Improvisation 101, Part 1 – tetra chords

G ClefSince most traditional Irish musicians learn tunes by ear, it’s possible to know thousands of tunes without ever knowing any theory. Most of the time I barely even know what key I’m playing in never mind the theory behind it.

Recently, I enrolled in a class on musical improvisation at the Summit School of Traditional Music. I have to say this is probably one of the best classes I’ve ever taken. It has completely improved my Irish music playing and I seriously think I’m learning the secrets to life in the process. So I wanted to share some of the things I’m learning (at least when it comes to music).

A starting place to learning to improvise is to learn about Tetrachords.

Tetra Chords – a tetra chord consists of 4 notes, or tones, of a scale. The first and second note are a whole step apart and the third and fourth note are a half step apart. Here’s a song to help you remember: I’m a little tetra chord, short and stout, whole, whole, half, is what its all about.

When you combine two tetra chords and separate them with a whole note, they form the pattern of a key. This is what the pattern looks like:


For example, here are the notes in the key of C:


If you look at them on a piano you’ll notice that between E and F is a half note and between B and C is also a half note, following the pattern above.

The reason why tetra chords are so important is because if you know this pattern you can figure out the notes of any major key signature. Let’s try the key of G. A whole step away from G is A.  A whole step from A is B, a half step from B is C (W-W-H). That’s one tetra chord. Now separate them with a whole step to D, another whole step to E, a whole step to F# and a half step back to G:

Key of G: G-A-B-C-D-E-F#-G

With this pattern you can easily figure out the notes of any major key.

At the end of each class, I like to walk away with a clear understanding of what I should practice. So if you want to practice using this pattern above to figure out what notes are in any major key. Here are the rest of the keys to try:

Key of C: C-D-E-F-G-A-B-C
Key of G: G-A-B-C-D-E-F#-G
Key of A:
Key of E:
Key of B:
Key of F#:
Key of Db:
Key of Ab:
Key of Eb:
Key of Bb:
Key of Fb:

In the next lesson, I’ll talk about the circle of fifths. So if you’re interested in learning more sign up to receive email updates of these posts or just keep checking back.

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