This basic music theory guide looks at fundamental concepts musicians use to understand, analyze, perform, and create music.
What is Basic Music Theory?
Music theory is a study that allows us to understand the language of music. It is a set of guidelines and practices used to recognize the different ways to express emotions with sound. Music theory also helps us interpret musical compositions, communicate with other musicians, and become confident in creating or performing music.
Learning basic music theory is also essential for enhancing creativity and developing a keen sense of musical awareness. It is a challenging, but rewarding set of skills to learn. Knowing how music works will make the music production process easier and help you become an effective music producer.
This basic music theory guide examines key signatures, pitches, intervals, scales, chords, and other music fundamentals. It also provides insight into the basic building blocks of music that form harmony, melody, and rhythm.
Musical Notes and Intervals
Let’s start this basic music theory for beginners guide by going over the foundations of harmony and melody. This section describes all the available notes and the specific relationships between them.
The Music Alphabet
Notes are the building blocks for all music. The musical alphabet consists of seven letters: A, B, C, D, E, F, G. Each note has a unique pitch.
The 12 Keys of Music
There are 12 notes on the piano keyboard: A, A#/B♭, B, C, C#/D♭, D, D#/E♭, E, F, F#/G♭, G, G#/A♭.
The white keys on your keyboard play the “natural” notes in a scale (A, B, C, D, E, F, G). Playing only white keys places you in either the key of C major or A minor.
The black keys on your keyboard play the “flat” and “sharp” notes in a scale (A#/B♭, C#/D♭, D#/E♭, F#/G♭, G#/A♭). Each note has a symbol: ♭ for flat and # for sharp. Playing a combination of white and black keys allows you to write in all available keys signatures.
An interval is a distance between two notes. There are several different intervals. We measure these intervals by the number of half steps, whole steps, and their position in the scale. A half step interval is one semitone. A whole step interval is two semitones. Two half steps make a whole step.
Moreover, intervals are the foundation of both harmony and melody. Playing two or more notes at the same time creates harmonic intervals (chords). Playing a single note one after the other creates melodic intervals (melodies).
Furthermore, we describe intervals by number (distance) and prefix (quality). The interval number represents the number of half-steps between two notes. These numbers are (unison), 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th, 6th, 7th, and 8th (octave).
Intervals are also described by quality using a prefix. The five interval qualities are major, minor, perfect, augmented and diminished.
The next highest or lowest pitch of the same note. For example, an octave up from C1 on a piano is C2. An octave down would be C0. There are 12 semitones in the octave.
Key signatures tell you what notes in a scale are sharp or flat. They also help you identify the key of a song, which is the tonal center. For example, a song in the key of A minor uses notes from the A minor scale. There are twelve key signatures, each derived from the twelve available notes.
Musical Scales and Modes
Musical scales are the fundamental building blocks of music. Understanding musical scales and their functions is essential when learning basic music theory. This section looks at the two most common scales, their scale degrees, and the seven music modes.
What is a Scale?
A musical scale is a set of notes within an octave arranged by their pitch. The ascending or descending interval relationships among the note pitches define every scale. Moreover, the notes from a scale are used to form melodies and harmonies.
There are several types of scales. However, the two main types are the major scale and the minor scale. You can build both major and minor scales from any note. How you build them all depends on the pattern of intervals you use.
Natural major scales are bright, uplifting, and happy sounding. The seven notes in all major scales follow the same interval pattern: W-W-H-W-W-W-H (whole-whole-half-whole-whole-whole-half). There are twelve possible natural major scales.
Natural minor scales are dark, sad, and emotional sounding. The seven notes in all minor scales follow the same interval pattern: W-H-W-W-H-W-W (whole-half-whole-whole-half-whole-whole). There are twelve possible natural minor scales. In addition, there are three variations of the minor scale: natural, harmonic and melodic.
Each note in a scale has a name that relates to its function and a number to indicate its position on the scale. There are seven scale degrees. These names apply to all major and minor scales.
Music is all about the creation and release of tension. The function of a scale degree relates to the amount of tension it creates. It also helps you decide what note(s) should follow to resolve the tension.
Moreover, remembering all the different pitches in major and minor scales is difficult. Referring to the steps of the scale by numbers rather than notes makes it easier.
Learning more about these functions takes us into advanced music theory. For now, it is good to know the names:
- 1st – Tonic
- 2nd – Supertonic
- 3rd – Mediant
- 4th – Subdominant
- 5th – Dominant
- 6th – Submediant
- 7th – Leading Tone
Musical modes are scales derived from a parent scale. There are seven music modes. Each mode is a slight variation of a scale. They use all the same notes and interval patterns as the parent scale. The main difference is the root note used to build the scale. Starting a scale on a different note defines the tonal center, giving it distinct melodic characteristics.
The seven musical modes are:
- I – Ionian (major scale)
- ii – Dorian (major scale starting on the 2nd degree)
- iii – Phrygian (major scale starting on the 3rd degree)
- IV – Lydian (major scale starting on the 4th degree)
- V – Mixolydian (major scale starting on the 5th degree)
- vi – Aeolian (natural minor scale or major scale starting on the 6th degree)
- vii – Locrian (major scale starting on the 7th degree)
Learning musical modes goes beyond basic music theory and is more advanced. However, getting familiar with these terms and basic functions is helpful.
Chords and Chord Extensions
Chords are the harmonious building blocks of all songs. They evoke emotion and provide the foundation for creating melodies. Knowing how to build chords and understand how they interact with each other is important when learning basic music theory. This section looks at basic chords types, chord extensions, and inversions.
What are Chords in Music?
A chord is a combination of two or more notes played at the same time. They’re built off a single starting note called the root. You can create chords from all twelve notes. There are also four basic types of chords in music:
- Major – Has a major third and a perfect fifth above the root
- Minor – Has a minor third and a perfect fifth above the root
- Diminished – Has a minor third and a diminished fifth above the root
- Augmented – Has a major third and an augmented fifth above the root
The most common chords are triads. A triad is a chord made of three notes. Triads have a root note, a third (four semitones above the root), and a perfect fifth (seven semitones above the root). Triads are also the foundation for more complex chords.
Major chords have a root note, a major third, and a perfect fifth. A chord with these three notes alone is called a major triad. For example, a C major triad has the notes: C-E-G. You can also add notes to build more complex chords.
Minor chords have a root note, a minor third, and a perfect fifth. A chord with these three notes alone is called a minor triad. For example, a C minor triad has the notes C-E♭-G. You can also add notes to build more complex chords.
Diminished chords sound tense, dissonant, and dramatic. They have a root note, minor third, and a diminished fifth (six semitones above the root). For example, a C diminished triad has the notes: C-E♭-G♭.
Augmented chords sound dissonant, unsettling, and mysterious. They have a root note, major third, and an augmented fifth (eight semitones above the root). For example, a C augmented triad has the notes: C–E–G#.
A seventh chord adds a note to the basic triad. Seventh chords have a root note, a third, a perfect fifth, and a seventh. For example, a C major seventh has the notes: C–E–G-B. There are also five main types of seventh chords: major, minor, dominant, diminished, and half-diminished.
Chord Extensions are notes added to the basic triad beyond the seventh. These notes extend into the next octave. Extended chords create a richer, more harmonically complex sound than basic major and minor triads. They also provide additional voice leading possibilities, which makes chord progressions sound more interesting. There are four chord extensions: the 9th, 11th, and 13th.
Chord inversions are variations of the same chord. The more notes a chord has the more possible inversions. Transposing notes in a chord to different octaves creates an inversion. Chord inversions add variation, excitement, and smoother transitions to chord progressions.
A chord progression or a harmonic progression is an ordered series of chords. Chord progressions support both the melody and the rhythm. They also provide the foundation for creating harmony and melody.
Roman Numeral Analysis
Roman numerals are used to indicate the chords in a progression. They identify the musical key and the root note for each chord. Uppercase Roman numerals represent major chords, while lowercase numerals represent minor chords. For example, a chord progression in the key of C major would look like I-vi-IV-V (C-Am-F-G). Delving deeper into this topic goes beyond basic music theory. However, it helps to introduce this numerical system.
Voice leading is the linear movement between melodic lines or voices to create a single musical idea. This technique focuses on the smooth movement of notes from one chord to the next using common tones. Moreover, it minimizes the vertical and horizontal transition between notes in a chord progression or melody. These smaller moves sound more natural and pleasing.