Now that you know a few basics of music theory and harmony, it is time to go to the next step: playing an instrument. Since the best way to learn music theory, as for anything, is learning by doing. One of easiest instruments for beginners to start playing music with is the piano. Why? Because even if you are a complete beginner trying to learn music theory, playing the piano is really easy and the pitches you play actually sound like pitches should sound. A keyboard puts the music theory you learned or will learn right on front of you. The piano is basically a visualization of music, more precisely of all the notes available to you. If you follow a few simple rules, you will very quickly see results and will be able to play a plethora of different songs!
The Magic of Four Chord Songs
Did you ever feel like almost every pop song sounds the same? Well, you are kind of right, to a certain extent! Take The Beatles’ Let it Be and Alphaville’s Forever Young. Now, play the instrumental version of Let it Be and try to sing Forever Young’s chorus at the same time. If you are too young to know these songs, try to do the same with Bob Marley’s No Women, No Cry and Beyonce’s If I Were A Boy. See where I’m heading here? What happens is that you are able to sing the latter’s melody on the former’s chords. The same goes for an endless list of very popular songs from the last decades, like for example the Spice Girls Wannabe, Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Under The Bridge, or even Alicia Keys’ No One. But how is this possible? See, this is where learning about music theory starts becoming exciting!
According to the Australian comedy group Axis Of Awesome, ‘all the greatest hits for the past 40 years just use four chords, same four chords for every song’. The amazing thing about music theory is that it helps us make sense of music and understand why a song like Let It Be was such a success while sounding kind of familiar to us. At the end of this article, you will be holding the key to successful hit songwriting and at the same time, you’ll be able to play literally hundreds of songs!
Keys and Progressions
Western music is based on keys, or the notes a particular scale is made of. If your song is in C major for example, you will be able to play any note of the C major scale during this song and it will always sound good. This is the basic of improvisation: know in which scale your song is written and you will know which notes you are allowed to play. The same goes for chords, while you play a C major triad (C-E-G) with your left hand on the piano, you can play any note of the C major scale with your right hand and it will always sound pretty good to your ears. But although most songs are usually written in one given key, chords usually change throughout the song, which is called a progression. So how do we know if a chord fits in the song’s key? In general, you should remember that you can take any chord, as long as its notes are in the song’s key.
But did you notice that if you play both Let it be and No Women, No Cry at the same time, it doesn’t sound that good after all? This is because they have been written in different keys. And still, they kind of sound the same, because they use the same chord progression.
In music theory, more precisely in functional harmony, we tend to look at chord’s functions within the context of a given key. Whether you are in C major and have a chord progression of C – G – A minor – F, or in E major (as in Axis Of Awesome’s Four Chord Song) with a progression of E – B – C# minor – A, both have the same harmonic structure: I-V-VI-IV. And this is exactly the progression used in the songs mentioned before and in at least hundreds of other pop songs.
So how does it work? This is where functional harmony will help you. It is a huge part of music theory and is the best way to understand why so many songs share the same progression (also see our Music Theory for Beginners: Understanding Harmony article for more detailed information). Do you remember the Circle of Fifth? Whatever key you are playing in, it will help you find the chords you need.
I is called the tonic and is always made of your key’s fundamental (so the note giving the name to your key). The second chord will always be based on a fifth above your fundamental and is called the dominant (V). The last chord will start with a fifth below your fundamental, this is the subdominant (VI). I, V and IV are called the primary triads. In any song, these chords make up a major part of its harmonic structure and any other chords are derived from them. The VI-chord is a little bit more tricky. It is called a tonic parallel (VI), because it is derived from the tonic (I). In C major, the tonic (I) is made of C-E-G. The tonic parallel, based on the 6th note of the scale, is A in our case. A minor (because VI is always minor in major keys) is made of A-C-E. Here, we see that C and A minor have two notes in common: C and E.
Now that you know how to find the chords for the I-V-VI-IV progression, nothing will stop you from literally playing hundreds of songs, or maybe even composing your own hit song. And this is just one example of why it is so exciting to learn music theory!
Make sure and check out our Just the Facts music theory workbooks for all ages that will help you develop and advance your musical knowledge through interactive music theory worksheets!