title image with text "Music Theory Basics 2"
Music Theory

Music Theory Basics 2

Updated June 2021. Somehow, the pictures all unlinked. I have no idea what happened (possibly from a software update?), but it should be all fixed now. Sorry about that!

Please note: In an effort to keep the content “clean” and simplified, this post contains modified footnotes, which are used for additional information, not for references. We’ve added these to areas where common questions may occur or where further learning may be useful or interesting. Click on each number when you see it. (A popup window will appear if you are on desktop; on mobile, the content will expand.) 1Like this!

This is Part 2 of a multi-part series. Check out Part 1. Additional links will appear when new information is added.

Music Theory and the Kalimba

We’re going to keep Part 2 short and sweet and just relate the prior concepts from Part 1 to the kalimba because it’s a lot to digest. We’ll continue with even more music theory in Part 3.

In Part 1, we talked about the basics of music theory and why it matters, as well introduced some simple concepts that will be applicable to the kalimba. Now, we’re going to discuss the kalimba itself further in depth.

The Standard Kalimba Layout

For this lesson, we are going to assume that you have a 17-key kalimba in what we’ll call the ‘modern standard’ layout. 2There are numerous layouts that are possible and sold, especially by artisans and private creators. But the modern standard is arguably the most popular and most widely available. We’ll do a post on other layouts in the near future.

Super quick recap: We previously saw the layout of the piano keyboard.

A diagram of piano keys
Image by Tobias R. – Metoc – Own work, CC BY-SA 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1256764

And we talked about diatonic tuning, using the example of C Major.

A diagram showing the diatonic keys of C Major on a piano keyboard in one octave.
The diatonic scale in C major (in one octave)

Here is how that looks on the kalimba.

diagram of tines on a c-tuned kalimba
A kalimba tuned to the key of C Major. Tines are not to scale. 🙂

So, whereas the piano keys are arranged in a linear fashion, going up and down in a row…

animated gif labeling each of the 12 notes on a chromatic octave from 1-12 on a piano keyboard
The chromatic scale

…kalimba tines are usually arranged in a bilateral fashion; that is, the notes alternate sides.

an animated gif showing how the tines are numbered on a standard kalimba (bilaterally)
The bilateral layout of a standard kalimba

On most kalimbas, the lowest note is located in the middle. The remaining notes continue up in a zig zag pattern.

Due to the bilateral layout, the octaves look a little different on a kalimba.

an animated gif showing the octaves on a 17-key kalimba
How the octaves present on a standard kalimba. (Note that on a standard 17-key kalimba, the third octave is incomplete.)

Most kalimbas are diatonically tuned and thus contain seven notes per octave.

an animated gif showing the number of steps between each note in an octave on a standard diatonic kalimba
The steps between notes on a standard diatonic kalimba follow the same WWHWWWH formula as the keys on a piano, just in a bilateral format. Note that the blue “1” is the first note of the next octave.

You may recall that diatonic tuning follows the established pattern of steps between notes of whole-whole-half-whole-whole-whole-half. Here’s how that looks in the bilateral format of the kalimba.

There is a half step between notes 3 & 4 and 7 & 1 of the next octave, or E & F and B & C, respectively, in C Major. 3Remember that we are including the first note of the second octave to show how they connect together. Sometimes, people who are new to music think they are doing something wrong because the notes can sound unexpectedly dissonant (clashing or unpleasant) compared to another note. 4Some people, and even some music styles, prefer to eliminate the half steps altogether. Major Pentatonic tuning contains only five notes, eliminating the F and B keys. Every note then is either one whole step or one-and-a-half steps apart and sounds very harmonious. For this reason, pentatonic kalimbas tend to be very relaxing to play, though fewer familiar songs can be played on them.

Like we said, short and sweet! In the next post, we’ll be talking about chords. 🙂


Sheet music photo by Michael Maasen on Unsplash

Looking for a good starter kalimba? If it's within your budget, we recommend the Gecko K17MBR. You can buy it here. We only recommend products from brands we know and trust. Sometimes, referrals to outside resources result in a commission, which is applied to the operation of this website and the free educational resources we provide. Please check out our commitment to social and environmental responsibility.

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  1. I got a kalimba for Christmas and found this series via reddit. It’s really interesting and helpful, looking forward to part 3!

    1. User Avatar
      zwoodle says:

      Thanks so much! Your kind words really mean a lot. <3

  2. Mary Anne Ingles says:

    At age 73 trying to add relaxation music to my social distancing time. Other than enjoying folk music of 60’s no musical knowledge. This has been very helpful. I am learning Morning Has Broken as my first real song.
    Thank you

    1. User Avatar
      Kalimba Time says:

      You’re very welcome! We’re working on some more updates now. 🙂

  3. Emily says:

    Thank you so much for the information! I learnt a lot 🙂 🙂 looking forward to your new content 🙂 🙂

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