Just saying the words can make a guitar student’s eyes glaze over, like we’re about to launch into a calculus class or something.
Honestly, it’s not all that difficult to understand, as long as you put a little mental energy into it. And theory is logical, so the elements build on one another in a clear, sequential manner.
But some folks have a serious lack of confidence in their ability to make sense out of it. So just the idea of music theory immediately deflates them.
Never fear – your friend JB is here to simplify and demystify!
Follow along as I take you through The Only Theory Lesson You’ll Ever Need – and I’ll make it fun and easy to understand as a bonus. 🙂
“The only theory lesson you’ll ever need” is a bold statement to be sure. But most guitarists don’t need to know tons of theory to be successful.
Learning about modes, improvisational concepts, advanced rhythms and chord formulas is great stuff, if you want it and need it. Theory geeks like me thrive on it. And if you aspire to be a professional player, you’ll clearly benefit from it.
But for the everyday player who just wants to get a handle on the “why’s” and the “how’s” of music, this is the stuff you need.
This one lesson will:
– Teach you to analyze a song and understand why the chords sound good together;
– Give you a guide to what chords are most likely to be found in your favorite songs;
– Show you how you can use that knowledge to learn songs by ear or write your own songs;
– Make you a generally more awesome and empowered musician!
Now, who wouldn’t want that?
Building our House, in Theory
The elements and concepts of music theory build on each other. So we’ll begin with the very basics to ensure that our foundation is strong and there are no gaps in our knowledge.
Please be patient and read through the stuff that you think you already know – you may be surprised to find that some things aren’t as clear as you originally thought.
And put your thinking cap on. Theory ain’t for sissies.
THE MUSICAL ALPHABET
Musical notes, or pitches, are assigned letter names using the first seven letters of the alphabet: A, B, C, D, E, F and G. These notes are also referred to as the natural notes.
The musical alphabet is a “looped” sequence, with no real beginning or ending. After G we continue again with A, B, C, etc., just like we would continue with 0 after 9 in our numbering system (0123456789, 0123…).
An octave is the span of eight letter names, beginning and ending on the same letter.
For example, if we count through the musical alphabet starting and ending on C – C, D, E, F, G, A, B, C – we’ve just counted through an octave. A musician would say that the last C is an octave higher than the first, or vice versa, the first C is an octave lower than the last.
[A Practical Suggestion: Practice saying the musical alphabet backwards. In the real world of music performance, notes travel both forwards, backwards and also make random jumps. So it makes sense to learn to visualize notes moving in both directions. It might be a little tricky at first, but it’s extremely useful.]
HALF STEPS AND WHOLE STEPS
We determine the relationships between pitches by the distance between them. That distance is measured in half steps and whole steps.
The half step is the smallest distance you can measure and is represented on the guitar by one fret (or one key on the piano). A whole step is equal to two half steps and is represented on the guitar by two frets (or two keys on the piano).
In the musical alphabet, the pitch combinations of E/F and B/C are natural half steps. The guitar will confirm this. E and F are only one fret apart, as are B and C. An example would be E on string 5/fret 7 followed by F on string 5/fret 8.
All of the other pitch combinations – A/B, C/D, D/E, F/G and G/A – are a whole step apart. Looking to the guitar for confirmation, A and B are two frets apart on string 1 (frets 5 and 7, respectively).
Check out this graphic and note where the natural half steps and whole steps fall:
[Critical Point Alert! It is very important that we remember the natural half steps of E/F and B/C, since we will be called upon to apply that knowledge in building scales. If this critical piece of foundational info is forgotten, then any scales built on that foundation will ultimately be flawed.]
Although there are seven natural notes in the musical alphabet, there are actually twelve notes total in the chromatic scale (a fancy-sounding term for “all the notes”).
The other five notes fill in the whole-step gaps between some of our natural notes. Those “in-between” notes are known as accidentals.
Accidentals is the umbrella category into which sharps and flats fall.
A sharp (#) symbol, when attached to a natural note, raises that note by a half step. For example, F is found on string 6/fret 1, while F# is a half-step higher at fret 2.
By contrast, a flat (b) symbol, when attached to a natural note, lowers that note by a half step. For example, B is found on string 6/fret 7, while Bb is a half-step lower at fret 6.
To summarize, if we add together all the natural notes and all of the “in-betweens” (the accidentals), we wind up with the twelve notes of the chromatic scale:
As you can see on the diagram, the accidentals present an interesting situation: each one of them – being in between two natural notes – can actually be called by two different names. This concept is called enharmonic equivalency, and although it’s a technical-sounding term, it’s common, everyday stuff for musicians.
As an example, locate the F on string 6/fret 1 and the G on string 6/fret 3. The note in between, on fret 2, can be called either F# (it’s a half step higher than F) or Gb (it’s a half step lower than G).
How do we know which name to use? Good question, and one that will be answered in Part 2 when we learn how to build major scales.
A SPECIAL CASE
Remember that E/F and B/C are natural half steps that are already found side by side on the fretboard. Therefore no accidentals are placed between them.
For example, there is no E#, since that note would, in fact, be F. And vice versa, there is no Fb, since that note would be E. Same principle applies for B and C.
Now, at the risk of throwing you for a musical loop – and to get in a preemptive strike on any theory nerds that may want to call me out on this – I will confess that, as a technicality, there are situations where you might call the F note “E#” or the B note “Cb“.
However, that is well beyond the scope of this lesson, and, truth be told, in the world of pop music you may encounter that situation in one (or less) out of every 100 songs you play! For me, that percentage is low enough that I teach my students to safely disregard the enharmonic equivalents for E/F and B/C.
Now that we’ve laid the foundation, we can get into building scales and harmonizing them with chords, which is where the language of music really comes alive! Those musical goodies will be covered in Part 2 and Part 3 of this series.
QUESTION: How is your basic theory knowledge – strong enough to teach someone or still filling in the blanks? Leave me a comment below!