Do You Know Your Musical ABCs?

Music Theory 101

Music Theory 101

When I start teaching a new banjo, guitar or mandolin class, I first ask my students whether or not they know their alphabet. These students, many whom are adults, look at me with a bit of disdain, as though I just asked a question that is far beneath their level of intelligence. After all, we all learned our alphabet in kindergarten, didn’t we?. So they answer, “Yes .. we know our alphabet”. Be careful, I say. This is a trick question.

A to G

Say your alphabet real fast from “A” to “G”. Now say it backwards real fast from “G” to “A”. Going forwards was easy wasn’t it? Did you hesitate on the way backwards though? If you’re honest, you will say that you hesitated if not simply stopped between letters. You see, the majority of us never learned our alphabet going backwards.

Sharps (#) and Flats (b)

Now the good news. In music you only need to know the alphabet from “A” through “G”. There is no “H” note or beyond in music. Seems rather easy. The “not so good” news is that we throw in these notes called sharps and flats between most of the musical alphabet but not between every note. Why make it easy on you right? For the beginning music student, the musical alphabet just got a little complicated. The sharps and flats are known as enharmonics because they provide two letter names for one single note. The notes A through G are called natural notes and can best be remembered as all the white keys on the piano.

We don’t have an equal number of sharps (#) and flats (b) as we do natural notes (A through G). Think of your fretted instrument as though you were playing a piano.  It is important that you remember which notes do not have sharps or flats between them.  The answer is that “B” to “C’ and “E” to “F” do not have sharps and flats between them. Those are the same two sets of white keys that are next to one another on the piano.  Let’s not forget though, that a fretted instrument doesn’t have keys but uses fret.

So there is your musical alphabet from A to G.  Throw in the sharp and flats and you have twelve notes in all.


About fretmentor

Born in Detroit, Michigan, David F. Jakubiak has been involved in music since the age of 7, beginning as a clarinet player and then at 9 turning his attention to stringed instruments. He earned trophies in group talent competitions while a student at the University of Michigan. The instructor earned a BA degree in Organizational Psychology from the University of Michigan and a Masters in Public Administration at the University of Kansas. At college, he also studied classical music and music history. His passion is teaching music and in performing as a musician. In addition to on-stage performances, David has played in various venues from outdoor festivals to small nightclubs. He plays, performs and teaches various styles of music, including rock, pop, blues, jazz, classical, country and bluegrass styles. He performs and teaches acoustic and electric guitar, five-string banjo, and mandolin. His styles range from Scruggs, melodic, Reno and old-time style on banjo, to finger-style and flat-picking technique on guitar, to various styles of mandolin. For over 45 years, Mr. Jakubiak has taught all age groups, taking a personal interest in each student to ensure that they receive the attention and lesson plans that meet their needs and interests. His lessons and instructional materials place a strong emphasis on the practical use or music theory to ensure that the student understands the instrument and learns how to improvise to develop their own style. Mr Jakubiak teaches group and studio classes, webcam lessons over the internet, and individual private lessons to students of various ages. He has compiled and produced eight instructional books on CD as well as numerous instrumental arrangements. David has written for Banjo Newsletter, a monthly publication for the banjo enthusiast and has published an article in Issue #37 of the Fretboard Journal. He is the founder of To contact David Jakubiak, please feel free to e-mail him at david AT (substitute the @ sign for the word AT)
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4 Responses to Do You Know Your Musical ABCs?

  1. avatar Tigerpaws says:

    But my question is…..why have we changed this in America….??? everywhere else it’s Do Re Mi Fa Sol La Ti (Si in Spanish) Do….yet here we’ve gone to the alphabet! Does anyone know why???? And by the way, the musical alphabet IS a foreign language to those that try it for the first time!

  2. avatar Brilind says:

    It is amazing how otherwise intelligent people (at least in my estimation) are challenged by saying the alphabet backwards from G. I always seem to visualize a piano keyboard (took lots of piano lessons) which slows me down when I have to go to the fretboard. I guess this takes practice like everything else. G – F – E- D – C – B – A.

    that wasn’t so hard.

  3. avatar Jim Joyce says:

    Simple enough when you’re playing say in open G on the banjo. Easy to memorize and quickly find those I, IV and V chords (G, C, D respectively in key of G). Now add the capo, say at the third fret (open A# or Bb) and the pattern starts changing)………the I, IV and V chord relationships remain the same, regarding fret spacing, but the looks of the fretboard with those “here’s where you are fret markes” is different……… the instructor throws in a flatted-seventh or a relative minor chord and I’m done. I hope I get to meet the grascal who invented all this stuff and purposefully put in those gotchas…..reminds me of spelling classes some 55-60 years ago……..”I before E, except after C, or “…….hated it then too! So are there any short cuts to this rote memory technique? (I actually designed a sliding fret marker system once….)

  4. avatar lspencerini says:

    I find the musical alphabet fascinating. And the more I study guitar, the more elegant the system appears. I am now learning more about playing chords beyond the basic one and playing “up the neck” of the guitar. I have to build more hand strength to play bar chords well, but I like the flexibility of having many versions of each chord, each of them with a slightly different sound.

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