Basic Music Theory that you MUST Know

 

basic music theory for beginners and intermediates

Music theory is really an important piece of knowledge that you MUST have because this is one thing that you just can’t do music without. Honestly you can’t know everything about music in just one article, as there are many theory book written about music. However this one post can tell you a LOT.

I know that reading theory is never easy or interesting but believe me this is not that boring. Why? Because you already have interest in music. And also you have no choice. HAHA!

Hey, don’t worry. You’ve found the easiest guide on internet to learn music theory and also I’ve written it in the simplest possible language to make it very easy to understand. If you’ve just started playing or you know a little about music already, you are at right place because from now on after reading this article you’ll be sure of what you are doing.

I have made a list of few out of many theoretical elements of music. These basic elements are together known as “Basic Music Theory.” It can be a little lengthy so I would suggest you to save this and read part by part. It’s on you anyway. So let’s get started.

 

music theory

 

Notes

“Notes”, also known as “Musical Alphabets” are the terms given for different sounds that come out of any music instrument. Each note is represented by a letter. Basically there are 7 letters or seven notes in whole music theory i.e. A, B, C, D, E, F and G. After G again we play A (but with a higher pitch as if earlier that note was sung by a man and now it’s sung by a woman) because musical notes work on repetition.

Set of these 7 musical notes together are called an “Octave.” The higher note that is used after G belongs to another Octave. As you keep going on and on, you’ll go higher and higher on Octaves. Different notes can be played individually and also together but there are also rules for that. You’ll get to know them later.

These 7 notes, also known as “Root Notes” are the basic, but are not only. That’s where “Sharps” and “Flats” come. All notes have sharps except B and E. Sharps are represented by “#” sign. So if it’s an A sharp, it will be denoted as “A#” and its position is between A and B. Similarly if it’s C sharp, it’ll be denoted as “C#” and will be positioned between C and D.

“Flats” are kind of opposite of sharps, meaning the sharps are half step forth a note and flats are half step back the note. As B and E don’t have sharps, relatively C and F don’t have flats. Flats are noted by this “” b likes symbol. A’s flat is denoted as “A♭” and similarly B’s flat is denoted as “B♭”. Now it clearly reflects that one notes flat can be another’s sharp and vice versa. For example, C# is also known as D♭ and A♭ is also known as F#.

Important note: If you’re thinking where are sharps, flats and root notes on an instrument? I would prefer you look at a keyboard/piano. All the white keys are Root Notes and all blacks are Sharps and Flats.

 

 

Intervals (read this very carefully)

As you know already that there are 7 root notes and with addition of sharps and flats (5), there are 12 in total. For better understanding, notes go this way, in repetition.

C# or D♭

D

D# or E♭

E

F

F# or G♭

G

G# or A♭

A

A# or B♭

B

And then C again…

 

Between any pair of consecutive notes, there is an equal distance of a halftone/semitone (H); two halftones/semitone form a whole tone (W). In other words, distance between C and D is a “whole-tone” and distance between C and C# is a “Semi-tone”. That “distance” between two arbitrary notes is called an “interval”.  When the notes are played sequentially, the interval is called “melodic”.  When they are played simultaneously, it is called “harmonic”.

The name of an interval depends on the number of notes it contains, including the end notes; for example, the interval C – F contains 4 notes (C, D, E, F), and will be called a “fourth”.

The type of an interval depends on the number of H’s and W’s that it contains.  An interval can be “minor” (m), “major” (M) or “perfect” (P); in addition, intervals can be “augmented” (aug or # or +) (raised by an H) or “diminished” (dim or b) (lowered by an H).  When nothing is specified, the interval is considered to be major or perfect.

 

NAMEDISTANCEEXAMPLE
M 2ndHC-Db
2ndWC-D
m 3rdW+HC-Eb
3rd2WC-E
4th2W+HC-F
b 5th3WC-Gb
5th3W+HC-G
M 6th4WC-Ab
6th4W+HC-A
m 7th5WC-Bb
7th5W+HC-B
8th6WC-C

 

 

Chords

You must have seen a lot of guitarists strumming with right hand to certain finger patterns of the fret of guitar with left hand. Those patters are called chords. You play a chord when you struck 3 (mostly) or 4 notes simultaneously on you guitar or piano. Two notes played simultaneously don’t really constitute a “chord” but rather a harmonic interval (sometimes called a “dyad”). Triads are the most common types of chords and have three notes. There are four types of triads: major, minor, augmented, and diminished, though major and minor are by far the most common.

A Chord is made up of stacking intervals of 3rds (m3 and/or 3) above a starting note called the “root” (R).  The root gives its name to the chord: R + 3rd + 3rd = 3 notes chord. When the first third in the chord is a major third, the chord is major; when that first third is a minor third, the chord is minor. For example, the chord called “C Major” is a combination of the notes C, E, and G. And the chord of “C minor” is a combination of the notes C, D# and G.

 

Scales

Out of all 12 notes (root and sharps/flats), we play only a set of notes in a song. In other words, we don’t play all 12 notes in a song ever. A group of selected notes is known as a “Scale.” How are those particular notes selected to form a particular scale? Well, there are formulas. Yessss, formulas in music too. There are different types of scales i.e. Major, Minor, Pentatonic, and Chromatic.

A scales of any type is always based on its root note. For example C can have major scale, minor scale and also pentatonic scale. Out of all types, Major Scales are the most common. So recall what whole-tone and semi-tone/half-tone are let’s do Major scales first.

 

Major scales

A major scale of any note (root) is based on this formula: WT-WT-ST-WT-WT-WT-ST.
Let’s start with the following scale:

C          D          E          F          G          A          B          (C)

The first note of a scale is called the tonic, and gives its name to the scale – so this is a C scale. C major scale does not have a sharp or a flat because of its formula and structure. However the harmonic C major scale raises the G to G♯. Same way an extra note may appear in every major scale after its 5th interval.

Most of the time every chord that’s played in a song belongs to the same scale. Now, on each degree of the scale, we build a triad the way we did in the section on chords (i.e.stacking up 3rds), and we restrict ourselves to notes belonging to the scale (notes belonging to a scale are said to be diatonic to that scale; for example F# is not diatonic to C major, but is diatonic to D major). This gives us the following series of chords, called the Harmonisation of the major scale:

  • (C, E, G) = C
  • (D, F, A) = Dm
  • (E, G, B) = Em
  • (F, A, C) = F
  • (G, B, D) = G
  • (A, C, E) = Am
  • (B, D, F) = B5

 

Minor scales

A minor scale of any note (root) is based on this formula: WT-ST-WT-WT-ST-WT-WT.
Let’s start with the following scale:

A          B          C          D          E          F          G          (A)

You must be thinking how come the scales C Major and A minor have same notes. It is because A minor is the relative minor of C major or C major is the relative major of A minor (every major or minor scale has a relative minor or major scale). That’s why A minor scale also does not have any sharps or flats. However the harmonic A minor scale raises the G to G♯. Same way an extra note may appear in every minor scale after its last interval.

Same thory goes with every scale. There are twelve different major scales; the following table lists them all:

C major or A minor-                 C          D          E          F          G          A          B          C

G major or E minor –                G          A          B          C          D          E          F#        G

D major or B minor  –              D          E          F#        G          A          B          C#        D

A major or F# minor –              A          B          C#        D          E          F#        G#        A

E major or C# minor  –             E          F#        G#        A          B          C#        D#        E

B major or G# minor   –           B          C#        D#        E          F#        G#        A#        B

F# major or D# minor  –           F#        G#        A#        B          C#        D#        E#        F#

C# major or A# minor    –         C#        D#        E#        F#        G#        A#        B#        C#

F major or D minor   –              F          G          A          Bb        C          D          E          F

Bb major or G minor  –            Bb        C          D          Eb        F          G          A          Bb

Eb major or C minor   –            Eb        F          G          Ab        Bb        C          D          Eb

Ab major or F minor    –           Ab        Bb        C          Db        Eb        F          G          Ab

 

Pentatonic scale

A pentatonic scale, as the name infers, has just five notes. It’s made out of either the major or regular minor scale. Pentatonic scales are an awesome place to begin for melody composing and ad libbing.

 

Major Pentatonic Scale:

In this instructional exercise as opposed to utilizing note names I’ll allude to scale degree numbers 1 – 7 of the major and minor scales. This makes it simple to transpose the scale into various keys and will help give you a more extensive perspective of the ideas.

The major pentatonic scale will be scale degrees 1, 2, 3, 5, 6 of the consistent significant scale. At the end of the day, it’s a noteworthy scale without degees 4 and 7. When you expel degrees 4 and 7 from the significant scale there are not any more half strides; therefore practically any note in the major pentatonic scale sounds great over a noteworthy harmony movement.

Since I’m a sucker for cases we should toss a couple out there. In these composed cases you can see the holes where note degrees 4 and 7 are precluded for the major pentatonic scale.

C major pentatonic scale:

Notes: C – D – E – G – A

G major pentatonic scale:

Notes: G – A – B – D – E

Eb Major Pentatonic Scale

Notes: Eb – F – G – Bb – C

 

Minor Pentatonic Scale:

The minor pentatonic scale is 1, 3, 4, 5, 7 of the regular minor scale. That is, a characteristic minor scale without degrees 2 and 6. Now and again it’s less demanding to think about a noteworthy pentatonic scale that begins and finishes on degree 6.

E minor pentatonic scale:

Notes: E – G-A – B – D

On the off chance that you haven’t officially found out about relative keys now would be an ideal opportunity to look at them. Understanding them can truly accelerate your learning of scales. Since there are twelve noteworthy pentatonic scales and twelve minor pentatonic scales you may be a little overpowered with attempting to learn them all independently. In any case, understanding relative keys will slice those 24 downsizes the middle with the goal that once you learn twelve you’ve learned them all.

 

Chromatic Scale

A chromatic scale is a scale beginning at the root note where each note on the scale is a semi-tone separated. On a piano if you somehow happened to begin at one note and hit each key up to the octave, you’d have a chromatic scale. As such, there is no equation for a chromatic scale. A chromatic scale has every one of the notes.

 

Illustration:

C Chromatic: C C# D D# E F F# G G# An A# B C

D Chromatic: D D# E F F# G G# An A# B C C# D

E Chromatic: E F F# G G# An A# B C C# D D# E

F Chromatic: F F# G G# An A# B C C# D D# E F

G Chromatic: G G# An A# B C C# D D# E F F# G

A Chromatic: An A# B C C# D D# E F F# G G# A

B Chromatic: B C C# D D# E F F# G G# An A#

 

 

Song structure

Every song has a structure because a song is always an organized form of melodies and lyrics. A song structure is how you set the order of different parts of your song, i.e. verse, chorus, hook, bridge, pre chorus, post chorus, intro, outro and instrumental break. Different parts of a song can also be similar sometimes and that’s why we can never use all the parts in one song.

Below are all the parts of the song structure.

Intro : This is quite often the same chords/dynamics as the verse or chorus, mainly the verse. (“When You Were Young” by the Killers is an example of the chorus being used as an intro).

Verse : Normally a pretty straightforward structure, containing four to 8 chords.

Chorus : Again, normally pretty straight forward, and consisting of four to eight chords. There is normally a change in the dynamics of a chorus to make it stand out. These include volume, intensity, catchyness (is that a real word?), and timbre.

Post-chorus: The post-chorus is like another chorus after the first one. It is made to keep the feel of chorus a little longer.

Pre-chorus: Within a verse, there may also be a pre-chorus—a two or four line section, rarely exceeding four bars musically, immediately preceeding the chorus. It is crafted to propel the listener, both melodically and lyrically, into the chorus. The pre-chorus is a conduit between the verse and chorus, functioning as a buildup that reels you in.

Hook: In music, the word “hook” refers to that part of a song that catches the ear of the listener. In other words, it’s a lyrical line or melodic phrase that makes the song memorable. It can be a riff, passage, or phrase.

Bridge : This is often literally a bridge-between the verse and the chorus, or the chorus and the verse. This is especially useful when you have a key change from one to the other, or the transition from verse to chorus or vice versa isn’t particularly smooth.

Middle 8: This section is used to break up the song so it isn’t just a sequence of Verse-Chorus-Verse-Chorus. Can change the whole feel of the song, and if used properly can make or break it. Again, the dynamics are normally different to add variety.

Outro : Finally, like the intro, this can often simply be a repeat of the verse or chorus chords/structure, but can also be totally different. Remember, there are no rules.

There are many predefined song structures and you can also make one of your own. Most popular and easiest one is: Verse > Chorus > Verse > Chorus > Bridge > Chorus. I suggest you start with this and once you get the whole concept of song writing, do the experiments.

 

Basic Music Terms

Accompaniment: The use of additional music to support a lead melodic line. 

Atonal: Music that is not in a key and not organized diatonically. 

Augmentation dot: A dot placed after a note or rest that extends its value by one half of the original value. (See Dotted note and dotted rest.) 

Bar lines: Vertical lines in written music that separate notes into different groups of notes and rests, depending on the time signature used. 

Bass clef: The lower staff in the grand staff. The bass clef establishes the pitch of the notes on the lines and spaces of the staff below middle C. 

Beam: A bar used instead of a flag to connect the stems of eighth notes and smaller notes. 

Beat: A series of repeating, consistent pulsations of time in music. Each pulsation is called a beat. 

Bridge: The contrasting musical section between two similar sections of music. Also sometime called the B section. 

Cadence: The ending of a musical phrase, containing points of repose or release of tension. 

Call and response: When a soloist is answered by another musician or group of musicians. 

Chord: The simultaneous sounding of at least two pitches or notes. 

Chord progression: Moving from one chord to another, usually in established patterns. 

Compound time: A meter whose beat count can be equally divided up into thirds (6/8, 9/4, and so on) with the exception of any time signature that has a 3 as the top number of its time signature (as in 3/4 or 3/8 time). 

Cut time: Another name for 2/2 time. 

Diatonic: Conforming to the notes found in a given key. In a piece written in C major, for example, the C, D, E, F, G, A, and B are all diatonic pitches, and any other notes used in the piece are non-diatonic. 

Dotted note: A note followed by an augmentation dot means the note is worth one and a half times its normal value.

Dotted rest: A rest followed by an augmentation dot means the rest is worth one and a half times its normal value

Downbeat: The accented beats in a measure. 

Duplet: Used in compound time to divide a beat that should contain three equal parts into two equal parts. 

Flag: A curved line added to the stem of a note to indicate a reduced rhythmic value. Flags are equivalent to beams. 

Form: The overall shape, organization, or structure of a musical composition. Forms may arise from very persistent genres. 

Genre: A style or manner of music. 

Grand staff: The combination of the bass clef staff and the treble clef staff.

Half step: The smallest interval in Western music, represented on the piano by moving one key to the left or right from a starting point, or on the guitar as one fret up or down from a starting point. 

Harmony: Pitches heard simultaneously in ways that produce chords and chord progressions. 

Homophony: Layers of musical activity that move at the same rhythm, such as melody and accompaniment. 

Improvisation: Spontaneous musical creation. 

Key: Normally defined by the beginning and ending chord of a song and by the order of whole steps and half steps between tonic scale degrees (in the key of C, for example, this would be represented by the first C of the scale and the C an octave above the first.

Lead sheet: A scaled-down, notated melody with chord symbols, usually for rock or jazz music, on which a musical performance is based. 

Measure: Also called a bar. A segment of written music, contained within two vertical bars that contain as many beats as the top number of the key signature indicates. 

Melody: A succession of musical tones, usually of varying pitch and rhythm that together have an identifiable shape and meaning. 

Meter: The organization of rhythmic patterns in a composition in such a way that a regular, repeating pulse of beats continues throughout the composition. 

Middle C: The C note located right between the two musical staffs in the grand staff. 

Notation: The use of written or printed symbols to represent musical sounds. 

Note: A symbol used to represent the duration of a sound and, when placed on a music staff, the pitch of the sound. 

Octave: Two tones that span eight different diatonic pitches that have the same pitch quality and the same pitch names in Western music. 

Pick-up notes: Introductory notes placed before the first measure in a piece of music. 

Pitch: The highness or lowness of a tone produced by a single frequency. 

Polyphony: Layers of different melodic and rhythmic activity within a single piece of music. 

Rest: Symbol used to notate a period of silence. 

Rhythm: A pattern of regular or irregular pulses in music.

 Scale: A series of notes in ascending or descending order that presents the pitches of a key, beginning and ending on the tonic of that key. 

Score: A printed version of a piece of music. 

Simple time: A time signature in which the accented beats of each measure are divisible by two, as in 4/4 time. 

Staff: Five horizontal, parallel lines, containing four spaces between them, on which notes and rests are written.

Syncopation: A deliberate disruption of the two- or three-beat stress pattern, most often by stressing an off-beat, or a note that is not on the beat. 

Tempo: The rate or speed of the beat in a piece of music. 

Timbre: The unique quality of sound made by an instrument. 

Time signature: A notation made at the beginning of a piece of music, in the form of two numbers such as 3/4, that indicates the number of beats in each measure or bar and which note value constitutes one beat. The top (or first) number tells how many beats are in a measure, and the bottom (or second) number tells which kind of note receives the count of one beat. 

Tonal: A song or section of music which is organized by key or scale. 

Treble clef: Symbol written at the beginning of the upper musical staff in the grand staff. The treble clef establishes the pitch of the notes on the lines and spaces of the staff existing above middle C. 

Trill: When a player rapidly alternates between two notes next to one another. 

Triplet: Used in simple time to divide a beat that should contain two equal parts into three equal parts. 

Turnaround: A chord progression leading back to the beginning of the song.

Whole step: An interval consisting of two half steps, represented on the piano by moving two adjacent keys, black or white, to the left or right from a starting point, or on the guitar as two frets up or down the neck from a starting point.

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