Understanding the foundations of music theory won’t just help those who want to make a career out of playing the violin or the trombone. You might want to explore music because you’ve always been drawn towards the sound of the elegant piano or the complicated bellow of jazz music. Learning more about music means connecting more deeply with the sounds around you.

If you’re looking to compose music yourself, music theory will be the key to tapping into the mystery behind music. As you dance from clefs to notes to scales and chords, you’ll revel in the magic of music and why it’s been bringing communities alive for millennia.  

The Methodical Magic of Music Theory Vocabulary

Subjects as diverse and profound as music always seem to come with their own vocabulary, and music theory is no different. As a topic that’s been making humans feel anticipation with the beat of a drum or joy with the pluck of a guitar string for 35,000 years, it’s no surprise that there is a lot to learn. 

But what is music theory? Often defined as the key principles in making music, music theory encompasses all of the aspects musicians use to communicate their stories, emotions, and personal experiences through sound. 

Mastering Music Clefs

A red box emphasizes the two music clefs visible on the left side of the staff. 
Still from Skillshare Class Music Theory Fundamentals – Beginner by Mathew James.
In music, it’s all about that bass and treble.

Music clefs are one of the first things you’ll come across when you learn how to read music. Within the red square above, you’ll see two curved shapes. The top shape is the treble clef and the bottom is the bass clef. The tenor clef and alto clef are also commonly used in modern music. 

These clefs define the pitch that the music is going to be in. The treble clef represents the most common pitch, which instruments like the clarinet and violin use. The bass clef encompasses both bass and baritone voices and the deep sounds of the cello, bass guitar, trombone, and tuba. 

The tenor clef is closely related to the bass clef because it represents the upper extremes of those same instruments. The alto clef is another more rare clef that most musicians will not utilize unless working on the viola, mandola, or alto trombone. 

Knowing Your Notes and Rests

With a piano above it, this staff shows where each piano key is represented on its pair of eight lines. 
Still from Skillshare Class Music Theory Fundamentals – Beginner by Mathew James.
Writing music transcribes the sounds you already know onto paper.

Now take your eyes and slowly move down the staff, which is the set of four lines and five spaces that provide a place for music to be written. Every masterpiece from The Marriage of Figaro to Mary Had a Little Lamb can be communicated clearly to other musicians in this black and white, lined space.

Your vision should land on little oval- and hat-shaped figures, which are the notes and rests. Each note and rest represent the sounds and silences that mingle together to create a song. In the figure above, you’ll see the notes shown on the piano, but this musical theory lesson can also be translated to other instruments like the guitar. 

Taking in Time Signatures

Taking a quick step back on the musical staff, you’ll notice another key element to understanding basic music theory: two stacked numbers. This is the time signature. In the first staff you saw, there are two fours next to both the treble clef and the bass clef. The top number represents the number of beats in each measure and the bottom number represents the note value of each beat. 

Studying Scales and Intervals

On a piece of sheet music titled Fantaisie No. 1, a series of scales are circled in red to show their power and prevalence in music. 
Still from Skillshare Class Music Theory Comprehensive: Part 2 – Chords, Scales, & Keys by Jason Allen.
You’ve probably heard that you can tune a piano, but you can’t tune a fish. Well, one thing they do have in common is their scales.

If you’ve ever taken a music lesson, whether from your older brother who loves the guitar or a classically trained pianist, you’ve probably heard something about scales. 

Scales show musicians an important pattern that you can use as a template for almost all music. Representing a sequence of notes ranging in a specific order, most modern music is based upon them. If you’re into learning about music theory for songwriting, scales are the foundations to melodies, chord progressions, and more. 

The interval in music theory is the gaps between the notes within a scale. By taking whole steps and half steps up or down to a different note, you can increase or decrease the interval, and thus the pitch, between each note. A whole step is the distance of two notes and a half step is the distance of one note. 

Making Sense of Major Scales

Turn on any trending pop song and it will most likely be based on a major scale. Sounds in the major scale will seem uplifting and happy, while those in the minor scale will seem sad or gloomy. 

The C major scale is one of the most popular upbeat patterns used in music. To find any major scale, you simply find the note that corresponds with your chosen scale or key, which in this case is C. 

Once you have your starting point at C, you move through the music by following a pattern that happens in a specific interval. In the major scale, you’ll take two whole steps, then a half step, three whole steps, and finally a half step up to complete it. Every major scale will use this exact same seven note formula no matter which key you start with. 

Memorizing Minor Scales

Just like the major scale, you can use a pattern of intervals to work out a minor scale. Its pattern is whole step, half step, two whole steps, half step, and finally two whole steps up. 

To find any relative minor scale to a major scale all you have to do is to go up three half steps. You’ll notice that the A note is three half steps down from the C note, which means that the C major scale is the A minor scale’s relative major. 

These major and minor scales use the same notes in a different fashion to build a completely new sound. The only difference between them is where the scale begins and the interval pattern it follows. 

Interpreting Intervals

Now that you know that a scale’s interval pattern is the key piece in defining its emotion and sound, go ahead and play around with a few notes. Without thinking too much about it try pressing keys at random on your piano or plucking strings on your guitar. Likely, they won’t jive too well together. 

Now pick any key and follow either the major or minor scale interval. Notice how the sound is already starting to come together like its own piece of music. Variations of these scales is what makes up the music you already know and love. 

Characterizing Chords and Progressions

As you think about the music you enjoy on a daily basis, you might be able to recall that many notes aren’t played on their own. Many are played within chords, which is when three or more notes are played at once. Your lesson in music theory basics won’t be complete without a foundational understanding of chords and how they are used. 

Just like how there are major scales and minor scales, there are also major chords and minor chords. If you’ve been paying attention to this lesson on how to learn music theory, you might’ve already guessed how to use chords. Major chords add a more upbeat feeling to a song, while minor chords add a sadder feeling. 

Making a chord is an easy three step process that goes back to understanding scales. Each scale has its corresponding chord. For example, there is a C major chord just as there is a C major scale. To make a chord, all you have to do is pick your chord and its corresponding note, find the major scale from that note, and then play the first, third, and fifth note in that scale together. And voila you have a major chord!

To find the minor chord, you just have to flatten the third note in that scale.  

Before you move on to cadences in this music theory lesson, try finding the F major chord or E minor chord on the instrument of your choice. If you don’t have an instrument yet, try printing off a drawing of piano keys and use some bright colored pencils to mark these chords. 

Concluding with Cadences

You’ve almost finished working through the entire staff and its main musical components. Cadences are a chord progression of at least two chords that you will often find at the end of a phrase in music. It uses harmony or melody to create a sense of resolution at the end of a piece or a sense of connection between two different phrases. 

Just like written language, reading music requires an understanding of its phrasing and notations. Can you imagine if this blog post was written without any spaces, transitions or punctuation? It would just be a jumble of letters. 

You wouldn’t abruptly end a thought in the middle of a sentence, so you likely won’t want to end a musical piece without finishing it up or breaking it up with cadences. As you learn to read music, try to notice these breaks and cadences.  

Enjoying Inversions

You already know that you can build dozens of chords by working with existing major and minor scales. You can also produce inversions of these chords by changing up the order of their notes. So instead of playing the first, third, and fifth note to make up a chord, you would start with the third note or the fifth note on the bottom of that chord. 

Always March to the Beat of Your Own Drum

As you come to the end of your music theory lesson, stay playful. Some of the most incredible musicians learned music by exploring it in the way they felt best. It’s your drum so you can play it in the way that brings you the most joy.

If you’re looking to get a few important insights into the music you love, continue to explore the language of music and more music theory modes and terms. Soon enough you’ll be sharing the beauty of music theory to those around you. 

Written By

Calli Zarpas

  • Click here to share on Twitter
  • Click here to share on Facebook
  • Click here to share on LinkedIn
  • Click here to share on Pinterest