Basic Music Theory for Beginners: The Ultimate Guide

Basic Music Theory for Beginners: The Ultimate Guide
Basic Music Theory for Beginners: The Ultimate Guide
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Mastering Music Theory Basics

Is your music theory knowledge holding you back from creating your next masterpiece?

Many beginner music artists and producers fall victim to dull-sounding chord progressions, emotionless harmonies, and unexciting melodies due to their lack of basic music theory knowledge.

Despite what you may believe, learning music theory as a beginner is not that difficult. Music theory is just as much about understanding the patterns and relationships between the notes as it is about the individual musical concepts.

Once you understand how to apply these patterns to your music, you’ll unlock the ability to create much more engaging song arrangements, filled with emotion.

In this comprehensive guide, we’ll be breaking down the music theory basics and, by the end of it, you can begin using your newfound knowledge to make your next song greater than ever before.


What is Music Theory?

Before we dive head first into the different elements that make up music theory, and how you can learn music theory more effectively, we need to understand what music theory actually is.

Simply put, music theory is the study of the principles and rules that govern how music is made, arranged, and understood.

Music is universal, it has the ability to connect people from different cultures and backgrounds, even when those people may not be able to communicate with one another. 

Music theory is a universal language, it can help us as musicians to communicate ideas, share knowledge and collaborate together, even when spoken words cannot.

Kung Fu Fighting - Musical Notes on Grand Staff.jpg

Kung Fu Fighting” by Carl Douglas – Musical Notes


Music theory is applied to all aspects of music creation, from songwriting and arrangement, to performing and recording. It also gives you the ability (and the confidence) to experiment with your music, adding more unique and exciting chord progressions, melodies, and more.

A music artist or producer that masters music theory and pairs it with strong technical abilities is a musical force to be reckoned with.


How to Learn Music Theory (Music Theory for Dummies)

The best way to learn music theory as a beginner is to start with the fundamentals. Start by getting yourself familiar with the different music notes and their notation

If you’re learning a key-based instrument, then you’ll need to understand the different piano notes and keys, as well as the musical alphabet. 

All Piano Notes - Music Theory Basics for Beginners

Teach yourself the basic musical elements of rhythm, such as beats (and bars), measures and phrases, and time signatures. These topics will provide the foundations which you can build your knowledge upon. 

Remember, the most effective way to learn music theory is to take a methodical approach, taking each different element one at a time. This makes sure you’re not overwhelming yourself with too many new concepts at once.

Once you are confident with the different notes and understand the basics of rhythm, you can then start looking at the different scales in music. 

Most beginners will start by learning the major scales and then the minor scales, as these are the two most common scales found in music today. These help you understand the different relationships between different notes. 

C Major Scale - Music Theory for Beginners

C Major Scale


Understanding scales is crucial to writing, arranging, and performing melodies in music

Keep in mind that there are more than just these two scales. More advanced music artists leverage the power of musical modes, which gives them more control over the emotion their songs carry. 

Finally, a beginner’s journey to learning music theory should then move towards creating harmony in music

This is achieved by understanding chord construction and progressions, and how they work together. There are many different types of chords that are available, but beginners should focus on mastering triad chords first. 

Triad Chord CMajor - Music Theory for Beginners

Building a Triad Chord (C Major Triad)


Once you have all the fundamental knowledge, then you begin to apply this knowledge in your own time. Practice the different musical concepts you have learned in your own compositions and performances. 

A powerful exercise to learn music theory more effectively is to find a range of different music you like and analyze each song. Take notes on how the song is structured, the notes and melody, the rhythm, the chord progressions, and so forth. This will validate all of your prior learning. 

Mastering basic music theory is a rewarding journey, and as you progress you’ll gradually see improvement in both your music theory knowledge and your technical skills.


The 3 Pillars of Music Theory

Music is made up of 3 core components that every beginner musician and music producer needs to understand: rhythm, melody, and harmony

Each component plays a vital role in shaping both the structure and the sound of a particular song. 


Rhythm in Music Theory

Rhythm can be thought of as the backbone of music. It’s what makes us tap our feed and nod our heads to a particular song. 

It refers to the layout of both the sounds and silences in a song, together creating a pattern that moves a song forward.

Beats and Measures in Rhythm - Music Theory

Example of 4/4 Rhythmic Pattern


Rhythm gives a piece of music structure and defines the groove of the instruments and sounds that are being played.

A song’s rhythmic pattern is made up of elements such as tempo, beats and pulse, meters and measures, and the use of syncopation.

Time signatures dictate many of these elements, such as how many beats are in a measure (or bar). The most common time signature in music is 4/4, meaning there are 4 beats per measure, and each beat is a quarter note in length. 

Time signature example - Music Theory For Beginners

4/4 Time Signature on Musical Staff


Tempo is the speed at which the beat is played and is generally measured in beats per minute (BPM).

It can dramatically affect the mood and feeling of a song, from a slow and relaxed tempo to a fast and energetic tempo. Without knowing the tempo of a piece of music, you would not the speed at which you would need to play an instrument or sing. 

Tempo on the Staff - Music Theory

Tempo Indicator on Music Notation


Syncopation is a more advanced rhythmic technique that involves placing emphasis on weak, unaccented beats (sometimes called off-beats). 

It’s very effective at adding a sense of complexity and suspense to a song’s arrangement, as it challenges the listener’s expectations. Adding these new dynamics to the rhythm can result in a much more engaging experience.

An example of syncopation in music is Radiohead – Videotape

Again, syncopation is a more advanced tool that as a beginner music theorist you may want to circle back to later.


Melody in Music Theory

Melody is one of the most important concepts that you need to understand as a beginner. Melodies are what separate good songs from great ones.

In the simplest form, melodies in music are simply a sequence of musical notes that create a distinct and memorable pattern. 

It’s not just a few random notes played together, it’s a series of pitches that repeat throughout a section of the song. 

Defining a Melody - Music Theory for Beginners

Melody of Coldplay “Viva la Vida” on Sheet Music


Melodies are made up of musical notes and phrases and sometimes feature additional motifs

The notes (or pitches) represent both the pitch of the note and the length of the note. These are combined together to create a melodic pattern. 

These melodic patterns are represented by phrases, containing a series of notes and lengths. These phrases are then repeated and combined with other phrases to create a complete melody.

Phrases in Melody - Beginner Music Theory

Melody of Beyoncé “Halo” – Phrases on Musical Staff


Motifs are shorter, recurring patterns of notes that give a song a unique character. These aren’t quite melodies themselves but can be combined with other pieces to add more flavor to a song. 

Generally speaking, motifs are less impact on a song’s melody, but can still have an important part to play in the overall context of the song’s progression. 

An example of a Motif can be found in the first 4 bars of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony.


Harmony in Music Theory

Finally, we have harmony which creates depth and variety and can completely change the emotion and feeling of a song. 

When visualizing harmony as a beginner, you can think of it as the vertical aspect of music, in opposition to the horizontal aspect of melody. 

Harmony in Music - Beginner Music Theory Basics

Example of Harmony (Right)


Harmony is simply the result of two or more individual pitches (or notes) that are played together at the same time.

Regardless of what pitches are being played, and whether it sounds good or bad, harmony comes from the simultaneous sound of those notes. Harmony provides a sense of structure and narrative through the use of consonance and dissonance. It adds a layer and depth to a song’s arrangement.

Consonance refers to a nice and full sound, whereas dissonance refers to a sharp and annoying sound. Great composers and musicians use both of these to shape a piece of music and give it more emotion.

To understand harmony, you need to know the core components of it. These are notes and intervals, chords, and cadences.

Notes and Intervals in Harmony - Basic Music Theory

Notes and Intervals in Harmony


Chords are made up of notes and intervals, with notes being the individual pitches, and intervals being the distance between these pitches. Both play an important role in creating harmony in music. 

There are also different types of harmony, with diatonic harmony being the most common type (and one that beginners should focus on first). Other types include chromatic harmony, modal harmony, triadic harmony, and polychord harmony.

Finally, cadences are specific chords found at the end of a phrase of music and a made up of at least two consecutive chords that close the phrase. They are thought of as a way to bring closure to a particular phrase or section of music. 


Musical Notes, Notation & The Musical Alphabet 

When you begin learning music theory, one of the first concepts you’ll come across is the different musical notes and the music alphabet. 


The 12 Musical Notes

There are 12 unique notes (also known as pitches) that are the starting point for a piece of music. This is also referred to as the “key”.

There are major and minor keys, with each key having a unique pattern of distances between each note.


What is the Musical Alphabet?

The musical alphabet contains the 7 letters: A, B, C, D, E, F, and G.

These letters correspond to the 7 natural notes on a piece of sheet music or the white keys on a piano.

Natural Notes on a Piano - Music Theory

Natural Notes (White Keys) on the Piano


The remaining 5 notes are sharps or flats (which are also called accidentals) and are represented by the sharp ‘#’ or flat ‘b’ symbol. Together, these make up the 12 musical notes.


Musical Notation

When you come across a piece of sheet music, you’ll notice 5 horizontal lines. These lines are called the staff and it’s where the notes are placed.

There are two main ways that musical notes are pictured on sheet music. The first is the type of musical note placed on the staff, determining the length of how long you play that note. 

Different Musical Notes - Music Theory for Dummies

Different Musical Notes


The second is where those notes sit in relation to the staff lines, as they can either be placed on the lines, or between the spaces. The position of the notes determines which note you play on your instrument (or sing).

B Major Scale on Staff - Music Theory Basics

Musical Notes on Staff Lines (B Major Scale)


You’ll come across other symbols on a piece of sheet music that helps you interpret and understand a particular song better, which we’ll dive into later.


Octaves, Tones & Intervals in Music Theory

Even though there are only 12 unique notes, when you pass the 12th note, you then move into the next octave. 

An octave simply defines the pitch range of a set of 12 notes, and in theory, there can be an infinite number of octaves lower and higher.

Octave on Piano - Beginner Music Theory

Example of an Octave on Piano


Different instruments play in different octaves, for example, a bass guitar plays in lower octaves, whereas a violin plays in higher octaves. Musicians use symbols called clefs to identify the pitch range of the following notes. The clef is placed at the start of a piece of music, before the key signature and time signature.

The treble clef (G clef) is the most common clef found in sheet music, and it covers the pitch range of popular instruments such as the guitar, violin, trumpet as well as the right-hand notes of the piano. The treble clef appears as a stylized ‘G’, as it sits on the pitch of G.

C Major in Treble Clef

C Major in Treble Clef


The bass clef (F clef) is another popular clef found in sheet music, covering the pitch range of instruments such as the bass guitar, double bass, cello, as well as the left-hand notes on the piano of the piano. The bass clef is represented with a stylized ‘F’, with two dots sitting either side of the fourth line of the staff.

C Major Bass Clef

C Major in Bass Clef


Tones and Semitones

Tones and semitones, also called steps and half-steps are terms to explain the distance between two different notes. 

A semitone (or half-step) is the smallest distance between two notes, such as C to C# or E to F

Semitone Distance on Piano - Music Theory Guide

A tone (or step) is the distance between two adjacent notes in the music alphabet we discussed earlier, such as C to D or F to G

Wholetone Distance on Piano - Music Theory Guide

Intervals

Intervals are the distance between any two notes and are measured in tones or steps. You’ll need to get familiar with the different intervals when it comes to building scales and chords.

Understanding how these intervals work becomes extremely useful when you’re learning scales, as they follow the same pattern regardless of the key of your scale. This makes learning musical scales much easier. 

There are many different interval types, with the two main types being major and minor. In addition to these, there are also perfect, augmented, and diminished intervals, which are more advanced.


Music Scales & Modes in Music Theory

Musical scales and modes are essential in structuring melodies and harmonies in your music. Beginner music theorists that have found their feet with the different note types often move onto scales next. 


Music Scales

A musical scale is a series of notes that follow a specific pattern of intervals. They’re the foundation on which all melodies and harmonies are built upon. 

The major scale, which is comprised of 7 different notes, is often associated with a bright, happy sound. The C major scale is a great starting point for beginners, as it’s the only major scale that features only natural notes (white keys on the piano).

C Major on Piano - Music Theory

C Major Scale on Piano


The minor scale, which also consists of 7 different notes, features a darker and somber quality.

C Minor on Piano - Beginner Music Theory

C Minor Scale on Piano


Each note in a particular scale is assigned a number called a scale degree, which is often shown as Roman numerals. Scale degrees help you understand the function and the relationship between the different notes in a scale.

This helps you learn new scales, build chord progressions, and more. Let’s take the C major scale for this example. Each note has it’s own unique degree assigned to it.


Scale DegreesiiiiiiIVVvivii
C Major ScaleCDEFGAB

Major and minor scale follows their own respective interval patterns, which is useful to know as a beginner when you are playing in different keys.

To put this into action, pick any note you want to play. Start with your root note and follow the intervals for your desired scale. These patterns are:

Major Scale: Whole – Whole – Half – Whole – Whole – Whole – Half

Minor Scale: Whole – Half – Whole – Whole – Half – Whole – Whole

Learning the different musical scales is a vital exercise if you want to compose your own melodies and harmonies, as well as understand different key signatures and chords. 


Musical modes

Whilst major scales give a happy, bright mood, and minor scales give a somber, melancholic sound, there is a range of musical modes beyond these that each offers a unique mood and tone to the music.

There are a set of 7 unique scales, which are: Ionian, Dorian, Phrygian, Lydian, Mixolydian, Aeolian, and Locrian. These modes offer a way to create different textures and harmony in your music, beyond the traditional major and minor scales.

In its simplest terms, each mode starts on a different scale degree, whilst following a particular interval pattern.

C Ionian Mode - Music Theory

C Ionian Musical Mode on Piano


C Ionian on Sheet Music

C Ionian Musical Mode on Staff


D Dorian Mode - Music Theory

D Dorian Musical Mode on Piano


Dorian Mode on Sheet Music

D Dorian Musical Mode on Staff


Different musical modes (and modal interchanges) are used by talented musicians and artists across the world to make their music more interesting and dynamic.


Key Signatures & Relationships in Music Theory

Key signatures are found at the start of a piece of sheet music indicating what key a particular piece of music is in. 

D Flat Major - Key Signature Example

D Flat Major – Key Signature Example


This symbol is a set of sharps or flat symbols placed at the beginning of the staff. It allows you as a musician quickly understand what notes to play. The only key that does not feature a key signature is the C major scale


Key relationships

Music theory features several different key relationships that can be thought of as patterns of different notes (or pitches). 

Parallel keys are major and minor keys that share the same starting note (or tonic). An example of this is C major and C minor.

Relative keys are major and minor keys that have the same key signature but have different starting notes. An example of this is C major and A minor.

Enharmonic keys are keys that have the exact same pitch but are notated differently depending on which scale you’re playing in. An example of this is C# major and Db Major


The Circle of Fifths

As a beginner musician, you’ll come across the circle of fifths concept. This is a visual illustration that shows the relationships between the 12 keys of music. 

The circular chart makes it easier for you to understand these different relationships when you are learning keys, scales, and chords. 

Circle of Fifths - Major Scale

As you move clockwise around the circular chart, each adjacent key adds one sharp note to its scale. In contrast, as you move counter-clockwise, it adds one flat note. 

The chart also allows you to quickly see the relative key to the key you start in, as each minor key is directly beneath its relative major. For example, A minor is the relative minor of C major, and both share the same key signature (no sharps or flats).


Chords in Music Theory

As discussed earlier in the harmony section, chords form the basis of harmony and give you a framework for building different textures in your music. 

A chord is a group of 3 or more notes that are played at the same time, creating a harmonious sound. They are built from scales and are defined by the root note (tonic), quality (major, minor, etc), and the intervals between each note. 


Triad chords

Triad chords are a perfect starting point for beginners, as they are the most common type of chord and feature 3 notes. 

These 3 notes are the root note, the third, and the fifth. Triads can be major, minor, diminished, or augmented, defined by the intervals between the three notes.

We will focus on building different triad chords for the next chords to keep it simple. 


Major chords

Triad major chords are built on the 1st, 3rd, and 5th scale degrees of any major scale. They are often depicted as I-iii-V. They feature a bright and happy sound and are notated by the root note and a capital letter, like C Major. 

C Major Triad Chord - Piano Notes

C Major Triad Chord on Piano


Minor chords

Triad minor chords are built on the 1st, 3rd, and 5th scale degrees of any minor scale. They feature a darker more melancholic sound compared to their major equivalent. They’re notated with a lowercase ‘m’, like Cm. 

C Minor Triad - Music Theory

C Minor Triad Chord on Piano


Diminished chords

Triad diminished chords are built on the 1st, 3rd, and 5th scale degree of a diminished scale (which flattens the 3rd and 5th note). They sound unstable and tense, which makes them a great choice for building tension in your music. They are notated with a small circle ‘°’, like C°. 

C Diminished Triad Chord - Music Theory

C Diminished Triad Chord on Piano


Augmented chords

Finally, triad diminished chords are built on the 1st, 3rd, and 5th scale degree of an augmented scale (which sharpens the 5th note). They have a dreamy, mysterious sound quality to them. These types of chords are notated with a plus symbol ‘+’, like C+. 

C Augmented Triad Chord - Beginner Music Theory

C Augmented Triad Chord on Piano


Seventh chords

Once you feel comfortable with the different types of triad chords, the next logical step is to move on to the seventh chord

Seventh chords are similar to triad chords, but they include an additional note. They have a more complex sound, and like triad chords, come in various types, which are: major, minor, dominant, half-diminished, and diminished. 

Seventh chords are slightly notated differently from triad chords, so we suggest you read our in-depth guide on seventh chords in music. 

C Major7th Chord - Harmony

CMaj7 Chord on Piano


Chord progressions

Chord progressions are a series of chords that are played in a particular order to form the harmonic backbone of a section of music.

Progressions have the ability to set the tone and emotion of a song, as well as set the foundation upon which melody and rhythm can build. There are many different types of chord progressions, but as a beginner musician, you should focus on the most common progression, to begin with.

The I-IV-V progression features the chords of the following scale degrees: 1st (tonic), 4th (subdominant), and 5th (dominant). This progression is found in most genres of music you’ll hear today. 

For example, if you start in the key of C major, the chord progression would be C, F, and G.   

Chord Progression on Piano - Music Theory for Beginner

Once you have mastered this basic chord progression, you can start introducing other progressions and experiment to find what works best for your music.


Chord extensions and inversions

The final two concepts to cover in our chords section are chord extensions and chord inversions. 

Chord extensions are chords that have additional notes past the seventh scale degree. These notes are often the 9th, 11th, and 13th chords. They add even more texture and depth to a song’s harmony. 

Chord extension on piano - music theory guide

C Major Chord Extension


Chord inversions are when the notes are rearranged, resulting in a different root note. Inversions offer subtle changes to the overall sound of a chord, but still maintain the original feel, as the notes remain the same. 

Cmaj7 Chord Second Inversion - Music Theory

CMaj7 Chord Inversion (Second Inversion)


Why Learn Music Theory?

Learning basic music theory is essential for all music artists and producers who want to take their music seriously.

Without the foundational knowledge that music theory gives you, you’ll struggle to create engaging and cohesive music, and you will not be able to interpret other music or communicate your ideas to others.   

Music theory plays an important role in every stage of the music creation process, from composing, arranging, and performing. Even a basic understanding can greatly enhance your skills as a music artist. 

Creating music with a purpose in mind is vital. Whether you want to tell a particular story, convey a particular emotion or surprise your listener, a basic understanding of music theory equips you with the necessary tools and skills to do so.


Summary – Music Theory for Beginners

We hope our comprehensive guide to the music theory basics has opened your eyes to the wonderful world of music. 

Music theory opens up a new realm of possibilities, from creating rhythms, writing melodies, and crafting harmonies and progression. It enables you to collaborate with other artists, as well as better analyze songs for inspiration. 

By taking the time to grasp these fundamental concepts, you will be set to start your musical journey as a musician, composer, or producer. 

Keep in mind that the journey to mastering music theory is an ongoing process that demands patience, discipline, and dedication. The more time you give to your music theory, the more fluent in the universal language of music you will become.


FAQs on Basic Music Theory for Beginners


How do I start learning music theory?

To start learning music theory, start with the fundamentals in this article, such as musical notation and the musical alphabet. Learn about the 3 core pillars that make up music, rhythm, melody, and harmony. 

After you have a foundation to build upon, move on to scales, keys, and chords. Adopt a methodical approach and do not try to learn everything at once. Put your newfound knowledge to practice, analyze some of your favorite songs, and then apply these learnings in your own music writing and performance.


Should beginners learn music theory?

Beginners should learn music theory as it provides a solid understanding of the structure of music and the relationship between the different components. 

Learning music theory allows you to both communicate your own ideas with others and interpret the musical ideas of others. Musicians and producers who are serious about their music craft should learn music theory.


Is it possible to self study music theory?

Self-studying music theory is more accessible than ever, with a huge range of resources available to beginner music artists, such as articles (like this one), books, apps, and more. 

With a structured approach and some self-determination, you can effectively learn music theory on your own. With that said, you may be able to speed up certain parts of the journey with guidance from an experienced musician.


How long does it take to learn music theory?

The time it takes to learn music theory really depends on a few different factors, such as your time resource, your discipline, and how fast you learn.

For some, understanding the basics of music theory can be achieved in a couple of months, whilst others may take much longer to develop that understanding.


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Thomas Smith
As Visionary and Chief Editor of 122BPM, Thomas is dedicated to inspiring the next generation of music pioneers. With a degree in Music and 10 years industry experience, Thomas is now shaping 122BPM as the central hub for music and audio education.
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