So, you've heard the term "Music Theory" before. Do you have any idea what it means? It's a lot more than just notes, flats, and sharps. In fact it can often be very complex. There are many components which add to the overall sound and feel of a piece of music. Chords, intervals, accidentals, enharmonics, time signatures, key signatures, tempos, repeats, pitches, note duration, fermatas, scales, major keys, minor keys, and progressions, are just some of the things you will begin to learn about as you study music. Whether you are a master of music theory or just beginning to explore the limitless musical spectrum or anywhere in-between, this site contains many valuable and educational resources to further your knowledge and, more importantly, your interest in music as a whole.
To learn about music theory, we need to start with the basics. Once you have these basics of music down, not only will you be able to read music, but you will be able to understand it as well. Also, if you have these basics down, it will be much easier to learn to play any musical instrument.
The first item of business will be the basics of rhythm. "What is rhythm?" you ask? Rhythm is the driving force of music, the beating of the musical heart, so to speak. When music is written, it is not merely written as a constant mess of notes, but is divided into measures called 'bars'. Each measure consists of certain number of beats. This number is determined by what is called a time signature. We will go more in depth about time signatures a little later, but the time signature we will be using is 4/4. What this means is that there are four beats in a measure and the length of each beat is notated by what is called a quarter note.
The 4/4 time signature is the most common used and we will be referring to this frequently throughout this section. Now that you have an understanding of quarter notes, let's look at some different notes. A half note, for example, is twice the length of a quarter note and only 2 of them would be in a single measure of 4/4 time. And then there's the whole note which is 4 quarter notes long and only one will fit in a single measure of music in a 4/4 time signature..
So, we now know how quarter notes, half notes, and whole notes are divided. It seems like music would be pretty boring if those are the only rhythms composers had to work with, doesn't it? Well, you're in luck! There are other notes that are shorter than quarter notes. Eighth notes are half the duration of a quarter note and 8 eighth notes fit in a measure of 4/4. There are also sixteenth notes, thirty second notes, and even sixty fourth and hundred twenty eighth notes.
Whole notes, half notes, quarter notes, eight notes, 16th notes, 32nd notes, and 64th notes.
Well, we now understand how some basic rhythms are notated and how long certain notes are held. But how, you may ask, do you put a pause in the music? That can be solved with some simple devices called rests. Rests are simply indications to be silent for a certain duration. Like notes, rests come in all shapes and sizes, starting at a whole rest all the way to the infrequently used oddball known as the 64th rest. Rests have the same durations as the corresponding notes(4 quarter rests = 1 whole rest and so on...).
Whole rest, half rest, quarter rest, eighth rest, 16th rest, 32nd rest, 64th rest.
The All Powerful Dot:
One of the last important things you should know about rhythm is the dot. Dots are simple. You add a dot to a note and that note is held one and a half times the original note duration. If you add a dot to a quarter note, for example, it would be held the length of a quarter note plus an eighth note. If you dotted a half note, it would be held the length of a half note plus a quarter note.
Dotted notes and their rhythmic equivalents
A brief summary:
Wow, it's all coming at you so fast! Go back and look things over to make sure you understand all of this rhythm business. When you're confident that you understand it, move on to some more exciting music theory basics. Don't understand it? No problem. The book, Classical Music For Dummies does a great job of explaining everything and you may want to see if it graces the shelves of your local library or bookstore. To locate someone able to help you learn music theory, take a peek at our 'Links to more information' and our 'teachers' sections.
Pitch, clefs, ledger lines, and more...
Pitch is one of the single most important concepts in music, but fortunately for us, it's also fairly simple. Pitch is simply defined as how high or low a note is. Take a look at a keyboard. The keys farthest to the left are lower in pitch than the ones on the right side of the keyboard
All of the music you will hear is composed of 12 different pitches, and if you look at a piano, you will notice that there is the same pattern of 12 different white and black keys over and over again. The white keys on a keyboard are named different letters of the alphabet, from A to G. The black keys are what we called sharps and flats. Sharps and flats are the notes in between and mean the note is slightly higher (sharp), or slightly lower (flat). So if you hear someone talking about B flat, for instance, you could look on the keyboard and notice that it is the black key to the left of B. How exactly do you tell the difference between a sharp and a flat? Each black key is actually both a sharp and a flat, so C sharp is the same as D flat. So we call, the black keys sharps and flats, but what are the white keys called? These, my friends, are called naturals.
Music Notes: Later on we will learn that the key signature that a piece of music is written in will determine what note is a sharp and which is a flat. Skilled composers are able to carefully notate their music in a way that makes sense musically, even if it does look awkward.
The staff is the basis of all sheet music. It keeps time by being divided up by bar lines, and it also tells you what pitches of notes to play. Now, if we were to try put all of the music on one staff, it wouldn't quite work, and that is why we have what are called clefs. Clefs essentially tell us what set of pitches are notated on the staff. The treble clef, also known as the G clef, is used to notate pitches which are higher and for the most part, the right side of the keyboard. The bass clef is used to notate the lower (bass) notes, which are generally on the left side of the keyboard.
The treble clef, and the bass clef.
Each line or space on the staff represents a different pitch. The lines of the staff in treble clef, starting from the bottom, are E, G, B, D, F. A common way to remember this is Every Good Boy Does Fine, but I like to think of it as Extra Goodies Before Dinner Failed. And the spaces, also starting from the bottom are F, A, C, and E. Gee, it sure is hard to think of a way to remember these, except for the fact that they spell out face.
The notes of the treble clef
Looking at the bass clef, there isn't that much of a difference from treble clef, except that the pitches are in a slightly different position. The lines of the bass clef are G, B, D, F, E and the spaces are A, C, E ,F.
If you look at a piece of music, you will notice that not all music is contained within the basic lines and spaces of the staff. Sometimes the notes go above or below the staff. Ledger lines are little lines which are drawn in place of the entire staff to help you tell what pitch is being notated. Middle C is notated using ledger lines on the bass clef and the treble clef. The bass and treble clefs are joined together by the middle C on the keyboard.
Middle C and ledger lines on bass and treble clefs
One last thing before we wrap this pitch section up. We forgot to explain how flats and sharps are written. It's really quite simple, a flat is notated by putting a in front of the note you want to make flat, and a sharp is notated by putting a in front of the note you want to make sharp. So, to wrap things up, let's read some music.