Music Theory Basics – What is Music Theory?
When I hear “theory” I automatically think science. And in regards to music, theory is essentially the science of music. It’s the understanding of notes and scales, chords and progressions, time and rhythm, clefs, modes, melody, harmonics, and everything in between. To some music theory is extremely boring, dry and dull information, but to me it’s the foundation that leads to exceptional music and musical comprehension. If you want to be a musician, artist, producer, or composer, the one thing you probably shouldn’t skip is music theory. I’m not going to go real in depth into music theory here, but I’ll touch on some of the key concepts and provide links to other helpful music theory resources at the end, along with a glossary of common musical theory terms.
Some Key Components of Musical Theory:
Tones, Pitch, Intervals, Frequency, Notes, Scales.
Sound is basically the vibration of air molecules. The faster they’re vibrating the higher the pitch of the sound, and the slower they’re vibrating the lower the pitch. This vibration can be measured in hertz (Hz), also known as cycles per second. Another name for the measurement of a sounds pitch is it’s frequency. High frequencies correlate to high pitch, and low frequencies correlate to low pitch. Tones are sounds with a specified pitch such as 440 Hz or the note of “A”. Because humans can’t detect variations of pitch in very small increments (439 Hz and 440 Hz probably sounds the same to you and I), we’ve taken the frequency spectrum and divided it into tones with intervals big enough to make an audible difference to us. Click here for more on pitch.
There are 12 main tones in most Western music, also known as the 12 notes in the chromatic scale. If you look at a piano you’ll notice that the keys are in a pattern of the same 12 keys repeated (counting both white and black keys). The white keys on the piano are represented by the first 7 letters in the alphabet (A, B , C, D , E, F, G, and back to A). The black keys between the white ones are called accidentals or sharps and flats, which make up the other 5 notes. There are numerous scales that;’re made up of different combinations of these 12 notes, and these scales are defined by the first note in the scale also called the root note (or tonic). The intervals between the notes in the scale determine the type of scale it is (ie; Major, Minor, Dorian Mode, etc). These intervals are typically measured in “steps”. The distance between any two keys touching on a piano is a half step. The distance between any two keys with one note in between them is a whole step as depicted below:
The intervals of a major scale are Whole, Whole, Half, Whole, Whole, Whole, Half (starting on the root note and ending on the root note).
The intervals of a minor scale are Whole, Half, Whole, Whole, Half, Whole, Whole (starting on the root note and ending on the root note).
Some Helpful Music Theory Websites and Tools:
Music Theory Basics - From Auburn University’s website, covers most of the essentials in musical theory.
Chord Progression Generator – A tool that generates chord progressions for you based off of what scale and mood you pick.
8 Ways to Read Music – A wikihow guide for reading music.
There are countless books on music theory, but here’s a couple good ones:
Music Theory Glossary of Common Terms:
Acapella – Music without instruments, or music only made up of vocals.
Accent – An emphasized note, played louder than others.
Aeolian Mode – A musical mode equivalent to a major scale.
Alto Clef – A musical clef, mainly used in music written for viola’s.
Alto – The lowest pitched female voice.
Arpeggio – Notes of a chord played out separately or arpeggiated instead of being played simultaneously.
Augmented Chord – A musical chord with a raised fifth. ie; 1-3-5#
Bar Line – The line that seperates measures on a musical staff.
Baritone – A male voice that is higher in pitch than a bass, but lower in pitch than a tenor.
Bass – In regards to a chord it is the lowest note in the chord, typically the root unless the chord is inverted. In regards to voices it’s the lowest pitched male voice.
Bass Clef – A musical clef used in music written for lower pitched instruments and singers.
Beat – A unit of time in music.
Chord – A group of notes played simultaneously.
Chord Progression – A progression of different chords throughout a musical piece, or throughout a section of a musical piece.
Chromatic Scale – All 12 notes from A to G make up a chromatic scale. All other scales are basically variations of the chromatic scale with certain notes left out. This can also be understood as the division of an octave in 12 equal parts.
Clef – A symbol on a musical staff that helps reference the pitches of different notes. ie; Bass Clef, or Treble Clef.
Crescendo – Becoming louder gradually.
Decrescendo – Becoming quieter gradually.
Dominant – A perfect fifth above the tonic, also understood as the fifth degree of a scale.
Double Bar – 2 vertical lines indicating the end of a composition or section.
Extended Chords – Musical chords with notes added above the basic triad.
Half Step – The interval between each consecutive note in a chromatic scale.
Harmony – Multiple tones combined.
Interval – The distance between notes or pitches.
Inversion – A variation of a chord, where one of the notes in the chord is transposed up or down an octave.
Key – The name of a mode or scale using the tonic to indicate which one it is. ie; In the key of C Major.
Major Chord – A triad consisting of the Tonic (root), 3rd, and 5th. (1-3-5)
Measure – A section of a musical piece divided by bar lines on a staff, made up of beats.
Melody – Varying tones played in a logical rhythmic sequence.
Minor Chord – A major chord with a flattened 3rd. (1-♭3-5)
Note – A symbol on a musical staff that is used to represent both pitch and duration. ie; Quarter Note
Octave – The distance between Middle C and the next C on a piano is an octave. When you hit the + or – transpose buttons on a midi controller or keyboard it typically raises or lowers the notes by an entire octave. It can also be understood as a change of 6 steps or 12 half steps in either direction.
Pitch – The frequency of a tone. High pitch would be like a girl screaming, where as a bass drum would be considered lower pitch.
Rhythm – The placement of sound in relation to time.
Root Note – The main note in a chord or scale. The other notes are based off of the root note, and the type of scale/chord is determined by the intervals between these other notes relative to the root note.
Scale – A series of notes or tones.
Semitone – A distance between tones equivalent to a half step.
Staffs – Music is written on a staff, which includes 5 lines, 4 spaces, and a clef to tell you which note corresponds with which line or space.
Tempo – The speed of a musical piece.
Third – The distance between the 1st and 3rd degree of a scale. A Major third is 2 whole steps. 1 half step lower (1.5 steps from the tonic) is a minor third.
Tonic – The first degree of a musical scale (1st note in the scale).
Triads – Groups of 3 notes, the basic form of most chords.
Thats all I’ve got for now, if you can think of any terms to add to the glossary or have any questions leave a comment.