Is Theory Really What They Say It Is?

The reason we should all have a little theory for practicing our chord, scale, and improv skills.

Ultimate Guitar
In this lesson, I'd like to demonstrate that theory can really help build anyones overall skill and adaptability to play ANY kind of music just by listening to what you like and using theory. What I mean by this is you can play along with any song. Not play the exact parts, but be able to figure out the key and scale, or chords that lie in the construction of the song (key, chords, and scale all being linked in other words).

Since most of us play guitar on this website, whether it be 6, 7, 8, or 9 string. I am prepared to inform some of you of something new, and tell some of you what you may already know. For example Their are key signatures, time signatures, accidentals or "naturals" beats per minute and chord charts that all relate to each other as a piece of music is being herd, or played.

To start their are four kinds of chords. No not E, G, B etc. They are all derived from spaces in-between each other. These notes are called tones, all having an individual building block when played simultaneously. On that note, here are the four basic types of chords. Major, 1, M3, P5. Minor, 1, m3, P5. Augmented, 1, M3, m6, and Diminished, 1, m3, flat 5.

Now lets shed some light on these big m's and numbers. To start, there is only 11 pitches theoretically. All the notes or pitches ascending one fret at a time from the open low E string, (assuming you are tuned to A440) or the fattest string on your 6 string guitar, or 4 string bass are: E, F, F#, G, G#, A, A#, B, C, D, D#. These pitches are referred to as "semi-tones." This ascension is referred to as chromatic, going up one note at a time and continuing the climb. 

All the spaces in between the notes or pitches make up what are called intervals. Here is where the big M's, little m's and numbers come in to play. There is an interval for every semi-tone there is. Here is the list of intervals and how I represent them.

Starting from E or our tonic, or root, this notes is the lowest tone and our original starting point. I always call this the root, but you can call it the "one or 1" if you like. Going back to our above list (E, F, F#, G, G#, A, A#, B, C, C#, D, D#), you can see the next note is an F

The distance between an E and an F on the low E string from our open string to the first fret is defined as the minor 2nd. From E to the 2nd fret or E to F# is a major second. From E to G or E to the third fret is a minor 3rd. From E to G# or from E to the 4th fret is a major third. From E to A or to the fifth fret is a perfect fourth. From E to A# or E to the sixth fret is a flatted fifth or "tri-tone." From E to B or E to the seventh fret is a perfect fifth. From E to C or the eighth fret is a minor sixth. From E to C# or E to the ninth fret is a major sixth. From E to D or E to the tenth fret is a minor seventh. From E to D# or from E to the eleventh fret is a major seventh or "leading tone." Finally we are an "octave" up, from the open low E to the twelfth fret is the Tonic, root, or one, it's the same tone just higher in pitch. 

Here is a shorter version of how I like to represent these:
  • Tonic or 1 - E
  • Minor 2nd - F
  • Major 2nd - F#
  • Minor 3rd - G 
  • Major 3rd - G#
  • Perfect 4th - A
  • Flatted 5th or Tri-Tone - A#
  • Perfect 5th - B
  • Minor 6th - C
  • Major 6th - C#
  • Minor 7th - D
  • Major 7th or leading tone - D#
  • Tonic or 1 an octave higher - E
To keep it easy and functional we will stick with the above list and relate them to the E minor scale. This scale is very common, it is spelled E, F#, G, A, B, C, D. We all have to start somewhere so we will start at our root, or "Tonic" as it is called. In this case being an E. Since it is our staring point for this tidbit of the lesson.

One note alone, the E, for this example is a single tone with no certain key or relation maybe except E. We will use the E minor scale spelled above for a building block. Once we add on to this note in a stacked form, play them simultaneously and we get a chord. The beginning of the chords are called dyads and triads. A dyad being made up of two parts or two notes in this case. A triad being made up of three parts.

Let's say we add a G to our E. Now we have two intervals that have a relationship to each other, in this case a minor third this being a dyad. Then we add a 5th, in this case a B this being a triad. Count up in the scale listed about starting from E or 1. E 1, F# M2, G m3, A P4, B P5, C m6, D m7.

If you do this, we get 1 or E, minor 3rd or G, and a perfect fifth, or B (1, m3, P5). To get the major set we need the E major or "ionian" scale. Spelled E, F#, G#, A, B, C#, D#. Using the same principals and the list of the interval above we get a 1, M3, P5. E, G#, B. To get the augmented chord we stack the Major third interval two times resulting in a 1, M3, m6. E, G#, C. To get the diminished chord we get a 1, m3, flat5. E, G, A#.

This is a formula I want all new comers to try for the week. Using this simple formula, formulate the same four chords, Major, Minor, Augmented, and Diminished on the key of A, and B. Remember how these are spelled:
  • Major - 1, M3, P5
  • Minor - 1, m3, P5
  • Augmented - 1, M3, m6
  • Diminished - 1, m3, flat5
I hope to throw the next lesson at you next week.

By Zach Sutter

8 comments sorted by best / new / date

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    "that all relate to each other as a piece of music is being herd" I do not know about you fellows, but if my music was a cow I would be very happy.
    There are some mistakes in the article. First, it's "heard", not "herd". Also, learn the difference between "there" and "their". But yeah, those were small mistakes that nobody cares about. The real mistakes are that there are actually 12 notes in the chromatic scale, not 11 (just count them: 1 C, 2 C#, 3 D, 4 D#, 5 E, 6 F, 7 F#, 8 G, 9 G#, 10 A, 11 A#, 12 B). Also, augmented chord does not have a minor 6th in it. It has an augmented 5th in it. They are technically the same - they are the same fret. But the notes have different functions. Also, flat 5th from E is not A#, it is Bb. Again they are enharmonically the same notes but they are not the same. From E to A# there's a fourth, from E to Bb there's a fifth.
    I really like your critcism. I didnt mean to put 11 notes. In regards to the others the augmented and diminished chord sets. I was trying to keep to the formula in the lesson. Not to overload their minds with too much. Even though I still think it was a little longer than I wanted it to be. The next lesson will get into augmented and diminished scales, like the lydian with its aug 4th and the blues scale, and explain about enharmonics.
    I have had many introductions to theory and this is by far the best I've found for my learning style. Friends and pros have taken me aside & shown me, I've taken workshops, tried to read stuff online, have doodled around between the piano and guitar to try and figure it out...but without a structured lesson & practice assignment, I would get all jumbled at the piano, and defaulted to just singing the chords and trying to figure them out by ear from scratch every time, without recognizing the patterns. I've been having to stare at other people's left hands and copy the shapes they make to keep up in guitar groups. Needless to say, I haven't really been keeping up at all. Zach, thank you. This is what I really needed: a slow, concise, organized, structured guide that includes all the terminology I need to get through a theory lesson/session, and how and what to practice this so I finally memorize the sounds of chords in relation to each other, and recognize these patterns in the most/used keys when I see/hear them. BTW: I was sad to see the first comment made here was a gag about a misspelled word. I'm hoping that's not typical on these boards. Nothing wrong with proofreading copy and making editing suggestions, but mocking people who are generously offering their skills up to the community is rude. MaggaraMarine made helpful, clarifying comments. I like that alot, and it appears, so did ShredderMan1. They've certainly made a strong contribution to my learning and I thank them both profoundly! I'll practice this until I have a decent handle on it, and look for lesson 2. Might the staff at Ultimate Guitar make it possible for authors to make changes to lessons when community members offer helpful edits, the way MaggaraMarine did for ShredderMan1?
    Good lesson Shredder Man! However, I did agree with MaggaraMarine that there were those mistakes. He is absolutely right in the fact that Bb and A# are enharmonic but serve different functions. As a music theorist, I would say to never overlook those things. The devil is in the details my friend
    I think it is awesome that you went through this, as I have never really thought much of the relationships between different notes like this. Should a prerequisite be that you know the minor scale? I was getting confusing towards the last section of this study. Thanks anyways.
    The first section was the prerequisite I think. But I do apologize if this got a little confusing. I spell out the Em scale in the last section. If you use the interval table provided you should be able to work out the study section at the end. Feel free to send me an invite or message if you wish for further explanation. Just if you need it!