Octaves, Sharps, Flats, and the Fingerboard
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Octaves, Sharps, Flats, and the Fingerboard

Different musical symbols and terminologies upgrade a novice into a professional player. Concerning guitars, there are many terminologies to be learned by a beginner guitarist.

Any piece of music can be notated using a special language of lines and symbols. Most of the examples you see on guitar instructional books are shown using standard music notation (five-line staves) accompanied by guitar tablature (six-line "tab"). These are some elements of music, but since this is about guitar concerns, we will focus on octave, sharps, flats, and the guitar fingerboard.

Octave Intervals

All traditional Western music uses the chromatic system. This determines that music is made up of twelve different notes - that means twelve fixed pitches. These are best viewed as the notes of a piano keyboard(see below). Notes become higher in pitch as you move from left to right along the keyboard. The white ntoes on the keyboard are all named from A to G. Each of the black notes can have two possible names, depending on their musical context, but we'll talk some more about those in a moment.

If you look at the way the notes are named on the diagram below, you can see that these sequences repeat themselves. When you get to G, the next white note along the keyboard is once again called A. Although this has the same name, it clearly has a higher pitch than the previous A in the sequence. If you play both notes, one after the other, you will hear that in spite of the different pitches, they have a similar quality - they are, in fact, the same note.

This special relationship is called an octave. The followers of Pythagorus (the same chap who conceived the theory about right-angled triangles) were the first to understand the basic mathematical principles that govern the way sound works. It was their work that taught us if you vibrate a string, by halving it's lenth you double the frequency of the oscillations. This creates the same note in the next cycle of named notes. If a vibrating string sounded the lowest-pitched "C" on the piano diagram, then halving the length of that note (although obviously keeping the tension the same) would double its frequency, creating the same pitch as the next "C" along the keyboard.

Sharps and Flats

The interval between any two adjacent notes is called semitone or half-step. This represents one-twelfth of an octave. In terms of the white keys, B and C are a semitone apart as are E and F. However, the other white keys are two semitones apart. This is usually referred to as tone or step. If you move a semitone in either direction from these notes, you will play a black key. These can be given names relative to the notes on either side. For example, the black note between F and G can be called "F sharp" (which is writted as F?) or G flat (notated as G?). The term "sharp" means to raise the pitch of a note by a semitone, thus F? is the note F raised by a semitone. Similarly, the term flat means to lower a note by a semitone - so G? is the note G which has been lowered by a semitone.

Notes such as these, with two possible names, are referred to as being enharmonic.

The Fingerboard

The diagram above represents the fingerboard of a guitar and shows the notes on every string and fret up to the 12th fret. All guitars can go higher than this position - many can go right up to 24 frets. But once you get to the 12th fret - remember, there are twelve semitones that make up the octave - the cycle of notes repeats. To labour the point a little further, the 12th fret is exactly half way between the bridge and nut, which are the two extremities of each string.

The guitar differs fundamentally from the piano in one major respect: every note on the piano keyboard is of a different pitch; on a guitar the same pitches can be produced at different positions on the fingerboard. This is because of the nature of the guitar's six strings. Looking down from above on a standard guitar you will notice that the lowest strings (the ones to the left) are thicker than the higher-pitched strings on the right. This enables them to produce a different range of notes.

When standard E-A-D-G-B-E tuning is used, "Open E" on the 1st string (the top string), can also be played on the 5th fret of the 2nd string, the 9th fret of the 3rd string, the 14th fret of the 4th string, the 19th fret of the 5th string, and - if your guitar has a sufficient range - the 24th fret of the 6th string. This opens up a great deal of choice to the guitarist when playing, and enables music of great harmonic complexity and sophistication to be played. There's no question: the guitar is a very cool instrument.

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