Beginner’s Guide To Basic Music Theory

Music theory is your composition blueprint.

It will help you craft the best sequence of notes, avoid ones which may sound displeasing and grab your listeners attention by making them feel a variety of emotions.

Knowing your music theory isn’t necessarily essential, some will just dive in and play what sounds nice to them, which is great.

But what music theory does is allow you to find that sound a lot quicker, understand how its created so you can replicate its structure to make more awesome sounds.

So if you’re on a journey to make music, getting to grips with music theory will make your creative process a lot easier.

Let’s learn more…

Read and enjoy the post!

Music notes

What is the musical alphabet?

Music is made using the musical alphabet, these are: A B C D E F G.

Musical alphabet

12 keys of music

Each letter of the musical alphabet can be distinguished by its own unique natural pitch, as well as a sharp (#) / flat (b) pitch.

A sharp has a slightly higher pitch than the natural pitch, and a flat has a slightly lower pitch.

Below are the 12 keys of music.

12 keys of music

With consecutive letters of the musical alphabet, the sharp (#) / flat (b) notes both represent the same pitch, however depending on the key signature it would be phrased differently.

Note: We discuss key signatures later in this post.

B to C, and E to F are the only consecutive letters that don’t have a #/b pitch.

Notes that can be phrased differently but still have the same pitch are known as enharmonic notes.

Natural and flat/sharp keys

Understanding the layout of notes is best represented using a piano/keyboard.

White keys on a piano are known as ‘natural’ notes of the alphabet, and the black keys on a piano are the ‘flat/sharp’ notes.

Note layout on a piano

When we play the notes we can hear that the pitch gets higher as we move up the keyboard, and lower as we go down.

Music intervals (steps/semitones)

A music interval is the distance between each note in terms of pitch, which is measured in semitones (aka half step) and whole tones (aka whole step – equivalent to 2 semitones/2 half steps).

So for example the distance between D and D#/Eb is a semitone, same with the distance between B and C.

The distance between D and E is a whole tone.

Music intervals

Music intervals helps us to distinguish music scales and prefixes attached to a chord.

Note: We discuss music scales and chord prefixes later in this post.

Octaves

As we know, there are 12 keys in music which are on a cycle, and eventually on that cycle you will reach the same note but at a higher or lower pitch. You have reached the octave.

A notes octave is the same note played at a higher or lower pitch. These two notes will be 12 semitones apart.

Octaves

Music scales

What is a music scale?

A music scale is a set of notes within an octave.

The type of music scale is dependent the music intervals between each note.

Types of music scales

There are several types of music scales, however we are going to go through the two most common ones used in Western music. These are major and minor (natural).

Major scales

Major scales have seven notes containing each letter from the musical alphabet.

Each key has a major scale, therefore there are 12 major scales.

This scale tends to have a sound that is happy, bright and uplifting.

It follows a music interval pattern of: W – W – S – W – W – W – S (W = one whole tone / S = semitone).

The example below is creating a major scale starting at the key of A.

Following the major interval pattern:

  • A to B is a whole tone
  • B to C#/Db is a whole tone
  • C#/Db to D is a semitone
  • D to E is a whole tone
  • E to F#/Gb is a whole tone
  • F#/Gb to G#/Ab is a whole tone
  • Finally, G#/Ab to A is a semitone
Major scale intervals

The next step is to determine if we label some notes as a sharp (#) or a flat (b). As you can see with the A major scale example we have 3 notes that have two names (enharmonic notes).

The easiest way to do this is to make sure each musical letter is used.

This would be:

Enharmonic notes - A major scale

Minor scales

Minor scales also have seven notes containing each letter from the musical alphabet.

This scale tends to sound emotional, sad and dark.

Each note has a minor scale, therefore there are 12 minor scales.

It follows a music interval pattern of: W – S – W – W – S – W – W (W = one whole tone / S = semitone).

The example below is creating a natural minor scale starting at the key of A.

Following the minor interval pattern:

  • A to B is a whole tone
  • B to C is a semitone
  • C to D is a whole tone
  • D to E is a whole tone
  • E to F is a semitone
  • F to G is a whole tone
  • Finally, G to A is a whole tone
Minor scale intervals

In this scale we have no sharps or flats.

You can practice learning these major and minor scales by working them out yourself for each key.

Note: Major and minor have a special relationship. Every minor scale starts at the 6th note of a major scale. We discuss this more in ‘Relative keys’ later in this post.

Scale degrees

Each note in a scale, regardless of if it’s part of a major or minor scale, has a name attached to it which relates to its position and function in the scale.

These are: tonic, supertonic, mediant, subdominant, dominant, submediant and leading tone/subtonic.

Tonic, dominant and leading tone/subtonic are perceived to be important in any given scale.

Scale degrees

Let’s go into more detail for each one:

  • 1st note – Tonic
    • The tonic note is the tonal center of the key you are playing in – it’s the beginning of the scale and is usually referred to a lot during a piece of music. It acts as home.
  • 2nd note – Supertonic
    • The supertonic note strengthens the dominant note. You may hear that this note often appears before or after the dominant note in a piece of music.
  • 3rd note – Mediant
    • The mediant note is rather harmonically weak compared to other degrees.
  • 4th note – Subdominant
    • The subdominant note offers a gentle resolution leading to the tonic note.
  • 5th note – Dominant
    • The dominant note is harmonically strong and uplifting and works well with the tonic note.
  • 6th note – Submediant
    • The submediant strengthens the dominant note.
  • 7th note – Leading Tone (major scales) / Subtonic (minor scales)
    • The leading tone/subtonic note creates tension, and is often harmonically weak and unstable.

Let’s use the key of A using a major scale as our example, this is how the scale degrees work out:

  • A = tonic
  • B = supertonic
  • C# = mediant
  • D = subdominant
  • E = dominant
  • F# = submediant
  • G# = leading tone.

Therefore, A, E and G# are our important notes.

Understanding a notes scale degree in a given scale will allow you to create and release tension throughout your music.

Music keys

What is a key signature?

A key signature tells you what and how many notes in a scale are sharp (#) and flat (b).

The image below shows how many sharps and flats are in each major scale.

Key signatures

You can memorize the order of adding sharps to a key signature with a mnemonic such as:

  • Father Charles Goes Down And Ends Battle (sharps)
  • F# C# G# D# A# E# B#

This means:

  • G major would contain F#
  • D major would contain F# and C#
  • A major would contain F#, C# and G#
  • And so on…

You can do the same with adding flat notes to a key signature:

  • Battle Ends And Down Goes Charles Father (flats)
  • Bb Eb Ab Db Gb Cb Fb

This means:

  • F major would contain Bb
  • Bb major would contain Bb and Eb
  • Eb major would contain Bb, Eb and Ab
  • And so on…

Key relationships

Parallel keys

Parallel keys are major and minor scales that have the same tonic note, this means they both contain the same first note at the beginning of their scale.

The examples below is the A major scale, and the A minor scale, both start with the note A.

The next example is the C major scale, and the C minor scale, both start with the note C.

Parallel keys

Relative keys

Relative keys are major and minor scales that share the same key signature, this means they both contain the same notes in their scale.

You can find the beginning of the minor scale by using the 6th note in the major scale.

In the example below we have the A major scale, the 6th note in the scale is an F#. Therefore, F# is the relative minor key to A major.

Both scales of A major and F# minor contain the same notes: A – B – C# – D – E – F# G, however the minor scale starts at the 6th note instead: F# – G# – A – B – C# – D – E.

We also have C major, the 6th note in the scale is an A. Therefore, A is the relative minor key to C.

Relative keys

Enharmonic keys

Enharmonic keys are scales which contain the same notes but are labelled differently.

An example would be the key signature of C# major and Db major. C# major contains 7 sharps and Db major contains 5 flats, however each note sounds the same when played or sung.

Enharmonic keys

How you phrase the key signature is ultimately down to you, but the composer usually uses the scale which is easier to translate to sheet music.

Note: If you’d like to learn the basics of sheet music notation, check out Sheet Music Notation: The Complete Beginner’s Guide. I think you’ll find it incredibly useful.

So how does all this key signature, relative key, minor key, major keys, scales all fit together?

How do I remember it all? There’s so much!

This is where the ‘Circle of Fifths’ comes in.

Circle Of Fifths

The ‘Circle of Fifths’ is a geometrical representation of the relationships between the 12 keys of music.

It is a handy tool to help you remember relative keys and how many sharps (#) / flats (b) are in certain key signatures.

The outer ring are your major keys, along with how many sharps (#) or flats (b) present, and the inner ring is the major keys relative natural minor.

Circle of fifths

Finding scales

Not only is it a useful diagram to print off and pin to your wall for reference, it can also tell you more about the key you’ve chosen.

We can work out the notes in a given scale very easily.

We start on the outer ring to find a major scale, and start on the inner ring to find a minor scale.

We’ll choose the key of Bb in a major scale, therefore we start on the outer ring:

This is what we do:

We select the 6 closest notes:

  • The outer ring: Eb (to the left) and F (to the right)
  • The inner ring: G (below), C (to the left) and D (to the right)

Then for the 7th note:

  • You use the inner circle for a major scale – A
Circle of fifths - finding scales

Our Bb major scale is: Bb, C, D, Eb, F, G and A.

We can see that Bb has 2xb below it, this means the scale has 2 flat notes, and from our diagram we can see that these are Bb and Eb.

Note: We would do exactly the same for a minor scale, however the 7th note would be on the outer ring.

Finding chord progressions

You can also use the circle of fifths to build chord progressions. The most common chord progressions involve the 1st, 4th, 5th and 6th notes in a major or minor scale.

Below we’ve got the key of A major in orange circles along with the 4th, 5th and 6th notes, and its relative minor F# along with the 4th, 5th and 6th notes in the purple text.

Finding chord progressions - circle of fifths

Don’t worry if you don’t understand the significance of the chord progression in the diagram, our last topic on music theory is chords.

Let’s continue.

Chords – The basics

What are chords in music?

Chords are two or more harmonic notes played simultaneously.

But what do I mean by harmonic notes?

Harmonic notes in music theory are notes that move between sounds of consonant (relaxed) or dissonant (tense).

Notes played in harmony sounds pleasing to the ear, however we can also use them to create tension and unease.

The most common chords in music are built using three notes.

Let’s go through the different types of chords and how they are built.

What types of chords are there?

Chords are named and defined by their root note, and their prefix. The prefix is defined by the intervals used in between each note in the chord.

Let’s crack down on the details.

Triad chords ‘circle of thirds’

A triad is a three note chord that is built on the ‘circle of thirds.’

The circle of thirds applies to major and minor scales, and is built by entering the major or minor scale in a 1, 3, 5, 7, 2, 4 and 6 format. Each number corresponds to its position in the scale.

Our example below is A major.

Circle of thirds

We now build chords by using the three notes in sequence clockwise to each other.

From our example above:

  • A chord you’d use A-C#-E
  • B chord you’d use B-D-F#
  • C# chord you’d use C#-E-G#
  • Etc.

And so on, until each note in the scale has a chord. In total you’ll have 7 chords.

The first note in the chord is known as the root, the middle note is the 3rd and the last is the 5th.

Here is the full list of chords for the A major scale:

A major scale using the circle of thirds

So as we know the name of the chord is defined by its root, but how do we find its prefix?

Below are going to go through the basic types of triad prefixes, these are; major, minor, diminished and augmented.

Major chords

Major chords sound happy and are used to create an airy carefree atmosphere in music.

For the triad to be labelled as a major chord, it will have a major 3rd and perfect 5th above the root.

To find out if it’s a major 3rd you’ll need to use the music interval patterns for the major scale.

If it’s a major 3rd note it will have an interval of 2 whole tones from the root note.

A perfect 5th means that it is 7 semitones above the root.

Here’s A as an example:

A major chord layout

As we can see:

  • C# is 2 whole tones (4 semitones) away from the A
  • E is 7 semitones away from the A

This means A-C#-E is a major chord.

The major chord formula is: R – 3 – 5 (root, 3rd and 5th of a major scale.)

A major chord is written with just it’s root note, therefore A major would be written as A.

Minor

Minor chords sound grim and are used to create a sense of sadness in music.

For the triad to be labelled as a minor chord, it will have a minor 3rd and a perfect 5th above the root.

To find out if it’s minor 3rd you’ll need to use the music interval patterns for the minor scale.

If it’s a minor 3rd note it will have an interval of 1 and a 1/2 whole tones or 3 semitones in total from the root note.

A perfect 5th means that it is 7 semitones above the root.

Here’s A as an example.

A minor chord layout

As we can see:

  • C is 3 semitones away from the A
  • E is 7 semitones away from the A

This means A-C-E is a minor chord.

The only difference between a major and minor chord is that the 3rd note in a minor chord is 1 semitone lower than the 3rd note in a major chord.

We call it a flat 3rd (b3).

The minor chord formula is: R – b3 – 5 (root, flat 3rd and 5th of a major scale – the formula is based on the major scale.)

A minor chord is written with its root note plus ‘min’ or ‘m’ afterwards, therefore A minor would be written as Amin or Am.

Diminished

Diminished chords sound tense and are used to create suspense in music.

Diminished chords are not often used in modern Western music due to the alarming tone this combination of 3 notes creates.

For the triad to be labelled as a diminished chord, it will have a minor 3rd and a diminished 5th above the root.

To find it’s minor 3rd, you’ll use the same method as with a minor chord. You’ll find it’s 1 and a 1/2 whole tones or 3 semitones in total from the root note.

A diminished 5th means that it is 6 semitones above the root.

Here’s A as an example:

A diminished chord layout

As we can see:

  • C is 3 semitones away from the A
  • Eb is 3 whole tones (6 semitones) away from the A

This means A-C-Eb is a diminished chord.

It would be labelled an Eb rather than a D# because these chords have to miss a letter.

The only difference between a minor and diminished chord is that the 5th note in a diminished chord is 1 semitone lower than the 5th note in a minor chord.

We call it a diminished 5th, but it is essentially a flat 5th (b5).

The diminished chord formula is: R – b3 – b5 (root, flat 3rd and flat 5th of a major scale.)

A diminished chord is written with its root note plus ‘dim’ or ‘º’ afterwards, therefore A diminished would be written as Adim or Aº.

Augmented

Augmented chords sound anxious and, just like diminished chords are used to create suspense in music.

Similar to diminished chords these are used less often than diminished chords in modern Western music.

For the triad to be labelled as an augmented chord, it will have a major 3rd note and an augmented 5th note above the root.

To find it’s major 3rd, use the same method as with a major chord. You’ll find it’s 2 whole tones from the root note.

An augmented fifth means that it is 4 whole tones (8 semitones) above the root.

Augmented chords are special as the 5th note in the chord doesn’t fit into its major or minor scale.

Here’s A as an example:

A augmented chord layout

As we can see:

  • C is 2 whole tones (4 semitones) away from the A
  • F is 4 whole tones (8 semitones) away from the A

This means A-C#-F is an augmented chord.

The only difference between a major and an augmented chord is that the 5th note in an augmented chord is 1 semitones higher than the 5th note in major chord.

We call it an augmented 5th, but it is essentially a sharp 5th (#5).

The augmented chord formula is: R – 3 – #5 (root, 3rd and sharp 5th of a major scale).

An augmented chord is written with its root note plus ‘aug’ or ‘+’ afterwards, therefore A augmented would be written as Aaug or A+.

Circle of thirds continued…

The circle of thirds builds your triad chords from any key easily. But, you don’t have to stop there.

Continuing around the circle we can add a fourth note to the triad, the 7th note.

Seventh chords (7th)

Seventh chords sound uplifting and are used to create a sense of open-mindedness in music, they tend to sound brighter than a major chord.

A seventh chord adds an additional third onto the structure. You can find the seventh note by adding the next note in the circle of thirds.

[cof 4]

There are 3 types of seventh chords that use the ‘circle of thirds’:

Major seventh chords adds a major seventh to a major chord.

A major seventh is 11 semitones above the root.

Using A major as our example, an A major seventh would be:

  • A – C# – E and G# – labelled as Amaj7

Minor seventh chords adds a minor seventh to a minor chord.

A minor seventh is 5 whole tones or 10 semitones above the root.

Using A minor as our example, an A minor seventh would be:

  • A – C – E and G – labelled as Am7

Half-diminished seventh is created by adding a minor seventh to a diminished chord.

A minor seventh is 5 whole tones or 10 semitones above the root.

Using A diminished as our example, A half diminished seventh would be:

  • A – C – Eb and G – labelled as Am7b5 (the only difference between the minor 7th and diminished 7th chord is that the 5th note is flat in a diminished chord, hence the flat 5 (b5) at the end of the prefix)

So now we understand the basics of chords and how they are constructed, how do we apply them to scales?

Chords – Scales & progressions

Chords and scales

There is a formula to find out what notes create a major, minor or diminished chord in any given scale.

The formula for finding the prefixes for chords in a given scale is as follows:

Major scale chord formula

Each note has a corresponding number to it as we’ve mentioned with the circle of thirds.

This means that when each corresponding number acts as a root note in a chord, the formula will show you what prefix to add.

Here’s the major scale chord formula:

1 – Major | 2 – Minor | 3 – Minor | 4 – Major | 5 – Major | 6 – Minor | 7 – Diminished

In the example below we’ve chosen the A major scale which contains notes: A – B – C# – E – F# – G#.

Major chord formula

Then using the circle of thirds we write down the 3 consecutive notes in the circle, and ta-da! Job done!

Minor scale chord formula

As we already learned from the circle of fifths and relative keys, the relative minor scales follow their relative major scales however starting from the 6th note.

The 6th note in the major scale formula is a minor, the 7th is a diminished. This would be the minor scales 1st and 2nd.

Here’s the minor scale chord formula:

1 – Minor | 2 – Diminished | 3 – Major | 4 – Minor | 5 – Minor | 6 – Major | 7 – Major

I’ve chosen F# minor as the example below because it is the relative minor of A major.

Minor chord formula

We can see that each note still has the same chord prefix, the only change is the order.

Then using the circle of thirds we write down the 3 consecutive notes in the circle, and ta-da! Job done again!

Therefore by understanding the notes in the scale, the circle of thirds and the major/minor formula, you can gather all the information you need to make music.

Right, now we understand the basics of chords and their position in the scale. How do we make music with them?

We make a chord progression!

Chord progressions

A chord progression is a series of chords played in a sequence.

The chords in a progression represent different harmonic functions, similar to the scale degrees. It takes your listener on a journey, making them feel the ups and downs, and feel the tension build and release.

The tonic chord (using the 1st note in the scale) always provides stability to a piece of music, and is usually the first chord used in a progression. It is often referred back to, and is ended with.

Think of it as a ‘home’ chord.

Roman numeral analysis

Chords follow a roman numerical pattern.

From our A major example we’ve used a lot, each chord has a roman numeral attached to it, starting at 1 (I) and finishing at 7 (VII).

Major chords are capitalized, whereas minor and diminished chords are in lowercase.

  • Major scale roman numerals: I – ii – iii – IV – V – vi – vii
  • Minor scale roman numerals: i – ii – III – iv – v – VI – VII

The ‘tonal’ chord is the first chord in the scale, ours is A major.

Roman numerals A major

These numbers represent its relationship with the ‘tonal’ chord in the piece of music.

Most common chord progressions

In Western music, here are the most common chord progressions (based on major scale roman numerals):

1. I – IV – V (1-4-5)

Has a sense of anticipation and open-endedness as you are going up the scale and getting further away from your tonic chord. It also has a strong sense of resolution when the 5th chord is followed by the tonic chord.

145 chord progression major example

If you’re playing a major scale all chords will be major, giving a sense of uplifting happiness.

If you’re playing a minor scale all chords will be a minor, giving a sense of growing/increasing sadness.

145 chord progression minor example

2. I – vi – IV – V (1-6-4-5)

Has the same resolution feeling similar to the I – IV – V chord progression but adding the 6th chord after the tonic adds an element of brightness to the chord progression.

1645 chord progression

If you’re in a major scale, the 6th will be a minor chord.

If you’re in a minor scale, the 6th will be a major chord.

3. I – V – vi – IV (1-5-6-4)

This chord progression has the same chords as example two, however the order has been rearranged.

1564 chord progression

There are many combinations you can make with these 4 chords alone such as:

  • I – IV – V – vi (1-4-5-6)
  • I – IV – vi – V (1-4-6-5)
  • I – IV – I – V (1-4-1-5)
  • I – V – IV – vi (1-5-4-6)
  • I – vi – I – vi (1-6-1-6)

Remember, music is about experimentation and exploration!

If you’re a beginner, experimenting with the 1st, 4th, 5th and 6th chords in a progression is perfect.

It’s your turn

There we have it!

A beginner’s guide to understanding the basics of music theory.

It’s a lot to learn to begin with, and it can be daunting remembering a lot of new information.

The next step

So now you’ve learned the basics, what next?

Well if you’ve enjoyed learning about music theory and have a solid grasp on all the information from this beginner’s guide, then why stop?

There are so many more aspects of music theory to learn about such as; reading and writing sheet music, music modes, more chord prefixes, inversions, scales and emotions etc.

But either way, you can start making music now!

So if you want to make sweet music, just do the following:

  1. Choose a major or minor key depending on the mood of your song
  2. Find the notes in the scale to create a melody
  3. Create the chords and use a chord progression that best suits the mood
  4. And finally, go on a musical journey of self-expression

I hope you go on to create some awesome music!

Good luck, and get creating!

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