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How To Speak The Language Of Music With Only 10 Words

creativity lessons music theory Oct 25, 2022

from Joshua Grange - The Echo Guild

It occurred to me recently that playing music is exactly like speaking a language. It’s been said that to be conversational in a language, a person must know between 1000-3000 words. Well I have some news for you. 

To speak the language of music, I have found just 10 Words that a person needs to become conversational.


Ok fine, those aren't really the 10 Words. Unless of course, your name is Shooby Taylor.



I've spent my lifetime working as a session and touring musician, and sometimes in deep moments of creation, there are conversations that need to happen between people.

One type of conversation is MUSICAL. This can sound like:

  • "Hey, should we put some low piano on this?"  
  • "I'm not sure this song is in the right key for my voice."
  • "Please please make that 5 a minor."

However, often enough, a conversation will be NON-MUSICAL. For example, I once had a singer/songwriter ask me to play less like a bunny and more like a fox. And I was into it! 

Speak to me in the language of esoteric songwriter, any day. Bunnies, foxes, shimmering glistenings, speak to me of your feelings ye oracle of song, of brightness and darkness, of sadness and hope. 

Or just “dance” around me while maintaining eye contact (like someone did once) to describe a feeling they wanted the guitar part to accomplish (it did). 

I'll take what you give me and turn it into music, because that’s my job.


👉🏽 I’m not saying one communication method is better than another. Each style of thought transmission has its strengths and miracles. Flap your arms and chirp and let’s see what happens.


But today we’re talking about the MUSICAL type of conversation, and because it’s a conversation, it will have words. The Ten Words I alluded to earlier, in fact.




Word number one is NOTES. Notes are the atoms of sound. The basic building block of music. They are the one hand clapping.

In fact, if you could clap that one hand fast enough, you’d get a note. Clap it 440 times a second and you'll get the standard A440 note used as a tuning reference all over the world.

I would say that you can’t have music without notes, but, John Cage would disagree. So I’ll just say that for all practical purposes, you can’t have music without notes.



Word number two is HALF-STEP. A half-step is the smallest measure of distance used in 99.99% of music.

If you look at a piano, it is divided by half-steps. Each of the piano keys (or notes) is a half step away from their nearest neighbor. On a guitar, a half-step is the distance of one fret.

As a pedal steel player, I can tell you that there is absolutely a smaller distance than a half-step, and I play it all the time. (If you didn’t find that last sentence funny it’s because you are not a pedal steel player, or trombonist).

📌 The word for those sub half-step notes is: “microtonal”, which is Latin for “tiny torture”.


The distance between notes on a keyboard is a HALF-STEP.



Word number three is WHOLE-STEP. Put two half-steps together, and don’t make me get a calculator. It’s a whole-step.



Word number four is FLAT. To make a note FLAT, you simply LOWER it by a single half-step. 

 If I say to you:

“Hey friend, what do you call the note that is one half-step lower than D?”   

 And you say: 

“Why Josh, I’m so glad you asked. That note that is one half-step lower than D is called D flat….”

 We will then high-five, because you’re right, it is D flat.


 📌 Important note: High-five was just auto corrected to “Thigh-five”, which I am now trademarking.



Word number five is SHARP. It’s the opposite of FLAT. To make a note SHARP, you simply RAISE it by a single half-step. 

So if I say:

“Hey friend, what do you call the note that is one half-step higher than C?” 

And you look over at me with that silly crooked smile of yours and say:

“Josh, I’ve been meaning to tell you something. The note that is one half-step higher than C is called C sharp.”

Well, you’d be right again!

Right now, some of you may be confused because on every instrument, D flat and C sharp are actually the exact same note. But this article is called “10 Words” not “Please Leave Me Alone”.


 If this article was called 11 Words, I would mention the term "Enharmonic", but....




Word number six is CHROMATIC SCALE. What? That’s two words?

Word number six is CHROMATICSCALE, are you happy now? (You know who you are).

When you play a series of half-steps upwards or downwards, one at a time, you get the chromatic scale. 

⭐️ Chromatic Scale is basically a fancy way of saying: “All the notes”. It would actually be easier to just say “All the notes”. I haven’t looked up Chromatic in Latin, but I’m positive it means “rainbow of destiny”.


The Chromatic Scale in the wild.... 




Word number seven is MAJOR SCALE. The Major Scale is responsible for pretty much every happy sounding piece of music you’ve ever heard. Jingles, lullabies, uplifting anthems - if it’s happy, sappy, cloying and annoying, it’s the Major Scale.

📌 Please note: The Major scale is capable, in the right hands, of producing some gut-wrenching achingly beautifully sad sad melodies.


Fun Fact: A major scale is made of WHOLE-STEPS and HALF-STEPS



Word number eight is MAJOR CHORD. You’ll most likely know the Major Chord by its other names: Doorbell-Chime, Car Horn and Baby With A Harmonica. It’s a happy, cheerful sound just like its namesake, The Major Scale, and is used in nearly every piece of music made.

📌 A chord is what you get when you play more than one note at a time. The number of notes in a Major Chord is: three. It’s also called a “triad”, for this reason (like triangle).

Here's a C Major triad. Three notes and a good time. 



Word number nine is MINOR CHORD. If a Major Chord is a happy sound, then a Minor Chord is a sad sound. Easy. When you listen to “Ain’t No Sunshine When She’s Gone” by Bill Withers, you're hearing minor chords.

What's that? Now you're sad? Cheer up, buttercup, we're almost done!



Finally, word number 10 is DIATONIC HARMONY.

At this point, you might feel that you’ve been tricked. It wasn't really 10 words at all, it was closer to 17.

Well fear not, fine friend, your time has not been completely wasted. You’ve learned something, perhaps.

If you haven’t learned anything and you’re still reading this, it’s because you are either motivated by joy or contempt, and both can be used as vehicles of inspiration. You’re welcome! 


WORD #10 - DIATONIC HARMONY - is the name for a musical family of chords. They're related because all of their notes are found within a single Major Scale. 

There are 7 chords in this musical family, but one of them sounds bad, so we are going to ignore it and just say 6. (That was an inside music joke, because diminished chords are awesome). 

 Here are the 6 Diatonic Chords of C major. Don't they look simple? 

👉🏽 So, what does Diatonic Harmony sound like? These songs all use Diatonic Harmony:

  • Let It Be
  • No Woman No Cry
  • Ain’t No Sunshine
  • The Thrill Is Gone
  • Across The Universe
  • Hey Jude
  • Sunday Bloody Sunday
  • I Would Rather Go Blind
  • Scarborough Fair, Amazing Grace, Jolene and many thousands of other songs.  


All those songs only use the 6 chords found in Diatonic Harmony (and some of them don't even use all 6). You can literally mix the six diatonic chords up in a bowl, pull them out one by one and make music that sounds like actual music. 

In fact, I demonstrate this technique thoroughly in our Creative Music Theory I: Foundations course, as well as how to understand and use everything I’ve mentioned in this article today to create and even improvise your own music.

Check out the course and learn the language of music with The Echo Guild!


🦵🏽 Thigh-fives!

Joshua Grange - The Echo Guild



About Joshua Grange

Joshua Grange is a touring and studio musician, record producer, and songwriter for legendary artists k.d. lang, Lucinda Williams, Beck, Dwight Yoakam, Sheryl Crow, The Dixie Chicks and many others. His unique music education site The Echo Guild teaches people to unlock their creative potential by using their greatest asset—their individuality. His new course: Creative Music Theory I teaches anyone to write and improvise their own unique music. For your free creativity pack, sign up below ⬇︎

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