Many aspiring musicians get turned off to the thought of having to study a new technical concept. Don’t be one of these people! Learning Music Theory can actually be an enjoyable experience.
Learning Music Theory basics doesn’t have to take forever or even be an unenjoyable experience. Making small, consistent, progressive improvements over a short period of time can produce great results for your playing abilities.
Let’s chart out a quick plan as to how you can make great strides to improve your musical playing and understanding through learning a little bit about Music Theory each day for a few weeks. You won’t hate it, I promise. It doesn’t have to be like Math Class.
Here’s the plan:
- Intervals are (1 day)
- The Musical Alphabet (3 days)
- Scales (3 days)
- Chords (1 day)
- Chords in a Key (1 week)
- Using Scales and Chords to create Melodies (3 Days)
- Putting it all together and making music (every day for the rest of your life)
*Note: When I say (1 day, or 3 days), I don’t mean practice learning these topics for 24 hours straight for a day, or 8 hours uninterrupted. I’m saying to spend 1/2 to 1 hour a day really focusing on understanding the topic at hand. You’ll soon find that none of these disciplines are overly complicated.
If you get stuck on something, re-read the paragraph slowly a few times. If you need a more in-depth explanation of any topics below, see my in-depth Music Theory article. Here we go.
1. Learn what Intervals are (1 day)
Have you ever heard the term interval? It’s very simple to explain and understand. An interval in music is simply the distance between two notes. Intervals are used to explain the differences in pitch between any two notes in music.
Intervals are measured in half steps and whole steps. A half step is the distance between two adjacent notes. On a guitar fretboard, this would be two frets right next to each other. For instance, if you played a note in the 3rd fret of any string, and the played a note on the 4th fret of that same string, you will have played two notes that are a half step apart.
This applies to going up and down the neck (higher or lower in pitch) in either direction. If you played a note in the 3rd fret of any string and the played a note on the 2nd fret of that same string, you will have again played two notes that are a half step apart.
Now, whole steps. A whole step is simply two half steps. If you were to play a note on the 3rd fret of any string and then move two frets up or down the same string (1st fret or 5th fret) and play a note, you would have just played two notes that are a whole step apart.
As you learn more about music theory, you will continuously hear notes referenced in terms of whole steps and half steps. For instance, on the Low E string (the thickest string) of the guitar, the note found in the 5th fret is an A note. If you move one whole step higher on the neck, you will land on the 7th fret, which is a B note.
Move back to the 5th fret of the Low E string and then move up to the 8th fret you’ll find a C note. This interval distance is one and a half steps (three half steps).
Practice moving up and down the neck of the guitar for one day, counting whole steps and half steps until you get the concept of how these intervals are measured. You’ll find that it’s a straightforward concept to grasp.
2. The Musical Alphabet (3 days)
The Musical Alphabet is something you will just have to memorize. Much the alphabet that we use to form words and sentences. It won’t happen overnight, but with a few days of practice, you’ll have it down.
The Musical Alphabet:
- A# / Bb
- C# / Db
- D# / Eb
- F# / Gb
- G# / Ab
These are the notes found within the Musical Alphabet. Watch this quick video from Move Guitar Forward, explaining a little deeper about how these notes fall on the guitar neck.
*Note: Skip to the 2:21 point in the video. The beginning before that is a bunch of rambling… The rest of the video has good info though.
Did you notice that he talked about raising or lowering the pitch of a note a half step?
Spend a few days memorizing these notes along the fret. Focus first on the natural notes (no sharps “#” or flats “b“) and see how they relate to each other along the neck.
Here is a great diagram from guitariq.com displaying all of the natural notes along the guitar neck from the open strings to the 12th fret.
After three days of working through these notes along the fretboard, the notes will start to stand out at you when you place your finger on the fret. Pay special attention to the 5th and 6th strings (the Low E and A strings) as most chord shapes that you learn later on will be based on the note found in any fret along these two strings.
3. Scales (3 days)
Oh no! Not the dreaded scales!!! I know, it sounds like something you would be forced to learn in middle school choir class. And, if you don’t get it right when called on, the mean old Mrs. Grumpasnarls is gonna slap you on the wrist with a wooden ruler in front of the rest of the class.
Don’t worry, putting some effort into learning scales (particularly the Major Scale) is going to be one of the single best weapons you can add to your musical arsenal.
You are not going to understand everything about every scale in music after 3 days.
But, you can get your head wrapped around the basic gist of what they are and how to learn/memorize them within a few day’s work. Stick with it, and you’ll see that the effort is well worth it.
What is a scale?
A scale is simply a pattern of intervals. In this article, we will focus on the Major Scale, which is the scale that makes up the basic building blocks of all western music.
If a scale is a pattern, what is the Major Scale pattern? It is as follows.
- Whole Step
- Whole Step
- Half Step
- Whole Step
- Whole Step
- Whole Step
- Half Step
This pattern of intervals is something that you will want to spend a few days committing to memory. Just do it. It seems like it won’t provide much value to your playing when you don’t understand why or how you use it, but eventually, you will grasp the amazing musical power that comes with the concept.
To apply this scale (pattern) to a musical context, you will have to pick a note to start on. We will use the note G and the note D.
Check out this video from GuitarLessons on youtube that does a great job explaining the G major scale along the Low E string and the D major scale based on the 4th string or D string.
Practice these scales for three days. First, write down all of the names of the notes in each scale. Here’s a chart if you need some reference.
Notes in the G Major Scale:
- G (again/octave)
Notes in the D Major Scale:
- D (again/octave)
Now, challenge yourself. Try to find all of the notes in the A major scale based on the 5th or A string. After a few days of starting on a note and applying the major scale pattern, you’ll start to see how the scale gives you a consistent set of notes.
But, so what? What do you do with this set of notes?
4. Chords (1 day)
Now that we have figured out how to build scale and discover which notes fall within it, it’s time to put those notes to work. Let’s turn that scale into a usable chord.
To build a chord from a scale, we will extract the first, third, and fifth notes out of that scale and play them all together at the same time (or in harmony).
We’ll use our G major and D major scales listed above for this example. The G major scale contains the notes G, A, B, C, D, E, and F#. Let’s grab the first, third, and fifth notes out of the scale for our chord.
- first = G
- second = B
- fifth = D
So there we have it, our G major chord contains the notes G, B, and D. Not too complicated, right?
How about a D major chord? What notes are used to make it? We’ll have to find the first, third, and fifth notes within the D major scale.
What are they?
If you guessed:
- first = D
- second = F#
- fifth = A
Then you were totally correct! The notes D, F#, and A make up a D major chord.
Spend a day finding out what notes make up the major chords found within their respective major scales.
Here is a link to a list of all the major scales and the notes found within them.
Once you grasp the concept of how chords are made through building scales and extracting notes out of them, you’ll soon find that the process is not as overwhelming and confusing as it may seem at first glance.
Now, on to the next level….
5. Chords in Key (1 week)
So, we learned that 7 different notes fall within any particular major scale. Then, we learned how to build a chord out of those notes. Now, we will learn how to build out a chord for all 7 of those unique notes.
I wrote an in-depth article explaining how to build out all 7 chords found within any scale using the major and minor scale patterns.
The sections entitled Chords and Chords in a Key will thoroughly explain how to extract the notes and chords that make up any major key.
After a read-through of those sections, check out this video from Marty Schwartz to further expand your understanding of the Chords in a Key concept.
This concept does take some time to wrap your head around. That is why I allotted a one week period of practice and research time to get the concept into your head.
If you are struggling to understand, slowly re-read and re-watch the content from the links/video listed above until it starts to sink in. Just know this is the desired result.
In any major key the chords of every scale position will always fall in this exact order:
- first = major chord
- second = minor chord
- third = minor chord
- fourth = major chord
- fifth = major chord (dominant 7th chord)
- sixth = minor chord
- seventh = diminished chord (rarely used in modern music)
Work at this for a week. If you get frustrated and don’t understand, walk away from the material for a few hours or overnight and give it another try later on. Give your brain a little time to process the new concept. You’ll get it if you don’t give up.
6. Using Scales and Chords to create Melodies (3 Days)
The different melodies found within a given song provide the piece of music with its own unique sound. Melodies are the most memorable part of any song and are the true artistic creation a songwriter can provide to a listener’s ears.
How do we make them? The concept is really quite logical, actually. Take the notes found within a chord, play those notes along with other good sounding related notes while that chord is being played in a progression. Let me explain.
Let’s use a simple chord progression based out of the key of C major:
- C major (notes C – E – G)
- A minor (notes A – C – E)
- F major (notes F – A – C)
- G major (notes G – B – D)
As chord progression moves along throughout the song, you can use the notes found within the chords in your melody. If you strum out a C major chord and then either play or sing any of the notes in a C major chord, it will sound good to your/the listener’s ears.
When the progression moves to another chord, play or sing out notes found within that chord.
Check out this video from Music Matters that does a great job explaining how to write a simple, logical melody over a chord progression in the key of G major.
Spend three days working through this concept. Find ways to play the notes found within each chord as it is played in the chord progression.
You are now making music using your newly acquired music theory skills. This is where the real fun begins.
7. Putting it all together and making music (every day for the rest of your life)
If you have made it this far into the article, I am impressed. Most people would have given up before this point. Making music is NOT EASY. This is why we all find highly talented musicians to be so impressive.
This article’s intent is in no way meant to make you an expert in Music Theory in the 18 days of practice that is listed. It is meant to expose you to all of the basics to know what this whole music theory mystery is all about.
Listen to some songs that you know and love. See if you can apply some of the things you have learned in this article to help build a better understanding of why the songwriter choose the chords they did and what notes they used in the song’s melodies.
Keep working to build on your musical knowledge every day. Never give up. Remember, Rome wasn’t built in a day. Difficult endeavors take time a purposeful effort to improve. You’ve got this…