Learning music theory is for the most part thought of as complicated and painful that takes decades of learning. For self-taught players (like I was) it is probably the single most overlooked part of playing (probably because Tabs and YouTube videos are so much more immediate). If you’re one of the “been playing for 10 years but never bothered to learn Music Theory” types, then this one is for you.
Music Theory is helpful to me now. But years ago I was only interested in playing music, not learning any music theory. I viewed music theory as a barrier that required me to learn a language before playing a note, when all I really wanted to do was play the notes and rock out!
Before you jump in, here are 3 things I learned about Learning Music Theory.
Music theory is made complicated by those who explain it
This is less true these days but when I was learning, music theory was taught in dry theory books full of indecipherable jargon or by stuffy music school academics who looked down their nose at you for daring to bring the notion of Rock n Roll into their Hallowed Halls of Classical Learning. Yeah, fuck those guys.
Finding the right person, metaphor or explanation can be the difference between lightbulb moments and years in the darkness of confusion (hopefully this blog post is mostly the former)
Music theory is descriptive not prescriptive
This sums it up for me. I interpret this as a description after the fact. A way to communicate to musicians what just happened, so that it can be reproduced. When I finally started learning theory, I discovered I knew lots of it, I just didn’t know it was called “Theory”.
Music theory has rules to save time
If there’s one thing that learning music theory will do is SAVE YOU TIME:
Time analysing and understanding other people’s music
Time creating and composing your own songs and music
Time communicating these musical ideas to others
But additionally once you know the rules, they are there to be broken.
Let’s get started.
12 notes in “Western Music”
You’ll hear this term bandied about frequently but what is Western Music? It’s basically all of the music you know (unless you are from an Asian, Indian or Middle Eastern country): Jazz, Blues, Rock n Roll, Classic Rock, RnB, Soul, Funk, Country, Metal, Reggae. So whenever you hear “Western Music” just think Music.
Western Music has 12 notes. After that, the notes repeat. They are the same notes but just an octave higher (we’re coming to that), which is why you have a marker at your 12th fret. The note at the 13th fret is the same as the note on the 1st fret. (12 +1) The note on the 2nd fret is the same as the 14th fret etc etc.
The Musical Alphabet
Just like English, music has its own alphabet. There are 7 letters in the musical alphabet and it runs A-G. After G comes A again and the whole thing repeats on an endless cycle. ABCDEFGABCDEFGABCDEFG
The distance between a note and the next occurrence of the same note higher up is called an Octave. Oct meaning 8 (like Octopus or Octagon), and 8 being the number of letters between the first and the next note of the same name. Count the number of letters here including the start and end point ABCDEFGA. If you got 8, move on.
12 notes in music but only 7 letters in the musical alphabet, what’s happened to the other 5?
Great question! The answer is the “in-between notes.” Look at this piano. It has white keys and black keys.
The black keys are “in-between” some of the white keys (but not all of them). These “in-between notes” are called Sharps or Flats. (Written # for sharps and b for flats).
The same note can be referred to as a sharp or a flat depending on which direction you’re coming from. Let’s use the note on the 4th fret of your bottom E string as an example: if you were coming at it from the 3rd fret and moving up 1 fret, you would be sharpening the note. Because the note at the 3rd fret is G, moving higher in pitch by one fret leads you to a G sharp (G#).
Similarly, if you were at the 5th fret (which is an A) and moved down one fret, you would be flattening the note, thus arriving at an A Flat (Ab). Same location, but 2 different names.
These “in-between notes” with the 2 names are called Enharmonics, Enharmonic notes or Enharmonic equivalents. Yes, it’s wanky language isn’t it?
So with this in mind, let’s look at the first 12 notes on your bottom E labelling them as sharps first of all (numbers are fret numbers):
But we could also write them as:
There are rules around which label is correct in which circumstance, but in real life situations this doesn’t matter so much. They are completely interchangeable and I’ve heard musicians discuss both.
That said, my observation is that pianists and sax players prefer to discuss Eb rather D# and Bb instead A#.
Bacons and Eggs
Did you notice that for some letter names they skipped straight to the next letter and didn’t have a sharp or a flat?
Yes, there are 2 letters in the musical alphabet that do this. B and E.
B goes straight to C. E goes straight to F.
You can remember this by thinking “Bacon and Eggs”
If you scroll back to the piano photo you can see several locations where there are two white keys next to eachother with no “in-between” black keys. These are the notes B and C, and E and F.
The Chromatic Scale
The 12 notes in music is called the Chromatic Scale, which I always thought was weird because I always felt scales were a select group of notes, not all of them. But anyhoo…
Tones and Semitones
These are units of measurement in music, like an inch and a half-inch. A tone is the distance of 2 frets. A semi-tone is the distance of 1 fret.
A tone is also called called a Whole-Step, and a semi-tone is also called a Half-Step.
EXAMPLE WHERE THIS KNOWLEDGE IS USEFUL: YouTube tutorial telling you that David Gilmour’s Brick In The Wall licks bend up a tone then bends up 2 tones. (Most bends are a tone or a semitone.)
The Major Scale is a huge deal
The Major Scale is a frickin huge deal in music. I mean HUUGE!
Most people think it’s just another scale but actually its more like the Tree of Life. Everything in music comes from it/is derived from it and (as you’ll learn) it’s both a tool and framework that determines many other musical elements.
Did I say it was a huge frickin deal? That was your heads-up.
The Major Scale has a formula. Once you know it, you can play a major scale starting from any note which can be useful when soloing. This formula consists of the above-mentioned Tones and Semitones or Whole and Half-steps. (which I prefer).
THE FORMULA IS: WHOLE, WHOLE, half, WHOLE, WHOLE, WHOLE, half.
I like to chant this in a slightly off-kilter “We Will Rock You” style. Sing it with me…
Buddy, you're a boy, make a big noise
Playing in the street, gonna be a big man someday
You got mud on your face, you big disgrace
Kicking your can all over the place,
Notice that this formula describes the distance between the scale notes not the notes themselves. So there’s a whole step between the 1st and 2nd note of the scale. A whole step between the 2nd note and 3rd note, and a half step (or semi-tone) between the 3rd and 4th note, etc.
Practical uses on the fretboard
In practical terms, I find it most useful to think of it like this:
There’s 2 frets between every note of the Major Scale, except in 2 instances where they are just 1 fret apart.
That’s between the 3rd and 4th note and the 7th and 8th note. So as long as you are aware of which note you’re on, (and you’ve memorized the formula) you won’t put a foot wrong.
SINGLE STRING EXERCISE
Pick a note to start on, this will be your 1 (or Root note, also called the Tonic):
Move up 2 frets
Move up 2 frets
Move up 1 fret
Move up 2 frets
Move up 2 frets
Move up 2 frets
Move up 1 fret
Congratulations, you have played the Major Scale in 1 octave. Now practice it descending, remember 8-7 is only a 1 fret distance (8 being your starting note) and so is 4-3.
You can also see the distances when viewing the Major Scale across all the strings.
Scale degrees and intervals
These are kind of the same thing – almost. In that they refer to the same thing in similar but slightly different ways.
This is the convention of giving the notes in the major scale a number based on the order they occur in the scale. So the first note is labelled 1, the second is 2 etc. We’ve already done this above but now you know they are called Scale Degrees. Fancy huh?
So if you hear (or read) about something starting on the 5th degree of the scale, it means counting up 5 notes in the major scale and starting there on that 5th note.
An interval is the distance between 2 notes. It can be any two notes but often intervals are used to refer to the distance between a the root note and another note in the scale.
Just remember: to measure distance you need a start point and an end point i.e. 2 notes played together. You cannot hear an interval if you play 1 note.
Intervals have slightly different names to scale degrees. There’s 3 things you need to remember about the major intervals:
All of them have the word Major in front of them apart from 2 of them
Those 2 are the 4th and 5th, and are referred to as “Perfect”.
As you move further away from the root and into the 2nd octave, the order repeats, just like the scale degrees but some intervals change their names e.g the Major 2nd becomes a Major 9th. Although they are the same note, this is done to distinguish between a 2 fret distance and a 14 fret distance.
Distance in frets from Root
0 frets = Unison
2 frets = Major 2nd
4 frets = Major 3rd
5 frets = Perfect 4th
7 frets = Perfect 5th
9 frets = Major 6th
11 frets = Major 7th
12 frets = Octave
14 frets = Major 9th
16 frets = Major 3rd
17 frets = Perfect 11th
19 frets = Perfect 5th
21 frets = Major 13th
23 frets = Major 7th
24 frets = 2 Octaves
Minor problems are smaller than major problems, right? And so it follows the minor intervals are also smaller. To make an existing major interval into a minor interval, you simply reduce the distance. You make it smaller by moving down 1 fret.
So if you wanted to find the Minor 3rd, you would walk up your scale until you arrived at the Major 3rd, then move down one fret to land at the Minor 3rd. The same for minor 7th.
Distance in frets from Root
0 frets = Unison
1 frets = Minor 2nd
3 frets = Minor 3rd
8 frets = Minor 6th
10 frets = Minor 7th
12 frets = Octave
20 frets = Minor 13
Although the method of moving down 1 fret to make it “minor” is the same with the Perfect 4th and Perfect 5 intervals (sometimes written P4 and P5). The rules are that you cannot describe the Perfect Intervals as minor (or major for that matter). In this case you must describe it as a Diminished 4th or Diminished 5th.
And yes, the diminished 4th is the same as the Major 3rd but let’s not get into that right now.
Similarly if you are going in the other direction (moving up 1 fret), you must describe the Perfect Intervals as Augmented. Raising the Perfect 4th by 1 fret gives you a distance of an Augmented 4th and increasing the disatance of Perfect 5th by 1 fret produces an interval of a Augmented 5th.
Form an opinion of how these intervals sound
Each interval has a particular “emotional value” and can be split broadly into 3 categories:
Solid / Stable / Resolved / At Rest
Precarious / Unstable / Unresolved / Tense
Sounding Wayward - not as stable/solid as category 1 but not as unstable/tense as category 2 - somewhere in between.
Everyone has their own interpretation but my examples would be:
Perfect 5 sounds solid (category 1)
Augmented 4th sounds precarious and tense (category 2)
Major 6 sounds a little off-balance but isn't uncomfortable (category 3)
Listen to each of the intervals against the root. Which category do you think you'd put them in?
Having your own opinion will help you develop an ear for intervals and also allow you to communicate your own musical ideas.
EXAMPLE WHERE THIS IS USEFUL: You have to play a brief 4 bar solo consisting of 2x 2 bar phrases. Ending your first musical phrase on one of the unresolved intervals at the end of bar 2 means the listener’s expectation is that you have more to say. (you do, there’s another 2 bars.)
You’ve left them hanging and so can bring the solo to resolution at the end of your 2nd phrase by landing on one of the solid intervals. e.g. the root.
Chord Building with the Major Scale
Chords are built from selecting certain notes from the scale. The most basic chord contains 3 notes, this is called a triad. More complex chords are created by adding an additional notes on top of the basic chord. There are 5 levels of complexity:
3-note chords - basic major, minor, augmented and diminished
4-note chords - Major 7th, minor 7th, Dominant 7th, Minor 7th flat 5
5-notes chords - Major 9th, Minor 9th, Dominant 9th, Minor 9th flat 5
6-note chords - Major 11th, Minor 11th, Dominant 11th, Minor 11th flat 5
7-note chords - Major 13th, Minor 13th, Dominant 13th, Minor 13th flat 5
(some argue that a 2-note power chord also called a diad, is a valid chord too)
To build a chord from scale notes, you use a “pick one, skip one” method. A basic major chord would be made from picking the 1st note in the major scale, skipping the second note, picking the 3rd, skipping the 4th and picking the 5th. Thus a major chord’s ingredients are 1, 3, 5 - we call this a chord formula.
Extrapolate this method and you are basically pick the odd numbered scale degrees and adding one each time.
More chords with pick one, skip one
1, 3, 5 - basic 3 note triads
1, 3, 5, 7 - 4 note chords
1, 3, 5, 7, 9 - 5 note chords
1, 3, 5, 7, 9, 11 - 6 notes chords
1, 3, 5, 7, 9, 11, 13 - 7 note chords
Just like the major scale, all chords have a formula (and so do all scales). Here are some chord formulas:
Basic chord formulas
Major chord: 1, 3, 5
Minor chord: 1, b3, 5
Augmented chord: 1, 3, #5
Diminished chord: 1, b3, b5
Extended chord formulas
Major Seventh chord: 1, 3, 5, 7
Minor Seventh chord: 1, b3, 5, b7
Dominant Seventh chord: 1, 3, 5, b7
Chords in a Major key
Ok, so now you know the ingredients that make up a particular chord, let’s talk about another use for the Major Scale (Didn’t I say it was a big fricking deal?): How to make a family of chords from which you can make cool chord progressions.
Do you ever wonder how hit songwriters come up with a great chord sequence for their song?
Most of the time they choose from a family of just 7 chords - and most of the time they don’t even use all 7!
Yep, you heard it here first (or maybe you didn’t)
90% of chart-topping hits from the last 70 years contain chords from this one family.
The family is called a key and we create this family by taking each note of the major scale and use it as a starting point (and root note) to build a chord. The major scale has 7 notes and so we end up with 7 chords.
The major scale notes sound good together so naturally the chords made from these notes also sound good together.
When we create a chord from the 1st scale degree, (i.e. the first note in the scale) we call the chord the One chord. When we create a chord from the 2nd scale degree, we call it the Two chord etc, etc.
So we end up with a Key (family) of seven chords, both numbered 1-7 and named 1-7. The rules of harmony dictate the gender of each of these chords: some are major, some are minor and one is diminished. A One chord for example is always Major and never changes gender, nor do any of the others.
Dive deeper in chords in a Major key and chord progressions
Let’s go deeper on chords in a key in this post: What Chords Can I Use to Write a Song