Introduction to basic music theory
Part 1: Scales and concepts
Music theory is something that a lot of people tend to get stuck on and I feel that I should simplify things a bit. You can take many many classes and have many private teachers but unless you understand the fundamentals you will never be able to put 2 and 2 together. Being able to play is half the battle but without understanding the logic and reasoning behind it, then you will have some issues along the way and it will surely slow you down when performing. That isn’t to say that theory is the be all end all of music. If everyone played by the rules, music would sound so uniform and honestly, very boring. Use theory only to help you understand the basic ideas of how different notes, chords and scales fit together. Above all, be creative!
Scales are by far the most important building block of music and are what everyone needs to practice in order to get a feel of how they work on whatever instrument you are desiring to play. For simplicity I’ll just assume you are learning the piano. We are all told to start in the key of C because that scale has no sharps or flats to confuse us. However C is quite limited and once you’ve played it to death it kind of gets old and boring. The question of what scale should I play next? may arise. In this case we need to look at the circle of fifths and is where things start to get confusing.
The Circle of Fifths
The circle of fifths is essentially a big loop of notes that connect to each other. Each scale has a number of sharped notes, but they are not alphabetical. For example, The key of A does not have 1, b 2, c3, and so on. Rather, let me give you an example.
c, d, e, f, g, a, b, c
G, A, B, C, D, E, F#, G
Ok, the confusion has probably set in by those 2 scales, but I had to jump in somewhere. So as we said, C major has no sharps, and no flats right? But which scale should you practice next? Ideally, you want to practice scales increasing from the least number of sharps to the most. G major is the next scale after C, and this is because it has only 1 sharp in that key. But how did I get that? Here is how it works. Since C has no sharps or flats, we find the next key by counting up 5 whole notes from C. So C, D, E, F, g. G major is our next key. However, the key of G isn’t G to G with nothing in between. We need to find out how many sharps are in G, so we count down 1 whole note from G. So F, or F# is the sharped note in the key of G.
It is called the circle of fifths because it is cumulative. Each scale builds on another, for example after G, we have D, because D is the fifth whole note up from G and D has C# in it’s scale because C is 1 whole note down from D. However, C# is not the only sharped note in the key of D, we also have F#, remember from G? So the scale looks like this:
D, E, F#, G, A, B, C#, D
G, A, B, C, D, E, F#, G
C, D, E, F, G, A, B, C
I hope you are starting to see the pattern here. The concept really is not that hard when you think about it and play it. I know that it doesn’t make sense at first, because the scales are not alphabetized but it is just something that I can’t explain, it just works that way. You will start to notice that the cycle of sharps start to follow the major keys. To show you this, the major keys go from C, G, D, A, E, B F. All that happened there was just counting up 5 notes, as we said from each key. But now look at the sharps here. F, C, G, D, A, E, B. Hmmmm, looks familiar, doesn’t it. But why is F in the front and not after B in the cycle of sharps? Because the major key of C throws everything off. Another tip I need to give you is that when you get to the key of F Major, it starts on the black key F#, not F natural..this is because we’ve already used F in the key of B and it starts to overlap.
After reading this, you should have gotten the following basic concepts:
- To find the next major key from any key, you count up 5 whole notes.
- To find the sharp in the current key, count back 1 whole note.
- The sharps in any given scale are cumulative on each other, other than C which has none.
- Sharps and flats are the same thing, but when refering to a note being decremented down either a whole or half step it is said to be flattened. If a note is incramented either a whole or half step it is said to be sharpened. Many people use these terms interchangeably.
- the cycles of major keys and sharps will start to follow each other and loop.
Part 2: Minor scales and cords
Minor scales are more gloomy sounding and might be prefered by some musicians. But first, we need to understand how we get those scales. By now, you should understand all your major scales, or at least have a really good understanding of them and can play them well enough to move on. The basic rule to find a minor scale is to flatten the 3rd, 6th, and 7th notes of a major key. Pretty simple, right? Here is an example with the key of E.
E major scale
E, F#, G#, A, B, C#, D, E
E minor scale
E, F#, G, A, B C, C#, E
Remember how we said that C has no sharps or flats? Well, that doesn’t mean that C has no minor counterpart. The same rule applies for the key of C. I had to mention this because I think a lot of people disregard C. Also, remember in part one we had talked about counting up 5 to get the next major key, and counting back one to get the sharped notes? Well, there is another rule. Counting up 6 whole notes, or back 2 whole notes will give you the relative minor of the current key. This applies for all keys, including C. The relative minor for C is A, or A minor. Ironically enough, the A minor scale is the same as the C major scale, with no sharped or flat notes.
A cord is basically the 1st, 3rd and 5th notes of a scale played together. Different cords and cord numbers come from the other notes in that scale. For example a C7 is essentially the 7th note added to a normal C cord, so you would play a C, E, G and B, because C, E and G are the 1st 3rd and 5th notes of the C scale, and B is the 7th. It gives you a relaxed feeling sound. This same rule applies for all scales.
By now I hope you’ve learned a lot from this basic theory lesson. Though this page is relatively short, there is a lot of material and concepts to grasp here, and you may need to reread this page several times, which is ok. I will be adding more to this page as I learn more and understand more. Feel free to contribute any information that may help people with learning music theory.