Basic Music Theory for Beginners

Basic Music Theory for Beginners

What is music theory?

If you are not a musician or have never really studied music, then it may be rather a mystery. Basically, music theory is considered a practice that is used by musicians to help them understand and communicate with music.

Also included in music theory are the fundamentals of music. At the same time, music theory provides a recognized system for interpreting compositions.

As an example, music theory helps to define and explain elements such as rhythm, melody, and harmony. Moreover, this practice is used to identify certain compositional elements that may include:

  • The form of the song
  • Scales
  • Intervals
  • Tempo
  • Chords
  • Notes
  • Key signatures

Musical qualities like dynamics, timbre, pitch, and tone also may be defined and identified through the lens of music theory.

Clearly, music theory is a fundamental part of any musical education, but where do you begin?

Learning Music Theory

Before you even begin, it may be helpful to understand that music theory is a vast subject matter. Even if you studied it for a lifetime, you would always be stumbling upon new facets to discover. That's all right because that is one of the things that makes it so fascinating.

Begin your study by improving your grasp of the fundamentals of music. At their most basic, all musical compositions are built using three elements: harmony, melody, and rhythm.

Once you understand these basic elements, you are well on your way to understanding the rudiments of music theory.

Defining Harmony

The most basic definition of harmony refers to multiple notes being played simultaneously to produce a sound. Ordinarily, these combined sounds make a pleasing effect because they complement one another.

Perhaps you have heard people talk about "chords" in relation to music. A chord and chord progressions are examples of harmony in music. A chord simply is three or more notes that are played simultaneously. Chords and chord progressions are used in a composition as a support and complement to the tune's melody.

In addition to musical instruments, harmony can be created by combining various vocal parts. Think of the last time that you heard a choir sing. Their performance is a prime example of voices working in harmony.

It also is valuable to understand that harmonies do not always have to be pleasing, or consonant. Some composers like to use dissonant harmonies instead of in addition to more melodious harmonies.

Thus, a dissonant harmony puts together notes that do not necessarily have a charming sound when they are played simultaneously. A dissonant harmony may be used to increase tension or create an unstable chord. When the piece then moves on to a consonant harmony, the dissonance is resolved. Common examples of dissonant intervals include seconds, sevenths and ninths.

By contrast, a consonant harmony is stable and pleasant. The intervals used in the chord play well together, and they smoothly transition from one to the next in a sensible progression. Thirds, fifths, and octaves all are examples of consonant harmonies.

A composer may utilize both dissonant and consonant harmonies in their pieces to make their music more thought-provoking and interesting.

Defining Melody

When a succession of notes is arranged in a musical phrase, a melody is created. Even people who have not studied music are quite good at recognizing melodies. That's because the melody frequently is the most recognizable and memorable part of any musical piece.

Vocals or instruments may be used to play the melody. Usually, a melody has two or more notes played in a pleasing sequence. Multiple melodies, which can be repeated, are commonly used in a single composition.

Melodies are made up of two primary building blocks: pitch and rhythm. Pitch refers to an audio vibration that may be produced by either an instrument or a vocalist. Basically, pitch is how low or high a note sounds. When pitches are arranged in series, then a melody is created.

Rhythm describes the duration of sound for each pitch. A duration may be divided into whole notes, half notes, quarter notes, triplets and others.

Additionally, a melody may have a melodic motion that is either disjunct or conjunct. Disjunct motion refers to a section of the melody that has longer leaps between certain notes. A big interval leap may make a piece more difficult to sing or play, and it usually does not have a smooth sound.

Conjunct motion is defined by movement between notes by whole or half steps. This is a natural and comfortable motion for instrumentalists and vocalists because there are shorter leaps between the melody's notes.

Many pieces of music may utilize both disjunct and conjunct motion to add interest and contrast.

Defining Rhythm

Rhythm is so critical to music, that it actually has more than one definition. While rhythm may refer to a recurring movement of notes and silences, it also identifies a pattern containing weak and strong notes that may be repeated throughout a piece. Such patterns may be made by percussion instruments or vocals.

Musical rhythm consists of many component parts. These include:

  • Beat, or the repeating pulse underlying the musical pattern.
  • Accents, or the emphasis that is placed on certain notes.
  • Meter, or the song's pattern of weak and strong pulses.
  • Syncopation, or certain rhythms that accent the offbeat.
  • Time signature, or the number of beats per measure.
  • Tempo, which indicates how slow or fast a piece should be played.

Once you have a better understanding of rhythm, you'll be well on your way to creating harmonies and melodies.

Moving Forward

Once you have a grasp of these basic building blocks of music, then you can delve into additional subjects like musical notes and intervals.

For instance, you might discover that there is a music alphabet that forms all of the blocks from which music is written. Unlike the alphabet you are used to, this one is just seven letters long: A, B, C, D, E, F, and G. Each of these notes has its own pitch.

You also will learn that music consists of 12 keys. This is most easily demonstrated by looking at the piano keyboard. A key includes 12 notes, which are identified as A, A#/B♭, B, C, C#/D♭, D, D#/E♭, E, F, F#/G♭, G, and G#/A♭.

While still looking at the piano's keyboard, notice that there are black and white keys. The white keys are the natural notes, which are identified as A, B, C, D, E, F, and G. The black keys are the flat and sharp notes in the scale, or A#/B♭, C#/D♭, D#/E♭, F#/G♭ , and G#/A♭.

When talking about intervals, musicians are referring to the distance between two notes. Intervals are measured by the number of half steps or whole steps as well as where they fall within the scale.

For instance, a half-step interval is the equivalent of one semitone while a whole step interval is two semitones. Two half steps make up a whole step.

Why Learn About Music Theory?

When you study music theory, you are increasing your awareness of music. You may even enhance your capacity for creativity.

Once you understand more about how music works, you might be readier to take on the role of producer or write compositions.

While studying music theory isn't necessarily required, it may offer benefits such as improving your development as a musician or vocalist. This may make it easier for you to break through creative blocks when you are composing, especially because you will be better prepared to build chord progressions and melodies.

Even if you are not a songwriter or a musician, learning more about music theory is valuable because it will help you to understand music and notice patterns in the pieces that you listen to. You'll probably have a much deeper appreciation for music and its many moods.

Keep Learning with Prodigies

You can introduce your children to the basics of music theory through the fun and imaginative learning programs here at Prodigies. We cover all of the fundamental topics such as melody, rhythm, pitch, musical notes, and much more. Studies demonstrate that kids reap enormous benefits from early musical education, so get your little ones started today.


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