• Naturals, Accidentals, and Race: A Coincidence?

    in Piano,Theory

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    There are 12 pitch classes on the piano. This is because the octave has 12 parts.

    The octave of C below:

    …has the following parts

    • 1st Part – C
    • 2nd Part – C♯ or D♭
    • 3rd Part – D
    • 4th Part – D♯ or E♭
    • 5th Part – E
    • 6th Part – F
    • 7th Part – F♯ or G♭
    • 8th Part – G
    • 9th Part – G♯ or A♭
    • 10th Part – A
    • 11th Part – A♯ or B♭
    • 12th Part – B

    Each part above is considered a pitch class. Here’s a representation of these 12 pitch classes using sharps and flats.

    These 12 pitch classes are the source of melodic and harmonic ideas. When these pitch classes are played successively (one after the other), melodic ideas are created.

    Melodic ideas include scales, intervals and chords (arpeggios).

    Harmonic ideas include intervals, chords, and chord progressions.

    So much can be derived from these pitch classes and this depends on certain principles that are laid down.

    These 12 pitch classes are categorized into Naturals and Accidentals.

    Naturals are white in color: These notes were considered to be holy by the medieval church. Use of the color white is symbolic. There are seven of them.

    Accidentals are black in color: These notes were considered unholy by the medieval church. These notes are black because they were considered unclean. There are five of them.

    Scales – Melodic Organization

    We can arbitrarily create scales by organizing pitch classes into Naturals and Accidentals. This gives us two scales:

    • White Note Scales
    • Black Note Scales

    Let’s look at these scales. Stay focused.

    White Note Scale

    Melodic progression through the natural pitch classes is said to be diatonic. Diatonic comes from a Greek word which means progressing through the tones. Therefore, progressing through these tones in any order will create diatonic modes. Each note has its variation.

    C to C aka – “Ionian Mode”

    D to D aka – “Dorian Mode”

    E to E aka – “Phrygian Mode”

    F to F aka – “Lydian Mode”

    G to G aka – “Myxolydian Mode”

    A to A aka – “Aeolian Mode”

    B to B aka – “Locrian Mode”

    When modes were replaced with scales, these two modes stood out from the rest and became Traditional Scales:

    Major Scale – “Ionian Mode”

    Minor Scale – “Aeolian Mode”

    Black Note Scales

    If we move from one accidental to another until its octave, we’ll have a 5-tone scale also known as the pentatonic scale.

    Pentatonic means “containing five tones” in Greek. Melodic progression through the accidental pitch classes yields something different.

    • All Black Notes
    • Fewer Notes

    These are the two enharmonic spellings of the black note scale:

    Racism or Coincidence?

    Do you know that traditional scales of Europeans are Diatonic while traditional scales of Africans are Pentatonic?

    Is it a coincidence that Europeans (whites) use white notes scales while Africans use black note scales? I know that white note scales can be played on black notes and black note scales can be played on white notes. However, I don’t seem to understand why there’s a sync between skin color and note color.

    Why aren’t naturals called “black” and accidentals called “white?”

    Well, like I said earlier, accidentals were considered unholy and using black to depict them I’ll say is rather symbolic.

    Why is “Black Gospel Music” mostly played in “Black” keys?

    Am I the only one who’s noticed that black gospel music uses the keys of D♭ E♭, G♭, A♭ and B♭ more than any other keys? So many people will naturally frown at playing shouts and spirituals in the key of D natural? If truth be told, the layout of black keys feel very different from the layout of white keys.

    Why is it that European Art music is written mostly in white keys?

    Don’t get me wrong! I’m not saying that classical music is not written in black keys. Frankly, I’ve played a little of Frederic Chopin’s Black Key Etude and I’ve played chorale works in black keys too. E.g. Joseph Haydn’s Achieved in B♭.

    However, a journey through Medieval (AD 400-1400), Renaissance (AD 1400-1600), Baroque (AD 1600-1750), Classical (AD 1750-1820) and Romantic (AD 1820-1900) works will show preference for white keys to black keys. Let’s use these two notable baroque composers and their works as examples.

    J.S. Bach. I’m aware inventions and sinfonias move from key to key, chromatically. However, Bach wrote lots of keyboard works in G. I’ve played several of them. E.g. – GoldBerg Variation (30 variations of an aria in the key of G) and Christmas Oratorio (64 works in F, C, G, D and A).

    G.F. Handel. Most of his choral works are written in mostly D, A, G, E. A good example is Messiah. The popular excerpt from Handel’s Messiah is the Alleluia Chorus – written in D.

    I have a dream… I really have a dream…

    Hear me:

    I have a dream that my five tone scale will one day live in an octave where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.

    I have a dream today!

    Lol… I love it when you laugh and learn.

    My View

    I almost concluded that it was racism until I remembered that:

    #1 – White keys have black notes and Black Keys have white notes.

    If you move to other keys, you’ll see that for every key, there is a unique combination of black and white keys. C Diatonic Modes (All Whites) and F♯ Pentatonic modes (All Blacks) are the only exceptions to this.

    Simply put, in most contexts, you cannot avoid white and black working together. They need each other.

    2. Other cultures use black key scales too.

    People living in the orient – China, Korea, Malaysia, Japan etc. use the pentatonic scales too.



    The content of this post is to expand your scope on the arbitrary organization of notes according to their respective colors. Please do not use the content of this post in situations contrary to the original intent of its author.

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    Hello, I'm Chuku Onyemachi (aka - "Dr. Pokey") - a musicologist, pianist, author, clinician and Nigerian. Inspired by my role model Jermaine Griggs, I started teaching musicians in my neighborhood in April 2005. Today, I'm privileged to work as the head of education, music consultant, and chief content creator with HearandPlay Music Group sharing my wealth of knowledge with hundreds of thousands of musicians across the world.

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    { 5 comments… read them below or add one }

    1 Genessa Torsy

    Ok, can I just say, I love this site and its blog posts? I’m trying to play piano again–okay, pick it up again and actually stick with it. It just seemed like it was this strange language to me on other sites or wasn’t a language at all but I LOVE this site. The explanation of patterns really sold me….and then I read this blog post. I just love the ideas in this. It’s so interesting and really made me check into some of the musical works and composers mentioned, as well as time periods. I’m really so excited that I found you guys and I’m looking forward to more of your posts! I know some are totally over my head–like transposing for now–but I love the theories and ideas behind this one. I know it’s not teaching me to chord a new song but it sparks my curiosity and keeps me in the loop. I find that the posts and information on the site seem to be well-informed and well-written (I work as an editor/writer for a living so that’s a big sell for me) and they peak my curiosity in a way that other sites haven’t been able to do. Thanks! I’m so excited about this! Thank you so much and please keep posting! I subscribed today!


    2 Raleigh

    To imply that the black keys opposed to white keys has anything to do with race or religion is a sick way of thinking

    To be a good teacher you stick to teaching the subject.


    3 Chuku Onyemachi

    You have a point there, but my post was far from this conclusion. If you read the entire post, my opinion is reconciled at the bottom, concluding that it is not a matter of race, that even the white keys need black keys and vice versa and that two keeps are exceptions but not rules. I also emphasized that people from other cultures use black key scales too. People living in the orient – China, Korea, Malaysia, Japan etc.

    I believe so many people out there must have given thought to these things. The purpose of this post is to the disillusionment of these notions and not otherwise.


    4 Vicki4Victory

    It’s lovely to have new content on this blog–I’ve missed Jermaine posting here. Nothing has a date or time stamp, but I think it’s been years since he posted regularly. I’m posting this reply December 2015.

    This post speaks to my political life and my musical life. I’m starting to work to make Black Lives Matter and I’m starting to learn to play in flat keys. I enjoyed the post, even though musically it is light-weight.

    I think that the diatonic scale is derived from vibration ratios. The black keys were added because there was something missing, and to make it possible to change keys. Then instruments were tempered so the other scales didn’t sound terrible.

    In THIS POST, I wanted to learn the names of the five black-key (pentatonic) scales/modes. If the white-key scales have names, surely the black-key scales do also?


    5 Chuku Onyemachi

    From a historical perspective, black notes were not added. They were called musica ficta (because they created false relationships) in Guido of Arrezzo’s days (Ars Nova [11th century]).

    In the middle ages, they weren’t adding black notes to create key changes (as a matter of fact, the least thing on their mind was key). The pressing needs were the challenges that came from temperament (tuning). The Pythagorean tuning was in use then and intervals like Major and minor thirds were dissonant. Those days, it was difficult to play even triads because they were dissonant. The ability to change key (without sounding off-pitch) came with the Equal temperament (of twelve tones) where C# and Db aren’t pure but narrowly tempered to be enharmonically equivalent – back in the days, C# and Db were practically different. Read more about this on https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Just_intonation

    Modes can be compared to the present day key center. Remember all modes have semitone and tones arranged in different orders and every key may sound alike but each has its key signature. A dorian mode composition can’t sound like an aeolian mode composition. They had variety – they could change from mode to mode. Owing to the fact that key center or key was not in use then, you can’s say that black notes were added to make it possible to change from mode to mode (modes don’t have black notes [unless they are transposed and transposition of modes was way beyond this era because transposition means replicating exactly the same mode on another key]).

    Just like white key scales, modes of the black key scales have names too. These scales have names in the African culture area. However, I’m going to leave you with their generally accepted names.

    Mode Name Black keys
    1 Minor pentatonic E♭-G♭-A♭-B♭-D♭-E♭
    2 Major pentatonic G♭-A♭-B♭-D♭-E♭-G♭
    3 Egyptian A♭-B♭-D♭-E♭-G♭-A♭
    4 Man Gong B♭-D♭-E♭-G♭-A♭-B♭
    5 Ritusen D♭-E♭-G♭-A♭-B♭-D♭

    Use of names like Ritusen (sometimes called yo scale), Man Gong etc suggests they are oriental (and those were my final words on this post).

    Thanks for making out time to reply.


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