Music Theory and the Autoharp

Music theory never interested me when I was growing up.  Now that I am older and seeking to move from Quicksilver to Gold in my life, I find myself seeking more knowledge of music theory to help me learn to play my autoharp. Jumping into music, I discovered a whole world of music theory and my total ignorance of such a vast area of knowledge.  I knew that my autoharp, a chromatic instrument, could play in pretty much any key and I have 21 chords I can make with this instrument but I did not know much about what a key IS.

Not only did I discover my ignorance over what is a KEY in music, but I also came to realize I know nothing about which notes make up which chords and how to know which chord to use when faced with a melody that lacks tabs. (tabs for playing autoharp tell the player which chord button to press and what kind of strum to use)

Why does any of this matter?  I could simply stick with music already marked with the correct chords for use with the autoharp, but I don’t want to be limited to ONLY music already marked. Nearly all my choir background is from older hymns and a smattering of music from other sources. If I want to play the songs I know and love I cannot simply hope someone else has made a version for my autoharp. I want to use the stack of old hymnals I have on my shelf.

For example, I have a lot of favorite hymns (I use an Adoramus hymnal at the moment) and these are not marked for guitar or autoharp.  I need to learn enough music theory to decode the music on the page and translate it into what I need to play my autoharp.

So I picked up a book of music theory and began to read, once I realized that the sharps and flats on the staff would tell me the key, I jumped right into the hymnal and penciled in the key at the top of each page.  Then I wrote out a list of my favorite hymns from the book and their keys and then figured out how many were in which keys.

I was somewhat surprised by what I found.  I had been told that the key of B-flat was extremely common in Church music, but to my surprise while used it was NOT the key of any of my favorite hymns.  E-flat was also in use but again, it was not very much used and not in any of my favorite hymns.

The keys of G&D together are my most used keys.  Followed by F which was the singularly most used key.  This got me thinking and wondering.  If I went over most popular music for singing, like around the camp fire or when caroling, or folk music, will I find that most songs fall into a small number of keys?

This indirectly cleared up a mystery for me.  Why did diatonic players so often have GD and FC as the two keys on their autoharps?  Now I can see what I think is one reason at least. Unless I am mistaken, G, D, F and C are the most common keys for music commonly played on the autoharp. Suddenly it makes sense and a feel a tiny bit closer to playing the songs I love so much.

Learning, learning!  I have no talent for music but am determined to develop some understanding because for me, learning to play the autoharp is part taking my life from Quicksilver to Gold.

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