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How To Learn Music Theory as a Total Beginner: Here’s What To Know

What comes to your mind when you hear “music theory”? Do you envision complicated sheet music or endless scales and chords? You might feel intimidated or overwhelmed by learning music theory as a beginner, thinking it’s for more “serious” musicians.

But here’s a secret: There’s nothing scary or exclusive about music theory! Just like any other language, once you understand its basics, the world of music will open up to you in ways you never thought possible.

Below, we’ve put together a beginner’s guide to help you get started on your music theory journey.

What is music theory?

Music theory is like the grammar and syntax of the musical language. It’s a set of rules, principles, and concepts that explain how melodies, rhythms, and harmonies work, making it easier for musicians to analyze, interpret, and create a piece of music. 

What are the basics of music theory?

You need a structured approach to learning music theory. The first step is understanding the fundamentals:

The major scale

The major scale is the building block of most Western music. It’s a collection of seven notes that create a specific pattern of intervals. The major scale is a series of half steps (H) (semitones) and whole steps (W).

A half step is the distance between two adjacent notes on a violin fingerboard, just like having two adjacent notes on a piano keyboard, while a whole step is equivalent to two half steps. Here’s the pattern for a major scale in terms of half steps and whole steps:

W - W - H - W - W - W - H

If we take C as our starting note, the notes in a C major scale would be: 

C - D - E - F - G - A - B

Keys

A key is a specific set of notes or scales that serve as the basis for a musical piece. Every key has a key signature (a set of sharps or flats) that tells you which notes are used in the scale.

Musicians use the Circle of Fifths (a visual representation of all 12 key signatures and their relative minor keys) arranged in a circle to help them understand the relationship between different keys and how they sound together.

Chords

Chords combine three or more notes (built from a single note called the root) that create harmony when played together. They can be major, minor, or diminished and have inversions to add variety and complexity. 

The most basic chord, the Tonic, is composed of the 1st, 3rd, and 5th notes of a scale. For example, the Tonic chord would be C-E-G in a C major triad. Other popular chords include:

  • Dominant (built on the 5th note of a scale)
  • Subdominant (built on the 4th note)
  • Relative minor (a minor chord built on the 6th note of a major scale)

Rhythm

Rhythm is the timing of musical sounds and is created by a combination of note durations, rests, and patterns. The most common rhythmic patterns in music are:

  • Quarter notes: Lasting one beat
  • Eighth notes: Lasting half a beat
  • Sixteenth notes: Lasting a quarter of a beat

Different combinations create unique rhythmic patterns and give each song a distinct feel. 

Dynamics

Dynamics refers to your performance's volume (loudness or softness) and how it changes throughout the piece. Specific markings indicate them on sheet music:

  • Piano (soft)
  • Pianissimo (very soft)
  • Forte (loud)
  • Fortissimo (very loud)
  • Crescendo (gradually getting louder)
  • Decrescendo (gradually getting softer)

This guides musicians on how to interpret the music and add emotion to their performance.

For example, a soft passage marked “pianissimo” can convey a feeling of intimacy or vulnerability, while a loud and intense crescendo can create tension and excitement in the music.

Why do musicians need to understand music theory?

Learning theory deepens your understanding and appreciation of music, helps you become a better musician, and unlocks new creative possibilities. How? Let’s explore further.

Standardized language for musicians

Musicians from all genres and backgrounds can communicate and collaborate seamlessly because they share a common language: music theory. 

This shared language gives musicians a framework to communicate, interpret, and create music effectively. It enhances collaboration, facilitates the understanding of complex compositions, and ensures that musicians from diverse backgrounds can work together and appreciate music within a common framework. 

Deeper understanding of how music sounds

When you have a good grasp of music theory, you can listen to a song and critically assess its structure, harmony, and melody to understand why it sounds the way it does. You can identify chord progressions, recognize key changes, and better appreciate their subtleties.

Easier learning process for new instruments

With knowledge of music theory, you can apply your understanding of scales, keys, and chords to any instrument, making it easier to learn and play.

For instance, if you already know how to play the piano, you can use your knowledge of scales and chords to learn the violin or guitar more easily. 

Looking to pick up a new instrument? Learn violin with expert teachers at Trala! Our Trala method  combines private 1-on-1 lessons with technology that uses signal processing technology to listen to your playing and provide real-time feedback, helping you learn faster and more efficiently. 

Better understanding of underlying musical structures

Songwriting becomes easier when you have a solid understanding of music theory. You can recognize common structures and patterns in music, such as the 12-bar blues or the AABA form, and use them to create unique compositions.

Improvisation, the art of creating music on the spot without pre-written notes, is also simpler when you understand the underlying musical structures.

More nuanced performances

Musicians who understand music theory can interpret dynamics, phrasing, and articulations accurately, adding nuances and expressiveness to their playing. For example, a guitarist who uses vibrato can add emotion and intensity to their solo. These subtle details elevate musical performances and make them more captivating to the listener.

How to learn music theory from scratch

When starting to learn music theory (or any new skill, for that matter), it’s essential to build a strong foundation before moving on to advanced topics. Trala teachers are highly qualified professionals who make your music theory course easy to understand, fun, and engaging through customized online violin lessons.

The Trala app offers real-time feedback to improve your playing. Follow this step-by-step guide to learn music theory from scratch.

1. Start with the basics of notation

Understanding the basics of notation, or the written language of music, is the first step to learning music theory. Notation includes the symbols, markings, and signs that tell musicians how to play written music. Elements to familiarize yourself with include:

  • Musical staff: A set of five horizontal lines and four spaces that represent different pitches
  • Note values: Symbols that show the duration of a note, such as whole notes, half notes, quarter notes, and eighth notes
  • Clef signs: They indicate the pitch range of the notes on a staff. The treble clef (𝄞), or G clef, is used for high-pitched instruments like the violin, while the bass clef (𝄢), or F clef, is used for low-pitched instruments like the cello.

The role of notation is to visually represent the music and guide performers on how to play a piece accurately. Think of it like a map that shows you where to go and how to get there.

2. Learn the musical alphabet

The first seven letters of the alphabet (A, B, C, D, E, F, and G) represent musical notes. These notes repeat in a cyclical pattern, so after G, we go back to A and continue on. 

However, not all notes are always played or written in their natural state. Sometimes, they are altered with sharps (#) or flats (b). These are called accidentals, and they change the pitch of a note by either raising it (sharp) or lowering it (flat) by a half step.

Understanding the musical alphabet is crucial for reading and interpreting sheet music accurately.

3. Recognize scales and key signatures

Musical scales are a sequence of notes arranged in ascending or descending order that form the basis of melodies and harmonies. The major scale consists of seven notes that follow a specific pattern of whole steps (W) and half steps (H). Starting on any note, you can use this pattern to create a major scale in that key.

Key signatures, represented by sharps or flats at the beginning of a staff, indicate which notes to sharpen or flatten throughout a piece. They also determine the tonal center, which is the main note or chord a piece revolves around.

4. Learn to identify and name intervals

Intervals, the distance between two pitches, help create melodic and harmonic relationships in music. They range from small intervals like minor seconds (one half step) to larger intervals like octaves (eight whole steps) and beyond.

Recognizing intervals helps you understand melodic and harmonic relationships in music, ear training, and transposing music.

5. Explore chords and harmony

You can build chords on any note of the scale, and they have different qualities (major, minor, diminished, or augmented) depending on their structure.

Seventh chords, for instance, add a new layer of complexity and are widely used in jazz. Extended chords are built upon 7th chords by adding additional notes, such as 9th, 11th, and 13th, resulting in richer, fuller sounds.

6. Grasp basic rhythmic concepts

Rhythm in music dictates the pace and flow of a piece and is a crucial element for understanding music production. Time signatures, the numbers at the beginning of a staff, indicate how many beats are in each measure (top number) and which note value receives one beat (bottom number). 

For instance, a 4/4 time signature means there are four beats per measure, and a quarter note receives one beat. Subdivisions divide each beat into smaller parts or counts. For instance, eighth notes divide each beat into two counts.

Syncopation, the accentuation of weak beats or off-beats, adds groove and rhythmic complexity to music.

7. Learn about functional harmony and chord progression

Functional harmony is a fascinating aspect of music theory that explores how chords work together to create movement and tension within a piece. 

A common chord progression you’ll come across is the II-V-I, where the second chord, or subdominant (IV), progresses to the dominant (V) and finally resolves to the tonic (I). This progression is frequently used in jazz, and understanding it can help you confidently improvise over a set of chords. 

Other popular chord progressions include the I-IV-V (referred to as the rock progression), the I-vi-IV-V (common in pop music), and the iii-vi-ii-V (famous in ballads).

8. Practice regularly using practical exercises

Regular practice reinforces theoretical concepts and helps develop a strong foundation for composing, improvising, and playing music. 

A great way to apply what you’ve learned is by working through workbook exercises, taking online quizzes, or using educational apps like Trala, which works alongside Trala lessons to provide interactive and fun exercises for learning music theory. 

Additionally, actively listening to music and identifying theoretical elements, such as intervals, chords, and rhythms, can improve your aural skills and make theory more tangible.

Work with Trala to master music theory 

Understanding music theory as a beginner opens the door to a world of possibilities in your musical journey. It can be intimidating at first, but with the right resources and regular practice, you’ll soon be able to read, write, and analyze with ease.

Trala is here to help with our customized lesson plans, world-class instructors, and interactive app that makes learning music theory fun and engaging.

Don’t let fear of theory keep you from becoming the musician you’ve always wanted to be. Sign up and take your first theory lesson with Trala today!

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