So here we are, you’ve finally taken the first step of your musical journey and decided to learn about music theory!
For beginners, learning music theory might be overwhelming at first. There seems to be so much to know in order to understand how music works. In any music theory workbook, you will come across technical terms like notes, tunes, sharps, chords or even intervals . If all this sounds like a foreign language to you, you are at the right place!
But where should you start if you want to understand how music theory works? As a complete beginner, there are a few concepts you should understand before starting. And don’t forget, the best way to learn music theory is just to begin somewhere!
Pitches and Notes
A note is the symbol depicting a musical sound. In English though, it also means the sound itself. A frequency or a pitch is a natural phenomena. Frequencies occur all around us, in nature, e.g. when a bird sings or when the wind blows. When we connect them to pitch standards, they become part of a musical context. Music basically consists in giving sense to frequencies and ordering them in scales, so we can play with them. In order to do that, we need a pitch standard. This pitch is called concert pitch or international standard pitch and usually equals 440Hz for A above middle C. This pitch is used by musicians and orchestras all around the world to tune their instruments starting from A and setting the other pitches in relation to it. But in order to read or write music, we need notes. The musical alphabet simply consists in 7 letters representing the notes of a scale: A, B, C, D, E, F and G.
Sharps and Flats
Since there are actually 12 notes used in Western music theory, you might wonder why there are only 7 letters. Well, between the letters we just learned about, there are 5 additional notes called flats (b) and sharps (#). In music theory books, these symbols are called accidentals. They are added to the letters and signify that these are either lowered or raised in pitch by half a step (or one semitone). So for instance Ab is half a step lower in pitch than A and A# would be half a step higher. Sharps and flats are an important part of your first music theory lessons, as you will need them in order to see the difference between major and minor scales and chords for example.
An interval is the distance between two pitches. When those two pitches are played one after another, we call this a melodic interval. If two pitches are played simultaneously, we have a harmonic interval. Usually, an interval gets its name from the number of steps between the two notes it’s made of. A step from C up to D is a 2nd. Go another step to E and you have a 3rd. This goes on up the entire scale, you can have a 4th, 5th, 6th, 7th and finally an octave (8th). Of course, there are larger intervals, like a 9th or a 13th.. As a music theory beginner though, you won’t need intervals higher than an octave for now.
Now that you know about notes, sharps and flats, we can talk about scales! Remember the musical alphabet A, B, C, D, F, G? If you play the notes in that order, you have a scale. To be more specific, an A natural minor scale. Scales are a succession of notes, either in ascending or descending order of pitch. In music theory, a scale is a succession long enough to define a tonality and begins and ends on the fundamental note of this tonality. The fundamental note gives the name to the scale. So for example in our A minor scale, A would be the scale’s fundamental.
Until now, we talked about playing notes one after another. But what about playing them at the same time? When two ore more notes sound at the same time, we have what we call a chord. Chords usually get their name from the intervals they contain. For instance a triad is made of two 3rd intervals, as in C major (C-E-G). If you start from the root C and go up a major 3rd, you will find E. Then go up another minor 3rd and you get G. Played all together, these notes give a major Triad (C-E-G). If you want to learn more about the difference between major an minor triads, have a look at our blog post on Understanding Harmony.
The root of a chord, at least in functional harmony, is the note on which this chord is built and which at the same time gives it its name. In the C major chord, this would be C. Chords are really important in harmony, as they help us giving our music more depth and feelings. Now, chords are not always in the same position, as they might change their structure depending on harmonic rules. If the root is the lowest note, the chord is said to be in root position (C-E-G). Any other position is called an inversion. The first inversion of a triad, when the 3rd (E) is the lowest chord, is called a Sixth Chord. When our lowest chord is the 5th we call it a Six-four Chord.
Music theory really is like a new language you would learn, there are many new words and rules you have to understand. But as for languages, with the right amount of motivation and patience, you will soon discover all the fun it has to offer. Now that you know a few basics of music theory for beginners, there’s nothing that can stop you from becoming an expert in music!
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!