Complete Beginner's Guide to Music Theory
Notes and Scales. Part One of Three
So You're Interested in Learning Music Theory?
Whether you're getting into music production, playing an instrument, or writing songs, music theory is a crucial skill to add to your toolset. A lot of the time, people view music theory as a scary, monolithic topic that requires years of musical experience to understand. Although music theory may seem this way to beginners, it is a myth that learning it requires such expertise. In this article, I will breakdown the major concepts that you will need to know, having zero music background. These topics are:
- Musical Notes
- Finding notes on a Piano
- Pitch Intervals
- Chord Progressions
As a producer, or someone creating music primarily with a DAW, there are a few key takeaways here. You will be able to:
- Play and read chords
- Develop an idea of chord progressions
- Understand notes on a keyboard/piano
- Understand how rhythm is notated
To make things easier, I've divided this into a series of 3 articles, with each one focusing on a particular area within music theory. After these articles, you should have enough knowledge to get up and running with making music!
Note: This article covers a lot about sheet music. Although you may not actually write out music, or read it a lot, sheet music and music theory are incredibly interrelated. Sheet music allows us to write out, visualize, and analyze the concepts of music theory. So if you find yourself uninterested in learning how to read sheet music, try to stick with it, as it will pay off long-term.
Everything in music starts with notes.
In any human language, we name the letters of the alphabet. Similarly, we have an 'alphabet' of notes, so to speak, in music. These notes are A, B, C, D, E, F, G. Pretty basic right? Each one of these notes, or pitches, represents a frequency. Notes are commonly represented through sheet music, which is how most musicians read and interpret music. Musical notes are the fundamental building blocks of music theory. With these notes, we can craft melodies, chords, and songs. Here is how we notate these notes:
Going from left to right, we see the notes C, D, E, F, G, A, B, and then C again! These notes are assigned exact positions on the Staff, which are the 5 horizontal lines that span across the page. Additionally, the squiggly thing on the far left is the symbol for Treble Clef, which indicates how to read the notes. This is the most common Clef, and all you'll need to know for now. If you're wondering about the little numbers next to the note names, we'll get to that soon.
We can use this image as a guide to understand how to read notes. If a note is on the lowest line, it is an E, if it is on the second lowest line, it is a G. Easy! Now you can read notes. To look at this in context, let's visualize this on a Piano.
Understanding the piano gives way to visualizing music theory. Instead of these invisible, abstract concepts, we can actually play them, and essentially see them. Here's a diagram of the notes on a Piano:
For reference: Notes get higher in pitch as you move right on a piano. Far left is really LOW, and far right is really HIGH.
Notice how we still see the same notes C, D, E, F, G, A, B, C? There are also new notes now, with odd symbols. These notes are achieved by moving one half step, or key on the piano away from a natural note, or white key. If we play a G on the piano, and move down one half step, or key, we are now playing an F# (F Sharp) or Gb (G Flat). These two notes, sound the same, but have different names. The general rule is that if you arrive at the note from above (meaning you are descending), then you could say flat, or if you are ascending, you could say sharp. This isn't a concrete rule, it simply helps to show that the names are interchangeable.
Instead of trying to memorize all 52 keys on a piano, all you need to know are these 12 notes in the picture above. Moving left to right, the notes ALL repeat themselves eventually, and many times. Notes can be played in different octaves. So you can play a low-sounding C, or one all the way on the right of the piano, which would sound very high.
If we were to play only the white keys, starting at C, and going to the next C, and octave above, we would be playing the C Major Scale. Scales are a fundamental concept in music theory. A scale is a set of musical notes, ordered by their pitch. It is essentially a pattern that allows you to construct the same pattern from ANY note on the piano.
Before we can fully understand chords, chord progressions, and melodies, we must understand scales. To construct a scale, we move in steps. If you refer back to the piano above, moving one key in any direction on a piano is called a half step, and moving two keys in any direction is called a whole step. With this in mind, let's look at the formula to build a C Major Scale, then look how we can use that further.
Although we easily learn a C Major Scale by playing only the white keys from C to C on a piano, we can take note of the formula of steps to take, and apply that to ANY other note to make any major scale. So if we start on C, we then move a whole step, and arrive at D. Following this, we move another whole step, and arrive at E. Next, we move a half step, and arrive at E. If we continue this, whole/half step formula, we have C Major Scale.
Why is this useful? Let's say you're making a song, and you find a cool sample in C Major. If you want to make a melody over it, you could make something that sounded great, by only using the notes in the C Major Scale. This system starts to give you an idea of how things all fit together in a song.
Exercise: Find F on a piano ( Free one online ), and build a major scale starting from it. This is called the F Major Scale. Use the pictures in this article to help you find the note, then use the whole/half step formula to get each note.
In the image below, we can also see this formula represented using sheet music. We can always take sheet music, and visualize it as notes on the piano like we did above. This is a very useful skill, and helps a lot for beginners learning to read notes.
There are many different types of scales. The most popular are the Major and Minor scales. Each of these have similar scales that are built off of them, often times with LESS notes! One of the most popular examples is the Major Pentatonic Scale, or the Minor Pentatonic Scale.
Now that we can find and create scales, let's see how they fit into the big picture of a song.
Comparing music to the English language, we could say that notes are like letters. Furthermore, a grouping of letters like consonants or vowels, is similar to what a Key Signature is. A scale, like C Major, is actually just the product of playing every note in a Key signature, in order.
Why does this matter? Let's say you're singing or playing with someone, or in a session, and they tell you the song is in D Major. With this information, you can figure out all of the right notes to play, by knowing the notes that are in the D Major scale. It is much more common for someone to give/tell you a key signature, rather than a scale, when collaborating.
So a key signature is the grouping of notes, like how we identify groupings of letters as consonants, or vowels. And a scale, is when you play through each and every one of those notes. Like if you were to say 'A, E, I, O, U' when reciting vowels.
Let's see what a key signature looks like, and how to interpret it. For now, only pay attention to the 'major' key signatures
Although this diagram can look a little scary, it's really not bad at all. Let's find C Major first. It's right in the center! Notice the difference between each one of the different key signatures? Those little symbols, whether they're sharps or flats, indicate the unique set of notes that create a key signature. This is essentially a visual short-hand, for telling you what notes to play if you are in a given key.
For example, if we built an F Major scale using the formula from above, we would get the notes [F, G, A, Bb, C, D, E, and F]. Notice how in the key signature for F Major there is one flat? Similarly, if we built a G Major scale using the same formula, we would get the notes [G, A, B, C, D, E, F#, and G]. Now notice how the key signature of G Major has one sharp?
With this knowledge, we can start to craft melodies, bass lines, and more! In the next lesson, we'll dive more into Key Signatures, and get into Chords.
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