Introduction to basic music theory
Part 1: The major scale
When beginning your journey to learning music theory, we typically start learning the major scale. Think of the major scale as the default template for all other scales and modes. In other words, everything else and all other scales, including modes, are derived from the major scale which is why it is usually taught first. In western music, each scale consists of 12 notes, or as it is sometimes referred to as the cromatic scale, which is a fancy way of referring to all 12 notes.
When we first start learning major scales, we usually start with the key of C major and this is because the key of C major does not contain any sharp notes. Sharp notes are notes which are played one half step above the note which comes before it. It is important to realize that not all notes have sharpened counter parts. For example, the notes B and E do not have sharps associated with them. We can learn all of the major scales easily by using something called the circle of fifths. When we use the circle of fifths which we will explain below, we can learn all of the seven major scales from least number of sharp notes to the most number of sharp notes. You will see how this works in just a second.
The Circle of Fifths
The circle of fifths is essentially a big loop of notes that connect to and mirror each other. Each scale has a number of sharped notes, but they are not alphabetical. For example, The key of A does not have 1, b 2, c3, and so on. Rather, let me give you an example starting with C major.
Example: C Major
c, d, e, f, g, a, b, c
C major has no sharps. To find the next scale which begins using sharps, you count up five whole steps, or notes starting from the note you are currently on. So for example, if we are starting on C, count up five.
C, D, E, F, G
G major is the next major scale after C, and this is because it has only 1 sharp. to find out which note is sharp in G major, we count down 1 whole step from G. This means F, or F# is the sharped note in the key of G. The G major scale would look like this
G, A, B, C, D, E, F#, G
It is called the circle of fifths because it is cumulative. Each scale builds on another, for example after G, we have D, because D is the fifth whole note up from G and D has C# in it's scale because C is 1 whole note down from D. However, C# is not the only sharped note in the key of D, we also have F#, remember from G? So the D major scale looks like this:
D, E, F#, G, A, B, C#, D
G, A, B, C, D, E, F#, G
C, D, E, F, G, A, B, C
You will start to notice that the cycle of sharps start to follow the major keys. To show you this, the major keys go from C, G, D, A, E, B F. All that happened there was just counting up 5 notes, as we said from each key. But now look at the sharps here. F, C, G, D, A, E, B. Hmmmm, looks familiar, doesn't it. But why is F in the front and not after B in the cycle of sharps? Because the major key of C throws everything off. Another tip I need to give you is that when you get to the key of F Major, it starts on the black key F#, not F natural..this is because we've already used F in the key of B and it starts to overlap.
Things to remember
After reading this, you should have gotten the following basic concepts:
- To find the next major key from any key, you count up 5 whole notes.
- To find the sharp in the current key, count back 1 whole note.
- The sharps in any given scale are cumulative on each other, other than C which has none.
- Sharps and flats are the same thing, but when refering to a note being decremented down either a whole or half step it is said to be flattened. If a note is incramented either a whole or half step it is said to be sharpened. Many people use these terms interchangeably.
- the cycles of major keys and sharps will start to follow and build on each other and loop. This is why it is called the circle of fifths.
Part 2: Minor scales and Modes
In part one I showed you how to use the circle of fifths to find the notes of each major scale. But each scale has a related minor key as well. To find the relative minor of any major key, all you do is count back two whole steps, or notes from the major key. In the case of C major, the relative minor would be A, or A minor. The reason A minor is the relative minor of the C major scale is because it contains all of the notes of the C major scale, with the main difference being where you start and end the scale. Here is what I mean
C, D, E, F, G, A, B, C
A, B, C, D, E, F, G, A
You can use this formula for any major key. The relative minor of G major, would be E minor, for example, so the E minor scale would look like this.
E, F#, G, A, B, C, D, E
You may be asking yourself, "so if the relative minor key of any major scale are just the same notes of the major key but in a different order, can I start on any other note of the major scale and play that as a scale? Can I start on D and end on D while playing all of the notes of the C major or G major scales?" Well, in fact you can and doing this utilizes something called modes. Some folks may consider this advanced theory, but since we've already discussed how to find the relative minor, it only makes sense to ask the question of what would happen if you started on a different note. Each mode has a name as well as a unique feel which can add a different mood or flavor to your music. Let's take a look at the names of each mode using the C major scale as an example
- Ionian (Major scale): C, D, E, F, G, A, B, C
- Dorian: D, E, F, G, A, B, C, D
- Phrygian: E, F, G, A, B, C, D, E
- Lydian: F, G, A, B, C, D, E, F
- Mixolydian: G, A, B, C, D, E, F, G
- Aeolian (Minor scale): A, B, C, D, E, F, G, A
- Locrian: B, C, D, E, F, G, A, B
Things to remember
- You can find the relative minor key of any major scale by counting back 2 whole steps and is the sixth mode of the major scale.
- Each minor key contains the same notes of its respective major key simply by starting and ending on the minor key note as the root
- There are seven modes of the major scale including the major scale itself, each with their own name.
Part 3: Building Chords and chord types
After working with scales you can begin to start learning about chords. A cord is formed by playing several notes of a scale together. The 1st, 3rd and 5th notes of a scale will produce what is called a triad. Depending on the scale being played, certain notes may be flattened. the two basic types of chords are major and minor. A major chord triad is played using the first, third and fifth notes of the major scale, while a minor triad can be played by flattening the third note, or flat third, of the scale. Of course this is only the beginning as adding different notes of a scale to a chord shape can produce a variety of different chords which can be used together to produce chord progressions in a given key, be it major or minor.