you to arrange and compose and do other neat things so that you won't be constrained to play only those things that you've heard others play, in the same way they play them. Make some new music on your squeezebox!
Probably the most important bit of information that you can learn in music is the circle of fifths. It applies to so many things....chord sequences, key signatures, transposition, modes, melody and harmony construction, chord construction, you name it. The circle of fifths is the key to so much understanding of music, that even if you learn nothing else, you should know this. Here is a graphic which shows the circle of fifths:
As you read around the circle in a clockwise direction, each new note is seperated from the previous note by an interval of a fifth. As you read around the circle in a counterclockwise direction, each new note is seperated from the previous note by an interval of a fourth.
The importance of the fourth and fifth intervals in "Western" music cannot be overstated. The I, IV, and V chords form the basis of accompaniment and chord progression. The fifth and fourth intervals also form the basis for how we read a key signature in music. The fifth interval is also the most "dominant" note in the scale after the tonic. Even our button accordions are set up with the rows of the treble keyboard a fifth (or fourth) interval apart. If you look at the layout of the bass buttons, the push and pull notes on each button are a fifth apart, and if you look at the arrangement of the buttons, it looks remarkably similar to this clock of keys. For example, on a D/G accordion, starting with the lower inside bass buttons and proceeding around to the upper inside (pushing and pulling), the bass buttons go as follows C, C, G, D, D, A, E, B If you compare that with the circle of fifths, you will see that outside of a few doubled notes, it follows exactly in a clockwise direction.
You would do well to memorize this diagram. It comes into play in so many ways when dealing with music. For example, say you are jamming with a few musicians and they start up a tune which you don't know. They tell you that its in the key of C. With your knowledge of the circle of fifths, you immediately remember that the fifth and fourth intervals of the key of C are F and G, the notes immediately to the right and left of C on the circle of fifths. Now you know that the chordal accompaniment of the piece will most likely be the chords C, G, and F, and you have a fair chance of being able to at least chord along with the tune. That is just one application. Print the diagram out and keep it with you.
Another essential bit of information is how the major and minor scales are made, and that boils down to what we call intervals. In modern Western music, an octave is usually divided into 12 equal sections. By convention, each of these sections is called a 1/2 step (I know thats a bit confusing, but such is tradition). A scale which uses all 12 of these notes is called a chromatic scale. A chromatic scale is neither major nor minor, it's.....well, it's chromatic. Each of the 12 notes of the chromatic scale have been named. The names are: A, A#, B, C, C#, D, D#, E, F, F#, G, G# (the "#" means "sharp"). Some of the notes have more than one name the most common alternate names are: A, Bb, B, C, Db, D, Eb, E, F, Gb, G, Ab (the "b" means "flat"). Note that technically, B could also be considered Cb, C could be considered B#, E could be considered Fb, and F could be considered E#.

Most traditional music, and folk music in general, is not chromatic in nature, it is what we call other words it uses only 7 of the 12 divisions of the octave. This is the type of music for which the button box was concieved. The most common diatonic scale is the Major scale. It corresponds to the white keys on a piano.

Now the Major scale does not use just any 7 notes out of the octave. It uses 7 very specific notes. We generally speak of these notes by specifying the intervals between them. So if we number the 7 notes from 1 to 7, and knowing that 2 half steps equals a whole step, the major scale looks like this: 1w2w3h4w5w6w7h (where w means whole, and h means half) After the 7th note, the scale starts over with the 1st note. In condensed form, you could represent the Major scale thusly: wwhwwwh, remembering that there is a note implied between each letter. Sometimes, rather than speaking of wholes and halfs, you will hear people speaking of 2s and 1s. This is very easy if you just remember that w=2 half steps, and h=1 half step. I actually prefer this method (mainly because when you start talking about pentatonic scales and other less common scales, sometimes you have 3 or 4 half steps, and those are easier to write and understand as numbers rather than letters or fractions). So in my preferred notation the Major scale looks like 2212221. Logically, if you add up those numbers, you should get 12. If you don't, its a sure sign that something went wrong.

The next most common scale in western music is the Minor scale. The Minor scale uses the same progression of intervals as the Major scale, the only differance is that the minor scale starts on the note that would be the 6th note of the Major scale. This is how the Major scale relates to its "relative Minor".
So taking what we know about the Major scale, and modifying it, we can determine that starting on the 6th note, and wrapping back to the 1st note after the 7th, the sequence looks like this:
6w7h1w2w3h4w5w Now, the 6th note of the Major scale is the first note of the Minor scale, so we can renumber as follows:
1w2h3w4w5h6w7w or in condensed form: whwwhww In numerical notation 2122122. Again, a quick check shows that the numbers add up to 12.

So, lets apply this information. We know the 12 notes in an octave, and we know the intervals for the Major and Minor scales. so lets construct a C Major scale. The scale will start on C (it always starts on the note it is named after). We see from above that the next note will be 2 half steps above it...that would be D. The next will be 2 half steps above D, which we can see is E. Now we add only 1 half step to E to get F. Then 2 half steps gets us to G, 2 more to A, and 2 more to get us to B. These are the notes of the C Major scale: C, D, E, F, G, A, B. Normally when playing a scale, our ears like us to finish on the root or tonic of the scale, in this case C, so C,D,E,F,G,A,B,C would be a fine way to write or play this scale.
We can do likewise with the Minor scale. Lets stick with C, and construct C Minor. Again, start with C and add 2 half steps to get D. Now add only 1 half step, as shown in our interval map above, to get D# (also known as Eb). Then add 2 half steps to get F, 2 more to get G, 1 more to get G# (also known as Ab), 2 more half steps get you to A# (also known as Bb). So the notes in the C Minor scale are C, D, Eb, F, G, Ab, Bb. I chose to use the alternate names of Eb, Ab, Bb because it is conventional to use all the letters in the scale, and otherwise E and B would not have been present.

The usefulness of this information may not be immediately apparent, but it will become clearer, the more you get into music. One use is that you now have the basis to figure out the 3 common chords that go with any Major or Minor scale. The details of how to do that will be included in the section on constructing chords.

Chords are constructed from the notes of the scale from which they are taken. The most common chords are made up of three notes and are called triads. The notes in a triad are seperated by intervals of a third. A third interval is the distance between the 1st and 3rd notes in a particular scale. By examining the Major and Minor scales we have constructed in the last section, you can see that in a Major scale the third interval consists of 4 half steps, while in the Minor scale, it consists of 3 half steps. Therefore, 4 half steps is known as a Major 3rd, while 3 half steps is known as a Minor 3rd.

Every triad consists of a root, third, and fifth. The root is the fundamental note of the chord. It is the note which the chord is named after. So, for example, in a C chord, the root note is C. From our work in the last section, you can now figure out what the 3rd and 5th notes of the C Major scale are. E is the 3rd and G is the 5th. Therefore a C Major chord consists of C,E,G.

Now lets figure out the C Minor chord. Again, the root is C. From our work with the Minor scale above, we know that the 3rd note is Eb and the 5th note is G. So the C Minor chord is made up of C, Eb, G. Easy huh?

Now I would like for you to notice something. The only difference between the C Major chord and the C Minor chord is one note, the 3rd interval. If the 3rd interval is Major, the chord sounds Major, if the 3rd interval is Minor, the chord sounds Minor. If you leave out the 3rd interval, it will sound neither major nor minor, but neutral. Technically it is no longer a triad, it is a diad. Some button box players use this bit of information to expand their ability to harmonize the bass hand with the treble. They purposely mute or remove the 3rds from the bass chords to allow themselves to play neutral diads. It is a trade-off... expanded ability to harmonize, but at the expense of thin, wishy-washy sounding bass "chords".
And you thought none of this was practical!

Continue with more theory.

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