Take Note: Music Theory Basics

While plenty of successful musicians learn to create music without theory, familiarizing yourself with just the basics can broaden your musical vocabulary and provide a whole new set of tools to experiment with and create from.

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Measures

A line of music is split up into measures, which are separated by vertical bar lines.

The measure is divided by a set of 5 horizontal lines and the 4 spaces between each line. This is known as the staff.

Clefs

Music is read left to right.

The first thing you’ll see on every line is a swirling symbol called a clef (coming from French for “key”), which determines the pitch of the piece.

  • Treble clef – Used for woodwinds, violins, and other instruments in the middle-high register
  • Bass clef – Used for cellos, trombones, bassoons, and other low register instruments.
  • Alto clef – Appears on the third line in the staff and is used exclusively for alto-trombone and viola
  • Tenor clef – Identical in appearance to the alto clef but is placed on the fourth line in the staff and used for the middle-high register of low instruments

Time Signature

The second thing you’ll see is one number on top of the other, which is known as the time signature.

The top note determines how many beats are in a measure, while the bottom note determines the type of note that gets one beat.

The Musical Alphabet

A note is any sound made by a musical instrument.

Every note has a letter name: A B C D E F G

When you reach G, you start back at A, which is still an A note but at a higher octave.

The same happens when you go backward down the alphabet; instead of stopping at A, you start back at G, F, E, and so on.

Between these 7 natural notes are 5 other notes known as sharps and flats. These are denoted by the sharp (♯) or flat (♭) symbol attached to the natural note.

A sharp is a half step higher, while a flat is a half step lower.

  • D♯ is a half step between a D and an E.
  • D♭is a half step between a C and a D.

Some notes may have a different name but actually have the same pitch. These notes are called enharmonics.

  • For instance, D♯ is actually the same pitch as an E♭.

Making Scales

A scale is a series of notes placed in sequential order to play in a certain key.

Most scales are presented as one octave. For example, the C major scale starts at C and goes up to the next C before coming back down.

The C major scale is the only major scale without any sharps or flats. To determine how many sharps or flats the other major scales have, refer to the circle of fifths.

Key Signatures

Next to the clef, you may notice sharp and flat symbols. This is the key signature.

The key signature indicates the key that the piece of music is in as well as the notes that should be played as sharp or flat.

You have one sharp on the 3rd empty space—which lines up with the C note—and one sharp on the 5th line—the F note. That means that all C’s and F’s in the piece of music are played sharp.

Looking back at the circle of fifths, you can see that the D major scale has two sharps, so the piece of music is played in the key of D.

Some songs change key midway.

Now put it all together to create rhythms, melodies, and harmonies!

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