The Key of One part 1: Understanding Music Without Notation

January 9, 2015

Greetings and welcome to the new Key of One column! In this column, we’ll explore ways to understand music theory without conventional notation, i.e., sheet music. In fact, this first column will explain how notation is not music; why music as a language is not necessarily learned via notation; and why all musicians can benefit by exploring music without notation, whether they eventually use sheet music or not. Interested? Let’s do this!

The Problem

Notation was invented in the age before electricity as a method to “record” music for posterity: From simple Gregorian chants to far more complex compositions, the music needed to be reproducible so it could be shared with others. Consequently, the preferred method of music education was to translate this notation back into music; you could think of that as “playback” via live human performance. So every student was taught how to read notation for that purpose. That’s all well and good, but the danger today is that students whose education emphasizes notation might become competent regurgitators of music without developing a true ability to “think” in music or to improvise and write musically—making them like human phonograph needles.

Many students who have a hard time grasping notation effectively get shut out of music and end up feeling that they must not be capable of understanding it. This is a flawed paradigm on both sides, and one that is easily correctable by delivering a true understanding of music fundamentals to students. Then, musicians who go on to read notation will do so with an inherent understanding of what they’re reading, and those who don’t “get” notation can still pursue their musical aspirations without it. 

The Basics

Let’s put aside notation for the moment and examine the basics of music so that we can pour a solid foundation. 

1. Major and minor scale formulas. Music itself can be explained and understood by the sound of numbers, or rather, relationships between sounds that can be expressed as simple numerals. Our two most basic scales—major and minor—are not separate entities. Instead, they’re both derived from the same formula. 

Out of the 12 existing notes, the major and minor scales each use seven, leaving five notes unplayed. Both scales have notes 1 (the root), 2, 4, and 5 in common, and then choose between ordered pairs of 3s, 6s, and 7s (minor immediately below major on the physical keyboard) to create the major or minor scale. Once you lay out a seven-note major or minor scale, you can make sense of the five notes you’re not playing. If you’re playing a major scale, you’re skipping the minor 3, 6, and 7, plus our two outlier notes: the flat 2 and flat 5. If you’re playing a minor scale, you’re skipping the major 3, 6, and 7, and the two outlier notes. 

The 1—the root note that defines the musical key of the scale (or song)—can be any note on the physical keyboard and the above relationships will still hold true, but let’s start with C because it provides a literally black-and-white visual example of the major scale formula. Hold down the white keys in an octave from C to C and you can see that the black keys just happen to be the notes you skip when playing the major scale). Also, none of the skipped notes are side by side. Now, file this for future use: If it’s true in C, it’s true in every key! 


Now hold down the white keys over an octave from A to A and you’ll see a black-and-white example of the minor scale formula. Notice the same thing: The black keys just happen to be the notes you’d skip in a minor scale, and none are side by side. 


In different keys than C major or A minor, played versus unplayed notes won’t be a simple white key/black key matter. But the correct and skipped notes will always be the same distance from each other wherever you begin on the piano keyboard. Which brings us to . . .  

2. Different keys. There are only 12 keys (each with major and minor variants) in Western music. Because the piano keyboard is an uneven landscape, the scale formula in each of these 12 keys has a different shape to the eyes and feel for the fingers. (Contrast with a guitar, where chords and scales have the same physical shapes and finger positions anywhere on the fretboard.) Therefore, many well-meaning piano teachers show students how each key is different based on shape, which confuses us from the beginning. What we really need to focus on is what every key has in common: how the unchanging numerical formulas for major and minor scales sound in each of the 12 keys. Then, we can adjust our fingers to the different patterns required to execute them.

By focusing on the numbers and their sounds, we always feel familiar with the way things work: Once you pick a key to play in, that key becomes your 1. Then, the formula lays out in linear fashion and we can easily find and hear the sounds of the 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, and 7. Think of each key as being a different playground with the same ordered elements set up a bit differently. The more you play, the more familiar you are with each key’s shapes and with the sounds of each number. 

3. What it sounds like. By focusing on the “sounds of the numbers,” you’re also training your ears to hear them. This is one of the most important elements, as your ear connects the feedback loop from your hands to your mind. Once your ear is familiar with the sound of a major third or a minor seventh, you will hear it in any key. This makes transposing a much easier task because the numerical framework of notes and chords in a song does not change from key to key, even though the physical shapes do. This is why a transposed song or melody still sounds like itself, no matter what key it’s in.

We’ll close with a power tip: If you really want to supercharge your hearing, practice blindfolded. Let your ear overcompensate to build its ability to do its job. With music, our physical and mental prowess is only as strong as our ability to listen allows it to be. Just because you can hear doesn’t mean you’re listening.

In our next column, we’ll build on this information to explore further keys and scales without notation. See you next month!

Robbie Gennet is a touring keyboardist, guitarist, longtime Keyboard contributor, and educator at Musicians’ Institute in Hollywood, California. His book, The Key of One (Alfred Music) outlines a thorough method for understanding music without learning traditional notation. You can get it at, and take private lessons from Robbie at

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