How is it possible that all of music… uh… make that all of Western music… uh… make that much of Western music is formed from only twelve notes? How is it possible that some of the greatest music takes flight with fewer than twelve notes — only seven, or only five? This is a question that often occurs to people taking their very first steps in learning about music theory. If you knew absolutely nothing about the technical side of music, but you only knew of the infinite variety of musical experience – the way music can make you feel ecstatic and depressed and every shade in between, the way music can keep you entertained for hours on end – you might be shocked to learn that all of these diverse and brilliant riches are constructed from at most twelve elements. It seems unbelievable that you’d never get bored of those same twelve elements repeated over and over. But then you get used to the idea. As you learn more about music theory, you may feel that you understand how it all works, but the question “Only twelve?” might still cross your mind from time to time. I myself was thinking about it the other day and imagining how I might respond to a beginning student who insisted that there simply must be more than twelve notes. I imagined several responses I’d give the student, and I’ll record them here.
The first response is a cheeky one: asking more questions. So you’re surprised that there are only twelve notes? Then how is it possible that everything we taste is built from five basic flavor sensations: bitter, salty, sweet, sour, and umami? How is it possible that everything we see is based on three primary colors: red, blue, yellow? How is it possible that all of Shakespeare, no, all of English literature – everything we’ve ever read or written, and everything we will ever read or write – is formed from 26 letters and some punctuation marks? How is it possible that all of the content we’ve ever seen on the Internet – every video, every news article, every comment, every social media post – is represented using only two elements: ones and zeroes?
The second response is to dispute the premise. Yes, Western music has twelve named note but each named note may occur in many different ranges. The note A0 at the bottom of the piano’s range is a very different sonic experience from A7 near the top of its range, but they are both called A. A piano actually has 88 keys, not 12, and each of those 88 sounds different. If someone endeavors to sing the note A at 440hz, their voice may wobble slightly, or they may deliberately employ vibrato, in which case we hear a range of frequencies hovering around the 440hz mark. And in fact, a piano can be tuned in different ways – equal temperament is only one option. The use of twelve named notes is a simplification that conceals a much wider variety of sonic material that music can and does exploit. Music has cymbal crashes and washboard scratches and whispered words and other sounds that don’t have a specific pitch. And there is some Western microtonal music that uses 19 named notes, or 22, or 48….
A third response is to point out that twelve notes actually give rise to a very wide variety of permutations and combinations, which each have their own distinctive qualities. Lets say I want to make a sound combining four of the twelve named notes, and I want to pick one note to be the lowest, another (possibly the same) note to go above it, a third note to go above that, and finally a fourth note to go on top. I can do this in 12^4 = 20736 different ways. Now what if I want to create sequences of note combinations? The possibilities explode.
A fourth response is that notes can be delivered in an infinite variety of ways. A note can be loud or soft. It can be long or short. It can be played by a piccolo or a tuba or a guitar… or an entire ensemble. You can attack a note directly or you can slide up to it, or down to it. On each instrument there are countless articulations. There may be only one named note A, but that A can take countless forms.
A fifth response, perhaps the most interesting to me, is that notes can give different meanings to each other and can renew themselves in our perception. A sequence of notes can put a listener in a certain state of mind, and that state of mind then determines how the listener hears further notes in the sequence. If I play the note C a few times, it may come to sound familiar to you. If I play a C chord, followed by a G7 chord, followed by a C chord again, then the note C will sound like “home.” Even though you may have heard the F# chord millions of times in your life before, the F# chord would sound strange and unexpected if you heard it at this particular moment. Your perception of a note or a chord is not governed as much by your history of hearing it over your lifetime as it is by the context that’s been created by the notes and chords you’ve heard just moments ago. If I had played a different chord sequence – F# followed by C#7 and then F# again – it would be the note F# that you’d experience as “home” while the note C and its chord would sound alien and unexpected.
Music uses gesture and pattern to make certain notes and chords sound familiar while others sound foreign. Once a perceptual frame is established, music can shift it around, making the now-foreign sound familiar and the now-familiar sound foreign. In this way, you can listen to a four-hour concert that uses only twelve named notes, never getting bored with any of those twelve, because the context in which you’re hearing those notes – and thus the meaning those notes acquire – is constantly changing. A C that you hear at the beginning of the concert may not sound the same to you, may not mean the same thing to you, as a C that you hear in the middle or at the end. That C and in fact all of the twelve named notes are only vessels that assume different meanings and affects according to the infinite variety of contexts that they create for each other and the infinite variety of moods or perceptual frames that they put us in. Music uses notes to give meaning to other notes, and as the music continues, the meanings change. While the meaning of C can change over the course of a concert, it can also change from one moment to the next: C might serve as the root or anchor of the chord you’re hearing now — it might be a stable note in this instant — but it might become the tension-giving seventh of the chord you’ll hear next.
A sixth response is that we don’t only hear notes — and the melodies and harmonies they create — when we listen to music. We hear rhythm too, of course. (Another question: How is it possible that most of the rhythms in Western music are made from whole notes, half notes, quarter notes, sixteenth notes, thirty-second notes and their dotted and triplet varieties?) Beyond that, we hear texture. We hear performers, we hear composers, we hear the people the music is about, or the people it’s for; we hear something of the history of when it was written or performed; we hear the memory of when we heard it first or heard it last; we hear the way we feel right now as it relates to the sounds that confront us. We may be something of a different person each time we listen, and listen again, to the same piece. There’s that.
4 thoughts on “Only Twelve Notes”
A thoughtful post on a classic question.
Another perspective is that although there are 12 notes, as you define them, many great songs, indents, chants and prayers are made with just a few of them. As with rhythm, the space between the notes is equally important as the notes themselves.
Thanks for the comment. Agree re: spaces between notes. Added a sentence to mention that lots of great music uses significantly fewer than 12.
I will be listening and hearing very differently from now on. Thank you for expanding my horizons!
Glad you enjoyed the post!