I hope this will be the most effective music theory lesson you will ever read in under ten minutes.
Victor Hugo said, “Music expresses that which cannot be put into words and that which cannot remain silent”
And that’s just great, makes a terrific “favorite quote” for the yearbook, but it doesn’t mean we can’t or shouldn’t put words around music. We have to. Theory and musical terminology are what enable us to communicate beyond, “I like rap; I dislike jazz; Oh, that’s so pretty! etc.”
And as a forensic musicologist, I need to be able to explain how music works to musicians and non-musicians; most often, through the written word. I can’t always say, “Here, please listen to this.” Sometimes I need plain language.
(That’s almost a whole minute spent on introduction and context. A little more than nine minutes left.)
In the next 9 minutes, I’m going to give you the better part of a collegiate music theory class, and it’ll be more info than most people will ever exhaust.
The terms I’ll introduce are in a specific order, and I’ll only explain each of them 80% thoroughly. The other 20% would be “exceptions to the rule” type stuff; a waste of our valuable time for minimal gain. We’re going Pareto principle here. But do take the time you need to absorb the concepts I give you because the understanding of each term will enable understanding the next. Do not scan. Do not skip. Don’t cheat yourself, and sure, take longer than 10 minutes if you like. Nobody is actually timing you! Take it step by step, understanding as you go, and progressing through the concepts. These terms do start dull, sorry, but then they explode into understanding at the end.
And it will help a ton if you can imagine a piano keyboard while you read. If you have one, sit near it.
(Thanks. Eight minutes more. Go.)
What’s a note?
A note is a frequency or pitch. If you’re by yourself, sing and hold the pitch steady. For our purposes, that’s a note. And no matter what random pitch you just sang, we can call that note by a letter name A, B, C, D, E, F, or G. The letter names cycle, meaning the note that follows “G” is “A.” There is no “H.” Notes also have duration. And notes are perhaps distinguishable from “pitch” and “tone” by whether they’re heard, performed, or written down (notes and notations are written things), but we’re not concerned about any of that in this lesson. Next…
What’s a scale?
A scale is a series of notes in order of pitch. For example, “C, D, E, F, G, A, B, C” is a scale; seven notes and then it cycles again to C. But “C, E, D, G, F, B, A, C,” is not a scale because it’s hopping all around; it’s not directional. Scales don’t need to contain exactly seven notes. They just often do. Next…
What is an interval?
An interval is the distance between any two letter-named notes. We can count it on our fingers. For example, let’s take A and E. The notes A and E have an interval of five. We count the first note of an interval as “one.” There is no zero. It’s an inclusive counting thing. So, on our fingers, A is one, B is two, and E will be five. So the A to E interval is five. If we play two notes together, we get “harmony” (the sound of more than one note at a time) and we would call this particular harmony a “fifth.” A to E is a “fifth.” Note however that A to E is not the same interval as E to A. Direction matters! On your fingers, if E were “one,” then F is two, G is three, and A will be four. So the interval A to E is five or “a fifth,” but the inverse, E to A, is four; “a fourth.”
What are ‘whole steps’ and ‘half steps?’
A “half step” is the distance between two adjacent notes, and a “whole step” is two half steps. It’s a bit like half-teaspoons and teaspoons. A “step,” whether it’s ‘half’ or ‘whole,’ is the distance from one note in a scale to the next or to the former. But “half step” is the far more useful term because it lets us describe the precise distance between two notes, as in, “exactly how many piano keys away from “C” is “F?“
Answer: It’s five half-steps away.
What are ‘sharps’ and ‘flats?’ Sounds important, but I might’ve skipped this altogether if we didn’t have five whole minutes left to kill.
Picturing that piano? The sharps and flats are the black keys, and you probably knew that. This being a theory lesson though, let’s be at least minimally theoretical about it…
We present music as a twelve-note system. But, as we just said, we use only seven letters as note names, thus leaving five other notes that need names. We refer to these notes as either raised (“sharp” and symboled “#”) or lowered (“flat” and symboled “b”) versions of letter-named notes. For example, the note that lies a half step above A and also a half step below B (between A and B) can be referred to as as either A# (raised A) or Bb (lowered B).
And the note that lies between E and F? There isn’t one. You knew that too, probably. So, does that mean E-sharp is the same note as F? Yes, it is indeed, and nobody cares. We barely cared about sharps and flats in general. Moving on now. Got places to be…
What’s a chord?
A chord is a group of notes sounded together; “harmony” again. For example C, E, G, B, D all sounded together is a chord.
What is a triad?
A triad is by far the most common chord type. It’s a three-note chord wherein there’s an interval of a third between the first two notes, and also between the second two notes. More simply, just take stacks of three notes and use every other letter name. ACE, BDF, CEG, DFA, EGB, FAC, and GBD. That’s a bunch of triads. Some of which are major and some of which are minor. Ah crap, here we go.
What is major and minor?
The terms “major” and “minor” can be descriptors for notes, chords, scales, whole compositions (“First Piano Concerto in Bb Major”), and more. “Major” and “minor” are a significant pita that we will need to get through quickly to stay on track. So we’ll make it as crisp as we can.
Firstly they describe interval sizes, and we will get a lot of mileage from just that. As we’ve said, intervals have number values, “thirds, sixths, etc.,” but beyond that, there are big and small versions of thirds, and big and small sixths, and so forth. (Yuck. I know.) Similarly to the way that sharps and flats tell us to raise or lower letter-named notes by one half-step, the terms “major” and “minor” describe intervals that are relatively larger or smaller to each other.
Most of the time, we’re talking about the major or minor quality of thirds; “major thirds” vs “minor thirds.” Seriously, it’s like 80 to 90 Percent of the time. So let’s use thirds to illustrate…
Five minutes ago we learned that the interval C to E is a third because, say it aloud with me, “C,” “D,” “E,” takes three fingers to count. And now we’ll add that it happens to be major third because E is four half-steps away from C. Four half steps away; that’s a major third. Three half steps away to Eb— that’d be a minor third. (“away from” is not an inclusive count like intervals were. If “C” or wherever you’re starting is your thumb, don’t count your thumb when you’re counting half steps.)
Quick quiz, to see who’s paying attention:
Q: What’s C# to F?
Ans: You don’t know. And we’re not getting into it. It’s in the 20% we aren’t touching. BUT it’s got a C and an F in it, so it’s some kind of fourth. Cuz “C, D, E, F” is four fingers. Hit me up on twitter if you wanna get into it.
What is a major triad?
A major triad is a triad wherein the interval of the first two notes is a major third, and the interval of the other two notes is a minor third.
Example: C – E – G.
C to E is four half steps — an interval of a major third.
E to G is three half steps — an interval of a minor third.
This triad is a C major triad.
And the reverse is a minor triad — the minor third comes first, followed by a major third.
Example: A – C – E.
A to C is three half steps — a minor third.
C to E is four half steps — a major third.
This triad is an A minor triad.
This also means that if you take any major triad and lower the third, you change it to a minor triad. e.g. C major, which is spelled “C – E – G.” Lower the E to Eb, and you have changed it to a C minor triad. C – Eb – G.
Quick note about naming the chord. Triads are named for their root note, “C.” To calculate the root of a triad, we stack the three notes in thirds and name the chord for the bottom note.
Look again at those three notes in the C minor triad. Only one order will give you that stack of thirds, “C – Eb – G.” If you arrange them differently, you’ll create the interval of a fourth between the C and the G, for example.
What’s a major or minor scale?
No quicker way to say it than this: The major scale is Do-Re-Mi-Fa-Sol-La-Ti-Do.
The first note of the major scale, “Do,” might be ANY note and the other notes are determined relative to that “Do,” like this…
“Do” is wherever you want to begin.
“Re” is a whole step (two half steps) above “Do.”
“Mi” is a whole step above “Re.”
“Fa” is a half step above “Mi.”
“Sol” is a whole step above “Fa.”
“La” is a whole step above “Sol.”
“Ti” is a whole step above “La.”
“Do” is a half step above “Ti.”
Like the major triad, the major scale is mostly characterized by that major third (four half steps) interval between Do and Mi.
And a minor scale would be mostly characterized by lowering “Mi” by a half step. As often as not, we lower the notes “La” and “Ti” as well when we make minor scales. Sometimes we don’t. It’s still minor; it just sounds a little different.
(How much time left? A minute?)
What does “In the key of” mean? What chords go with what keys to make music that sounds good? What’s with the roman numerals? And what is “One-Four-Five” mean?
Gonna have to tackle all of these at once inside a minute.
Take any major scale. Example: C major scale.
That’s C – D – E – F – G – A – B – C. Those are the notes that are naturally in the key of C.
Then find all the triads you can make from those notes and thus the chords that are naturally in the key of C. Here come the roman numerals.
C E G (C major. The I chord.) (say “The ‘one’ chord.”)
D F A (D minor. The ii chord.) (minor chord = lower case roman numerals)
E G B (E minor. The iii chord.)
F A C (F major. The IV chord.)
G B D (G major. The V chord.)
A C E (A minor. The vi chord.)
B D F (B diminished. The vii chord.) Wait, what?! Ignore. Plough through.
C E G (C major. The I chord again.)
Exercise: Play a C chord for a bit. Let it establish itself like home base. Make it the context for the next chord you play. Play one of the others on the list. Hear it in the context of C. Now return to C.
As long as C is your context (that’s kinda what “in the key of” means) all of the other chords on our list should sound “good;” each with its role within the key. A little experimenting and those roles should reveal themselves and become familiar and useful.
By the way if you must know… that seventh one… the vii chord, that
B D F mess? That’s a minor third interval from B to D followed by another minor third from D to F, and we call this structure a “diminished” chord. A pair of major thirds would be an “augmented” chord. Don’t worry about either one, until you come across it in the wild. Then, somehow hopefully remember.
BONUS for fast readers who still have a minute: What’s transposition?
You can play any song in any key. You need only preserve the relative numberic relationships between the notes and chords, the ratios. That’s transposing in a nutshell.
C is to F as G is to C. Cm is to Fm as Gm is to Cm. (Did I mention the lower case “m” means “minor?”)
Let’s look at it one other way and cover that “What’s a ‘One Four Five?’” thing that I promised. Harlan Howard, a country music composer, famously described country music as “Three chords and the truth.” The three chords he was referring to were I, IV, and V.
Let’s imagine he wrote a song in Key of C. The song would contain only the three chords, C major, F major, and G major; and of course, the truth. If he wanted to play the same song in the key of D, that’s easy. One four five in the Key of D is “D,” “G,” and “A.” Wanna play it in Bb? No problem. One four five in the Key of Bb is “Bb,” “Eb,” and “F.”
Q: But it will sound the same?
A: Unless you’ve got perfect pitch, yes. And even if you do, close enough.