This year, for some reason (*cough* midlife crisis) I’ve been motivated to do some things I’ve thought about in the past but allowed myself to be talked out of (by myself or others). So I’m learning the piano. I’ve played a few instruments as a child, with a timeline that basically went like this: Start having lessons, breeze through for a few months, right up to the point where regular practicing was required to make progress, lose interest and stop. Somewhat counterintuitively, I could improve further than average initially with little practice, so would hit a wall when I stopped improving as I had become used to making easy progress.

Coming into a new instrument after more than a few years, and having mostly lost any music reading ability I may have had, I’ve been struck by how regular music actually is. There are patterns everywhere and things that I struggled to understand as a young’un make perfect sense to me now. For example, scales:

The easiest scale to play on a piano is C-Major. You start at the white key to the left of the two black keys (that’s C) and press each white key (whole notes, eg C,D,E,F etc.) until you get to the next one that looks the same. Other scales however involve pressing black keys (the sharps and flats, eg C♯, E♭) and this was one of the things I found confusing whenever I considered it before. But there is a very simple pattern for all major scales, and it goes like this: 0-2-2-1-2-2-2-1. This means you press the first two keys two semitones apart after the first note (0), then the next semitone, followed by three more keys each two semitones apart, followed by a single semitone interval, which puts you on your starting note one octave higher. This applies to all major scales, regardless of which note you start on.

What’s a semitone? Its the difference between each adjacent key on the keyboard irrespective of colour. Notice how most white keys have a black between them but some don’t? That’s why the C-Major scale is only on the white keys. It happens that just when you need to go only one semitone higher, you’re at two white keys next to each other with no black key in the middle. Start at a different spot however and sometimes you’ll have to hit a black key in order to maintain the above sequence (eg. if you find yourself needing to go one semitone higher and there is a black key to the right, or two semitones higher when there is no black key between the key you’re on and the next white key along.)

So there you go. Music is maths.