music theory for beginners

Music Theory for Beginners: The Simple Way

“Music theory” basically means “how to talk music.” And you don’t have to learn how to play a Cmaj13#11 or know what the post-tonal music theory is. (I don’t.)

All you need is a basic understanding of the simplest levels of music theory. It will really go a long way for you as a musician.

Here’s what’s in this guide:

  1. What is music theory?
  2. Why learn music theory?
  3. The musical alphabet
  4. The 12 keys and key signatures
  5. Musical intervals and intervals
  6. Chord structures and progressions
  7. Time signatures
  8. Music theory exercises

What Is Music Theory?

Music theory is basically a language. It’s like grammar is to English. It explains music in terms other theory-fluent musicians can understand.

Put it this way: it’s the study of the different musical elements we use, like rhythm, melody, harmony, and a bunch of other things (we’ll get into all that below).

Why Learn Music Theory?

If music theory is a language, there are two ways to learn a language: by picking up bits and pieces through experience, or by actually learning the ins and outs of it. To use a language well, you need to really know how and why things work the way they do.

So it is with music theory.

It’s a way to explain music and effectively communicate it to others. I’m not saying you can’t be a great musician without knowing it, but you can become even better at what you do by learning the basics.

Theory can also allow you to learn how Composers did the amazing things they did. And that can teach you to have a stronger grasp on making music. You’ll be able to come up with creative chord progressions quicker. Melodies and harmonies will come easier because you know the scales and what notes work and don’t work.

We’ll keep things simple and basic. This is meant to get you started on the path to music theory.

The Musical Alphabet

Music theory is so similar to language that we even associate letters from the English alphabet with each note.

The musical alphabet consists of seven letters that correspond to the seven root notes. They are: A, B, C, D, E, F, and G. The next whole note after G (i.e. the next white key on a piano) is A again, but in a higher pitch. This higher A note is part of the next octave, which includes the same letters/notes but all in higher pitches.

This alphabet is cyclical. As you go through these letters, the notes will repeat but in continuously higher octaves.

Here’s what it looks like on the piano (we’ll talk about the ♭ and # signs next):

piano keys

The 12 Keys and Key Signatures

Okay, so on top of the seven letters for the seven notes, there are these things called sharps (shown as #) and flats (shown as ♭).

This gives us 12 total notes: A, A#/B♭, B, C, C#/D♭, D, D#/E♭, E, F, F#/G♭, G, G#/A♭. (You’ll notice there’s no B#/C♭ or E#/F♭).

Sharps are a higher pitch than the letter note but not high enough that it takes you to the next letter. Flats are a lower pitch than the letter note but not low enough that it takes you to the previous letter.

For example, an A# is higher than an A but not high enough that it’s a B. It’s right in between A and B. And an A♭ is lower than an A but not low enough that it’s a G. Right in between G and A.

Also, you’ll notice on the image of the piano that sharps and flats overlap — so an A♭ is actually the same thing as a G#.

All of this — what tells us whether a note is sharp or flat — is called a “key signature.” So in the key of A major, you would use the A major scale (more on scales below),

You can choose what key you’re in from the 12 possible notes (i.e. the 12 key signatures).

Musical Intervals

A music interval is the distance from one note to another. This is what allows us to create melody and harmony and chords.

Each distance has a different name. For example, in the key of C major, the interval between C and E is called a “third” because it’s the third note in the C major scale. Then a G would be a fifth, a B would be a seventh, and so on.

So where do melody and harmony come into this? Well, a “melodic” interval is when you play two notes one after the other. A “harmonic” interval is when you play two notes at the same time, making a harmony.

>Music theory is basically a language. It’s like grammar is to English. It explains music in terms other theory-fluent musicians can understand. Put it this way: it’s the study of the different musical elements we use, like rhythm, melody, harmony, and a bunch of other things.

Musical Scales

A musical scale is a group of notes within an octave in order of their pitch, and every scale has seven notes in it. Knowing your scales can help you quickly form harmonies and melodies.

First, we should talk about whole steps and half steps. A half-step is the distance between a single note and the note before or after it. A whole-step is the distance between a single note and the note that’s two notes before or after it (so two half steps).

Now that you understand whole- and half-steps, let’s talk about scales.

There are a bunch of different musical scales, but because this guide is for beginners, we’ll only talk about the two main kinds: major scales and minor scales.

A major scale is one that most people would call “happy” sounding. All major scales have the same structure no matter what key you’re in. It goes like this (W = whole step, H = half step):

W-W-H-W-W-W-H

So let’s use an example. Let’s say you want to play an A major scale. You’d start on the A note and continue the scale like this:

B-C#-D-E-F#-G#-A

It may help to reference the image of the piano above if you need to.

Minor scales typically sound sad or dark. And in every minor scale, regardless of key signature, the structure is the same:

W-H-W-W-H-W-W

So let’s use the example of an A minor scale. After hitting the A note, the scale goes like this:

B-C-D-E-F-G-A

Using Ws and Hs is a good method for learning scales because it works for every key signature. Instead of memorizing what letters (notes) are a part of each scale, you can learn the structure of a scale and apply it to whatever key signature you’re in.

This is a super useful skill when writing songs, especially with another person or performing with a band.

Chord Structures

We covered musical scales first because they give you the knowledge to build chords. Chords give the song emotion and give you a solid foundation to write a melody. So it’s important to know how chords go together (or don’t go together).

A chord is just a combination of two or more notes played together. Each chord has a starting note called the “root note.”

The most common type of chord is a triad chord, meaning you play three notes at a time. It’s important to become familiar with them as they are the beginnings of being able to form more complex chords.

A triad chord includes the root note, a third note (four half-steps above the root), and a fifth note (seven half-steps above the root).

Here are the basic triad chords:

  • Major: root note + major third + fifth above the root (ex. A major = A-C#-E)
  • Minor: root note + minor third + fifth above the root (ex. A minor = A-C-E)
  • Diminished: root note + minor third + diminished fifth (move the fifth note a half-step down) above the root (ex. Adim = A-C-D#)
  • Augmented: root note + major third + augmented fifth (move the fifth note a half-step up) above the root (ex. Aaug = A-C#-F)

We talked about how major chords typically sound brighter and minor chords typically sound sadder. Diminished and augmented chords both sound dissonant, so don’t be surprised if you think they sound ugly by themselves.

Okay…want to add a note to these triads? This is where things get really fun — let’s talk about seventh chords.

There are five main types of seventh chords, but we’re only going to mention three:

  • Major Seventh: root note + major third + fifth note + major seventh note (11 half-steps above the root)
  • Dominant Seventh: root note + major third + fifth note + dominant seventh note (10 half-steps above the root)
  • Minor Seventh: root note + minor third + fifth note + seventh note (10 half-steps above the root)

Seventh chords can really add depth and emotion to your progression, so it’s worth learning how to use them.

One last thing to mention in this section: chord inversions. This is when you use the same notes of a chord but play them in different octaves.

For example, if you play a C major (C-E-G), you can drop the G down an octave. So instead of playing C-E-G in order of lowest to highest, you’d play the low G then the C and E above that.

You can basically move the notes of any chord around to different octaves on the piano (or whatever instrument you’re playing) and it will be an inverted version of that chord.

A time signature is like an old-fashioned clock — you know, the ones that go tick-tock. It helps us keep time while playing a song.

Chord Progressions

A chord progression is a series of chords played one after the other. They give you a foundation on which to build the melody, harmony, and even rhythm.

Chords in a chord progression are commonly referred to as Roman numerals. So the root chord — which has within it the root note of the key signature you’re in — is shown as “I.” This chord is also called the “home” chord — it feels like the end of the progression and is often the first and last chord you hear in the song.

So in the key of C major, you could have a chord progression of C-F-G-C. In “music theory language,” this would be written as I-IV-V-I. That’s because when you start on a C (I), the next chord that “sounds right” in that key is a Dmaj (II), then Em (III), then F (IV), then G (V).

The Roman numeral system is something you’d learn a lot more about in advanced music theory, so that’s as far as we’ll go with it. It’s just good to be familiar with the idea of the system.

Time Signatures

A time signature is like an old-fashioned clock — you know, the ones that go tick-tock. It helps us keep time while playing a song.

A time signature tells us how many beats are in a measure. A measure (also called a bar) is a series of beats. A helpful way to figure when a measure ends and the next begins is to listen to the chord progression — the chords typically change at the beginning of a new measure.

For example, most pop music is in the time signature of 4/4 — four beats in each measure and there are four sets of measures. So let’s say you play this:

  • Gmaj for four beats (one, two, three, four)
  • Cmaj for four beats (one, two, three, four)
  • Gmaj for four beats (one, two, three, four)
  • Dmaj for four beats (one, two, three, four)

That’s a 4/4 — four measures with four beats in each measure.

A 3/4 also has four measures but three beats in each. So use the above example, but only count to three for each chord.

That’s a basic introduction to time signatures, a very important part of making music.

Music Theory Exercises

Now you can put all this info into practice. So here are a few ways you can start using this stuff in your practice sessions today.

1. Practice with ChordFind.com
ChordFind is a super helpful and free website. It allows you to find all of the basic chords we’ve talked about. Now that you know why chords are structured the way they are, it’ll make more sense when you see the notes laid out on a piano.

2. Add a major seventh to your chord
Major seventh chords sound jazzy and smooth. If it fits your song, a major seventh can make the whole chord progression that much more interesting. Plus, it will teach you to stretch your fingers.

3. Try a new time signature
If you find yourself writing a lot of songs in a 4/4 time signature, try writing in a 3/4 time signature, or vice versa. It can completely change the feel of your chord progression and lyrical rhythm.

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