Music Theory For Beginners

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Music Theory For Beginners

Welcome to my crash course in musical theory, for beginners!

Here you you will find a more in depth analysis of popular musical theory, on topics which have been covered briefly in my videos, as well as some supplementary information which I consider useful at this level. We will cover the following topics;

• Basic chord and scale spellings
• Harmony of the major scale
• Natural minor scale
• Introduction to the concept of musical keys

The Major Scale – Scale Spelling

The major scale is the cornerstone of popular music. It can be thought of almost as the ‘home’ button on your smartphone. It is what everything goes back to, how we start a building process for each and every other scale or chord.

The major scale consists of seven notes, in a particular order. This order is the same for all major scales, in any key. When playing a major scale on the guitar, you will usually cover two full octaves. The scale formula for the major scale is as follows – Tone – tone – semitone – tone – tone – tone – semitone. It is this specific grouping of notes that provides us with the instantly recognisable sound of the major scale.

We can apply scale spellings to different scales. These can be thought of as formulas again, and we use them because we can simply apply a numbers system to any key – if we work with notes it can sometimes become messy. Instead we tend to apply a scale spelling, as this always remains the same. Scale spellings work by applying a number to each degree (each note), of the scale. We can also use these scale spellings to quickly construct chords. Lets take a look at the scale spelling of the major scale. We will work with C major, as this is the only key that has no sharps or flats.

Note C D E F G A B C
Number 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 1
If we were to change the key, we would keep the scale spelling the same. I will change our key to A major for example two, so you can see what I mean.

Note A B C# D E F# G# A
Number 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 1

We have 3 sharps now, but our major scale spelling remains the same. The reason for scale spellings becomes clear if we wish to alter a scale. Say for example, we would like to use an A natural minor scale. We can look up our minor scale spelling, which looks like this – 1, 2, ♭3, 4, 5, ♭6, ♭7. Lets apply this to our A major scale.

Note A B C D E F G A
Number 1 2 ♭3 4 5 ♭6 ♭7 1

You can see that by applying our scale spelling (or formula if you prefer), we have flattened the 3rd, 6th and 7th degrees of our major scale, which gives us A minor instead. Each scale has a different spelling, sometimes, extra sharps or flats, sometimes less of each. Sometimes, we even miss notes out, for example in pentatonic scales.

From these scale spellings, we can build chords. Our most basic triads (three notes played simultaneously) are built from a scale. If we want an A major chord, we would use the A major scale to build our triad, using notes 1, 3, and 5 – A, C# and E. The harmony of these three notes played together provides us with our chord.

For a minor version of our chord, we use the minor scale. This means our chord spelling alters slightly – we now use 1, ♭3, and 5 (A, C, E). This flattened third provides us with a sadder sounding chord, which you should easily be able to tell apart from its relative major chord. We call this process chord construction – it is literally how we build chords. As we introduce larger and more complex chords, so too do our constructions and spellings develop.

Harmonisation of the Major Scale

Harmonisation simply means building a chord from each degree of the scale. We are still only looking at the harmony of the major scale. If we start looking at other scales, the rules of harmonisation alter significantly. Harmonisation results in major and minor chords being formed, which fits in with the concept of keys. Each note corresponds to a chord. We will use C major again for our first example.

Our first chord will be C major – we start on the first degree (C), and add the 3rd and 5th degrees, giving us the notes C, E and G.

Next we move onto our second degree (D), and perform the same pattern of adding notes. This gives us the 2nd degree, followed by the 4th and finally the 6th, giving us D, F and A. Otherwise known as a D minor chord.

Repeat this process with each degree of the scale, until you have built yourself all seven chords. If you have done it correctly, you should have the following chords – C major, D minor, E minor, F major, G major, A minor and B minor. These chords, in this order, give us the harmonisation of the major scale. However, we have only harmonised the most basic triads. In the intermediate theory lesson, I’ll cover harmonisation further by looking at 7th chords.

Relative Minor Scale

What is a relative minor scale? Why is it different to a natural minor scale? The answer is that it is not different at all. It is simply a specific one that is relative to a major scale. Think of each major scale having a twin, or corresponding scale. Essentially what happens here is quite simple. We play a major scale, but we start from the 6th degree instead of the first. This changes the distance between the notes we play, so we hear it differently, even though we are playing exactly the same notes (even in the same order!), we just begin from a different point. Lets take a look, using C major and its relative minor scale.

Note C D E F G A B C
Number 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 1
We can see from this that the 6th degree gives us the note A. So lets play the scale through, starting from A.

Note A B C D E F G A
Number 6 7 1 2 3 4 5 6

The 6th degree of any major scale will tell us the relative minor scale. We can therefore say that the key of C major has a relative minor key of A minor. You may notice from earlier in this lesson that the minor scale can also be built by applying a new scale spelling to the A major scale. This is because all scale spellings are relative to the major scale. A relative minor scale is a different concept – it needs to come from a key we are already in.

Key Centres

Music usually comes in a diatonic form (diatonic literally translates through a key). A key will be cited at the start of a piece of written music if you are reading it. You can think of a key of a set of rules – the harmony for example. If you are trying to work out the key of a song, and you keep hearing a certain note (for example we will just say F#), you can use your knowledge of keys to work out you are likely to be in the key of G, or its relative minor, E. Below is a list of the first keys people usually learn. Work out their relative minors by finding out what the 6th degree of each one is. The first two have been done for you.

Key Notes Relative Minor
C major C D E F G A B C A minor
G major G A B C D E F# G E minor
D major D E F# G A B C# D
A major A B C# D E F# G# A

You’ll notice that each of these keys gains an extra sharp each time. Keys can have multiple sharps or flats. There are a total of 12 major keys, each with a relative minor.

This concludes our beginner theory section. You should now be comfortable with the concept of the major scale, be able to identify a relative minor key and scale, as well as harmonize the major scale and confidently build triads from it. The intermediate section will develop some of these ideas further as well as introduce some new principles.

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