All posts by Gary

About Gary

Piano Teacher with over 40 years experience, teaching in the Fort Lauderdale area. Teaches exclusively at All County Music in Tamarac FL.

Leitmotivs in Star Wars

A guiding motif:

A Leitmotiv (German for “guiding motif”) is a theme that announces characters. Wagner was famous for using this idea, although he did not use the word “Leitmotiv”, but perhaps the most famous use of the Leitmotiv is by John Williams in Star Wars.

Here are just a few of the iconic themes that were all used and well-known by the time the first three films were completed. Using the idea of “famous old popular music”, which in this case is more like “slightly older popular music”, we now come to something a big different, since John Williams is still composing more music for Star Wars movies, some of which have not yet been released. How he writes these themes that we all know and can’t forget remains a mystery that I absolutely do not understand.

Darth Vader’s Theme

By the way, Darth Vader’s Theme uses only minor chords, moving from key to key.

Luke Skywalker’s Theme

Princess Leia’s Theme

Jedi Theme

Yoda’s Theme


Other Altered Major Scales

Is it a mode or an altered scale

If it’s not a mode, it’s an altered scale. So any mode that has a major sound but changes one note, or adds a note, will still be normal major if it also has maj7.

This is major, in any key:

1 2 3 4 5 6 maj7 8

All of the scales below are not major scales. At least one note is changed. But they all retain the major sound because they all have 3 and maj7.

  • 1 b2 3 4 5 6 maj7 8
  • 1 2 3 4 5 #5 6 maj7 8
  • 1 2 3 #4 5 6 maj7 8
  • 1 2 3 4 5 6 (b)7 maj7 8
  • 1 2 #2 3 4 5 6 (b)7 maj7 8
  • 1 2 3 4 #4 5 6 maj7 8

One of these scales is not an altered scale because it turns into a mode. Can you spot the mode?

The rest have a variety of names, none of which are the least bit important. However, when you see the same number twice in a row, like 2 and #2, there is a passing tone added. And there is absolutely no rule about now many passing tones can be in a scale.


Traditional Minor Scales

(In the PDF, the scales talked about here are on pages 5 to the end. There are three traditional minor scales always taught – simple minor, harmonic minor and natural minor, also Aeolian. Melodic minor is not a minor scale – it is two minor scales, simple ascending and natural descending.)

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Problem Minor Scales

There is an easy way to change major into minor. For simple minor, b3. For harmonic minor, b3 and b6. For natural minor, also Aeolian, b3, b6 and b7. Remember, all modes and all altered scales are formed or can be formed by changing the major scale. Aeolian is a mode. Simple and harmonic minor are altered scales. This takes care of forming these scales, but there are problems in some for fingering.

In general you just keep the same fingering as you change the scales. For instance, C major and all three C minor scales use the same fingering in both hands. But this is not always true, so I have shown when they change. Gb F# and related minors are the most confusing.

All Major Scales by Fingering Groups

(In the PDF, the scales talked about here are on pages 1 through 4.The major scales fall into three distinct categories. Following the major scales I notated the problem minor scales, the ones that change fingerings.)

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Scales in All Keys

There are 12 altogether. 10 of the 12 fall into only two groups, with the remaining two being unique in that the thumbs never play together at the same time in both hands.

The first group is the easiest to learn and consists of: Db major, Gb major, B major and F major. I call them “Thumbs Together Scales”.
I’ve added a legend. The black 3 is for what I call “cat’s paws”, which happen on the scales with all the black notes. Black two is for V fingers, where the fingers play the pair of black keys. The yin-yang symbol is for the cat’s paw idea as it transitions to two of three white keys in the F scale.

The second group contains six scales – C major, D major, E major, G major, Ab major and A major. In this group the thumbs come together once in each octave, The other time the thumb in one hand always comes with 2 in the other. I used an up and down arrow to show where this happens. Because the thumb and index fingers are opposite each other once per octave, I call these the “Oppose Scales”. Finger 3 is always together with finger 3.  Finger 4 is always together with finger 2. Both times when 4 is with 2 it is directly before or after the thumbs meet. I used a symbol that has four little black squares for this. The group is much more difficult than the “Thumbs Together Scales”.

Finally, there are the Eb and Bb scales, each of which is unique in the major scales. I call these “Odd Ball Scales” or “Odd Balls”. These are monsters and need to be played daily because each is unique.

In the Eb major scale the thumb of one hand always comes with the finger 2 of the other. I call this “Double Oppose”. Both hands play 3 on the Eb. Fingers 3 and 4 also oppose each other, so in a way this is a “Triple Oppose Scale”.

In the Bb scale thumb of one hand there is an “oppose” combination with 1 and 2, but there is also a “triple group” situation where 1, 2 and 3 are moving in opposition.There is no other major scale with this grouping – this is also the only scale in which 2 plays with 2.


What is Bebop?

The music that followed the big band era

Bebop is a style of jazz that developed in the 1940s characterized by improv, complex harmonies, fast tempos, and increasingly complicated rhythms. Big bands began to die out as musicians were sent overseas during WWII. At that time there was a huge increase in smaller ensembles such as quartets and quintets as the big band era drew to an end.

Bebop shifted focus from intricate band arrangements to improvisation and interaction.

Musicians such as Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie combined a sophisticated knowledge of music theory with more traditional jazz forms. They essentially created a new kind of jazz using longer, more complicated improv solos and a richer harmonic language.

Soloists were expected to know scales and chords inside out to solo over rapidly changing harmonic structures.

A bebop tune consists of a main theme (head) followed by solos over the head’s harmonic structure and finally a restatement of the head. Mixed in are original melodies over well-known chord progressions. For example, in Charlie Parker’s “Ornithology,” he uses changes from “How High the Moon,” a popular show tune from the 40s.

What Ella does with this tune, is vocal bebop. There has never been a greater vocalist in jazz. And she references Ornithology. I don’t know one top musician who is not blown away by her talent. Pure genius.

And here is Charlie Parker’s ground-breaking recording

Five Minute Line and Space Drills

Making lines and spaces automatic

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Line and Space Drills

All beginners should start with these drills. For instance, the youngest student I have right now is already playing the lines and space of the drill for beginners, using my chart. At first beginners use a keyboard chart that lines up behind the keys.

The chart is only for the first month or so and is quickly phased out. None of my students use an aid after that to find and name all lines and spaces. We begin using only numbers as in the instructions.

The five lines in both the bass and treble clef are named with the line number: One, two, three, and so on.

Then the spaces, which usually are sitting on a line, are named with the line plus a direction: on one, on two, and so on, with the space below line one as simply “under one”.

A the end are the page I label “As hard as it gets”, because even advanced musicians are often weak when they get to 5 lines above or below both staves. Music does go that high and low, but usually only in octaves, intervals or chords where the notes are obvious from position and relative placement.

In the future I will continue to add more pages. The beauty of doing music on the computer, in notation programs, is that it costs no more to make a file that is one page long or a hundred. Users can eyeball a very long file and choose what they need to use, then print out only that. For instance, an advanced musician might only want to print out the last two pages, to drill on notes that are way above or below the staves.

Minor 7b5 Chord

Almost fully diminished

Here are ways you will see this notated as symbols:

  • Xm7b5
  • Xm7-5X
  • Xø

Xm7b5 is most common most clear. It shows us how we get there. We use an Xm7 chord and lower 5. Usually the spelling of this chord is surprisingly standard, although variations do exist. The variations do not affect what we play or hear. In traditional theory the Xm7b5 chord is called a half diminished chord. The symbol ø is a frequently used written short cut.

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Minor 7b5 Chords

Classical Music Is Older Popular Music

It’s not just boring, old people’s music

The moment non-musicians hear the words “classical music”, they immediately think of something that is formal, old, long and boring. They don’t think of things that were immensely popular, and they certainly don’t think of things that were controversial and revolutionary, or that some of the people who wrote such music were “rock stars” in their day. And they don’t think about why the music remains popular, what about it is unique, special, immensely attractive.

The problem is the words themselves – “classical music”. They trigger bad feelings in many, of being forced to listen against their will, being made to feel guilty for not liking what other people tell them they should like better.

People like what they like, which is probably about as obvious as saying the sky is blue. People also hate being pushed around by other people who claim to have more knowledge, better taste, more intelligence or who otherwise act superior. I know people who think of all these negative things the moment they hear the words “classical music”.

And yet most people like, and often love, many pieces of so called “classical music”. They simply don’t know that what they like generally falls under that usage. So here are a few pieces of music that are amazingly popular and have been for a long time:

So what do all these things labelled “classical music” have in common? Answer, only one thing: they are have been around while, at the least close to 50 years. That’s really the only commonality.

So the next time you hear “classical music”, remember that you are listening to music that was very popular when it was written, and remember also that you would not be hearing this music if it had not remained popular – or in some cases become even more popular.

None of the composers of the following selections thought of their music as traditional. All of them were writing music that in their times was considered modern, in all ways up to date and often revolutionary.

So what is “classical music” really?

Answer: Older popular music.

Star Wars, popular for 41 years

The composer of the Star Wars and countless other film scores, John Williams, writes music that often sounds like it could be from any time, in almost any style.

  • The first Star Wars film was released on May 25, 1977. The rest is history.
  • Williams’ scores for the eight saga films count among the most widely known and popular contributions to modern film music.
  • They utilize a symphony orchestra and use about fifty recurring musical themes to represent characters and other plot elements.
  • These themes are “Leitmotifs”, used also by Wagner, with the same purpose. They identify characters. Princess Leia’s Theme, which I think is one of the finest short orchestral pieces ever written, is a perfect example.

Also Sprach Zarathustra, popular for 50 years- (Around for 102 years)

  • Also Sprach Zarathustra – Thus Spake Zarathustra – is a tone poem by Richard Strauss, composed in 1896 and inspired by Friedrich Nietzsche’s philosophical novel of the same name.
  • The composer conducted its first performance on 27 November 1896 in Frankfurt. A typical performance lasts half an hour.
  • Alex North was hired to score the music to Kubrick’s 1968 film 2001: A Space Odyssey. But Kubrick, instead, decided to go with traditional music by various famous composers, which included the now very famous theme we all know. Most people do not know Alex North”, but they know “Unchained Melody”.

  • Also Sprach Zarathustra was not one of those unusual premieres that immediately caught fire, so was relatively obscure for many years, then became famous overnight, directly as a result of the popularity of the movie.

Rhapsody in Blue, popular for 94 years

  • George Jacob Gershwin was born Jacob Bruskin Gershowitz. When did he and his brother, Ira, change their name to Gershwin? And when did Jacob become George? I have the answer:
  • Gershwin was named Jacob Gershowitz at birth in Brooklyn on September 26, 1898. His parents were Russian Jews. His father, Morris (Moishe) Gershowitz, changed his family name to “Gershvin”some time after immigrating to the United States from St. Petersburg, Russia in the early 1890s. Gershwin’s mother, Rosa Bruskin, had already immigrated from Russia. She met Gershowitz in New York and they married on July 21, 1895.
  • George changed the spelling of the family name to ‘Gershwin’ after he became a professional musician; other members of his family followed suit.
  • He lived from September 26, 1898 to July 11, 1937. He is one of many famous composers who did not live to the age of 40, dying before his 38th birthday, and his relatively early death no doubt prevented us from hearing even more amazing music written by him. If he had lived as long as John Williams, he would have seen the first Star Wars movie, and he might have been humming the themes.
  • Rhapsody in Blue premiered in the concert “An Experiment in Modern Music”, which was held on February 12, 1924, in Aeolian Hall, New York. The style and form were so new, no one had figured out how to label it.
  • It was orchestrated by Ferde Grofé several times, including the original 1924 scoring, the 1926 “theater orchestra” setting, and the 1942 symphony orchestra scoring, though completed earlier. Gershwin did not write the orchestral parts, but later he wrote all of his own music. He was a fast learner, true in general of great musical geniuses. Ferde Grofé also wrote The Grand Canyon Suite, a very popular set of pieces for orchestra. On the Trail is the most famous and popular. If you think you are hearing a theme for a 1950s or 1960s TV show about cowboys, but Grofé wrote this in 1931 – as usual way earlier than you would expect.

  • Rhapsody in Blue’s popularity immediately, and it has remained one of the most popular of all American concert works ever written.

Flight of the Bumblebee, popular for 118 years

  • “Flight of the Bumblebee” is an orchestral interlude written by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov for his opera The Tale of Tsar Saltan, composed in 1899–1900.
  • How soon did it become popular, by itself? I’m going to make a guess that it was always popular. Once you hear it, you really can’t forget it it. You can’t hum it – it’s too fast – but you never forget it.

Many people have performed it as soloists

  • Big band trumpeter Harry James did a version of the piece in 1941.

  • The radio program The Green Hornet used “Flight of the Bumblebee” as its theme music, blended with a hornet buzz created on a theremin. The music became so strongly identified with the show and the character that it was retained as the theme for the later TV series, with trumpet solo by Al Hirt, in a jazz style nicknamed “Green Bee”.

  • Extreme’s instrumental piece “Flight of the Wounded Bumblebee,” featuring guitarist Nuno Bettencourt’s advanced virtuoso skills, is heavily inspired by Rimsky-Korsakov’s original and bears a similar name, but is in fact a distinct work and not merely a re-arrangement. It was released on August 7, 1990.

  • The 1993 animated series Adventures of Sonic the Hedgehog samples the tune as part of the show’s opening theme, combining it with “In the Hall of the Mountain King” and the theme from the original Sonic the Hedgehog video game.

The William Tell Overture, Popular for 189 years- (Also known as the Lone Ranger Theme).

  • Gioachino Rossini (29 February 1792 – 13 November 1868) He wrote 39 operas and was known as “the Italian Mozart.”
  • His last opera was the epic William Tell (Guillaume Tell), featuring its iconic overture which helped to usher in grand opera in France. The overture premiered in Paris on August 3, 1829.
  • Rossini was one of the most popular opera composers in history, and opera was not high brow music for the elite. It was the most popular music of its time
  • Rossini He also earned the nickname “Signor Crescendo” for his use of an exciting buildup of orchestral sound over a repeated phrase, which is now commonly known as a “Rossini crescendo”.
  • It is the last part of the William Tell Overture that is used as the Theme Song for The Lone Ranger, and the whole world knows that theme.

Final Theme

The whole overture

Eine kleine Nachtmusik, popular for 191 years

  • Eine kleine Nachtmusik (Serenade No. 13 for strings in G major), K. 525, is a 1787 composition for a chamber ensemble by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. The German title means “a little serenade”, thought it is translated inaccurately as “A Little Night Music”.
  • It was completed in Vienna on August 10, 1787. We do no know when the first performance took place.
  • The traditionally used name of the work comes from the entry Mozart made for it in his personal catalog, which begins, “Eine kleine Nacht-Musik” – a little serenade. Mozart was only entering in his records that he had completed a small composition.
  • It work was not published until about 1827. It had been sold to a publisher in 1799 by Mozart’s widow Constanze as part of a large bundle of her husband’s compositions. Mozart did not manage money well.
  • Today, the serenade is widely performed and recorded and is without doubt not only one of the most popular pieces ever written but possible the most famous thing Mozart wrote.



Octatonic Scale

A scale that interests all composers and arrangers

This may be the most fasinating of all altered scales. It actually belongs in two places, since octatonic I is for X7 chords, but octatonic II works better with non-dominant chords, and it clearly contains a minor chord – 1 b3 5.Going only by the form there are only three scales, but we do not hear them that way. We hear each as its own thing, it’s own universe. And octatonic I and II, while having a vexingly similar sound, don’t fit in the same places. Spelling is variable, according to ease of reading and common sense.

You are unlike to find either version of this scale in Bach, but by the middle of the 1800s it was common, and it has been used ever since. Today it is all over the place, in all kinds of traditional styles, and it is very common in jazz. There are only minor differences between octatonic and the jazz “alt dominant” scale.

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Octatonic Scales

Whole Tone Scales

The perfectly even scale that never looks even on the page

Whole tone scales just about the simplest scales in music, but they don’t look simple. There are really only two, since each one uses exactly half of the possible notes in an octave. For much the same reason that Xaug and Xdim7 chords look very different in different keys, the same is true of whole tone scales, depending on which key they are written in.

It may be a stretch to call a whole tone scale and altered mode, but here is one way to get there, starting with Mixolydian:

  • 1 2 3 4 5 6 (b)7 8
  • 1 2 3 #4  b6 (b)7 8

Two notes get altered, and 5 disappears. Because of 3 and (b7) it is a kind of altered major scale.

Whole tone scales always look awkward. In each scale, somewhere, there will be one skipped letter, which I call “the hole”. That hole is a visual hole, a sudden jump that makes two notes look farther apart, when in fact they are not. You can actually write these scales any way you want, but since they are often used over dominants, especially in jazz, I prefer to be consistent about the spelling of 3 and (b)7.

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Whole Tone Scales