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Understanding Music Theory

Updated on December 12, 2017
Paul Westphal profile image

Paul studied music at MTSU, focusing on jazz, improvisation, and audio technology.

Understanding Music Theory

This is the main hub for music Education and understanding music theory. This hub is simply everything you need to know about music theory. I studied jazz and classical guitar in college and want to share my knowledge and understanding with the online community. I also play piano, bass, and drums so if you have a specific question that is not in the lessons, feel free to ask me in a comment. I have listed the different lessons below and I intend to add more soon. All lessons are constantly being added to, so be sure to stop by periodically to see what new things have been posted. I am trying to make the lessons as universal as possible so that the information will be useful to everyone, no matter what instrument you play.Just click on the lesson that you would like to learn and you will be taken to that hub. It is that simple.

Music Theory

The Key to Understanding
The Key to Understanding

Music Notes

Music notes are the smallest building block of music. You can play them one at a time to make a melody or you play a combination of notes all at once and this is called a chord. Notes have four important characteristics. These characteristics are pitch, time, timbre, and dynamics. It is extremely important to be aware of all four of these characteristics when playing music.

Grand Staff


Pitch is indicated by the position of the note on the staff. The picture above contains a staff with different notes on it. The higher the note on the staff, the higher the pitch of that note. The lower the note on the staff, the lower the pitch. When two or more notes appear to be stacked on top of one another they are to be played simultaneously.


The time or duration of a note is determined by the way the note looks. To the right is a chart that shoes what each note value looks like. This will be explain in more detail in the Concept of Rhythm lesson.


Timbre is the tone of a note. Several things can effect the timbre of sound. Timbre can be affected by how you play your instrument, temperature, acoustic environment, and a whole world of other things. Notes can be at the same pitch, but still sound very different. This is because of a difference in timbre. This is also why a guitar doesn't sound like a piano.



Dynamics are how hard or soft a note is played. This is a characteristic that often ignored by many amateur musicians. Being aware of your dynamics while playing is very important. You have to learn to be very sensitive to how loud or soft you are playing in order to make your music really come alive. Without any variation in dynamics your music will become very dull and it will lack a dimension that is crucial to all music. At the beginning of each piece of sheet music there is a symbol that is placed below the staff in order to notate the dynamics. Pictured below is a diagram that will show you the symbols that are used for each level of dynamics.

Perfect 5th from C to G

Major 3rd from C to E


An interval in music the measurement of distance from one note to another. There are 12 basic intervals altogether. Below I have listed them from the smallest interval to the largest. They are measured in half steps. A half step is the smallest distance between two notes. It is exactly one note above or below the note you start on.

1 half step=minor 2nd

2 half steps=Major 2nd=whole step

3 half steps=minor 3rd

4 half steps=Major 3rd

5 half steps=Perfect 4th

6 half steps=Augmented 4th/ Diminished 5th

7 half steps=Perfect 5th

8 half steps=minor 6th

9 half steps=Major 6th

10 half steps=minor 7th

11 half steps=Major 7th

12 half steps=Perfect Octave

Intervals are as fundamental to music as the notes themselves. They are used in every aspect of music. Wherever there is music there are intervals. These are just the basic and most commonly referenced intervals. Below is a table with the more technical intervals that are less common.

Return to Music Education

# of Half Steps
Interval Name
Scale Degree
Interval Example
C to C
Augmented Unison
C to C#
minor 2nd
C to Db
Major 2nd
C to D
Augmented 2nd
C to D#
minor 3rd
C to Eb
Major 3rd
C to E
Augmented 3rd
C to E#
Diminished 4th
C to Fb
Perfect 4th
C to F
Augmented 4th
C to F#
Diminished 5th
C to Gb
Perfect 5th
C to G
Augmented 5th
C to G#
minor 6th
C to Ab
Major 6th
C to A
Augmented 6th
C to A#
minor 7th
C to Bb
Major 7th
C to B
Augmented 7th
C to B#
Perfect Octave
C to C
Augmented Octave
C to C#
minor 9th
C to Db
Major 9th
C to D
Augmented 9th
C to D#
C to F
Augmented 11th
C to F#
minor 13th
C to Ab
Major 13th
C to A
Augmented 13th
C to A#

Staffs and Clefs

Staffs and Clefs are the canvas that we notate music on. This is where you will find the time signature, key signature, accidentals, and all other types of symbols that are use to notate sheet music.

Treble Clef

Treble Clef

This clef is probably the mode widely used of all the clefs. This clef is also known as the G clef. The reason for this is because the G line on the staff is circled by the clef. The treble clef is used to notate music for instruments that are the highest in pitch. Instruments that use this clef are guitar, flute, piccolo, and trumpet just to name a few.

Alto Clef

Alto Clef

The alto clef is used to notate instruments that are right below the soprano range. This clef is very uncommon and most instruments that fall in this range would normally be notated on the treble clef instead. This clef is also referred to as the C clef simply because the C note is located on the line in between the two humps of the clef.

Tenor Clef

Tenor Clef

The tenor clef is used for notating instruments that are right above the bass clef range. This is just as uncommon as the alto clef. Instruments that fall in this range are usually notated on the bass clef due to its familiarity.

Bass Clef

Bass Cleff

This clef is used to notate instruments with the lowest pitch. This clef is also known as the F clef. The reason for this is because the two dots on the staff enclose the line on the staff that represents the F pitch.

Grand Staff

The Grand staff is simply the merging of the bass and treble clef. The only instrument that uses this clef is keyboard instruments because of their large range of pitch. An important thing to notice about these two clefs is that they are joined in the middle by middle C. Middle C is located in the middle of keyboard instruments.

Grand Staff

Ledger Lines

Ledger lines are the short lines that are placed above or below a staff in order to represent a note that is out of the range of the normal staff. A great example is pictured above in the grand staff image.. Notice that middle C is the ledger line that connects the bass and treble clef. Anything above three ledger lines is uncommon, but does occur in certain music. In order to determine what the note is on a ledger line we must count each space and ledger line as natural note increments. Ledger lines are basically just an extension of the staff.


The symbol 8va is used in music in order to let the reader know that the notated music is to be played one octave higher than it is written.


The symbol 8vb is used in music in order to let the reader know that the music notated is to be played one octave lower than written.

What are Keys?

Keys are a group of notes that are used together to make music. At the beginning of every piece of sheet there is either a group #'s or b's placed on the staff. The number of #'s or b's will tell you what key the piece of music is in. Below is a diagram of The Circle of Fifths that will show you how many #'s or b's are in each key. In music either a key contains #'s or b's. Rarely will you ever see a key signature with both #'s and b's.

Major Keys

All keys and scales have a formula to find out what the key is if you can't remember all of the notes. The formula is a series of ascending whole steps and half steps. Simply start on whatever note you want to know the major scale of and follow this formula W W H W W W H. If you have gone through the series of whole steps and half steps correctly you should end up on the same note you started on only an octave higher. Another way to keep track of all of the major and relative minor key signatures is by using the circle of fifths. It is pictured on the right. This image is one of the most important diagrams for musicians. It shows the key signature for all of the majors keys and it also displays the relative minor key further inside the circle.

Minor Keys

Minor keys are really just major keys, but played in a different way. The key of ANatural Minor key is really just the sixth mode of C major. It is also referred to as the relative minor. This means that both keys have the same exact notes, but they have different tonal centers. The tonal center of any key or scale is the note that it is named after. The tonal center of A minor is A and the tonal center of Cmajor is of course C. In music the tonal center is referred to as the tonic. Minor keys are really just major keys. They even share the same exact key signature. They are just played differently

Circle of Fifths


Accidentals are #'s or b's that occur in the middle of a piece of music that are not included in the key signature. There is usually a musical logic behind using accidentals. The reason for using accidentals is to modulate to another key or to itonisize a certain key. Itonisization is the musical term used when someone is using accidentals that are a part of a similar key. This is a way of hinting a key change or mixing keys. Closely related keys are keys that share all of the same notes except for maybe one or two notes.

Synthetic Keys

Synthetic keys are made up by the individual. They usually contain a unique set of sharps and flats in order to achieve a specific type of sound for the music. These key signatures are neither Major or minor. Synthetic keys signatures are uncommon, but do occur frequent enough for me to mention them.


Rhythm is by far the most important aspect of music. The rhythm of a song is like the heartbeat of a song. If the beat stops or if the rhythm is off the song dies. It is much more important to stay in time than it is to stay in tune. Hitting a wrong note is not nearly as noticeable as losing rhythm. That is something to always keep in the back of your mind when you are play. Rhythm is king!

Keys summary

Keys are really just music scales. Sometimes they are made up, but most of the time in music well established keys are used. The key signature is used just to identify the notes. If the key signature has a # on a certain note line or space then that note will be sharp throughout the entire piece of music unless specified otherwise by an accidental


Rhythm is by far the most important aspect of music. The rhythm of a song is like the heartbeat of a song. If the beat stops or if the rhythm is off the song dies. It is much more important to stay in time than it is to stay in tune. Hitting a wrong note is not nearly as noticeable as losing rhythm. That is something to always keep in the back of your mind when you are play. Rhythm is king!


If you look at any piece of music you will notice that there is a short vertical line that runs from the bottom line of the staff to the top of the staff. These lines are used to break the piece of music up into equally sized quantities of time. These quantities of time are called measures.

Time Signatures

Time signatures are displayed at the very beginning of every piece of sheet music and can also appear in the middle of a piece in order to signify a change in time signature. The four most common time signatures are 3/4, 4/4, 2/2, and 6/8. The most common of them all is 4/4. About 90% of all music ever written is in 4/4 time. The bottom number represents the value of each beat and the top number tells you how many beats are in a measure. The value of a beat in 4/4 time would be a quarter note. The value of the beat in 6/8 time would be an eighth note and there would be six of them in a measure.


Tempo refers to how many beats per minute are to be played. If a piece of music has a tempo of 80 and has a 4/4 time signature, that means we should play 20 meters in one minute. This is because there are 4 beats per measure in 4/4 time. Only 13.3 measures would be played in a minute in 6/8 time with a tempo of 80 because there are 6 beats per measure in 6/8 time. To figure this out we simply take the tempo number and divide it by the top number of the time signature. Doing this will help you play a more accurate tempo.


Accelerando is a term used in music that means to speed up tempo


Decelerando is a term used in music that means to slow down tempo

Note Values

Counting Rhythm

1 e & a 2 e & a 3 e & a 4 e & a

This is how you count in 4/4 time. There are sixteen syllables to count in this measure of 4/4 time and that means there are sixteen 16th notes in the measure. Sixteen 16th notes is equal to 1 whole note. What ever goes into the measure has to equal 4/4. You could do this with 2 half notes or 1 whole note, but keep in mind that the amount of time you put into the measure has to be equal to the time signature. So in order to determine if you want to check to see if you have the right amount of time inside of a measure just add up all of the values of your rests and articulations that have been written inside of the measure. The total of the note values should be equal to the time signature. If the sum of the value of notes is greater than the time signature then you should try shrinking one of your note values in order to make the time fit.

Video on counting Rhythm

Styles of Music

This lesson is designed to give you an overview of the stylistic characteristics that are involved in each style or genre of music. Each style has its own unique traits that are a lot of times mixed and matched with the traits of other styles in order to create a fresh new sound.

Rock N Roll

Rock is the simplest genre of all of the genres listed. The chord of choice for a rock song is the power chord. This chord only contains two different notes and that is what makes the style so simple. The power chord is usually the only chord that you will hear in a rock song. The instrumentation is usually made up of two guitarist's, one electric bass player, a drummer, and a vocalist. Most songs in this genre are in 4/4 timing and due to the simplicity of the chords used in rock, you are less restricted by the scales that you can use. Because power chords only have two different notes, they are compatible with huge variety of scales. Basically any scale that contains a perfect fifth above the tonic can be played over a power chord.


The major chord is the chord of choice for a pop song. Pop is a genre that is mostly in 4/4 timing. Pop chord progressions usually consist of major or minor chords and are known for being constructed out of the major modes. Ionian is a mode that is commonly used to make pop music. Common chord progressions are listed below.


I vi IV V

I IV vi ii V


Country is a style that is the same as pop music theoretically. It uses a lot of the same chords as pop does. What sets country apart from pop is the instrumentation and the familiar country vocal timbre. Instruments used to make country music usually consist of a guitar, bass, drum set, violin, piano, and vocals. Country also uses a lot of the same chord progressions as pop music. These chord progressions are also normally constructed from the major modes much like pop music.


Funk is a style that is very syncopated. This means that the notes will commonly be placed on the and's of beats. Funk is also known for having only one chord in the whole song. This is called jamming on the one and is very common in funk styles. Chords that are known for funk are The minor 7, the Dominant 9, and The Dominant 7 #9. Rhythm is what drives this style. Common instruments used in funk are the guitar, bass, drum set, trumpet, trombone, vocalist, saxophone, flute, and a variety of percussive effects. It is common for there to be a solid bass line that is complimented by a rhythm guitar playing a funk chord in relation to the rhythm of the bass line. Timing in this style is usually is 4/4 timing and the drummer commonly counts by 16th note subdivisions. Like this: 1 e & a 2 e & a 3 e & a 4 e & a. These articulations are usually played on the hi-hat by the drummer in order to keep solid time.


The classical style of music is a style that has very picky rules that can be broken, but only after they are learned. Classical music can take on many different forms and is actually the originator of all western tonal styles of music. This was the only style that existed in western tonal music when the idea of chords were introduced. It was this style that fine tuned the way of going about chord progressions. Today many styles have branched off from this style and still carry on some of the same harmonic traditions that were started when classical music was the popular music of the day.


Jazz is the most harmonically complex genre of all. Chords in jazz are usually made up of at least 4 different notes. A lot of times in jazz the key will change several times during the song. This is why jazz is extremely hard to play. Instead of using one scale for a melody like most other genres, jazz will be made up of complex chord changes that change the key every few measures. This is called modulating. Instruments commonly used in jazz are the trumpet, trombone, saxophone, drum set, guitar, bass, piano, and vocals. In the early days of Jazz it wasn't uncommon for a banjo and a clarinet to be included in the instrumentation. In the jazz style the bass player usually plays steady quarter notes for the bass line rhythm while the guitarist and pianist comp the chords. Comping is a way of playing chord progressions in the Jazz style. It is a short brief playing of the chord rather than holding it and letting it ring. Another characteristic of Jazz is the tendency to in include angular melodies. Angular melodies are a type of melody that has large leaps in between each note of the melody. This will give the melody a nice mix of intervals and really draws out the Jazz sound.

Musical Outlook

Philosophy of Music

Music is one of those things that is always around us, but have you ever stopped to ask yourself "What is music"? I studied music in college and have heard a variety of opinions. In the early days of music rhythm was the only known characteristic of music.Humans didn't even know about tuning until Pythagoras came along and made us aware of sonic harmony. He founded the first tuning system and it is still the foundation of what we use today. This was added to rhythm and set music on a track of evolution. Since then different turnings have been made along with a whole bunch of instruments that cater to those tuning's. Since the beginning of its incarnation music has been on a track of evolutionary change. As we begin to understand ourselves and sound better we also know more about music and what it is. Music use to have the aesthetic of representing the harmony in nature by creating mathematical sequences and patterns with the already mathematically proportioned tuning system.

Today we have music that goes way beyond mimicking the beauty of nature. Some music of today is meant to be the opposite of beautiful. Some music even completely abandons tuning altogether, challenging the very basis of music. Music is different things to different people.Some people see music as structured sound that our ears perceive as pleasing. Something that is no more than a sonic pattern passing over you at the same rate time does.

Some people go about making music as if it is meant to imitate something.Others will go about playing music as if they are trying to communicate with their instrument. Depending on the way you look at music will determine how you go about the process of writing music. These are somewhat like belief systems for music. These are just a few views of what music is. It is part of becoming a musician to decide what music is to you and this will heavily effect your style.

I for instance look at music as more of a language than an art. Like language we have a variation in pitch, volume, rhythm, and tone. In music we also use sounds in conjunction with one another just like we do with speech. To me music is like a language with no dialogue. It is a form of expression that cannot be misinterpreted because it is completely open to interpretation. Music will be interpreted differently by different people, allowing an almost infinite message to be conveyed.

Others may find new ways of looking at music as we continue to understand what it is. So far as we know there is no right or wrong way to look at music. If you are wanting to start playing music you will have to form you idea of what music is for. This will give you a clearer understanding of how to go about making music. Don't think that you have to know music theory in order to play music. You do have to know music theory in order to play certain instruments though because they were designed to cater to a certain tuning. It is the idea of tuning that spawns the idea of theory. Music theory is an extrapolation of the tuning itself.

Rhythm itself has a natural mathematical nature to it and that is where the idea of using patterns, symmetry, and sequences in music stems from. So the basis of how people first went about writing music was based on the belief that music should be mathematically proportioned. Now there are many different beliefs of what music is or should be and musicians continue to innovate and stretch the boundaries.

So being a musician also means being a philosopher. The musical philosophy of a musician is the basis of their style.

Music Concepts Learned

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    • leni sands profile image

      Leni Sands 

      7 years ago from UK

      I love this, simply straight forward without the jargon.


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