The future of music

What Is Music Theory? The Basics for Making Better Music

August 4, 2023
what is music theory

We get it – the word theory can spark fear in the hearts of those who have not-so-fond memories of lesson plans, homework, and dense textbooks.

It can have negative associations with pedagogy and rote memorization.

But learning the basics of music theory is not as intimidating as you think.

Not only that, but it is indispensable to becoming an accomplished musician.

Theory is the bedrock of music.

It is the practical foundation upon which the magic and spontaneity of sound are built.

Theory is the structure of the house, and harmonies, melodies, and chords are the furnishings and decorations.

Theory is the logic behind musical language and ultimately enables us to communicate.

Music theory, at its most basic, is the study of the concepts and compositional methods involved in music-making.

It is, above all, a practical discipline that will yield real-world results.

Why Do I Need to Know Music Theory?

Although it might appear dry at first blush, understanding music theory emancipates you to be more experimental, dynamic, and fearless with your songwriting, composition, and play.

Just like a writer needs to know grammar, syntax, and sentence structure in order to have a full understanding of their creative options, musicians need to understand theory to expand their horizons.

Understanding music theory allows you to understand and describe why certain sounds work and feel organic, and why some sounds are grating and unpleasant.

Learning theory gives you an enhanced appreciation for the craft and science of music.

On the other hand, understanding music theory makes it more convenient and fruitful to collaborate with other musicians.

It can be challenging to describe what you are trying to accomplish with colleagues, bandmates, or collaborators when you don’t have the vocabulary. 

The Fundamental Basic 

Don’t fret – you know this stuff.

We’re talking about the fundamental basics of music theory: harmony, melody, and rhythm.

They are kind of like the vowels in the alphabet – absolutely crucial to communication.

We hear these words tossed around all the time.

What do they mean in the context of music theory?

Melody

A melody is at the heart of every song.

We all know what melody is intuitively, but it is hard to put into words.

It is a cadence, a tune, or (bear with us) a linear sequence of notes that come together to produce a recognizable progression.

It is like a word made of multiple letters.

We don’t read the letters, but rather we perceive the word.

It is important to remember that a melody is linear.

A melody is memorable.

It is the part of the song you catch yourself humming on repeat.

In layman’s terms, when we talk about a song we like, we are typically reacting to the melody.

A melody is a combination of pitch and rhythm.

Both the human voice and pitch-producing instruments can create melodies.

Most songs comprise a vocal melody and an instrumental melody, and they are both vital to the overall texture and emotive potency of a piece of music. 

A song like “Amazing Grace” is based upon sheer vocal melody, whereas Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata” demonstrates the impact of an exclusively instrumental melody.   

Melodies generally have one of two melodic motions.

A conjunct motion is when a note progresses by whole or half steps, with shorter breaks in between.

A disjunct motion has larger intervals between notes and can be more challenging to play.

Two fundamental elements of melody are pitch and rhythm: Pitch is the audio vibration produced by an instrument or voice.

You can think of it as representing how high or low a given note is.

Rhythm is the length of each pitch.

We will look at rhythm more closely below.

Harmony

Melodies are often housed within a structure bigger than themselves – a harmony.

A harmony occurs when different notes, or multiple linear melodies, are “stacked” and heard in tandem. 

A harmony is a collection of parallel notes being played at once to produce something more dynamic and well-rounded.

A harmony is a relationship – it is an interaction between two or more notes being played at the same time.

In the simplest terms, harmony is the sound of notes being played together. 

Harmony also refers to the actions or evolutions of chords in a musical progression as they change over the course of a piece of music.

When people refer to harmony in a non-technical sense they are typically referring to the character or texture of multiple chords as they evolve throughout a song.

A vocal harmony occurs when two or more vocalists sing in tandem.

Instrumental harmonies are created by instruments like pianos or guitars that can produce multiple chords at once.

Harmonies can be consonant or dissonant.

Consonant harmonies sound organic and natural together and create a pleasing sound. Dissonant harmonies can sound grating or unnatural.

Dissonance has an important place in music, however, and can produce strong emotional responses.

Grunge, alternative rock, shoegaze, and garage utilize dissonant, discordant harmonies to provoke a strong reaction in listeners.

Harmony is often referred to as the “vertical aspect” because of how it is visualized in musical notation. 

Rhythm

Rhythm is another word that most of us throw around with ease but have trouble defining.

When we think of rhythm, we often think of the ineffable part of music that makes us groove and sway.

Rhythm describes the pattern in a given piece of music and represents the timing between notes.

In contemporary music, it is often used as shorthand for the tempo and pattern of a drum beat.  

Let’s zoom out for a second.

At the most base level, a piece of music is systematically divided into the smallest unit: a beat.

Beats repeat a specific number of times in a given bar at a specific speed or tempo.

Rhythm is the timing and pattern of the beats in a given arrangement.

Rhythm represents a collection of beats, which are like the pulse of the piece of music.

Rhythm is ultimately about time and our perception of how sounds are temporally represented. 

Rhythm is kind of like a recipe made up of beats and time.

More specifically, rhythm is comprised of the following concepts:

  1. Beats and notes – The pulse that underlies all music
  2. Measures and time signatures – The number of beats per measure or the tempo/pace
  3. Strong and Weak Beats – Strong beats are downbeats, while weak beats represent the offbeats that occur between the downbeats
  4. Meter – A specific pattern of strong and/or weak pulses in a piece of music
  5. Syncopation – Rhythms that emphasize the offbeats in a piece of music
  6. Accents – Emphasis placed on a given note
  7. Tempo – Known also as beats per minute (BPM), tempo is the speed of a piece of music

Rudiments

Rudiments is not a word we see in common parlance, but it comes up time and again in music theory.

Rudiments represent the marriage between theory and the real world.

It is where the pedal hits the metal if you will.

Rudiments are theory in practice and represent the next stage in knowledge– actioning what you know.

Scales and chords are the two fundamental rudiments you need to understand.

Following that, you need to become familiar with keys and musical notation.

Scales

Scales are the form and shape of a piece of music – they are akin to the real-world material of a melody.

Music scales are sequential collections of notes with a specific pattern of tones and semitones.

It is the basis of the chords and progressions we hear when we listen to music.

Scales provoke different moods and lend a piece of music its emotional and tangible qualities.

Most scales are either major or minor.

Major scales typically sound light and uplifting, while minor scales sound melancholic and moody.

The major scale follows this pattern: tone-tone-semitone-tone-tone-tone-semitone.

It is often called the Ionian mode and is the most common and salient scale in the Western musical canon.

The minor scale follows this pattern: tone-semitone-tone-tone-semitone-tone-tone.

Most Western scales contain 7 notes, with the key exceptions being the 5-note pentatonic scale and the six-note hexatonic scale.

The seven scale degrees are as follows.

This is fairly advanced music theory and is by no means necessary for a beginner to get stressed about.

It is helpful to know that they exist, however, and should you pursue music theory more seriously, they will eventually come up:

1st – Tonic

2nd – Supertonic

3rd – Mediant

4th – Subdominant

5th – Dominant

6th – Submediant

7th – Leading Tone

There are seven musical modes built off of the above degrees.

The key difference is the root note of each scale.

These are the seven modes: 

I – Ionian (major scale)

ii – Dorian (major scale starting on the 2nd degree)

iii – Phrygian (major scale starting on the 3rd degree)

IV – Lydian (major scale starting on the 4th degree)

V – Mixolydian (major scale starting on the 5th degree)

vi – Aeolian (natural minor scale or major scale starting on the 6th degree)

vii – Locrian (major scale starting on the 7th degree)

Chords

Chords are individual units of harmony and represent two or more consonant pitches played together.

Chords are built off of a single “root” note and are a combination of two or more notes played in tandem.

Chords are generally described as having a minor or major quality.

A sequence of chords is called a chord progression.

Chords are ultimately harmonic intervals built from scales.

An interval is the relationship between the pitch of two tones.

It is the space or distance between two notes.

The style and texture of intervals determine the character of a chord.

Intervals come in two types: consonant and dissonant.

Intervals can be described as half-step or whole-step:

  • A half-step interval is one semitone
  • A whole step interval is two semitones
  • Two half steps combine to make a whole-step

Keys

A key is the major or minor scale around which a piece of music revolves.

A key is a principal group of notes that forms the base of a song’s harmonic structure, kind of like the building blocks.

For instance, if a song is played in the ‘key of C major’, it will be based on the seven notes of the C major scale.

The C major scale is the first that most musicians learn when they first pick up an instrument.

Different keys have different tonal qualities and could be described in a myriad of different ways, such as spooky, luminous, or atmospheric.

In written musical notation, keys are represented by key signatures.

The key signature communicates to the musician whether the note will be sharp (♯) or flat (♭).

There are twelve key signatures.

A key signature appears at the beginning of a line of music to indicate how the notes must be modified and provide the context for the song.  

For keys with sharps, the last sharp in the key signature is the leading tone or 7th scale degree of the key.

For keys with flats, the second to last flat is the root of the key.

The circle of fifths, which you will often see in music theory, allows you to identify the root note of a key and follow the pattern of sharps and flats. 

Notation 

Notation is a visual representation of musical sounds.

It is used as an aid to memory and for communicating the structure of a piece of music.

The musical alphabet is not that dissimilar from any spoken language.

It uses symbols to convey meaning.

The musical alphabet uses the Latin alphabet with a few additions. 

If you have ever read sheet music you will recognize the musical “letters”:

C   –   C#/D♭  –   D   –   D#/E♭  –   E   –  F   –   F#/G♭  –  G   –   G#/A♭  –   A   –  A#/B♭  –   B

These notes repeat upwards and downwards in octaves.

An Octave is the next highest or lowest pitch of the same note.

It is the interval between a note and a second note of double frequency.

There are 12 semitones in the octave. 

What Is Music Theory? The Basics for Making Better Music 1

Musical Structure

Musical structures describe the evolution and components of a song, such as verses, choruses, and bridges.

Verse

A verse is a collection of lyrics or notes and typically has a similar melody or lyrical component.

The verse is typically where the musician can get poetic and really flesh out the story or narrative of a piece of music.

Most songs open with a verse and not a chorus.

Chorus

The chorus is the main event of the song and is fundamental to most “conventional” songs like those found in pop, rock, or country.

The chorus hooks listeners and is typically the most melodically “catchy” part of a song.

They typically feature a strong or pronounced chord progression.

Most of these songs fit the standard verse-chorus-verse-chorus structure.

Bridge

A bridge breaks up the standard structure described above.

A bridge is a musical passage that offers a counterpoint or contrast to the verse and chorus and adds a degree of texture.

Bridges are typically used to connect the second chorus to the third verse in pop and rock music.

They serve to reduce repetitiveness and add dimensionality to a song.

Real World Application

Orchestration

Orchestration is the ability to designate what part of a piece of music is played by which instrument.

This is vital for orchestral arrangements or for pieces of music played by a band.

Arranging a song for the best effect is a learned skill and takes dedicated practice.

Ear Training

The best way to teach yourself music theory is to brush up on the technical fundamentals and then let your ears do the rest.

Ear training is akin to voice training – it is using your senses attentively and intentionally to discern and identify the different components of a song based on what you know from your “classroom” training. 

Theory Exercises

When you familiarize yourself with theoretical terms and the logic behind them, real fun can begin.

We suggest challenging yourself to listen to familiar songs and try to identify the different components.

When you listen to “Come As You Are” or “Stairway to Heaven,” can you identify the harmony and the rhythm?

Can you determine the tempo and identify the tonal qualities?

Learning common chord progressions will aid you in your own compositions and will help you identify them when you hear them in other songs. 

The following apps were designed specifically for musicians to train their ears:

  • EarMaster
  • Quiztones
  • Tenuto
  • Teoria
  • Soundgym

What Is Music Theory – Final Thoughts

Now that you know the basic terms, you can branch out and enhance your knowledge at your own pace.

You can focus on the terms that are most relevant to your own musical education journey.

Knowledge is power, and the more you know, the more experimental and innovative you can be.

Your creations deserve it.

You may also like: How to Read Piano Sheet Music

Will Fenton

Will, the founder of MIDDER, is a multifaceted individual with a deep passion for music and personal finance. As a self-proclaimed music and personal finance geek, he has a keen eye for futuristic technologies, especially those that empower creators and the public.

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