Music Theory Basics – What Is Music Theory?

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:

Musical intervals called steps and half steps.

Steps and Half Steps

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:

The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Music Theory, 2nd Edition

Alfred’s Essentials of Music Theory: A Complete Self-Study Course for All Musicians (Book & 2 CDs)



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.






February 17, 2013 Music Production 5 Comments

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  1. Leon Portelance March 6, 2013 at 5:00 am

    Just a comment on intervals, we didn’t invent them, they exist in nature. The first person to really investigate this phenomena was Pythagorus. He discovered if you take a string and divide it exactly in half and pluck it the note is a higher version of the same pitch, an octave. If you divide the string exactly into thirds, you get a perfect fifth and so on. He discovered the harmonic series. Music theory and classical orchestration are both closely tied to the harmonic series. That is why when an orchestra plays a tutti chord, the instruments are usually spaced out like the harmonic series, with the octave on the bottom, the perfect fifth next, followed by the second octave (a fourth higher) and the third, etc. This type of orchestration sounds rich and powerful because it is supporting the harmonic series of the fundamental (bass note). I majored in composition and music theory in college and it was fascinating. I think anyone who is serious about playing and writing music should learn as much music theory as they can.

    There was no such thing as 12 equal intervals until they invented keyboards like the harpsichord and wanted to figure out a way so they wouldn’t have to completely retune them every time you wanted to play in a different key. Their solution was they compromised the “purity” of natural intervals and simply divided the octave into twelve equal steps or intervals some got flattened and some got sharpened.

    One analogy I like to give students is the concept of a keyboard that is a spiral staircase. Every time you go up 12 steps, you are standing exactly above where you were before (an octave). The 6th step up or halfway point is the ambiguous tri-tone (which divides the octave exactly in half) with the fifth right above it and the fourth right below. Then the next step down and up are the major third and minor sixth followed by the minor third and major sixth, major 2nd and minor 7th, minor 2nd and major 7th. And they are all related to each other! When you invert the tritone you get another tritone hence it’s ambiguity, a fifth becomes a fourth, a minor sixth a major third, a major sixth a minor third and so on. It is symmetrical, mathematical and beautiful!

    • Ayron Thelen March 6, 2013 at 5:50 pm

      Your reply is probably more informative than the article itself. Appreciate the knowledge, i’d love to gain a better understanding of Theory. Unfortunately it didn’t intrigue me when I was younger, but through the years I’ve become more and more interested in sound in general and the way that we perceive it.

  2. Leon Portelance March 8, 2013 at 10:00 pm

    I waste a lot of time thinking about abstract things :) Like if the earth rotates at just under 1000 miles an hour we must be moving that fast too. But wait a minute, that would only hold true at the equator, the point of maximum circumference. As you move away from the equator the circumference measured from an imaginary line running through the north and south poles is smaller, hence you would travel a shorter distance in a day and therefore be moving slower. So what would happen if you stood with one foot on either side of the north or South Pole, would you become stationary? No, you would do a complete 360 degree rotation once a day.

  3. Leon Portelance March 8, 2013 at 10:19 pm

    I agree that music theory is fascinating. You could spend the rest of your life analyzing Bach’s “Art of the Fugue.” But to put things in perspective, the nature and characteristics of sound waves exist as part of nature, our hearing is the result of millions of years of evolution, whereas music theory is a fairly recent man-made concept. The music came long before the theory when primitive man started betting on logs, chanting and dancing around the fire. It is good to know music theory as it will expand your horizons as both a composer and a musician. No one cares about parallel fifths if you are playing bar chords in a rock song, but if you are working on a film score and writing a classical sounding piece, proper voice leading is essential or it will just sound wrong or amateurish. I wrote the music for a horror flick and to maintain the degree of tension I wanted, I decided it needed to be strictly atonal and used classic 12 tone serial techniques to create the music.

  4. Leon Portelance March 8, 2013 at 10:21 pm

    Ha ha, should be “beating” on logs not betting on them. Maybe that was how the first Casino got started.

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