Why Are There 7 Musical Notes?

Learning music is one the best journeys one can ever embark on.

In all my years as a music producer, I’ve spent almost every waking day making music and trying to understand music better.

Music theory is an important tool that can drastically improve your abilities to create music.

In this post I’ll discuss an answer to a question I got recently from a newbie producer looking to find their footing in audio production.

The question was “why are there 7 musical notes?”

I personally think this is an interesting question..

With that said, let’s get right into it..

Why are there 7 musical notes?

The 7 notes (A,B,C,D,E,F,G) denoted by the first 7 letters of the English alphabet are used because they represent the main notes that haven’t been sharpened or flattened and are one tone apart instead of one semitone. Sharps and flats are simply a product of the main 7 notes.

The reason why the 7 notes are used is because it just makes things easier.

Of course Music notes are more than 7 but we mainly acknowledge only 7 of them.

This is because the others are half-step raises (sharps) or a half-step lowering (flat) of the 7 notes. This means that the other notes are basically derived from these 7 notes.

The Elements of Music

The basic elements of music are not arbitrary, They’re a result of the nature of vibrating strings or columns of air.

Musical tones are therefore those that have a pitch that is recognizable, which simply means that the sound wave repeats a pattern rather than constantly changing.

Tones and pitch

If you were to look at a graph of the sound wave that is produced by, say, a sneeze, you would notice an irregular and unique jumble.

But if you look at the graph of a musical sound… you’ll some sort of shape that repeats.

If it repeats quickly we hear a high tone, if it repeats slowly we hear a low one.

In a complex sound for example, a flute, which makes up a single musical tone there are a number of pitches combined.

Octaves

There are tones that correspond to the main shape, one that is twice as fast, which is an octave higher, one that is three times as fast, which is a “fifth” above that, and so on.

Partials

And when you play two musical tones together that are tuned right, some of these other waves are called “partials,” and they correspond and will reinforce each other so that these combinations seem particularly important.

Take two pitches that at first have no apparent relationship to each other, gradually change one, and at certain points they will suddenly come into a kind of agreement that is quite audible: that is the effect of the overlapping partials.

This means that the ear will be able hear a noticeable agreement between tones that are an octave apart, or a fifth apart, and to a lesser degree to notes that are a fourth or a major third apart, etc.

Those are the natural stopping places when finding new notes above a starting note, whether you’re using a vibrating string or air in a pipe.

Natural stopping places

Over time in different cultures throughout the world ..People found out about these natural stopping places.

And people could easily tell that pitches an octave apart seemed like the same thing but only higher, so musical scales were formed by finding other notes between the octaves.

The fifth

Almost every musical culture discovered the fifth, like C to G, and that meant they knew the fourth which is literally the same thing turned upside-down).

 The major third (like C to E) was another stopping place..

Depending on the type of music people were interested in, they either stopped at a simple scale like the major pentatonic (example: C,D,E,G,A) or they went on to fill in other notes.

The tradition from which western music derives began with filling in the most obvious stopping places in one octave.

 And if you basically go by that process you’ll easily end up with a seven but no more.

The 7 Notes

The next pitch is called the octave because it is the eighth note.

Years ago the letters of the english alphabet were adopted to be used to refer to these, and since there were only seven the letters ran A, B, C, D, E, F, G.

That gets to the octave, where we hear what sounds like the same thing again, so it makes sense to repeat.

That’s why the piano has white keys that form a scale: the first keyboards only had the white keys. The black keys were later added out of necessity to fill in half steps where possible, so that the same melody could be played starting on different notes.