My hope is that this article takes the mystery out of music theory. That will help you gain an understanding of the building blocks that make up western music. You’ll learn the basics of how harmony, melody, and rhythm work together so you can start building more songs from scratch.
We will first dive into some frequently asked questions around music theory, then we will tackle the “need to know” topics.
First, don’t be overwhelmed and take your time. As you learn and implement these concepts, music theory will become less daunting and easier to understand.
Are you ready? Let’s dive in!
What are the benefits of learning music theory?
Music theory is a language. You can write plenty of great songs on musical intuition alone. However, learning how music works will allow you to write more quickly, confidently, and thoughtfully.
A common mistake for beginning (and advanced) musicians is to believe learning music theory will somehow block your creative ability. But truth be told, you’re actually stifling your creative flow when you choose not to learn music theory.
The goal of learning music theory isn’t to put guardrails around your creative expression. Instead, it’s meant to help you understand the relationship between notes and scales. This will help you in a variety of different ways, including:
- Creating more thoughtful chord progressions
- Help you communicate with other musicians
- Make more thoughtful arrangement and music production choices
- Composing more interesting melodies
- Match lyrical intent with the tone of the music
- Break free of writer’s block
- Reverse engineer your favorite songs
- Become better at improvisation
- Learn multiple instruments easier
- Becoming a better songwriter and musician
So instead of fearing music theory, take a deep breath and know that you can learn this. Music theory will benefit your music in the long run. It helps you discover new depths of creativity and breaks you free from the self-limiting boxes you may be trapped in.
Is learning music theory difficult?
Yes and no. You must practice music theory regularly to get fluent with the musical language. It will take some time to wrap your head around concepts and terminology.
However, if you take small bites of musical theory and put it into practice, the concepts will start to click over time.
Don’t try and learn everything all at once, and remember to enjoy playing your instrument and take frequent breaks from the technical stuff.
Should I learn songs or music theory first?
I wholeheartedly believe that you should focus on learning your favorite songs over music theory at the beginning of your musical journey.
Every person should fall in love with music-making first, then dive into the theory later.
The first thing a beginning musician should develop is the motor skills of playing their instrument. It’s going to take time to build up muscle memory and produce a good sound out of your instrument of choice.
Once you can noodle around (make some music), the music theory will begin to make a lot more sense.
The three main elements of basic music theory and songwriting
Great songwriting focuses on three key areas:
Without these three pieces working together, your songs won’t reach their full potential.
Harmony in Music
Harmony is when two notes or more are played simultaneously to produce a sound. Chords and chord progressions are the best examples of harmony in music.
There are two main types of harmony: consonant and dissonant.
- A consonant harmony is when two or more notes sound pleasing and musical together.
- A dissonant harmony is when two or more notes sound “ugly” together.
Music theory and songwriting rely heavily on consonant and dissonant harmonies to create tension and release in music. This combination is what creates drama and intrigue in a song.
“To keep a listener engaged, establish a sense of comfort with consonant harmony, then disrupt it with dissonant harmony.” – Brad Johnson
Harmony is also a big part of vocal arrangement and production. Understanding how harmony works will help you to layer vocals and get that “Radio Ready” polish.
Harmony is a big topic. You might want to take a deeper dive into the music theory behind chord progressions, cadences, harmony, and more. If so, check out my article “Use Harmony in Music to Bring Vibrancy and Depth to You Songwriting.“
Melody in Music
A melody consists of pitch and duration. In other words, it’s a musical phrase that progresses over time.
- Musical pitch is a sound wave that cycles through space and time and creates the notes we hear.
- Musical duration, or rhythm, is the duration in which a pitch is held. This duration is what creates melodic motion.
Melodic motion can either be conjunct or disjunct.
- Conjunct motion is when a melodic phrase changes notes in half-steps and whole steps. This motion is also known as a stepwise motion. Conjunct motion is excellent for smooth melodies that are easy to sing.
- Disjunct motion is when melodic phrases jump notes beyond a whole step. These often give melodies a more open and free sound. However, they are often harder to sing and less stable sounding than Conjunct melodies.
Melodies are the most crucial part of a song. A great melody gets stuck in a listener’s head and is what creates the hook.
The topic of Melodies is vast and deserves its own article. For this reason, I created “How to Write A Melody That is Catchy and Awesome” for you to reference to get more information on this topic.
Rhythm in Music
Rhythm is the engine that propels a song forward. It’s often referred to as the pulse, or heartbeat, of a song.
Musical rhythm is defined by the length of notes and rests within a piece of music.
Rhythm is vital for creating melodies and harmonies that are interesting and memorable.
The most interesting thing about rhythm is that melody and harmony can’t exist without rhythm. But, still, rhythm can exist without melody and harmony.
Rhythm can be broken down into the following pieces:
- Beats: The pulse that structures the musical phrase
- Time Signature: The number of beats per measure. Written as a fraction (Example: 4/4)
- Tempo (BPM) & Meter: The speed of a song and the patterns of strong and weak beats
- Strong and Weak Beats: The combination of the downbeat (strong) and upbeat (weak)
- Accents: The intensity placed on specific notes in a phrase
- Syncopation: Making the downbeat the weak beat, and the upbeat the strong beat in a musical phrase
The topic of rhythm is enormous and deserves its own article. For this reason, I created “Everything You Need to Know about Rhythm in Music As a Songwriter” to reference to get more information on this topic.
Everything you need to know about music theory to write great songs
The following section will dive into the topics and terminology you’ll run into when you study music theory.
I’d recommend bookmarking this page and refer back to this often to sharpen your skills.
For the rest of this article, we will be discussing music theory as it pertains to western music.
The Musical Alphabet (Notes)
In the musical alphabet, there are only seven letters (notes): A, B, C, D, E, F, and G (all white keys on a piano keyboard).
When playing any major and minor scale in music, you will always have each letter from the musical alphabet represented.
In physics, tones are frequencies that cycle at differing speeds.
- Slower speeds = lower notes
- Faster speeds = higher notes
The way that we represent these pitches is by writing music notation on a staff. Conveniently, notes that are lower on the staff are lower, and higher notes are higher.
There are three typical music staffs when writing out sheet music and four familiar specialty staffs.
The three most common staffs are:
- The Treble Clef
- The Bass Clef
- The Grand Staff (both treble and bass combined)
The specialty staffs are:
- The Percussion Clef
- The Alto Clef
- The Octave Clef
- The Tenor Clef
Reading the notes goes up and down and left to right.
- Up and down = pitch
- Left to Right = time
Pro Tip: Don’t let the number of staffs intimidate or confuse you. More than likely, you will work with just the treble and bass clefs when working with music notation.
The Twelve Keys of Western Music
There are seven notes in the musical alphabet; however, there is twelve key signatures total. This is because musical notes can also be sharpened (#) or flattened (b). More often than not, these sharps and flats will be the black keys of a piano, and in “music theory lingo,” are called accidentals.
A sharp is when a note is moved up a half-step. There can be instances of double sharps in scales when a note is moved up two half steps or a whole tone.
Double sharps are often in keys that composers avoid and are something you won’t run into often.
A flat is when a note is moved down a half-step. Again, there are times a note can be a double flat. But this isn’t something most modern songwriters will come across and is beyond the scope of this article.
If the natural sign is on a piece of sheet music, you would simply return the note back to its natural state without any sharps or flats.
Key signatures and the music scale often get misunderstood. Key signatures represent the home base or tonic note of a scale. So it’s essentially letting you know what notes will work within a scale concerning the signature.
The twelve key signatures are (I combined the enharmonic equivalents):
|C Major||C D E F G A B C|
|C# D# E# F# G# A# B# C#|
Db Eb F Gb Ab Bb C Db
|D Major||D E F# G A B C# D|
|D# E# F## G# A# B# C## D#|
Eb F G Ab Bb C D Eb
|E Major||E F# G# A B C# D# E|
|F Major||F G A Bb C D E F|
|F# G# A# B C# D# E# F#|
Gb Ab Bb Cb Db Eb F Gb
|G Major||G A B C D E F# G|
|G# A# B# C# D# E# F## G#|
Ab Bb C Db Eb F G Ab
|A Major||A B C# D E F# G# A|
|A# B# C## D# E# F## G## A#|
Bb C D Eb F G A Bb
|B Major||B C# D# E F# G# A# B|
The Fundamentals of Scales
Before we dive into the major scales and minor scales, we first need to break down the technical elements of what gives a musical scale its sound.
To understand the music theory behind scales, you need to first understand two fundamental concepts:
- Scale Degrees
Understanding Scale Degrees
There are seven scale degrees in the major scale and minor scale, one for each note.
A scale degree is the position of a note within the seven notes, and each one has a name:
- 1st scale degree = Tonic
- 2nd scale degree = Supertonic
- 3rd Scale degree = Mediant
- 4th Scale degree = Subdominant
- 5th Scale degree = Dominant
- 6th Scale degree = Submediant
- 7th scale degree = Leading Tone
Each scale degree has built-in tension and release characteristics. The tonic is the music center of the key, and the other scale degrees will want to resolve back to the tonic in varying degrees.
Some scale degrees can find some sonic resolution into other scale degrees that aren’t the tonic; however, it won’t feel as complete.
Understanding Distance Between Notes (Intervals)
This section will explain basic music theory terms for the distance between notes.
Half Steps (Semitone)
A half step, or semitone, is one note up or down from the previous note. If you were to play every key on a piano, you’d be playing in all half steps (also known as the chromatic scale).
When we discuss specific scales later in this article, we will refer to half steps as “H.”
Full Steps (Whole Tone, Whole Steps, Tone)
A whole tone is the distance of two half steps. So essentially, if you started on a single note, then skipped a note, you have a whole tone.
As we discuss specific scales later in this article, we will refer to whole steps as “W.”
An octave is the eighth note of a scale. It’s the same pitch as the first note, just higher.
For example, if you were playing in the c major scale, the notes would be C, D, E, F, G, A, B, C.
The C to C is an octave.
The word “octave” comes from Latin, meaning “eight.”
Unison is the same pitch played by two different instruments.
Simple intervals are what creates a scale’s unique color.
When you play a particular pattern of whole tones and semitones, you create a scale. Also, when you create harmony, the interval distance of the notes you choose to stack creates the type of chord you play.
A note by itself will not convey any emotion. Intervals give a series of notes (melody) or stack of notes (chord) its distinct flavor and feeling. It’s the relationship in distance (interval) that gives a note or chord context and meaning.
A large part of music theory deals with intervals and how they sound together. Understanding the rules and manipulating them is how you create intentional moods with your melody and chords.
There are six main simple intervals that you will run into as a songwriter:
- Major Interval
- Minor Interval
- Perfect Interval
- Diminished Interval
- Augmented Interval
Major Intervals and Minor Intervals
Let’s use the C major scale as our example for this discussion. The notes of C major are C, D, E, F, G, A, B.
(Image of Piano)
The second, third, sixth, and seventh scale degrees can all be easily flattened. If you flatten any of these notes, you will turn it into a minor interval.
If you leave the notes as is, then it’s a major interval.
This one is a bit confusing to wrap your head around. The fourth, fifth, and octave intervals can’t be minor or major. It has to do with the ratio between frequencies and is beyond the scope of this article.
Just know that while these intervals can’t be minor or major, you can still sharp or flatten them.
It becomes diminished when you flatten a perfect interval; if you sharpen a perfect interval, it becomes augmented.
Diminished and Augmented Intervals
As we mentioned, perfect intervals become diminished or augmented when flattened or sharpened. You can also diminish a minor interval by lowering the third degree a whole step. You can augment a major interval by raising it a whole step.
Tritones are when there are three whole tone distances between notes. For example, in C Major, the tritone is between the subdominant and leading tone.
In music theory circles, tritones are referred to as the “Devil’s Interval.” This is because it has a volatile and creepy sound to it. You won’t find this interval used in popular songwriting often; however, you will hear it used in jazz and metal music.
Compound intervals are note distances that extend beyond the octave. For example, if you played the note C and the octave of F, you would be playing a compound perfect fourth interval.
For more in-depth information on compound intervals please refer to my article “Learn Compound Intervals to Unlock the Magic Colors of Sound.“
Major and Minor Scales
Alright, now we can finally talk about scales! Understanding musical scales and modes become a lot easier after you grasp scale degrees and intervals. Review the previous section a few times; it will be worth your while as we move forward.
In western music theory, the major and minor scales are the foundational scales for every song.
When you understand these scales, you’ll be able to reverse engineer most modern music.
What is a Major Scale?
The major scale is considered the foundational scale of western music. When you understand the major scale, every other scale and concept in music theory becomes easier.
Major scales are defined by a stable and cheerful sound. However, this doesn’t mean that you can’t make a major scale sound sad or contemplative.
Each major scale is comprised of major chords, minor chords, and diminished chords. Thus, you can create a variety of sonic flavors by sticking with major scales.
The intervals for the major scale is W, W, H, W, W, W, H
For a more in-depth look at the major scale, please refer to my article “The Major Scales: The Keys to Great Songwriting.“
What is a Minor Scale?
Minor scales are derived from the major scale. If you begin a scale with the submediant (sixth scale degree), you will play a minor scale.
This is also known as the natural minor scale. There’s a minor scale “baked in” to every major scale. What gives a minor scale its sound is the rearranging of the interval patterns.
There are three main types of minor scales that you will come across:
- Natural Minor Scale (W, H, W, W, H, W, W)
- Harmonic Minor Scale (W, H, W, W, H, 3 semitones, H)
- Melodic Minor Scale (W, H, W, W, W, W, H)
Each one of these scales has its own distinct flavors and theoretical reason for existing.
For a more in-depth look at minor scales, please refer to my article “Aeolian Scale vs. Minor Scales | How to Leverage These Sad and Beautiful Sounds.“
What is a Parallel Key?
A parallel key is musical scales that start on the same note. However, the interval pattern following is different.
An example of a parallel key would be C major and C minor.
What Are Enharmonic Scales?
An enharmonic scale is when two different scales share the same pitches, but the names of the pitches are different.
For example, Gb can also be F#.
Entire scales can be enharmonic, and often, the one you choose to use is the one that has the least amount of accidentals.
For a more in-depth study of enharmonic scales and notes, please refer to my article “Music Theory Cheat Sheet: The Enharmonic Equivalent Note, Intervals, and More!“
What is the Pentatonic Scale?
The pentatonic scale is a five-note scale. It removes the subdominant and leading tone from the major scale. By removing these notes, you create a scale that doesn’t contain tension or dissonant intervals.
It’s a very musically pleasing scale and is great for improvising and creating melodic hooks. As long as you stay within the notes and chords within the scale, you can’t really pick a bad-sounding note.
There are both major and minor pentatonic scales and can be used interchangeably throughout a song.
For a deeper dive into the Pentatonic Scale, please refer to my article “The Songwriter’s Guide to the Tasty Pentatonic Scale.“
Music modes, also referred to as Greek Modes or Church Modes, are older than scales.
A mode can be derived from any type of scale, but the most common music modes you will come across are those from the major scale.
Modes are great for adding different colors to your music, and you play in and out of modes throughout one piece of music.
There are seven music modes of the major scale:
To get a deeper dive into Music Modes and their sonic colors, please refer to my article “How Music Modes Enhance the Feeling of Your Songs.” You can also click the link on the names above to read a dedicated article on the particular mode.
A power chord is a two-note chord that consists of the root note and a perfect fifth interval. You can also add in the root note octave for extra harmonics.
Power chords can be neither major nor minor because of the missing mediant (third scale degree).
Power chords are popular in pop rock and have a chunky, driving quality to them.
A triad is a chord made up of three notes. Every chord (besides a power chord) is built off of a triad. A triad contains the root note, third, and perfect fifth.
Major and Minor Chords
A major chord is a triad that has the major third interval. A minor chord is a triad that has a minor third interval.
When you add the leading tone to a triad, you create a seventh chord. There are three primary seventh chords that you will see in popular music. These are:
- Major Seventh: Created by the 1, 3, 5, and 7th
- Minor Seventh: Created by the 1, flat 3, 5, 7th
- Dominant Seventh: Created by the 1, 3, 5, flat 7th
The sound of a seventh chord is created from the first, third, fifth, and seventh notes. The major seventh has a major third interval, while the minor seventh has a minor third interval.
The Dominant Seventh is a major chord that has a minor seventh. This minor seventh makes a dominant scale, also known as Mixolydian.
Seventh chords have a relaxed “jazzy” sound to them and are great as transition chords.
Diminished chords are created when you take a minor triad and flatten the fifth scale degree. Diminished chords carry a lot of tension and spookiness.
In the major scale, the seventh-degree chord is a diminished triad.
An augmented chord is when you take a major triad and raise the fifth scale degree. Augmented chords also carry tension but are a little “brighter” than the diminished sound.
Augmented chords aren’t often used in popular music because there isn’t an augmented chord for any of the scale degrees in the major scale.
Upper chord extensions add a note to a chord that goes into the next octave beyond the seventh scale degree.
The most popular chord extensions are:
- The 9th: The octave of the second degree
- The 11th: The octave of the fourth degree
- The 13th: The octave of the sixth degree
Chord extensions add more complexity and flavor to triad chords and can be used to significant effect in creating more exciting harmonies.
Chord inversions are the rearranging of the note order in a chord. This is also referred to as a chord’s “voicing” and can dramatically affect the sound.
For example, if you are playing a C major chord, the notes would be C, E, G. If you made the root note G and kept the other notes the same, you would still be playing a C chord.
Inversions are great for playing up the neck on a guitar and for easier transitions to different chords while playing on a piano keyboard.
A chord progression is any number of chords played in a sequence. There are countless chord progressions, and often, you will hear the same ones in many different songs.
Some of the most common chord progressions are:
- I, IV, V
- I, vi, IV, V
- I, V, vi, IV
- iv, IV, I, V
- I, IV, vi, V
In music theory, a cadence is a musical phrase that ends with a two-chord sequence. Thus, a Cadence provides an elegant finish to a chord progression.
The most popular cadences are:
- Perfect – V-I
- Plagal – IV – I
- Imperfect – Any type of cadence that ends on the V
- Interrupted – Using the V chord to set up a perfect cadence, and then choose a chord other than the I
Nashville Numbers (Roman Numeral System)
The Nashville number system is a great way to communicate chords and scale degrees to other musicians no matter what key signature you are playing in.
You refer to scale degrees as a number and write it out as a Roman Numeral. Major chords are uppercase, minor chords are lowercase, and diminished chords are lowercase with a º.
The Nashville Number system is:
- One Chord (I)
- Two Chord (ii)
- Three Chord (iii)
- Four Chord (IV)
- Five Chord (V)
- Six Chord (vi)
- Seven Chord (viiº)
What to Do With This Newfound Music Theory Knowledge?
Congratulations, you did it!
You now have a foundational knowledge of music theory that should help you communicate, write, and produce better music quickly.
Learning music theory is excellent, but it means nothing if you don’t apply it to write music. So I created an article titled “How to Write a Song in 5 Simple Steps” that will get you applying this knowledge today.
Go check it out and start writing some music. Remember, all it takes is for one song to change the world.