I've finished the first part of a series on the basics. I plan to submit these as columns or post them in MT. Either one, or maybe both. I'm hoping that these will be a better resource for people in MT to link to. Please correct me on spelling, grammar, inconsistent formatting, or content. Thanks.

This is this first part of a few columns that I plan to write on music theory. I'm going to start from virtually the beginning and eventually give you enough information to really get started. After reading and understanding these articles, you should have enough knowledge to read about more advanced subjects. Hopefully you will find studying music as fun as I do. If you're the kind of person that is always inclined to understand how things work, this is the place to be. Now, onto the real introduction, in pseudo-FAQ form!

The Intro

So, what is music theory?

Music theory is the language of music. It is a system that can describe every piece of music down to the last note (even the word "note" is a defined by music theory.). Most musical systems have their own unique music theory. Since this is a site that focuses on an instrument that is exclusively "12TET" and is used exclusively in Western music, the music that 99% of us are accustomed to, we'll be studying the music theory that applies to that. From now on when I say "music theory" I am refering specifically to Western theory.

Is music theory instrument specific?

Not at all! Music theory applies to all of the instruments we use. There are some specifications when it comes to "transcribing" music from certain instruments to another, but that is about it. Guitar is not one of those instruments so most of you can rest assured that you won't need to deal with that.

Am I going to have to learn a lot of terms and definitions?

Yes, there are a lot of terms. Some terms can mean multiple things and, even worse, there are a lot of terms to describe the same thing and I have to mention all of them so you're not left in the dark later. I will probably use a lot of these terms interchangeably. There is some memorization, definitely, but hopefully hands-on use of the terms and concepts will allow you to remember them pretty easily. You can always reread a section if you're lost. Getting the plethora of basic terms down is arguably the hardest part of beginning to learn theory so I urge you to work at your own pace to understand them so you don't get extremely frustrated down the road.

Why should I learn music theory?

I'm assuming that anybody reading this is already willing to learn music theory. There are plenty of debates on the subject around here and I don't want to perpetuate them much. If you're looking for a little convincing then let me say just this: if you came in the first day of piano lessons and told the instructor that you didn't want to learn any theory, they would laugh at you.

What other assumptions are you making?

I'm assuming that you already know about the 12 notes in Western music, how to play them on your instrument and how to read sheet music. I won't be covering any of that. Basically, I'm requiring you to know how to play your instrument to a certain extent.

Onto the actual stuff...


If someone were to ask me "What makes music tick?" I would answer with one single word: context. A note on its own is virtually meaningless, but a note played along side hundreds of others can create spectacular art. The vast majority of us only listen to tonal music. Tonal music revolves around one tone, or note, called the tonic, the tonal center, or the root note. Every thing else is judged in contrast with this note. When we hear a note among the hundreds in a song, it develops meaning from the its relation to the tonic, its relation to the notes being played along side it, and its relation to the notes that precede it. These kinds of relationships are measured with intervals, which define the distance between two notes.

Before I can actually tell you the names of each of the basic intervals, I need to tell you some even more basic terms, just in case you don't already know. First, take a look at the notes:

A A# B C C# D D# E F F# G G#

[not to self: change to a diagram with arrows represent whole and half steps]

Two adjacent notes in this list are said to be a semitone or a half-step apart. C# and D are a semitone apart, as are E and F or G# and A. Two semitones together make a whole tone or a whole step, sometimes just called a tone. Essentially, a semitone is to a whole tone what 1/2 is to 1. C and D are a whole tone apart, as are G and A or F# and G#. On a guitar, two adjacent frets represent a semitone. On a piano, two adjacent keys also represent a semitone.

These terms are useful, but they only describe notes that are adjacent or 2 notes apart. Intervals have a much larger scope. Here is a list of the names of the first thirteen intervals and the distance in semitones that they represent:

Unison:         0 semitones
Minor 2nd:      1 semitone
Major 2nd:      2 semitones
Minor 3rd:      3 semitones
Major 3rd:      4 semitones
Perfect 4th:    5 semitones
Diminished 5th: 6 semitones
Perfect 5th:    7 semitones
Minor 6th:      8 semitones
Major 6th:      9 semitones
Minor 7th:      10 semitones
Major 7th:      11 semitones
Octave:         12 semitones

These names look kind of funny at first, but later on they make much more sense. You are expected to memorize them, and you will at one point. It's best to remember their order at first. You've probably noticed that the Minor 2nd interval is synonymous with semitone and the Major 2nd interval is synonymous with whole tone. Besides that, there is more I need to point out. The first thing I need to note is that when two notes are identical, they are said to be in unison, hence the first interval in the list. You have probably already seen the term octave before. It has more than a few meanings. If two notes are an octave apart then they are exactly 12 semitones apart. However, if someone says that two notes are within an octave, or within the same octave then they mean that they are interval that is less than octave apart.

Finding the interval between two notes is as simply as 1, 2, 3. Literally. All you have to do is count the semitones between the notes and match it up with the interval name of the same distance. What's the interval between B and F#? Count 1 for C, 2 for C#, 3 for D, 4 for D#, 5 for E, 6 for F, and finally 7 for F#. Seven semitones, or a perfect 5th.

You'll come to find that the Diminished 5th interval is pretty interesting. Off that bat, it has a unique name. It's also called a tritone, or a flat 5th. It is enharmonic with the augmented 4th interval, meaning that it sounds the same. Augmented 4th is not listed on the chart but it contains the same amount of semitones as the diminished 5th. It functions differently so the name is used in different situations. Diminished 5th is much more common.

Sharps, Flats, and Enharmonics

If you already know about the 12 notes then you are probably aware of sharps (#) and flats (b). If you take a natural note (A, B, C, D, E, F, and G) and append a sharp onto it you are raising it by one semitone. A flat is just the opposite -- if you append a flat on a natural note you are lowering it by one semitone. The act of raising a note by a semitone is sharpening and the act of lower a note by a semitone is flattening. You can sharpen or flatten any note. There are also double sharps and double flats which raise the note by a tone and lower the note by a tone respectively. They are pretty rare.

Before, I presented all the notes like this:

A A# B C C# D D# E F F# G G#

When I could have just as easily presented them like this:

A Bb B C Db D Eb E F Gb G Ab

What makes this possible is enharmonics. I briefly mentioned enharmonics earlier. Two notes are enharmonic when they sound the same, simple as that. A# and Bb, for example, are enharmonic because they are both the black key on a piano between A and B. The difference only exists on paper. There will be situations where A# is the appropriate name and situations where Bb is the appropriate name. You'll see plenty of these later.

So why aren't E#, B#, Fb, or Cb in any of those two lists? Good question! The reason is simple: there is no note in between B and C and E and F like there is between A and B, C and D, D and E, F and G, and G and A. While all the other natural notes are a full whole tone apart, B and C and E and F are only a semitone apart. Raising B by a semitone would give you C, so B# and C are enharmonic, as are E# and F, Cb and B, and Fb and E. That's not to say that they don't have their uses. They are very real and pop up in a few situations, but for the most part are redundant.

The Outro

That was a lot of info, I know! But we're just getting started. I promise the next column on the Major scale won't have a ridiculous amount of terms like this one. Before you move, it might help to get a little bit of practice with intervals. What's a major 6th above a F? Minor 3rd above Ab? Perfect 5th below a G (Tricky! Countdown through the notes.)? Major 7th above C#? If you really wanted to put in the extra effort you could make some flash cards too. But this isn't supposed to be school, so don't push it too much studying ;D.
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Last edited by Eastwinn at Jul 29, 2009,
It's always useful having some fresh articles on music theory, so I'm glad to see that one has arisen here. That said, allow me to offer a few things for your consideration.

If you're planning on posting this in the columns then there's really no need to post it in Musicial Talk. You'll be able to link to it, though I honestly doubt that you'll be linked to more than the Crusade articles. Those are near legendary here.

1. You don't seem to have an introduction, neither to the piece nor the series. People tend to get bored very easily, so you need something that can outline the main points of the piece before getting to the meat of the piece.

2. I, personally, would appreciate seeing some sort of 'contents' section, or an upcoming articles piece. I'd like to see what areas of theory that you're planning to cover in the series. That way I can decide whether I want to commit to the series.

3. The FAQ part is worthwhile, but I think it could benefit from a little additional layout. Either bold questions or italic answers would seperate things a bit and make the section stand out.

4. I don't think I've ever seen a diminished fifth referred to as a 'flat fifth' before. For the sake of sticking to common terms, it might be worth sticking with 'diminished fifth.'

5. When explaining diatonic lettering, you change an A# to a Bb. You haven't actually explained what a 'b' is compared to a '#', so it might be worth adding an explanation.

6. The piece has no defined ending. It just stops at some point. You need a conclusion I think. Explain to your reader that more is coming, entice them to come back for another piece. This is your chance to keep people reading. Tell them when the next one is due.

Okay, that's all that I can see. Of the basics at least, you know what you're talking about. Any questions?
Last edited by Colohue at Jul 23, 2009,
You're definitely right on all counts. Thanks a lot man. I will keep editing this/posting new parts in here as time goes on. I plan on finishing the whole thing before I post it anywhere but here. Specifically: #1, yes, totally. I should make sure to explain the significance of something new as I introduce so things seem.. well, significant. #2, I will be doing that once I finish it all. After I make a bunch of changes to the original, is it okay to bump this up?
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Quote by Colohue

4. I don't think I've ever seen a diminished fifth referred to as a 'flat fifth' before. For the sake of sticking to common terms, it might be worth sticking with 'diminished fifth.'

Whilst 'flat fifth' is a commonly used term, I'd clarify and refer to it as a diminished fifth as this is a basics lesson.
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Hmm judging from your pic you'd fit in more with a fat busted tribute.
Posting purely to bump is against the rules, but posting to show an update is alright. Just focus on the updates and then post when you'd like to have it looked through once again.
Nice one Eastwinn

Got some comments:

1. Add pictures where they can help explain things - they break up the text and make it less 'scary' looking, and a lot of people think in pictures, so it helps them understand easier.

2. I'd be tempted to explain what sharps and flats are before the intervals section, as you first use them here, and cover enharmonic notes at the same time.

3. I'd make the Major scale formula (WWHWWWH) stand out more, and it might be worth explaining that W = whole step = tone, and H = half step = semitone, so its as obvious as possible.

4. Might be worth laying the intervals of the notes in the Major scale out as a list, rather than part of the paragraph, just to make it easier to see.

Looking good so far though! I only had time for a quick skim through - will have another look when I get back.

Thanks for doing this Eastwinn, hopefully it will save us a heap of questions from newbies, and save those same newbies a heap of confusion

Edit: Just gone through it again, and I don't think I can come up with any more comments - looks pretty good to me so far
Last edited by zhilla at Jul 28, 2009,
Part II! Awesome. So we looked at intervals, and I'm assuming you found that fun. Okay, so it probably wasn't all you expected. It takes a bit before the pieces all fit together. Hang tight.

The Intro

It's time to move on to the most fundamental part of music theory save intervals and the notes themselves, the Major scale. Nowadays, it's pretty hard to find a song that isn't based off the Major scale or it's counterpart, the Minor scale. This part will only be covering the Major scale. So where can you find the Major scale? Sing the Happy Birthday song. There's one example. I would keep making a list but I'd be here for ages. If you've ever written a few cool melodies on your instrument of choice (that includes whistling or humming), I can guarantee that one of them is based off the Major scale. You wrote with the Major scale and you didn't even know it! The Major scale is so drilled in our subconscious that it's kind of hard to escape (not that you'd want to). Remember Do Re Me Fa So La Ti? Major scale right there. It could be said that the Minor scale I mentioned earlier is, in fact, based of the Major scale. In which case, just about every song on your music player of choice is based of the Major scale, unless you happen to listen to a lot of Modal Jazz, atonal works, renditions of genuine Medieval songs, or music from other cultures (I kid, I kid, I make a little joke!). Right, anyway.

The Major Scale

First off, a scale is a set of notes. Every scale has a root note. Remember how I said that we listen to tonal music, which revolves around the tonic, a.k.a. the root note? Well, a scale is a tonal structure too. All tonal music is based off of them. The Major scale, specifically, has 7 different notes including the root. You've probably heard someone talk about the Major scale before if you've ever heard someone say "This song is in E Major" or the like. The phrase "E Major" describes the scale being used -- the root note is E and the type of scale is the Major scale.

Every scale has a "formula", so to speak, where you can find all the notes of the scale depending on the root note. These formulas come in different shapes and sizes. The most convenient ones compare the scale to the Major scale, but since we haven't even learned the Major scale yet, we have to fall back on something less convenient. Before I just give you the formula, let's take a look at an example of the Major scale first. The most simple Major scale to work with is C Major because there are no sharps or flats:


First notice how the scale uses each letter of the musical alphabet once and only once. Scales like this are referred to as diatonic. There are more than a few uses for that word so I'll always elaborate when I use it. Next, notice how C repeats at the end. Scales repeat indefinitely into every octave. Last, notice the distance between each of the notes. Between C and D is a whole tone, between D and E is another whole tone, between E and F is a semitone, between F and G is a whole tone, between G and A is yet another whole tone, between A and B is whole tone, and from B back to C is a semitone. This is the basis of the formula. Every Major scale follows this arrangement of whole tones and semitones. To make it much easier to remember, the formula is written as "WWHWWWH" where W stands for whole-step and H stands for half-step. It's less commonly written as "TTSTTTS" where T stands for tone and S stands for semitones. You need to memorize this formula! It's extremely important! It won't be long before it's second nature anyway.

So, to practice applying this formula, let's try writing out the D Major scale with it. First, start with our root note D. Now, as the formula states, add the note a whole-step above it. We should have D E. Good, now we need the note a whole-step above E, which is F# (If that caught you by surprise then you should be sure to write out all the notes and reference it.). Now we have D E F#. Next we need the note a half-step above F#, which is G. Continue through the formula until you're all the way back at D. If you did it correctly, you should have D E F# G A B C# D. That's the D Major scale. Congratulations!

Try that again with F major. You will probably end up with this: F G A A# C D E F. This isn't totally correct. Remember when I pointed out that the C Major scale had exactly one of each letter in the musical alphabet, making it diatonic? Every Major scale has to be this way, so the A and A# we have up there won't fly, not to mention the lack of a B. The solution is really simple -- just change the A# to a Bb. F G A Bb C D E F is now correct. Some Major scales will have flats, some will have sharps, but no Major scale will have both. Some even have double sharps and double flats, but they're never used for that reason.

For extra practice, try writing out the Major scale for Ab, Eb, Bb, G, A, and E. The flats might be tricky because so far we've really only worked with sharps. To check your work, just Google "Notes in X Major scale" replacing X with the root note and you should find the correct answer.

Shifting Perspective

It's time to look at the Major scale in a different way. The formula I showed you gives you perspective on how each note relates to the one before it, but ultimately it is more important to understand how each note relates to the root individually. We're going to look at the interval between each note and the root and discover a few things. Here is the C Major scale:


The 2nd note of the scale, D, is a Major 2nd away from C. The 3rd note, E, is a Major 3rd away from C. The 4th note, F, is a Perfect 4th away from C. The 5th note, G, a Perfect 5th. The 6th Note, A, a Major 6th. The 7th note, B, a Major 7th. If you're more inclined towards organized lists (understandably) then check this out:

C to D: Major 2nd
C to E: Major 3rd
C to F: Perfect 4th
C to G: Perfect 5th
C to A: Major 6th
C to B: Major 7th

Ah, now the wacky intervals names don't seem so wacky anymore. The X note of the Major scale is always a Major/Perfect X away from the root. Great! Every interval that could be Major or Minor is always Major in the Major scale. Convenient! This is no coincidence because the intervals were named after their appearance in the Major scale and the Minor scale (which we will learn about later).

The Outro

Things are starting to come together, if only for a second. There is still a lot to go, of course. Before you delve into the next part, I have some things for you to try out. As I mentioned before, try writing out the Major scale for Ab, Eb, Bb, G, A, and E. After that, maybe try grabbing your instrument of choice and start randomly playing the notes of one of those scales and see if you come up with something new or familiar.


I added some formatting, added a few bits and edited a few bits as suggested. Thanks. I split up intervals and the major scale to avoid overwhelming. I've tried to adapt my tone so I sound more like a fellow musician offering information and insight, rather than a textbook. I also tried to explain the significance of everything so people are more inclined to keep reading. It's extremely late so I haven't proofread this post.. I'm even rushing to get this last comment in. Night!
i don't know why i feel so dry