Learning Music Theory for Beginners

Getting to grips with the nuts and bolts of music can really boost your guitar skills.

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learning music theory from music score on an acoustic guitar

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The Benefits of Learning Music Theory

Learning music theory for beginners of any instrument is wise move. If you’re serious about improving then knowing the theory behind what you play will give you deeper musical understanding and make you a more complete musician.

Even some pro players often groan when asked for their opinion of music theory – replying with words like ‘dull’ or ‘boring’ or say ‘it’s just for nerds’…Well I’m here to prove those people wrong and explain how understanding theory can greatly improve your overall playing making you a more complete guitarist!

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Music theory has gotten a bad reputation over the years, some people even think that learning music theory it will somehow make them less creative as they will be thinking about ‘the rules of music’ too much and block the magic of playing. 

"Sticking with music theory can bring great rewards and improve your all round musicianship greatly"

 

This is a completely false way of thinking! – knowing the theory behind what you play will give you greater awareness of your creativity and is especially helpful to boost your confidence by knowing what to play with other musicians.

There are thousands of guitar players out there who are making a living from their music without knowing any music theory and by ‘playing by ear’ they have created their own sound over years of trial and error so good luck to them! 

Playing ‘by ear’ may be enough for some but I’ll urge you to consider taking a closer look at the theory behind what you learn practically.

It’s a great idea to learn the relevant theory at the same pace and ability of your practical playing. It will give you a deeper understanding of the music and how to use the most appropriate chords and scales in different situations. 

Stick with it and your efforts will be rewarded, enabling you to translate any musical idea you can imagine through your guitar.

Theory Fundamentals

The term ‘Music Theory’ refers to the way we understand music by translating what we hear into written form. Music has its own language – there are many technical words, signs and symbols to discover. 

Once taught, musicians are able to ‘read’ and ‘hear’ how a piece of music should sound as if it were a written conversation.

A standard way of writing music has evolved gradually over a hundreds of years, from simple reminder notes written on chants to jog the memory of the monks that used them, to the detailed system we use today showing exactly what notes to play when and how to play them.

music theory image with treble clef

Top 5 Reasons for Learning Music Theory

  • Know how to improvise over any chord progression – knowing how to accompany other musicians in a band setting or social/jam nights will boost your confidence and inspire you to try new ideas. Your reaction time will improve enabling you to think fast and play the most suitable notes for any occasion
 
  • You will have greater understanding of song writing and what chords work best with each other – It can help you with creating interesting chord sequences, using different scales and variations to create the mood you want to portray
 
  • Boost your listening skills – Knowledge of intervals (the distance between any two musical notes) can help you to figure out for yourself how to play songs
 
  • Be in demand as a knowledgeable player – Once at a higher level, knowing more theory can help boost your repertoire by understanding how different styles of music are composed. You’ll be popular with many different musical circles
 
  • Have a deeper appreciation of music – non-musicians hear music and enjoy the melody or lyrics however as a guitar player who knows theory you will recognise more closely what your favorite players are actually doing technically to achieve the musical feeling that comes across giving you a greater respect for the artist

The Musical Alphabet

When you pluck a string on your guitar you will hear a fixed sound.

A musical ‘note’ which will play at a constant level of pitch (it will not go up or down) and will fade after a few seconds.

Although there is an infinite amount of sounds between any two notes the standard practice is to stick to using 12 fixed notes which have been agreed by the vast majority of composers and evolved over hundreds of years.

When you ‘tune’ your guitar you are making sure the strings when played open (without pressing any notes on the fret board) are set to specific notes, which all other notes are played in relation to.

Musical notes are represented by the first seven letters of the alphabet:

A     B     C     D     E     F     G     (A)

To remember how these notes sound just think of the classic ‘Sound of Music’ show tune:

Do – Re – Me – Fa – So – La – Ti – Do

Just replace each syllable from this song title with the musical notes, so instead of singing Do, Re, Me… sing A, B, C… instead!

Although there are seven notes above, the sequence repeats so there will always be an A again after the G. The distance from any note to the next one (higher or lower) with the same letter is called an ‘octave’ as there are eight whole notes in total. For example the distance of A to A or C to C are both octaves.

Sharps and Flats

As you can see these seven letters do not cover all the notes available, so where do we get the other five to make up the 12 fixed notes in total? … The standard 12 note format evolved over many years to include additional notes ‘in between’ some of the natural notes.
To easiest way to understand this is by looking at the keys on a piano:

Here you’ll see white keys which are the natural notes and black keys in between certain notes which take their name from the white keys. The pattern of two then three black keys grouped together is repeated across the entire piano range.

Intervals

"The term 'interval' in music is used to describe the distance in pitch between and two musical notes''

If those two notes are immediately to the left or right of each other this interval is known as a ‘semitone’ (or ‘half step’ in US). For example C to C# or E to F are semitones. An interval of two semitones for example G to A or D to E is known as a ‘tone’ (or ‘whole step’ in US).

When you play a black key immediately to the right of a white key the note it produces will be higher in pitch by a semitone. Although it shares the same note name as its white neighbour, a sign known as a ‘sharp’ is used to indicate that it has been raised in pitch. For example D# is known as ‘D sharp’.

Just like the sharp raises the note by a semitone a second sign known as a ‘flat’ lowers the pitch by a semitone. If a second note is played immediately to the left of the first note it will produce a note a semitone lower in pitch . The complete 12 note musical alphabet can be written in ascending pitch like this:

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

So, all music in the western world has been written with these 12 notes only – it’s pretty incredible when you think about it, every piece from old to new, Beethoven to The Beatles are just different arrangements of these 12 notes!..

Your Theory Begins!

It would be near impossible to talk about every aspect of music theory on one web page, so to help you stay informed i’ll be adding regular blog posts on the topic so keep a look out!

It will also give you a chance to add any comments or questions at the bottom of each blog too!

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About The Author

Online beginner guitar lessons with Rob Cox

Rob Cox is a content creator and guitar tutor from London, UK.
He is also the founder of Tunelectric.

Online beginner guitar lessons with Rob Cox

About The Author

Rob Cox is a content creator and guitar tutor from London, UK.
He is also the founder of Tunelectric.

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