presents:

Music Theory 101

by:

Mike Philippov

 

 


mike@mikephilippov.com
www.mikephilippov.com
www.thenextstepguitar.com


Many Guitarists spend hours learning to play better. They may spend countless hours practicing advanced lead guitar techniques in hopes of someday becoming a virtuoso. While doing this is great, there is one area of musicianship that is commonly neglected by aspiring guitarists and musicians in their quest to become a better player. That area is Music Theory. That’s right, I said music theory. This subject is often avoided simply because it can be too confusing especially for beginners. And that part is true, it is possible for music theory to become an overwhelming topic IF things are presented out of order or not applied properly. In this master class I hope to teach you the fundamentals of music theory that will greatly help you in your quest to become a better musician, songwriter and improviser.

First lets answer a question: why should anyone even bother learning music theory? Why is it necessary? Well, let me answer this question with a couple of questions of my own such as: Have you ever written a really cool sounding riff, but then wondered how you could develop it into a finished song? Or have you ever tried to improvise over backing tracks (even if you know what scales you were supposed to play) but still had trouble getting your solos to sound convincing? The answer to both of these problems is to increase your understanding of how music works. By understanding the fundamentals such as intervals and how they are combined to form scales and chords you will find your musical options expanding greatly. Improvising will now become much easier because you will know exactly what notes are in what keys you are playing (and as daunting as it might sound it actually isn’t much trouble to memorize the notes in most keys once you understand a few simple tricks)

Hopefully with the points above I have convinced you to stick around and check out the rest of this master class. We will begin with the basics and build up from there. So lets get started!

The first topic we must address is intervals. The following description of Intervals is an excerpt from my book: “The Next Step: Serious Improvement for the Developing Guitarist

Intervals

Intervals are the most fundamental building blocks of ALL music. What is an interval? Simply put, it is a distance between two notes. When two notes are played separately (as you would play when playing a melody), the interval is called a melodic interval. When two notes are played together (as you would play when strumming a chord), it is called a harmonic interval.

Below you will find descriptions and names of all of the possible distances. The names might seem a little bit overwhelming right now, but you don’t need to spend a lot of time memorizing them. The most important thing is to become aware of them and apply the knowledge to your own music. Before we begin, remember that a “half step” equals one fret on the guitar and a whole step equals 2 frets.

• When two notes are 0 half steps apart (you are playing the same note twice) this “interval” is called a Unison.
• When two notes are a half step (one fret) apart, the interval is called a Minor 2nd
• When two notes are 2 half steps (one whole step or 2 frets) the interval is called a Major 2nd
• When two notes are 3 half steps (one and a half whole steps or 3 frets) the interval is called a Minor 3rd
• When two notes are 4 half steps (two whole steps or 4 frets ) the interval is called a Major 3rd
• When two notes are 5 half steps (two and a half whole steps or 5 frets ) the interval is called a Perfect 4th
• When two notes are 6 half steps (3 whole steps or 6 frets ) the interval is called a Tritone
• When two notes are 7 half steps (3 and a half whole steps or 7 frets ) the interval is called a Perfect 5th
• When two notes are 8 half steps (four whole steps or 8 frets ) the interval is called a Minor 6th
• When two notes are 9 half steps (4 and a half whole steps or 9 frets ) the interval is called a Major 6th
• When two notes are 10 half steps (5 whole steps or 10 frets ) the interval is called a Minor 7th
• When two notes are 11 half steps (5 and a half whole steps or 5 frets ) the interval is called a Major 7th
• When two notes are 12 half steps (6 whole steps or 12 frets ) the interval is called an Octave.


You don’t need to become overwhelmed with the names of each interval, however you will benefit greatly by spending a few minutes during each practice session playing each interval and getting used to its sound and trying to match up the name with the sound of it in your head. Eventually, you want to get to the point of hearing an interval and being able identify it without touching the guitar. There are several online interval ear trainers that you can use that are free. Check out one at www.musictheory.net And also I recommend checking out this article: http://tomhess.net/articles.php?article=8 on the subject of ear training.

We are going to leave the intervals alone for a moment (we will come back to them soon enough) and now its time to discuss another important topic which is the musical alphabet.


The Musical Alphabet

There are 7 notes in the musical alphabet. They are A B C D E F and G. They are separated by half steps and whole steps. On the guitar, the distance of one fret is equivalent to one half step and the distance of 2 frets is equal to one whole step. Notes A and B, D and E, F and G are separated by a whole step. I excluded notes B and C, and E and F because the distance between these two pairs of notes is a half step. In other words, they are one fret apart on the guitar fret board. In the illustration below you can see the notes on the fret board. Notice that as I’ve described notes A and B, D and E, F and G are a whole step (distance of 2 frets on the guitar) and notes B and C as well as E and F are a half step apart (distance of 1 fret on the guitar)


You may be wondering why some of the frets are not filled in with note names. For example, what is the name of the note on the 5th string first fret? This note can actually have two different names. Remember that it is a half step lower than the note on the second fret and half step higher than the note of the open string (or zero fret). It can have two names depending on the context. If we look at the note at the first fret as being a half step lower than the note on the second fret (which is a B). This means that we should have a name that describes the note at the first fret as being “a half step lower than B”. We use a flat sign (b) after a note name to mean “a half step lower than that note. In our example, one possible name for a note at the 5th string first fret is a Bb (pronounced “B flat”)


Here is how it would look on a diagram:

However this note (Bb) is also a half step higher than the note of the open string A. So another name for the note at the first fret of the A string is something that says “a note that is a half step higher than A” We use a sharp sign (#) after a note to mean “a half step higher than that note” In our example, another possible name for a note at the 5th string first fret is an A# (pronounced “A sharp”) Here is how this looks on a diagram.


This principle for naming notes applies to the other pairs of notes that are a whole step apart (F and G, and D and E). So a note between F and G can be called F# or Gb, and a note between D and E can be called D# or Eb. These different names for the same note are called enharmonic. In other words, even though a D# and Eb sounds the same pitch, the names for the same note may be different depending on the musical context. For now, simply remember that both names (using sharps or flats) can be used. So the whole fret board can look either like this (with flats used):


Or like this (with sharps used as accidentals):


Notice that in the above diagrams I have only included notes up until the 12th fret. This is because the notes at the 12th fret are exactly one octave higher than the notes of open strings and therefore, the notes of frets 13-24 are EXACTLY the same as notes on frets 1-12. Here is a diagram of the fret board of frets 12-24.



So now the question is: how should you go about memorizing all of these notes on the guitar? And is this even necessary? The answer to the second question depends on how good of a musician you aspire to become. If you want to learn to write original music and/or learn to improvise, then knowing the fret board is essential. If your goals are more modest, then this will not be as much of a priority but you can still ONLY BENEFIT from taking the time to learn the notes. So no matter what your goals are, there are only good things to be gained by investing the time into learning your way around the fret board.

There are many ways of going about learning this skill. The first step is to memorize the names of the open strings and the tuning reference notes on each string! This is important to do anyway so that you are able to tune properly if you don’t have a tuner handy. So first you need to remember the open strings (EADGBE) and remember also that the E string at the fifth fret is the same note as the A string open and that the A string at the fifth fret is the same as the D string open and so on. Memorizing that alone will give you great reference points on each string. Since you know that the note on the fifth fret of the E string is an A you can also quickly figure out that the 6th fret is a B flat followed by B on the 7th fret and C on the 8th fret and so on.

Another good thing to do is to ask yourself anytime you play a passage on the guitar: “What notes did I just play?” The more you do this, the faster you’ll be able to figure out the notes.

You can also tackle groups of notes one position at a time. One position spans four frets (one finger per fret stretch). So if you position your index finger on fret 5, your middle on fret 6, ring finger on fret 7 and pinkie on fret 8, you would be playing in the fifth position. If you moved your hand up so that your index was on the 6th fret, you would be in the sixth position and so on.

You can also practice testing yourself by randomly thinking in your head things like: “What note is the G string 5th fret?” Since you already know (think back to the tuning reference notes) that the note on the fourth fret is a B, the fifth fret has to be a C. Also the note on the fifth fret of the G string is the same as the note on the B string first fret. (note C) Likewise note Bb on the E string 6th fret is the same as the note on the A string 1st fret and so on.
The important thing to remember is that learning the note on the fret board takes TIME. Feel free to experiment with creating your own methods for memorizing the notes. Just do not forget that the MOST important thing when it comes to a skill like this is consistency. With practice and experience you will eventually get to the point where you can look at any note on the guitar and think of its name on the spot. Just do not forget to practice this skill on a daily basis even when you are away from the guitar.


Now lets introduce the subject of keys. When a song is said to be in a particular key (for example: A major, E minor, C# minor etc…)it is meant that the notes of a particular scale are used to in the song. So if a song uses the notes and the chords of the F major scale (for example) it is said to be in the key of F major.
There are two main types of scales that 99% of music is based on and they are Major and Minor. While many other scales exist, they are simply variations of Major and Minor (with some notes removed or altered). The major scale is built by relying on a specific formula of intervals. This formula is Whole step, Whole step, Half step, Whole step, Whole step, Whole step, Half step. We will abbreviate Whole steps with a “W” and Half steps with an “H” So again the formula for the major scale is:


WWHWWWH

Below you can see an illustration of a C major scale on one string. Notice that the intervals between the notes follow the WWHWWWH formula.

 

 


So if you started on note C and went up a whole step you would get note D, another whole step would give you E, a half step up will get you to note F, a whole step up will arrive to G, another whole step A, another whole step will get you note B and finally going up by a half step you will return to C again. By following the above major scale formula starting from any note, you have derived a major scale (in this case C major) Here are the notes again:


C D E F G A B C
W W H W W W H

This pattern works for any scale. For example, here is a G major scale:


G A B C D E F# G
W W H W W W H


So if you want to figure out any major scale starting from any Root ( a “Root” is the first note you start the scale on; this word is the same as the word “Tonic” and these terms can be used interchangeably), you simply have to apply the WWHWWWH formula to obtain the rest of the notes.

The notes within the scale are often referred to as scale degrees. Very simply, they are labeled with Arabic numerals 1 through 7. This is done to give a more general system of labeling to notes within scales (much like the Roman numerals for chords). Scale degrees in EVERY major key function in the same way, its only the notes that change depending on the particular scale (again just like the Roman numerals). So the formula for the major scale using scale degrees is very simply: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7. This concept will become more important, more relevant (and more clear) later on.

Now lets go back to the subject of keys. Consider the scales below:

 

The "Sharp" Major Scales
The "Flat" Major Scales
C D E F G A B C
C D E F G A B C
G A B C D E F# G
F G A Bb C D E F
D E F# G A B C# D
Bb C D Eb F G A Bb
A B C# D E F# G# A
Eb F G Ab Bb C D Eb
E F# G# A B C# D# E
Ab Bb C Db Eb F G Ab
B C# D# E F# G# A# B
Db Eb F Gb Ab Bb C Db
F# G# A# B C# D# E# F#
Gb Ab Bb Cb Db Eb F Gb



If you look down through each column, you will notice that with each new scale the number of sharps (or the number of flats) seems to increase by one. For example: G major has one more sharp than C major(which actually has none) and D major has 1 sharp more than G major etc… Likewise the F major scale has one more flat (again, C major has no sharps or flats) and Bb major has one more sharp than F major etc…

Notice another thing: the roots of each scale (the note that each scale begins on) are related to each other by an interval of a perfect fifth. The result is what is called a “Circle of Fifths” and it looks like this:

Image is from (http://www.smu.edu/totw/keys.htm)

Here is how to read the circle of fifths: at the top is the key of C major which has zero sharps or flats. If you go to the right (clockwise), you would be going up by an interval of a fifth. The next key is G major(which has 1 sharp) and it happens to be the interval of a fifth above C. The next key (after G) is D major (which has 2 sharps) and it happens to be the interval of a fifth above D. Are you catching on to the pattern?

Now if you were to go counterclockwise down the circle of fifths, you get the “flat” keys. So the first key to the left of C is F major (which is a perfect fifth below C and contains one flat). The next key after that is Bb major (it is a fifth below F) and it contains 2 flats. The pattern continues in this way all the way around the circle. The circle of fifth is a useful tool for memorizing keys and the number of accidentals in each key.

You might be wondering what the deal is with the minor keys that are written in lower case letters below the major keys. Do not worry about them at the moment. We will explore the minor scales soon enough and everything will make sense then.
Now its time to talk about how the chords within the scale (and chords in general) are built. We will be dealing with 3 types of chords in this section: Major, minor and diminished (technically there is another type of triad called the “augmented” triad but we won’t get into it here). A major chord is built by taking scale degrees 1 3 and 5 from the major scale that begins on the same root. This means that if you want to build a C major chord (for example), you have to look at the C major scale. So using our WWHWWWH formula we get notes C D E F G A B C. Next, we will use the labeling system of scale degrees to label each of the notes of the scale.

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

So if we take scale degrees 1 3 and 5 of the C major scale, we get notes C E G. These are the notes that make up a C major chord.


C major chord

Important note: Most of the time (especially in guitar based music) you will be playing more than the 3 notes themselves. If you simply strum chords on the guitar, it seems natural to use all 6 strings. Therefore some of the notes in a chord (in our example in C major the notes again are C E and G) can be doubled. That means you can have more than one C, and/or more than one E and/or more than one G
Lets do another example to find the notes of an E major chord. The E major scale contains notes: E F# G# A B C# D# E. Labeled with scale degrees the scale would look like this:

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

So if we take scale degrees 1, 3 and 5 of the E major scale, we get notes E G# B. These are the notes making up an E major chord.

E major chord



Are you catching on to the pattern? So if you need to figure out how to build a major chord starting on any note (Root) simply write out a major scale starting on that note and find scale degrees 1, 3 and 5. Experiment with this on your guitar by playing some simple open position chords that you know (such as C major and E major) and ask yourself, “What notes am I playing” You will find that the notes of the C chord are C E G (as described above) and the notes of the E chord are E G# B (as described above)


Lets do another example in the key of D major. The major scale contains notes D E F# G A B C# D. Labeled with scale degrees, it would look like this:

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

 

Taking scale degrees 1, 3 and 5 of the scale we get notes D F# A. These notes are the notes of the D major chord.


D major chord



If you understand how the major chords are built, then understanding the construction of minor chords will not be difficult. The difference between a major and minor chord is that in minor, scale degree 3 is lowered a half step (becoming b3). So the formula for a minor chord is 1 b3 5. In our earlier example in D major, we had the following:

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


Scale degrees 1, 3 and 5 (notes D F# A) give us a D major chord. If we lowered the 3rd of the D major chord we would end up with notes D F and A

D minor chord


Important note: The rule with doubling notes applies in the same way to minor chords (and any other chord). Therefore some of the notes in a chord (in our example in D minor the notes again are D F and A) can be doubled. That means you can have more than one D, and more than one F and more than one A
Lets repeat the above process to get an E minor chord. We need to first look at the notes of the E major scale which are:

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

 

Next we need to take scale degrees 1 b3 5 once again. This gives us the notes E G B, the notes of the E minor chord.

E minor chord


The next chord we are going to look at is the diminished chord. It is built by taking scale degrees 1 b3 and b5 of the major scale. So going back to our C major example, we already know that scale degrees 1 and b3 would be notes C and Eb. To get scale degree b5, all we need to do is take a look at the regular scale degree 5 (note G in C major) and lower it a half step to make a Gb. So the notes in a C diminished chord would be C Eb and Gb.


C diminished


Lets look at how we would form an E diminished chord. First, we will need the scale degrees of the major scale. We already know that scale degrees 1 and b3 would be notes E and G (refer to the previous page for detailed explanation if you need to review). In order to get scale degree b5, we need to (as we did in our C major example above) to look at the regular scale degree 5 (note B in the key of E major) and lower it a half step. So we would end up with the note Bb. So an E diminished triad has the notes E G and Bb.


E diminished:

The last chord we will discuss is the chord that is commonly referred to as the “Power Chord”. It is very simple to build and even simpler to play and it is used all over the place in rock music. To build a power chord from any root, you have to look at the major scale starting from that note and take scale degrees 1 and 5. So using C major as an example, the notes once again are:


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


Scale degrees 1 and 5 are notes C and G. So these are the notes making up a C power chord. Watch the diagram below:

C power chord (C5)


Note: in a power chord, the Root is typically doubled. So in the case of a C power chord above, you have two C notes and one G note. Also note that this position is movable so you can move it down or up the strings to get different power chords. Another word of advice is to play them with distortion using palm muting with your right hand. Power chords are rarely played using clean tone or using an acoustic guitar as they generally sound best in a rock/heavy metal context on a distorted electric guitar using the bridge pick up. Also note that power chords are also called 5 chords such as A5, E5 or C5.


Here are some more diagrams of common power chords. Again, keep in mind that they are really built using one basic shape that is movable all over the fret board (notice the fingering and the position of the shape of the G power chord and the B power chord for example)


                 E Power Chord
                 A Power Chord

 


                D Power Chord
                 G Power Chord

 

 

B Power chord


Lets now shift our discussion to the minor scales. There are actually 3 types of minor scales (natural, harmonic and melodic). We will focus on the more common scales here which are the natural and harmonic minor. Lets begin with the natural minor scale.
You can think of the natural minor scale in several different ways. One way of thinking of it is that some of its scale degrees are different than those of the major scale starting from the same root. Here is what this means: lets say you are playing an A major scale using the notes below:

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

Now, to get the A natural minor scale we need to lower scale degrees 3 6 and 7 making them b3 b6 and b7. In other words, we get the following notes (in the A natural minor scale)

A B C D E F G
1 2 b3 4 5 b6 b7


Notice another curious detail. Notes of the A natural minor are EXACTLY the same as those of the C major scale (C D E F G A B C) with the only difference being that the minor scale starts on scale degree 6. This unique relationship between a major scale and a natural minor scale starting on that major scale’s scale degree 6 is going to become very important later. In fact there is a special term for this relationship that is used in music theory. The A minor scale is said to be the relative minor of C major. And vice versa C major is said to be the relative major of A minor. Look back at the circle of fifths again, is it making more sense now?
Here are a couple of more examples. Lets take the B major scale. Its notes are:

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

Now, to turn the above major scale into a minor scale, we need to lower scale degrees 3 6 and 7. So in other words we need to take notes D# G# and A# and lower them by a half step, turning them into notes D G and A. So the notes of the B natural minor scale become:

B C# D E F# G A
1 2 b3 4 5 b6 b7


Notice also, that this minor scale contains the EXACT same notes as the D major scale (D E F# G A B C# D) except that it is starting on scale degree 6. So you can say that B natural minor is the relative minor of D major, and that D major is the relative major of B minor.
Lets do another example using the G major scale. Here are the notes:

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


In order to form a G natural minor scale, we will need to take scale degrees 3 6 and 7 once again, and lower them by one half step. So we will need to take notes B E and F# and lower them to get notes Bb Eb and F. So the notes of the G natural minor scale become:

G A Bb C D Eb F
1 2 b3 4 5 b6 b7

Notice also, that this minor scale contains the EXACT same notes as the Bb major scale (Bb C D Eb F G A Bb) except that it is starting on scale degree 6. So you can say that G natural minor is the relative minor of Bb major, and that Bb major is the relative major of G minor.
The above process works for every scale. So from now on, if you want to find the relative minor scale from any major scale, all you have to do is look at that major scale’s scale degree 6. Go back to the circle of fifths picture again and look at how the minor scales are derived from the major scales.

Now lets turn our attention to the harmonic minor scale. There is only one note difference between natural minor and harmonic minor. The difference is scale degree 7. In natural minor, you would lower that scale degree (to make it b7) however in harmonic minor you keep the same scale degree 7 as it is in the relative major. Here is an example in the key of A.

 

A natural minor
A B C D E F G
1 2 b3 4 5 b6 b7

 

A harmonic minor
A B C D E F G#
1 2 b3 4 5 b6 7

The harmonic minor scale and natural minor scales have the same relative major scale. In other words, the relative major of A minor (natural, harmonic) is still C major.

Armed with all of this information, we can now explore how chords are grouped into keys. I will give you a brief summary here, if you are interested in a more in depth explanation, check out my book The Next Step: Serious Improvement for the Developing Guitarist. for a much more in depth description of chords (among many other important topics for a developing guitarist).


Anyway, here we go:

Below are the chords in the most common keys. They are given a general system of labeling using Roman Numerals. There are seven chords that belong in each major or minor key and each one is labeled with a specific Roman numeral. In other words, the first chord in the key is given a Roman numeral I, the second is labeled ii, the third iii, the fourth is labeled IV, the fifth V, the sixth vi and the seventh viio. Major and minor chords are distinguished by writing the Roman numeral for the chord either in upper or lower case respectively. In other words, all major chords (I IV V) get an upper case Roman numeral and the minor chords (ii iii vi) get a lower case Roman numeral. The diminished chord is given a lower case Roman numeral with a degree symbol (viio). You will see this type of labeling system in the future.

Try coming up with some progressions (to play a progression simply means to play several chords together with one following the other) using the chords below. For now all you need to know is that these chords belong to their respective keys and if you play a combination of chords from a specific key there is a good chance that they will sound good together. Also remember that when you play the V chord in any major key progression, the I chord most often follows. The same applies to the viio chord (the I chord often follows it). This is a very basic way to think about it but for right now I am sure you have your hands full just learning to change between the chords smoothly. Make sure you follow the technical tips, watch the video examples (as many times as you need to) and keep practicing! Also try to memorize these chord fingerings so that playing them will become automatic (you will find that these chords are used A LOT in guitar based music)

Key of C Major

 

                 C major I
                 D minor ii
                 E minor iii
     
                 F Major V
                 G Major V
                 A minor vi
     
 
                B diminished viio
 
 
 




Key of G Major

                 G major I
                 A minor ii
                 B minor iii
     
                 C Major V
                 D Major V
                 E minor vi
     
 
                F# diminished viio
 
 
 

 



Key of D Major

                 D major I
                 E minor ii
                 F# minor iii
     
                 G Major V
                 A Major V
                 B minor vi
     
 
                C# diminished viio
 
 
 

 

Key of A Major

 

                 A major I
                 B minor ii
                 C# minor iii
     
                 D Major V
                 E Major V
                 F# minor vi
     
 
                G# diminished viio
 
 
 

 

Key of E Major

                 E major I
                 F# minor ii
                 G# minor iii
     
                 A Major V
                 B Major V
                 C# minor vi
     
 
                D# diminished viio
 
 
 

 


F Major

               F major I
                 G minor ii
                 A minor iii
     
                Bb Major V
                 C Major V
                 D minor vi
     
 
                E diminished viio
 
 
 

 

Here are some very common chord progressions you can try:

In the key of C major:

Progression 1
C major(I) F major(IV) G major(V) C major(I)

Progression 2
C major(I) F major(IV) D minor(ii) G major(V) B diminished(viio) C major(I)

Progression 3
C major(I) D minor(ii) E minor(iii)G major(V) C major(I)

In the key of D major:

Progression 1
D major(I) G major(IV) A major(V) D major(I)

Progression 2
D major(I) G major(IV) E minor(ii) A major(V) C# diminished(viio) D major (I)

Progression 3
D major (I) E minor (ii)F# minor (iii) A major (V) D major (I)

In the key of E major:

Progression 1
E major(I) A major(IV) B major(V) E major(I)

Progression 2
E major(I) A major(IV) F# minor(ii) B major(V) D# diminished(viio) E major(I)

Progression 3
E major(I) F# minor(ii) G# minor(iii) B major(V) E major(I)


Okay, wasn’t that fun? I hope you enjoyed this introduction to music theory and have learned some things in the process. Remember that the more you apply theory the more you assimilate it. Here are a few more resources that you can check out:

My article on Voice Leading for writing better progressions:
http://www.cyberfret.com/composition/mike-philippov/writing-better-progressions/part-1/index.php

My book: The Next Step: Serious Improvement for the Developing Guitarist.

     

©2007 Mike Philippov All Rights Reserved. Used by Permission.