Notes on melody notation

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(Extended to cover a bit of music theory, including some comments on chords)

For the Ranch Songbooks, Sarlo and Para use this special notation, created originally by Para. An example is the song Bhagwan, I Surrender To You. Para has extended this usage in this site to many other songs.

Conventions for melody notation are as follows

Basically, the letters a to g have been used for the notes, one for each syllable of the words, separated by spaces. They have been written in lower case after the words, to distinguish them from the upper-case usage for chords above the words. (These letter-notes correspond to particular notes in standard musical usage. If unfamiliar with that, please refer to a more basic explanation below.)

Sharps and flats (# and b) have been kept to a minimum by transposing the songs to simple keys, so notes are relative, not absolute.

When they are for songs Sarlo has done chords for, they have been aligned with those chords.

In addition:

  1. Where more than one note is to be sung with a given syllable, its notes will be run together without spaces.
  2. To eliminate ambiguity regarding octaves, a + or - is used to indicate jumps of six or more semitones. The absence of these indications will mean the nearest note up or down (five or fewer semitones) will be the one.
  3. The timing and length of notes are not reckoned with in this notation, but flow fairly naturally in most songs, making precise indications mostly unnecessary.

For non-musician visitors to this site, Sarlo expounds further

For this basic orientation, it is assumed that the reader can relate to the familiar do-re-mi scale. This scale is referred to as a relative scale and a seven-note scale, relative because it can start with do anywhere and the others relative to it, and seven-note because the eighth note, if one were to continue ascending or descending, would be just a higher or lower repeat of the first note. Thus, do-re-mi-fa-sol-la-ti-do and so on. The second do is said to be one actave higher than the first, and is vibrating at exactly twice the frequency of the first. This ratio of two applies throughout, so a mi one octave higher than a preceding mi is exactly twice the frequency. In terms of sound, they can sound so similar as to be almost indistinguishable in some contexts. And in many contexts, especially harmonically, they perform more or less the same function, so to call them by the same name is not a stretch.

In most standard musical notation, when the letters A to G are used, they refer to an absolute pitch. The standard to which all the other notes relate is that the A above Middle C is 440 hertz, ie 440 vibrations per second. The next lower A is 220, the next higher 880. Middle C is ~261.626 hz, and so on. Sarlo and Para's usage departs from this absoluteness, as indicated above, because of the greater compactness in writing them (compared to do-re-mi), sometimes in small spaces, and the ease of transposing them (changing them en masse when necessary to other keys).

C is a pivotal note in this system because of the piano, which has been designed so that the white keys, starting with C, play out a do-re-mi scale. Playing successive white keys would NOT make a do-re-mi scale if started with any other note but C. Why not? And what about the black keys? These questions will hopefully be answered here.

There are a number of "natural" scales, in the sense that they have a great deal of mathematical symmetry and in the sense that they sound somewhat pleasing to the ear. Both of these qualities relate to ways in which sounds resonate with each other and cause objects to resonate. In Western music, there are two significant scales, consisting of seven and twelve notes (per octave, ie before they repeat at twice the frequency). The seven-note scale is the old do-re-mi scale, which, starting at C, is C D E F G A B C and so on, white keys one and all. It is also called a major scale, and by the technically inclined, a diatonic scale, but we're not going there.

The twelve-note scale is C C# D D# E F F# G G# A A# B C ... or ... C Db D Eb E F Gb G Ab A Bb B C ... where the difference is only apparent, since for all practical purposes, Db = C#, Eb = D# and so on, these # and b notes being the black keys. This scale can start and end anywhere and remain the same, because ...

The "distance" between any note and the next in the 12-note scale is always the same, one "semitone," or fret on the guitar, or the next key on the piano, whereas the distance between one note and the next in the seven-note scale is either one or two semitones, depending. As it happens, and as you can imagine, there are more steps of two semitones in that scale than one. The only one-semitone steps are between mi and fa (E and F in the key of C) and ti and do (B and C). The rest are two-semitone steps.

So what is this highly significant "semitone" thing, and what do we mean by "distance"? At the superficial and near-tautological level, a semitone is half a "tone." But since this unfortunately bloated and hopelessly ambiguous term is not helpful, we will not go there, but proceed to something more precise and useful. The distance a semitone consists of is a precise ratio of vibrational frequency between two consecutive notes in the twelve-note system. It is always the same and it is (rounded off) 1.05946. So what is THIS funny number? It is the 12th root of 2, ie the number which, when raised to the power 12, equals 2. Yes, and ...?

Since you ask ... Since each note is this 12th root of 2 higher than the previous note, it follows that twelve notes later, we will have arrived at a note which is twice the earlier one, ie it vibrates at exactly twice the frequency. Well, yeah, in fact duh, but, isn't this just a wee tad arbitrary? I mean, why not have a 14-note system, where the big-deal ratio is the 14th root of 2, if that even matters?

Well, because you wouldn't get the benefits that a twelve-note system offers, and these are a whole series of harmonic inter-relationships. This is where mathematics connects with what is pleasing to the ear. Magic!

For example, go up four semitones, say from do to mi or C to E, and the ratio is that funny number to the 4th power. This comes very close to 1.25, or 5/4 (which cubed comes very close to 2). These simple fractions relate deeply to harmonic resonance. And it turns out that "very close" DOES count. Vibrating strings will get each other going even if their frequency ratio is not exactly a perfect simple fraction. And they will sound good together, except to someone burdened with an extraordinary degree of "perfect pitch," which -- almost counter-intuitively -- is not the case for musicians. An imperfection in hearing turns out to be essential to not be bothered by the imperfection in alignment of sounds. Fortunately, such a perfection in hearing is extremely rare, otherwise, music, at least its tonal aspects, could not exist.

These simple ratios pop up in all the relationships between the fundamental note (do) and the others in a seven-note scale. As we have seen, from do to mi (C to E or D to F#, etc) has a frequency ratio of 5/4, and even simpler, from do to fa (C to F or D to G, etc) has a frequency ratio of 4/3, and do to sol (C to G or D to A, etc) 3/2. Thus, these last two intervals, as they are called, C to F and C to G, are the most important in Western music. (Note that in the keys of F and G, C is the 5th and 4th note respectively, thus when the appropriate ratios are multiplied (4/3x3/2), we get the magic number 2, having gone one octave.) The other ratios are not AS simple but still simple enough to create some resonance in their overtones.

But enough of that. Chords should also be mentioned here, for those who have wandered in and stayed long enough to get this far.


Chords are specific combinations of notes played or implied more or less together or in sequence, which define or provide the harmonic structure or milieu of any given moment in a piece of music. Usually they are three or more notes. Let's look at the simplest three-note chords, using the key of C major, ie the do-re-mi scale starting at C. One can observe and savour the parallels and simplicity as we rotate through the scale. These are particular examples of some of the chords described in general in the Chord Notation page.

C-E-G = C major, or just plain C
D-F-A = D minor
E-G-B = E minor
F-A-C = F major, or just plain F
G-B-D = G major, or just plain G
A-C-E = A minor
B-D-F = B diminished, sort of (never mind why sort of)

It can be seen that all the above chords are of the form 1-3-5, ie counting the first or primary note in the chord as 1, the others are the 3rd and 5th notes in the scale of C major following it. We could make chords out of any combinations, such as those taking the form 1-2-6, 1-3-7 and so on, but they would sound somewhat weird and only be used. if ever, in very particular and odd circumstances, so we'll move on to some interesting four-note chords to round this out. First, those taking the form 1-3-5-6, and then 1-3-5-7.

C-E-G-A = C 6th
D-F-A-B = D minor 6th
E-G-B-C = E minor flat 6th
F-A-C-D = F 6th
G-B-D-E = G 6th
A-C-E-F = A minor flat 6th
B-D-F-G = {we'll visit this chord below, in a different form}
C-E-G-B = C major 7th (same notes as the oddly named E chord above, different orientation)
D-F-A-C = D minor 7th (same notes as F 6th above, different orientation)
E-G-B-D = E minor 7th (same notes as G 6th above, different orientation)
F-A-C-E = F major 7th (same notes as the oddly named A chord above, different orientation)
G-B-D-F = G 7th (same notes as the mystery B chord above, different orientation)
A-C-E-G = A minor 7th (same notes as C 6th above, different orientation)
B-D-F-A = B minor 7th flat 5th (same notes as D minor 6th above, different orientation)

It will be observed that in the 1-3-5-6 chords, all but one have a name that includes a variation on 6th, and similarly in the 1-3-5-7 chords, all are 7ths of some kind. It is beyond the scope of this introductory writing to explain the differences, but the commonalities ... Yes! See!

So enough of all this. We'll finish with an example song and a couple of matters that arise out of it:I Let Go

Based on the audio given, the melody would be written out in the following way, one note per syllable, with two for the final syllable of the first line (thus written with no space). And because it is based on the audio, it is an absolute representation, not a relative one. Not that it couldn't be transposed.

I let go, I let go              g g g #f #f ed

And I let thee guide my life    d e #f e d e b

A harmony line could also be written using this convention, thusly (in red to distinguish it from the main melody line):

I let go, I let go              b b b a a gf#

And I let thee guide my life    f# g a g f# g e

And the chords are, correspondingly:

Em        D
I let go, I let go

(Bm)                    Em
And I let thee guide my life

where the (Bm) signifies that Bm is optional, ie the whole song could be done with only two chords and still be passable. Bm (B minor) sounds in many ways and contexts like D and can fulfill the same role on many occasions. Same is true for Am - C and other related pairs. You can see a parallelness here if you look. In fact, going back to our 1-3-5-6 and 1-3-5-7 chords, we see that Am 7th (or Am7) consists of the same notes as C 6th (C6). How about that!

Lastly, even a non-musician can hear a difference, if listening with that intention, between a minor tonality and a major. Thus in this song, the minorness of the parts where Em is played can be heard, in the harmonic structure and feeling/mood, as compared to the majorness of the parts where D is played. (And where the Bm may or may not be played, it lies sort of in the middle.) But the minorness of the Em passage stands out if you listen for it.

Or even easier to hear, there are whole songs in which the moodiness of an overall minor tonality can be heard, as compared to the "straightforward cheeriness" of a song that is all major chords and using the notes of only a simple major key. Two songs which stand out for their minor quality are Sammasati and Way of the Heart. Listen to them. Characteristics in the chording of these two songs include the presence of minor chords, a progression (series) of the chords Bb to C to Dm, and the presence of two major chords next to each other in the twelve-note scale, A and Bb. The sound is unmistakable. Listen. Savour.

Minor keys are used to evoke complex feelings, among them sadness. This is of course not a common feature in sannyas music, but Sammasati, written in response to Osho's leaving the body and used extensively in the crying phase of Mystic Rose, is a beautiful example. The feelings intended to be evoked by Way of the Heart are more complex. I shouldn't speak for the author but i expect it has something to do with expressing yearning, and the whole range the heart is capable of.

Maybe enough for now. If there are questions or comments relating to any of this, click on the "Discussion" tab at the top of the page and start typing. If appropriate, material there may be entered into this page eventually.

Compare Notes on chord notation.