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Coming to Theory the Hard Way

Selah, App Development, Music Theory

I never learned music theory. And I have discovered since going down this path that most of my fellow guitarists have the same story. I learned chord shapes— never what notes were in a chord and how to get to those notes— and I learned songs. And don’t get me wrong, I loved playing guitar all those years and if you put a chord chart in front of me, I could play along with comfort.

But I never knew my scales, never knew how to solo, never knew what a key was and what chords were in it.

Last year I picked up a ukulele. I wanted one for a while, got some birthday cash, and bought a uke. And then I discovered that there were very few apps for looking up chords for uke. And I, of course, didn’t know how to do it myself. I needed an app. So I decided to build one. Couldn’t be too hard.

I learned how chords work. How they are based on the major and minor scales. A major chord is a formula. The first, third, and fifth notes of the major scale.

This app, Selah Chords, launched late last year and has seen thousands of downloads. Not only does it support uke, but it supports almost anything with strings and frets, from 3-strings up to 7-strings. Add custom tunings or use the built-in ones and it does the work for you in finding dozens of voicings— ways to play a chord— up and down the neck of your instrument.

But that app opened me up to theory. My brain was bubbling. For one, I suddenly understood musical keys. That major scale— take a C major with C, D, E, F, G, A, B— also gave you chords that sounded good together. Specifically— to start with— C major, D minor, E minor, F major, G major, A minor, and B diminished. I got there because of math. Take that, bullies! All of a sudden I could grab an instrument, plug in it’s tuning, and play a chord progression that sounded good. And so I bought a mandolin before launching Selah Chords too.

Much of what went into Selah Chords was under the hood. Hidden, below the surface. I could surface chord intervals— look at the expanded chord library view and you’ll see I III V under major chord, I iii V under minor chord, etc.— and surface the notes in a chord under the charts, but I didn’t want to make Selah Chords into a bloated app. Other apps do that. Tuners, scales, arpeggios, chords, and more all shoved into one small interface. Hard to navigate, ugly, and unusable.

So from day one, Selah Chords was the first app. And this weekend I announced the second app. Selah Scales is coming later this year. And I am learning so much more to build this. Last year I struggled when I was told an F# major seventh chord didn’t have an F in it, but an E#. It did because the F# major scale is F#, G#, A#, B, C#, D#, F. The formula for the major seventh chord is I III V VII, so F#, A#, C#, and F. Now, through math and readability, I’ve come to understand that the F should be rendered E#. Having two F’s— one sharp, one natural— in a key is a no-no. I am now understanding why some scales are rendered only with sharps and others only with flats— double sharps and double flats being the primary reason.

Once again, I can only surface a small fraction of what I have built into the engine, but what you will get in Selah Scales will help you grow musically, give you access to scales you may have never known about— especially if my journey is your journey—, and start to help you find the fascinating quirks of theory that I have come to the hard way— math, crazy scribbles on whiteboards, and rambling insanity that my lovely wife has had to put up with.