Poetry is an art that transcends analyzable structure, but the things we learn about in school, such as the number of syllables in a haiku, or iambic pentameter in Shakespeare, give greater insight into how the poetry is constructed. Music theory does something similar for music.
Music, like poetry, transcends a feeling of earthly notions such as “math” or “structure”, but when broken down into its elements, can often be explained by several systems. Most music is written in a key and contains chords.
To understand exactly how this works, this article will explain, in language suitable for even non-musicians, music theory for beginners: scales, key signatures, intervals and chords.
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Let’s begin with half steps.
- Half steps
A half step is a note that is one note away from the starting note, which includes black keys. If the starting note is “C”, a half step up is “C#”, because it is the next key to the right. A half step down from “C” is “B”, because it is the next key to the left of “C”.
The chromatic scale perfectly demonstrates how half steps work, because it is made up of entirely half step.
- Whole steps
A whole step is a note two half steps away from the original note. A whole step up from “C” is “D”, and a whole step down from “C” is “B-flat”. Like the chromatic scale, there is a scale made up of entirely whole steps called a whole-tone scale.
- Major scale
Every scale is made up of a pattern of whole steps and half steps that can be applied to every key. The pattern for the major scale is W-W-H-W-W-W-H, where W=whole and H=half.
- Minor scale
There are three types of minor scales: natural, harmonic, and melodic. Natural minor is the unaltered form of minor which is rarely used in music, for a reason that will become evident when learning harmonic minor.
- Natural minor
The pattern for natural minor is W-H-W-W-H-W-W
Harmonic and melodic minor
The pattern for harmonic minor is the same as natural minor, except for one note. Scale degree 7, the seventh note in the scale, is raised by one half step. This allows for scale degree 7 to be one half step away from the tonic (starting note). When it is raised, like in the major and harmonic scale, it is called the leading tone, because it “leads” the ear up to tonic. Harmonic minor is the most popular form of minor because the inclusion of a leading tone gives music direction, anticipates the tonic, and ultimately “leads” to the goal of most music: harmonic resolution and telos.
The melodic minor scale raises scale degrees 6 and 7 when it ascends, and when it descends, it changes to the natural minor scale. Melodic minor is the only scale in which its ascending and descending forms are different. In this diagram, you can see just exactly how the natural minor scale is manipulated to form its harmonic and melodic forms.
Learning key signatures is necessary for two things: recognizing what key a piece of music is in by looking at the score and knowing what accidentals (flats and sharps) to play when playing in a key. The first subsection will explain the order of sharps and flats, the second will explain how to read key signatures and the third will explain the circle of fifths.
- Order of sharps and flats
The order of sharps and flats always remains the same.
Acronym for the order of sharps:
FCGDAEB (Father Charles Goes Down And Ends Battle)
Acronym for the order of flats (the reverse of the sharps):
BEADGCF (Battle Ends And Down Goes Charles’ Father)
This order will never change. If a key has one flat, it will always be “B-flat”, because it is the first letter of the “flat” acronym. If a key has three sharps, they will be “F#”, “C#” and “G#”, because they are the first three letters of the “sharp” acronym.
Reading key signatures
The rule for reading sharps is to find the last sharp and go up a half step. For example, if the last sharp is a “C#”, the key is D major. If the last sharp is an “A#”, the key is B major.
The rule for reading flats is the find the second-to-last flat. That flat will tell you your key signature. For example, if the second-to-last flat is “A-flat”, the key is A-flat major. This works for every key except F major, because it only has one flat.
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Every key signature can be one of two keys: major or minor. The keys that share the same key signature are called relative. To determine the minor key, the same rules for the major apply in addition to one step: go down three half steps from the major key to find the minor. If the key is A major, the relative minor is F# minor, because “F#” is three half steps down from “A”. If the key is C major (the only other exception—no sharps or flats), the relative minor is A minor, because “A” is three half steps down from “C”.
- The circle of fifths
The circle of fifths is a great “cheat sheet” when it comes to key signatures. Whenever you practice, especially scales and chords, it is helpful to have this close by for easy reference. Think of the circle of fifths as a clock. At 12:00 is the key of C major/A minor.
If you travel clockwise, you find that every key adds a sharp. If you travel counterclockwise, every key adds a flat. It is called the circle of fifths because each “hour” (key) on the clock is a fifth away from the previous “hour”. A fifth is a type of interval, which will be explained in the following section.
An interval is the number of notes in between two tones, including the first tone. For example, “C” to “G” is a fifth, because “G” is five notes away from “C”. The basic intervals are unison, second, third, fourth, fifth, sixth and seventh. In front of each ordinal number is one of five descriptors: major, minor, perfect, diminished or augmented. An example of an interval is a “minor third” or an “augmented fourth”.
- Major and minor intervals
An interval is “major” if it occurs in the major scale. “C” to “A” is a major sixth because “A” is six notes away in the C major scale (C major has no sharps or flats). “C” to “A-flat”, on the other hand, is a minor sixth because “A-flat” is six notes away in the C minor scale (C minor has three flats: B, E and A).
- Perfect intervals
Some intervals are referred to as “perfect” because they remain constant in both the major and minor scales. The perfect intervals are unison, fourth, fifth, and octave.
- Diminished and augmented
Any intervals that do not fall into the previous groups are either diminished or augmented. For example, “C” to “G-sharp” is a fifth, but it is not perfect because it occurs in neither the C major or C minor scale. A perfect fifth above “C” is “G”, so “G-sharp” is one half step too far from “C”. This is called an augmented fifth.
Diminished intervals are the opposite. “C” to “G-flat” is a diminished fifth because the fifth is now a half step smaller/diminished.
*Sometimes intervals are spelled one way and played another. For example, “C” to “F-flat” is played/sounds like a major third, because “F-flat” is the same note as “E”. When this occurs, the interval is called a diminished fourth instead of a major third, because of the way it is spelled rather than the way it sounds.
Basic Piano Chords
A chord is a group of three or more notes played together. The simplest type of chord is called a triad, which consists of three notes, each a third apart. Like intervals, triads fall into these categories: major, minor, diminished and augmented.
A major triad is built of a major third on the bottom, a minor third on the top and a “boundary” (interval from bottom to top) of a perfect fifth. A minor triad is built of a minor third on the bottom, a major third on the top, and a boundary interval of a perfect fifth. A diminished triad is built of two minor third with a boundary interval of a diminished fifth and an augmented triad is built of two major thirds with a boundary interval of an augmented fifth.
There are also inversions of each triad. The chords above are all in root position, and there are “first” and “second” inversions of each one. This image shows how the bottom becomes the top note for each inversion.
Once we know all this information, we can begin to understand how chords function in real music. There are seven triads that can be used in each key, each built on a scale degree.
This is image shows every triad that exists in the key of C major. The top line shows scale degrees 1-7 and the bottom line show the chords that are built on each scale degree. When referring to scale degrees, we use numbers 1-7, but when referring to chords, we use Roman numerals I through vii.
The capital Roman numerals are major triads and the lowercase Roman numerals are minor triads. The “degree” sign next to Roman numeral vii indicates that it is a diminished triad. The types of triads are not arbitrary; they occur naturally in the key of C major. In fact, every major key will have the same pattern of major, minor, and diminished triads. Here is a diagram of the minor version:
Notice that there are two options for v and VII, where one version considers the harmonic minor version with the “B-natural”. If the “B-natural” is applied everywhere, III can also exist as an augmented triad.
Learning scales, key signatures, intervals and basic chords is a splendid start to exploring the world of music theory. It can seem challenging at first glance, but everything relates to each other, for example, when you notice the pattern in the circle of fifths.
It is like rudimentary math in that you build from the last information to understand the next (numbers, then addition, then multiplication…), until it starts turning into the larger picture than explains the seemingly unexplainable in piano music. Just like a historical understanding of a piece can enrich your understanding of a piece of music, theory can help you decide, in partner with intuition, why we make the interpretive choices we do while playing and to be more intelligent pianists.
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