This will be the most essential 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,” which is just great, but it doesn’t mean we can’t or shouldn’t put music into words. Theory and musical terminology are what enable communicating beyond just, “I like jazz; I dislike rap; Oh that’s pretty; etc.” And as a forensic musicologist I need to be able to explain how music works to musicians and non-musicians and most often through the written word. I can’t always say, “here, please listen to this.” A whole minute spent on introduction and context.
In the next nine minutes, I’m going to give you the vital eighty percent of that language, and a whole bunch of music theory. It’s not perfect, but it might be the better part of a collegiate music theory class, and it’ll be more info than most people will ever exhaust. The terms I’m going to describe are in a specific order. I’m only going to explain each of them 80% of the way. The other 20% is exceptions to the rule type stuff that’s a waste of our valuable time for minimal gain. But take care to absorb the concepts I give you because the understanding of each term will enable understanding the next. Do not scan. Do not skip. Take them one by one, step by step, understanding as you go, and progress through the concepts. They start out boring and then explode into understanding at the end.
And it will help a ton if you can imagine a piano keyboard while you read. Thanks. Eight minutes more.
What’s a note?
A note is a frequency or pitch. If you’re by yourself, sing and hold the pitch steady. That’s a note. And no matter what pitch you sang, we can call that note by a letter name A, B, C, D, E, F, or G. The letter names cycle. The note that follows “G” is “A.” There is no “H.” (Notes also have duration, but we’re not concerned about duration 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 around; it’s not directional. Scales don’t need to contain exactly seven notes, but they usually do. Next…
What is an interval?
An interval is the distance between any two notes, You can count it on your fingers. For example, the notes A and E have an interval of five. Notice that we count the first note of an interval as, “one.” There is no zero. It’s an inclusive thing. So, on our fingers, A is one, B is two, E will be five. If we play the 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.”
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 because a “step,” sometimes a half, other times a whole, is the distance from one note in a scale to the next or to the former. “Half step” is the useful term here because it let’s us describe the precise distance between two notes, as in, “exactly how many piano keys away from “C” is “F?” It’s five half-steps away.
What are sharps and flats? Sounds important, but I might’ve skipped this if we didn’t have five whole minutes left to kill.
Picturing a piano? The sharps and flats are the black keys and you probably knew that. This being a theory lesson lets be at least minimally theoretical about it.
Music is presented 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.
Is E-sharp the same note as F? Yes, and nobody cares. We barely cared about sharps and flats in general.
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, a three note chord wherein there’s an interval of three between the first two notes, and also between the second two notes. Much more simply, just take stacks of three notes use every other letter name. ACE, BDF, CEG, DFA, EGB, FAB, and GBD.
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; a major pita that we will need to get through quickly. Firstly they describe intervals, and we will get a lot of mileage from just that. In the same way that sharps and flats tell us to raise or lower letter-named notes by one half step, “major” and “minor” describe intervals that are relatively larger or smaller to each other. 90% of the time, we care only about the major or minor quality of thirds, “major thirds” vs “minor thirds.”
Now we’re going to put things together into a couple of concepts that make nearly all the music we hear work.
Five minutes ago we learned that the interval C to E is a third because “C,” “D,” “E,” takes three fingers to count. And now I’m telling you it’s a major third because E is four half-steps from C. Four half steps away — that’s a major third. Three half steps away to Eb— that’s a minor third.
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 a 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.
What’s a major or minor scale?
No quicker way to say it than this: A 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 “Do,” thusly…
“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 the 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. Sometimes not. Still minor, just sounds a little different.
How much time left? A minute? Maybe two if you’re a fast reader?
What does “In the key of” mean? What chords go with what keys to make music that sounds good? And what’s with the roman numerals? And what is “One-Four-Five” music?
Gonna tackle all of these at once, and fast.
Take any major scale. Example: C major.
That’s C – D – E – F – G – A – B – C.
Then find all the triads you can make from those notes and thus the chords in the key of C.
C E G (C major. The I chord.)
D F A (D minor. The ii chord.)
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?? See below.
C E G (C major. The I chord again.)
The vii chord is B D F. That’s a minor third followed by another minor third, and we call this structure a “diminished” chord. A pair of major thirds would be an “augmented” chord. Don’t worry about either one, move on.
Transposition: Putting it all together.
You can play any song in any key. You need only preserve the relationships between the notes and chords. That’s transposing in a nutshell.
Harlan Howard, a country music composer, famous described country music as “Three chords and the truth.” The three chords he was referring to were I, IV, and V.
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. Want to play the same song in the key of D? 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 “Ab.”
Q: And it will sound the same?