Learn the basics of music theory in 12 steps
Step 1 Tempo and quarter notes
- this is a note named quarter note (1/4 - one quarter note)
Tempo is the speed at which a piece of music is played
The speed or the tempo can be measured in beats per minute (bpm) by metronomes. (Online metronomes can be used)
The tempo is indicated at the beginning of the piece this way:
Which means a quarter note (the note head with a stem) is played on each metronome beat, in this case, at the speed of the time seconds – 60 bpm (higher number indicates faster tempo)
Step 2 Bars and bar lines
Music is divided into bars by bar lines
The numbers of beats in each bar is specified at the beginning of the score by the time signature
The top number indicates the number of beats per bar
The bottom number indicates the value of the beat (1/4 note)
Repeat signs and volta brackets
The end repeat sign alone indicates a section is to be repeated from the beginning.
The end repeat sign with the start repeat sign indicate the section is to be repeated from the start repeat sign.
The repeated sections may have different endings which are indicated with numbered brackets above the bars called volta brackets (first ending is below bracket number 1, second ending is below bracket number 2 and so on).
Step 3 Notes and rests
We know that a quarter note is played on each metronome beat, a quarter rest is a silence for the same duration as the quarter note.
There are also longer and shorter notes and rests, each note has a corresponding rest:
The eighth (the head note with a stem and a flag) and shorter notes may be connected together with beams as shown above.
Dotted notes and dotted rests
The dot placed to the right of a note or a rest (dotted note or dotted rest) adds half of the duration of the note or the rest.
For example a dotted quarter note or a dotted quarter rest is held for one beat and a half; a dotted half note or half rest is held for 3 beats
The most common tuplet is the triplet
A triplet is a duration of a note divided in 3 equal notes
In the example above, in first bar, the duration of a quarter note is divided in a triplet (the 3 beamed eights with the number 3 above), in third bar the duration of a half note is divided in a triplet (the triplet of quarter notes grouped with a bracket and the number 3 above)
Other tuplets divides the duration of a note in 5, 7 (or other numbers) equal notes
Below are examples of notes and rests
First example shows the duration of a whole note divided in 2, 3, 4 and 5 equal notes and rests
Second example shows the duration of a half note divided in 2, 3, 4, and 5 equal notes and rests
Third example shows the duration of a quarter note divided in 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, and 8 equal notes and rests. The 1/4 time signature is unusual, it is used here for learning purpose.
Step 4 Dynamics
A sound can be either loud or soft
Step 5 The pitch and the keyboard
The pitch of a sound can be high or low
Each key from the keyboard has a different pitch (low or high), on the left side are the low notes and on the right side are the high notes.
Step 6 The staff and ledger lines
The staff is a set of 5 lines and 4 spaces
It is used to write the pitch of the note (the higher the pitch of the note the higher it will be on the staff)
The notes are written on the lines and spaces of the staff
These are line notes
These are space notes
Ledger lines are used to write notes above or below the lines of the staff
The direction of stems is down for notes on the middle line or above and up for those below
Step 7 Clefs
The clefs indicate the name and the pitch of the notes.
But first, lets identify the white keys on the keyboard
The treble clef (G clef) indicates where G4 is on the staff (on the line that passes through the curl of the clef)
The bass clef (F clef) indicates where F3 is on the staff (on the line that passes between the two dots of the clef)
Step 8 Accidentals (♯ ♭♮) and enharmonic notes
The accidentals are placed to the left of the note (on the same line or space as the note) and change the pitch of that note and any repetition of it in the same bar
The sharp (♯) raises the pitch, the next higher note is played instead
For example on the keyboard C♯ is the black key between C and D keys
The flat (♭) lowers the pitch, the next lower note is played
On the keyboard C♭ is B
The natural (♮) cancels previous accidentals
The sharps or flats placed after the clef (the key signature) raises or lowers the pitch of the designates notes in every octave throughout the piece.
The enharmonic notes are the notes that sound the same but are written differently on the staff, for example C♯ is enharmonic with D♭.
Step 9 Intervals
An interval is the distance between two notes
The intervals are named after the number of lines and spaces on the staff counted from the lower note to the higher note including both notes forming the interval.
The smallest interval is called semitone and it is the distance between a note and the next note (black or white, for example C-C♯ or E-D)
Augmented 4th (C-F♯) and diminished 5th (C-G♭) are enharmonic intervals, they sound the same but are written differently on the staff.
When two or more notes are written on top of each other (except the 2nds which are written differently as shown above), they are to be played together at the same time
Step 10 Scales and keys
The key of a piece is a specific group of 7 notes which are used to compose a musical piece (simple pieces may use only the set of 7 notes or less, more complex pieces may use other notes besides the set of 7 notes)
The key of a piece may be either major or minor
Below are the notes of the key of C major, they are arranged in ascending order (from low to high pitch) or ascending scale (the ascending order or descending order of a set of notes is the scale)
Below is a scale in the key of A minor or The A minor scale
The most important note in a key is the keynote or the tonic which is C in C major and A in A minor.
Both keys share the same notes and are called relative keys, the difference between relative keys is the tonic.
Relative keys are 3 semitones apart, the minor tonic is 3 semitones below the major tonic. (For example A minor is 3 semitones below C major)
12 major keys and 12 minor keys are possible (on each of the 12 notes)
Each major key has a unique key signature (except C major) and a relative minor key
A key signature is a set of sharps or flats placed after the clef, which raises or lowers the pitch of the designates notes in every octave throughout the piece.
The key signature has a specific order of sharps or flats.
The order of sharps is: F♯-C♯-G♯-D♯-A♯-E♯-B♯
For example if there are 3 sharps in a key signature, the sharps will be F♯-C♯-G♯ every time.
The order of flats is: B♭-E♭-A♭-D♭-G♭-C♭-F♭ (the order of the sharps in reverse)
Relative keys share the same key signature
There are other scales than major or minor scales, for example the chromatic scale or the semitone scale is the set of all 12 notes (7 white keys and 5 black keys on keyboard)
Step 11 The circle of fifths
The circle of fifths is the representation of all keys, their key signatures and the relationship between keys
The circle is divided in 12 sections, in each section are placed a major key (on the exterior of the circle),
the relative minor key (on the interior of the circle)
and the number of sharps or flats in the key signature of the relatives keys (between the relative keys)
C major (which has no key signature) is placed on the top of circle of fifths, on the right side of the circle are placed the keys with sharp key signatures and on the left side of the circle are placed the keys with flat key signatures.
On the bottom of the circle, opposite to C major, are placed the enharmonic F♯ major and G♭ major keys which have 6 sharps and 6 flats key signatures
The enharmonic keys sound the same but are written differently on the staff
From the C major moving clockwise in ascending fifths a sharp is added to each key.
For example the 3rd key from C (A major) has 3 sharps key signature.
From C major moving counterclockwise in descending fifths a flat is added to each key.
Step 12 C major chord and arpeggio
A chord is a group of two or more notes that are played together in the same time.
The three note chord is also called a triad
The C major triad is formed from the first, third and fifth notes of the C major scale.
The first note of a scale is called the tonic or the root (R)
The other notes of the scale are given numbers according to their position in the scale.
Below is the C major triad (R35) in the root position
The same triad can be played in inverted positions, two inversions are possible:
First inversion (35R) and second inversion (5R3)
An arpeggio is a chord in which the notes are played in a rising or descending order
Below are C major arpeggios in all three positions (Root position, first inversion and second inversion)