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Introducing Music Theory
A Beginner's Guide

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Wanting to learn music theory, but not sure where to start? In this guide we'll take you through everything you need to know to master the basics.
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    Introducing Music Theory

    Beginning your journey learning music theory can easily seem overwhelming. With so many different areas, terms, and symbols to learn, just knowing where to begin can seem daunting in itself. 

    However, here’s the secret – you don’t need to know everything for music theory to have a positive impact on your playing, production, or compositions! 

    You’d be surprised at how many of your favorite artists aren’t maestros when it comes to theory. However, that being said, knowing the fundamentals of music theory can be a vital skill to have.

    After all, music theory can explain why certain songs and compositions produce the emotional response they do. More importantly, music theory can be a key to unlocking creativity, and help take your production and compositions to the next level.

    In this guide, we’ll break down the key fundamentals of music theory and how you can use them to your advantage. Let’s get started!

    What is Music Theory?

    Music theory is the language musicians use to explain the structures, formulas, and relationships present in music.  We can use music theory to explain why a piece of music has a certain emotional impact on the listener, as well as provide a common system for understanding how musical compositions are constructed. It also allows musicians to communicate musical ideas with each other in the form of written notation. 

    Why Should I Learn Music Theory?

    Learning music theory comes with a whole host of benefits, including (but definitely not limited to):

    • Understand ‘why’ you like your favorite tracks: Music theory will give you the ability to deconstruct and understand the techniques used in some of your favorite pieces of music and more importantly, be able to replicate them for yourself! 
    • Read sheet music like a pro: Quickly learn new pieces of music on your instrument.
    • Collaborate with ease: Communicate your ideas more effectively with other musicians. Understanding musical terminology will make working with other musicians easy.
    • Unlock Creativity: Once you understand the structures and frameworks used to construct music, you can use these to your advantage and speed up your compositional and production process.

    How to make learning music theory easy and enjoyable

    There is no one correct route to learning music theory. We find the most effective way to make music theory enjoyable is to identify and choose the elements important to you and focus on those initially. That way you can start applying what you have learned in practice and reap the benefits straight away! 

    For example, if you’re learning an instrument, you’ll need to know the common terminology and techniques used for that instrument, like “pizzicato” and “con arco” on the violin. You may find learning to read sheet music very beneficial, or even necessary if you’re hoping to take musical exams! 

    If improvisation is your thing, focusing on training your ear and learning some common scales and chord structures would be a must.

    For writing and producing music, understanding the relationships between melody and harmony can be a huge asset to your songwriting process, but you might not find the ability to read and write sheet music useful. However, if you need musicians to perform your compositions, then learning to write sheet music could be a huge time saver. 

    How is Music Constructed?

    We can break down the construction of music into three core areas:


    A melody is a musical phrase consisting of single notes and can be either vocal or instrumental. It’s the part you can often sing along to.


    Harmony is when multiple notes are heard at the same time, either from one instrument or multiple. When talking about harmony, we are often referring to chords.


    Rhythm is the timing of the pulse of the music, the pattern of notes, and the spaces between them.

    Music theory can help us understand how these three elements are related, and how we can use them to create different moods in our music.

    Basic Music Theory - The Fundamentals

    The core fundamentals of music theory are:

    • Notes
    • Key Signature
    • Scales
    • Intervals
    • Chords
    • Meter
    • Notation
    Let’s break down each of them.

    Key Signature

    A key signature tells us which notes are sharp or flat in a specific piece of music.

    As an example, the key signature of C major has no sharps or flats, but the key signature of D♭ major has 5 flats.

    There are two primary types of key signature: major and minor. Major sounds bright and “happy”, while minor sounds dark and “sad”.


    While the key signature tells us which notes are sharp or flat, the “tonal center”, or which note is the “root” note can vary depending on the scale.

    There are many scales out there, and we can choose different ones to change the “flavor” of our music. 

    The main scales are the major and minor scales, which are the same as their key signatures.

    We can use other scales too, for example, the F Lydian scale has the same notes as a C major scale, but its root note is F.

    We can also add or remove notes to make new scales, for example, the minor pentatonic scale is the same as a regular minor scale, but minus the 2nd and 6th notes.


    The interval is the distance between two notes. We can use intervals to help us describe the structure of chords, scales, and melodies.

    We describe intervals with two pieces of information: a number (2nd, 3rd, 4th, etc.) and a quality (major, minor, diminished, etc.). The number is the basic distance between the note names, while the quality gives us specifics. 


    A chord is two or more notes played at the same time.

    The basic chords are “triads” – 3-note chords like major and minor. As an example, the major chord has a major third and a perfect 5th above the root note. 

    We can add in other notes at different intervals from the root note to make new chords, for example, 7ths and 9ths.


    Also known as “time signature”, the meter tells us how many beats are in a bar and how those beats are grouped together.

    Typically we have 4 beats in a bar, though we might have 3 beats in a bar, two groups of 3 beats, or even 7 beats!


    Written music, also called sheet music or notation is our best way of communicating and sharing musical ideas. 

    We use a framework called a staff, which has five horizontal lines across the page. Each line and each space between the lines represents a different note.

    The position of a note symbol on the lines tells us the pitch, whereas the shape of the symbol tells us the value of the note, in other terms how many ‘beats’ the note should be played for.

    The ‘clef’ at the beginning of the staff tells us what specific pitches the following lines represent, so we can work with higher notes or lower notes depending on which instrument we’re using.

    The sharps and flats at the beginning of the staff tell us the key signature.

    The numbers at the beginning of the staff tell us the meter.

    Sheet music also comes with many other directions, such as how fast to play, how loud to play, specific playing techniques for different instruments, and what sort of “feel” to play with.

    Now it’s time to start learning!

    Hopefully working through this guide will have given you a good idea of how music theory can benefit you. To continue learning, the other lessons in our fundamentals course are a great place to start. 

    However, if you have a specific area in mind, feel free to pick and choose lessons and dive in wherever you like! We have a range of guides and lessons from industry experts on here to help you gain theoretical knowledge, techniques, and skills, so you can pick and choose and learn at your own pace. 

    Alex Martin
    Alex is a professional musician, with a BSc from Leeds Becketts University in Creative Music & Sound Design Technology.