Only fools and the inexperienced believe that basic music theory is for geeks and will stifle your creativity.
My definition of basic theory.
The fundamental stuff that there’s just no point in not knowing. I would consider this to be the following
- Knowing the major scale
- How other scales relate to the major scale
- How chords are built from the major scale
- Why / how chords belong to a key
- Relating all the above to the fret board
Theory certainly goes a lot deeper than this but knowing just these basics can go a long long way to helping you as a musician. Even if you really believe theory is a waste of time, not knowing these basics means you are missing out on the tons of information available in magazines and scattered across the internet simply because you won’t fully understand what they are talking about.
The bottom line is music is the result of a collection of ideas and inspiration that you gather by experience and listening. The more you know the more ideas you generate. Creativity is an extension of thought, the more you understand.. the more you have to think about and get creative with.
Many people believe that theory stifles creativity because it restricts the thought process to abide by a set of rules. These statements unfortunately are a result of a lack of understanding so I will say this out loud…
THEORY IS NOT A SET OF RULES, IT IS AN UNDERSTANDING OF MUSIC AND IS THE PERFECT MEDIUM FOR COMMUNICATING MUSICAL IDEAS BETWEEN MUSICIANS!
I’ll spare you my twenty page rant and just say this…
Asking somebody to teach you the guitar but refusing to learn basic theory is analogous to asking a driving instructor to teach you how to drive a car using roller skates.. 🙂
We have twelve possible notes in western music and together they form the chromatic scale..
C – C# – D – D# – E – F – F# – G – G# – A – A# – B
The sharp (#) notes are called enharmonic notes because they can each have one of two names. They can be a sharp of the preceding note or flat (b) of the proceeding note i.e.. C# is the same note as Db and so on. The reason behind this is mostly to do with music notation but it’s not very important for basic theory and the rock or blues guitarist unless of course you want to get heavily into theory. The most important thing to know about when and where to use a sharp or flat is to follow a simple rule. All scales must contain only one of each letter name. For example the notes in the A major scale are…
A – B – C# – D – E – F# – G# … Not … A – B – Db – D – E – Gb – G#
There are exceptions to this rule but it’s beyond what’s going to be discussed here.
- The distance between each note (or fret) are intervals of Semitones, also called Half Tone or Half Step.
- The distance between any two notes (or two frets) is a Tone, Full Step or Whole Step.
- A Major scale is defined by it’s interval pattern which is …
- Tone – Tone – Semitone – Tone – Tone – Tone – Semitone
- Abbreviated to T – T – S – T – T – T – S
By using this formula we can work out the notes for any Major scale, therefore to find the notes in the C Major we just start at C (the starting note is the named Root note) and use the formula TTSTTTS..
The notes in a C Major Scale are C D E F G A B C
We can do the same thing for any other scale starting the sequence at any other note. For a G Major scale we simply start from G..
The notes in a G major scale are therefore G A B C D E F# G
We can carry on using this same formula to find the notes for any Major scale and we can also use the same formula to find Major scale notes on the fretboard, remembering that each fret’s distance is one semitone.
This is how we could play the C major scale on one string…
Rather than play these notes all on one string we can move some of the notes to different strings to create easily memorable and moveable patterns like this..
Once we get to the next C we can carry on the pattern again to go into the next octave like this.
The seven notes of the Major scale are numbered from 1 to 7 starting from the Root note. In the C major scale the root is C, in the G Major scale the root is G and so on. The root is the “main” or starting note of any scale, chord, key etc..
This is a very important thing to remember as we use the numbering system very often. Terms like “flat third”, “Major sixth”, “raised fourth” etc.. all relate to a notes position in the Major scale.
Standard Major and minor chords like the open and barred C, G, Amin, D, E etc are called Triads (A triad is a three note chord).
These common chords all contain only three notes but on a guitar it is common to repeat some of the notes through the octave to make use more than three strings for a fuller sound. The picture below shows this clearly with the chord C Major in open, 5 string and 6 string bar shapes. The three notes in the C Major chord are C, E and G.
And here is the same thing in numerical (interval) form relating to the C major scale
Major chords are simply made by using the formula 1-3-5. In other words a C Major chord consists of the 1st, 3rd and 5th notes of the C Major scale (C – E – G). The same formula used for G Major chord would show us that it consists of the notes G – B – D which are the 1st, 3rd and 5th notes of the G Major scale (G, A, B, C, D, E, F#).
As mentioned earlier the distance between each note in the chromatic scale is a half step and between any two notes is a whole step. There is a name for every interval between all twelve notes and the most important ones are the third and the fifth.
Two whole steps above the root note= Major third
Three whole steps and one half step above the root note = Fifth
To Sharpen or Flatten ( raise or lower ) any note means simply to move it up or down by one semitone (half step). If we do this very thing and flatten the Major third note it’s interval now becomes a minor third (also referred to as a flat third).
One whole step and one half step above the root note = minor third
The C Major chord as shown above is made of a 1st (root) 3rd (Major third) and a fifth (C – E – G). If we now lower the third degree of the scale we end up with a 1st, flat 3rd and 5th. By replacing the Major third interval with a minor third interval we create the minor chord (Triad) which will be C – Eb – G.
The formula to make a minor chord is 1 – b3 – 5.
If we move our five string C Major barre chord down by three frets you should recognise it as an open A chord.
And now we flatten the third and you should recognise it as an A minor chord
If you have not realised it before then now’s a good time to note that 5 and 6 string bar chords are called moveable chords because they are the same thing as the open A and open E chords moved along to different positions of the fretboard. Whatever note the root falls on will be the name of the new chord position.
For example the open position A minor chord above can be moved up three frets so that the ‘1’ (or root) lands back on the C therefore making it a C minor. Take a look at the 6 string bar shape C chord which is on the 8th fret, move it down 8 frets and you will see it is the open E chord.
The same thing goes for scales, the major scale pattern we looked at earlier can be moved anywhere along the neck and whatever note the root falls on is the name of the new major scale position. This is the one thing that makes learning the guitar easier than most other instruments but it can also be it’s downfall because it’s easy to fall into the trap of just relying on scale patterns.
Once you start to recognise scales and chords as notes and numbers you will find your options increase a hell of a lot and you will start to think differently about the way you play guitar. This is when it all starts to get more interesting.
So far we’ve learnt that chords are created by harmonising notes from a Major scale in third degrees (not to be confused with third intervals) in other words, just every other note in the scale.
Starting from C and moving along in third scale degrees we end up with the notes C-E-G for the C Major Triad.
We can actually carry on adding third degrees to make extended chords which contain more than 3 notes. The next chord up is a Major 7th and consists of the 1st, 3rd, 5th and 7th of the Major scale so a CMaj7 will contain the notes C-E-G-B
We can now carry on past the octave to create even larger chords.
An important thing to note here is that these chords…
- C Major 7
- C Major 9
- C Major 11
- C Major 13
are not the same chords.
C7, C9, C11 and C13 are all dominant chords and the others are all major chords
The dominant seventh chord contains the same notes as the major seventh chord except for the seventh scale degree which is flattened.
The formula for the Dominant seventh chord is 1-3-5-b7
Therefore a Cmaj7 chord would contain the notes C-E-G-B while a C dominant seventh chord (C7) would contain the notes C-E-G-Bb.
Note that a C7 isn’t actually in the key of C Major because it contains a B flat which isn’t in the key of C major, the Cmaj7 however is in the key of C major.
Having an understanding of all this is certainly helpful but what’s more useful right now is to just learn the formulas for the various chord types. These are surprisingly easy to remember and once you know them you will pretty much be able to figure out the notes in any chord just by relating them to their respective Major scale.
The formulas work the same for whatever scale you take them from but I’ll do all the examples in the key of C.
Major Chord (Triad)
- 1 – 3- 5 (C – E – G)
Minor chord (Triad)
- 1 – b3 – 5 (C – Eb – G)
Extended Major Chords
Example.. Cmaj7, CM7, CM9 etc.
- Major 7 …….. 1-3-5-7 (C-E-G-B)
- Major 9 …….. 1-3-5-7-9 (C-E-G-B-D)
- Major 11 ……. 1-3-5-7-9-11 (C-E-G-B-D-F)
- Major 13 ……. 1-3-5-7-9-11-13 (C-E-G-B-D-F)
Example.. C7, C9, C11
- Seven ….. 1-3-5-b7 (C-E-G-Bb)
- Nine …….. 1-3-5-b7-9 (C-E-G-Bb-D)
- Eleven ….. 1-3-5-b7-9-11 (C-E-G-Bb-D-F)
- Thirteen … 1-3-5-b7-9-11-13 (C-E-G-Bb-D-F)
Extended minor chords
Example.. Cm7, Cmin7, Cmin13 etc.
- Minor 7 …. 1-b3-5-b7 (C-Eb-G-Bb)
- Minor 9 …. 1-b3-5-b7-9 (C-Eb-G-Bb-D)
- Minor 11 … 1-b3-5-b7-9-11 (C-Eb-G-Bb-D-F)
- Minor 13 … 1-b3-5-b7-9-11-13 (C-Eb-G-Bb-D- F)
note: extended minor chords consist of a flat 3rd and flat 7th
This is by no means a complete list of all the possible chord variations but outlines the most common.
holy cow!..so that’s the formula how about for the 6th.?., Major 6th and minor?
Some Random dude says
I do need to brush up on my music theory……ah, ill do it some other time.
Jeffrey Livesey says
Brill just what I need.Stuck in a rut and decided to get down to some music theory.Into major scales a bit but pentatonics are confusing me as I read more and more variations,ok I admit that I am going to have to work at it but,need a starting point that I can reasonably master and I feel that I am getting there.Thanks
Jeffrey Livesey says
Its really good,well explained and very informative.
Jeffrey Livesey says
Itrs really good,well explained and very informative.
Wish I’d had this years ago.
Rei aditiya Panglima says
Hey… COOL brow, Its Make Sense, 4 a beginner 🙂
Wow! I didn’t know that the 11ths and 13ths had the exact same notes!
scott railton says
Exceptional. playing guitar for years, but no one taught me the basics. thanks, looking for the advanced levels
a smashing presentation of music theory,Bravo!
Sweet ! thank you for taking the time to do this.
Brilliant…could not get my head around it all until I read your explanations here.
This is the best explanation of chord theory I’ve seen online to date. I realize it’s not 100% inclusive but it provides a very solid foundation.