Music Is Merely 12 Notes

by Gary Guttman · 4 comments

Probably the single most important mantra for any composer – at any level – is that music is merely 12 notes. If you look at the piano, there are only 12 notes between any octave. After those 12 notes, the octave simply repeats all over again.

Why is it so important to keep reminding yourself of this? Because often times, composers seem overwhelmed with the thought of having to compose a new piece of music. This emotion is usually based on the fear that they will not be able to create any music of value or interest. My feeling is that this fear is simply the fact that they haven’t studied their 12 notes well enough.

While there are only 12 unique notes in all of music, their are hundreds if not thousands of combinations that can be made from these 12 notes. These 12 notes can combine in fascinating ways to create wonderful harmonies and melodies. The more time you spend experimenting with these combinations, the more choices you will have at your fingertips. As you will learn in our new Secret Composer software, harmonies and melodies are simple to create, and more importantly, fun to learn.

Once you really understand how to create melodies and harmonies, you will find that composing music is easier than you thought. No matter what style of music you have a preference for. Whether creating orchestral, pop, jazz, electronica or folk music, melodies and harmonies are the key to creating your mood.

As a working Hollywood composer for over 25 years, I’ve had to compose music in virtually every style. Many people are fascinated by the fact that I can quickly switch from one musical style to another. To me, that’s no big deal at all. I’ve simply learned how to combine 12 notes. With the rare exception of some cultures around the world that utilize quarter tones, every musical style utilizes the same 12 notes. Whether you want to compose Hungarian gypsy music, Celtic ballads, big band jazz, hip hop or heavy metal rock, you still only need to learn 12 different notes. While you might combine these notes differently for each musical style, they are still the same 12 notes.

Don’t let the thought of composing music intimidate you. There are 26 letters in the English alphabet, 39 in the Armenian alphabet and 74 in the Cambodian alphabet. And Chinese writing can contains as many as 40,000 characters. But there are still only 12 notes in the musical alphabet. Don’t let them scare you.


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Judy February 6, 2010 at 12:38 am

I’m looking for music composition resources and marketing info on educational music. Do you know of any sites, etc?
Thanx, Judy

Gary Guttman February 6, 2010 at 12:56 am

Hi Judy,

I’m sorry I can’t help you with that one. The focus of this site is strictly on teaching composers various aspects of music composition. Good luck with your search.

– Gary

David April 7, 2010 at 4:41 am

I must say a fantastic product, I am enjoying creating music at last, though I am having difficulty getting my theme from my head on to paper, I have lots of ideas but music seems to be written down in a very structured manor, which doesnt allow for the flow of notes that I create on a daily basis or simply I find it hard to descern dotted Quavers vs a staccato half notes. Could you suggest any tips for getting things on paper in the correct timing, I know basic music notation and i have read through the theory in the reference but trying to write a piece of music down from your head seems more difficult than creating new melodies, its kind of trying to paint a city on a torn canvas.

Gary Guttman April 7, 2010 at 8:38 pm

Hi David,

Great question – I totally relate to what you’re going through. When I first started to compose, I had the exact same problem. I had already been taking piano lessons for several years, and I still had difficulty transcribing the rhythms I had in my head, onto the music paper.

I accidentally discovered a method that made everything click in my head. I went to the library and found a beginner level music theory book, all about rhythm. There was one section where they notated the melody line of a famous folk tune – one that I had heard since I was a small child. It was a slightly syncopated melody, yet very easy to sing (it was “Comin’ Through the Rye”). I saw how the specific dotted eighth note/sixteenth note combination sounded when I hummed the words of the folk tune – and I also saw how the sixteenth note/dotted eighth note combination sounded (two different syncopations).

Seeing the rhythm notated on paper and humming the words and melody in my head at the same time, was all that I needed to finally have that specific rhythmic combination make sense. I then realized that the best way to master rhythmic notation was to get sheet music of my favorite songs and compositions and study how the rhythms look. It is so much easier to learn this when you study music that you’ve known all of your life and is second nature to you. It’s also much more fun.

After a while, I found that many of the same rhythmic patterns are used over and over again. Soon, I was able to hear a melody in my head and then quickly transcribe it onto music paper.

Having said that, there are still times when I will hear a complicated rhythmic pattern in my head and it will take me a little longer to properly transcribe it into music. In those instances, I just have to hum the melody very slowly in my head while I tap the tempo beats with my fingers. I will hear whether the rhythm lands on the beat or between the beat – and on what beat they land on. There’s nothing wrong in doing that. Use whatever method works.

Regarding your specific comment about confusing dotted notes with staccato notes – just remember that for staccato notes, you place the dot either on top or below the note. And for dotted notes, you place the dot to the right of the note. Think of it this way – you read music left to right. Since a dotted note extends the duration of a note, you’re placing the dot in the direction that the music is extending.

And finally, don’t get frustrated if it takes a little time to master rhythmic notation. Like everything else, practice makes perfect!

– Gary

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