Why Does The Musical Alphabet Only Go From A–G?

Posted by Mike Schuck

In music theory, the alphabet is very important. The musical alphabet goes only from a to g because it defines how notes are spelled. You have some major, minor, dominant seventh, suspended fourth, and half steps in your song if you know which note starts with what letter of the alphabet!

The most fundamental concept in music that gets left out sometimes is the root tone. A root tone is just like any other tone, except it has no octave attached to it. For example, the second degree (or second scale) tone is one rest – or there’s not much space between each syllable when you say “one two three four five six seven eight nine ten.”

This tone does not contain an F, so it’s called a biminal or double tonic. It also lacks a D, making it a tritone — a term we will go into later! This pitch is never used as a consonant sound but instead acts as a transition voice leading back to the first degree (or tonic) note.

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The English alphabet was based on the Roman alphabet, which had only 26 letters

A few of these missing letters are what makes it difficult for people to understand musical language. You see, most music is made up of notes that make up chords or melodies. These chords and melodies are built off of some kind of pattern or sequence of sounds called a scale.

A common scale in music is the major scale, which has seven tones (or steps) and goes up with each successive note by one whole tone (one full step). This means that the first note of the major scale is one flat (a lower sound than a natural note), then the second note is two flats, three sharps, and so on until you get to the seventh note, which is one sharp.

That’s why we call this the “natural” scale! Because the first note starts with an unnatural number, making it seem more like a natural place to start. The other six notes fit together perfectly, creating a sense of continuity and flow.

But there are actually eight different scales in all? That’s how many extra holes the Romans left out when they designed their version of the alphabet! And just like the lost letter F, musicians have been leaving those gaps unfilled ever since.

Fortunately though, things are changing. Technically speaking, there are now 24 official letters of the musal alphabet. But really, there are always at least 25 because you need a blank space to write the word “blank.

When the English alphabet was introduced, it was only used for writing down to a certain degree

why does the musical alphabet only go from a-g

The next step was creating an organized way to write short phrases and sentences. This process is called adding letters to the alphabetic ladder or reordering the existing letters.

The first few letters of the alphabet were already known when early Europeans traveled westward and encountered native tribes with their own languages. These people often had easy access to written material so they would copy word lists or vocabularies from those books and teach themselves how to read by doing this.

By the late Middle Ages, most European countries adopted Roman Catholicism as their religion which has roots that go back to ancient Rome. As such, the Latin language gained popularity and learned reading materials included lots of examples in Romansh (or what we call modern day Swiss German), French, and Italian.

Phrases like “Freedom is a gift that must be earned” and “Take responsibility for your actions” are both starting points for teaching someone how to read.

The English alphabet is still used today, but it has evolved to include more letters

why does the musical alphabet only go from a-g

The English language we use for conversations and writing was not always made up of 26 letters. In fact, there were only 15 letters in our most recent version! It took many years until the next letter was added.

The first two additions came at around 500 AD when l and n were dropped from the alphabet. These are called silent letters because they do not form any other word or sound.

After that, g was added as an alternative to h, which sounds like a hard "g" (as in get). This new letter is sometimes referred to as a voiceless aspirant glottal stop, due to its similarity to the H+V combination you would say with a voice drop.

Then, q was introduced during the Middle Ages. Before then, no vowels existed in spoken Greek and Latin. People just sounded out each syllable depending on what consonant followed. Q helped create the modern system where some vowel sounds are missing or repeated depending on the word.

So why did it take so long to add these extra letters? For one thing, adding new letters to the alphabet is very expensive. You have to design special type cases, computer software to write, processors to encode them, and bandwidth to transmit them.

There are also other languages that use the Roman alphabet, but have more letters

why does the musical alphabet only go from a-g

Other phonetic alphabets exist in the world’s most spoken languages. For example, there is an eight letter Russian word for ‘alphabet’ which begins with the sound “pa.” This sounds like the English word “palm.”

A similar sounding five letter Arabic word starts with the pharyngeal consonant [p]. You probably know this as the “throat voice.”

So why don’t we just learn those two words instead of only learning the hard work of pronouncing all twenty little a’s? Because even though these languages have lots of different vocabulary, they still write very similarly!

Most Westerners when you teach them the ABC's of reading will never see any need to recognize or pronounce the extra vowels beyond A, B and C because it isn't necessary to do so in the context of reading and writing English. - Jeremy Dupertuis

That’s why our educational system doesn’t focus much on making students aware of the additional vowel sounds needed to read outside of the Latin and Greek roots of the English language.

There are also other languages that use the English alphabet, but have more letters

why does the musical alphabet only go from a-g

Other phonetic alphabets exist in the world’s most spoken languages. For example, there is an Icelandic language which uses the Roman alphabet to write its words. However, it adds a separate letter for every sound, making it very difficult to recognize familiar word roots!

Another well known example is Arabic, where each consonant gets its own unique letter. This makes writing long sentences extremely tedious because you have to keep referring back to your dictionary to find the right letter.

This isn’t too much of a problem when reading books, but what about songs? If you can’t figure out the lyrics, then how will you enjoy the music? Luckily, there is a solution for this!

There are several online resources that create translations from the standard musical alphabet to another one with additional vowels. These include Tap Vowel, Pen Tool Hint, and Transparent Vocabulary.

By adding these extra characters, now you don’t need to look up the same word twice – you can just refer to the chart instead! And since they are designed specifically for translating songs, they are quite accurate.

For example, the French alphabet has 33 letters

why does the musical alphabet only go from a-g

Another reason why some languages have more letter names than others is due to how they are organized. Some groups of letters seem to go together so well that they can be combined into one longer word or phrase, which makes them feel redundant if you’re already knowing the next two words in their sequence! This happens quite a lot with the English language, where the most common three-word sequences are made up of only three different letters: get going!, keep studying!, and learn something new!.

This isn’t too bad because people who speak English are familiar with those phrases anyway, but it does mean that there are not very many six-, seven-, and eight-letter words in the language. (There are actually way more nine-and ten-letter words, though.) The same goes for other languages like Spanish and Arabic, where there are just as many short, easy to say words as long, difficult ones.

There are also many more languages in the world that use the Roman alphabet

why does the musical alphabet only go from a-g

The most well known language to only have letters A through G is of course English, but this actually makes sense given how the Romans adapted their letter scheme.

The Roman Empire was very wealthy and powerful, and they wanted to make sure there were no gaps in the knowledge of their culture. So, they made an effort to include every important concept you can find written down. This included having easy to remember names for things, which is why we have “A” for apple, "B" for ball, and so forth.

The Russian alphabet has 38 letters

why does the musical alphabet only go from a-g

Another reason why our musical alphabet only goes up to A is because we already have enough space! There are only 26 positions in music, so there’s room for another letter beyond A. Some people may feel that this could be extended further, but it would take up too much valuable real estate which could not be used for anything else.

Music theorists who make use of larger alphabets usually type them out themselves instead of using computer software to do it for them. This is due to the length needed to write some songs or sequences that can’t fit into the computer program’s allotted amount of space.

There you have it – the next logical step after leaving off the H at the end of the alphabet! Keep going until you run into a wall :).

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