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Music Theory: A Look Down the Path of...

by Guitarslinger124

14 Aug 2010
Views: 27580

Music Theory: Part I - The Map

A Brief Overview

This is lesson is not meant to teach you how to play scales, chords or teach you what notes go where and in what order. This lesson is going to break down the fundamentals of music for you. All you need is decent technical proficiency on your instrument and the desire to learn. When someone asks me, "What should I learn first?" I usually say, "Learn how to play your instrument". Now that may sound crass to some of you, but in reality, from my perception, why bother learning anything if you cannot play it, understand it visually or know how to apply it?

The same person who asked me what they should learn first will soon ask, "Ok, what should I learn second? Should I start with scales or chords?. To which I respond, "Learn neither for now. Instead learn what you will learn later on". WHAT!?. Think of it as looking at a map. The map of music theory. Study the map and you will have direction and peace of mind about what you will learn next or what goals to set for yourself.

Why risk getting lost?

What is Music?

There are several definitions for music. Spend all the time you want trying to figure it out. But here is an idea, stop and listen to the world around you; that is music. Music is any sound or lack there of, that you enjoy listening to or hearing subconsciously.

Listen for birds chirping, joggers jogging, cars on the freeway, someone mashing keys on a piano or someone strumming chords on a guitar. Perhaps, all of those together. Really, as it were, whatever floats your boat.

What is Music Theory?

The simple answer, music theory is the study of music and how it works. Geometry is to shapes as music theory is to music.

We are going to take it step further. Music theory is the study of patterns and structure within a composition. Music theory examines how we perceive rhythm, harmony, melody and tonality as well as how these affect the texture of a piece of music.

It is too easy to just jump into music and get lost. But if you first take the time to examine each layer individually, you will may find learning and understand theory easier. Consider this lesson as that map I mentioned earlier.

Fundamentals of Music Theory

There are several key functions in music, each paying their own role in a composition. Approach these fundamentals as you would a science project. The only difference is, instead of having a hypothesis, you will only have what you want your end result to be.

Here they are:

Emphasis and Technique

Take each of the above individually you can understand them. Fit them all together like a puzzle and you will have a masterpiece.

Remember, this is not a "HOW TO" lesson. This is a lesson focusing on the "WHAT"


Take a minute and ask yourself, "What is rhythm?". Is rhythm time signature or how many beats per minute (bpm) a drummer plays during a song? Rhythm is the order and arrangement of sounds and silence over a designated period of time.

Let that sink in for a minute... Yes, I did say silence. Silence is just as much a part music as sound. Sometimes, less is more. For example, your drummer kicks the bass drum, pauses, hits the snare... bass drum twice then immediately follows with the snare again. The silence after the first bass drum kick really defines that beat and just about every rock band on the planet uses and abuses that simple beat.

On a staff, time is broken down into measures for more consistent groups. Which leads us to time signature. A time signature is defined by the total number of whole beats in each measure.

While normally, a composition will contain only one time signature per measure or even per two beats, however, we have what is called polyrhythms. A polyrhythm is more than one time signature [or rhythm] played at a single time. For example, most percussion bands will use polyrhythms. Another useful term is, syncopated rhythm. A syncopated rhythm is one which accents different sections of a beat. For example, a drummer accents the down beat and the up beat in a seemingly inconsistent order.

Rhythm can be defined as the foundation of a composition. Without a strong rhythm or beat, a composition may sound sloppy or without any order.


In western music, we have what is called an octave. An octave is a series of twelve tones placed at half step, or half tone intervals; however, there are definitions for nineteen notes. The notes in an octave are: A A# Bb B Cb C C# Db D D# Eb E Fb F F# Gb G G# Ab. Some of these notes are harmonically equivalent. There are seven pairs of harmonically equivalent notes. These pairs are: A#-Bb, B-Cb, C#-Db, D#-Eb, E-Fb, F#-Gb and G#-Ab.

Scales are note groups of seven notes. In some instances that number may vary, such as pentatonic scales, which are groups of five notes or the chromatic scale, which contains all twelve tones in western music. Scales are defined by intervals and not so much by the notes they contain. An interval is the distance between tones, i.e. wholes step or half step or whole tone and semitone. --(Modes are defined as scales inside of one key)-- There are seven modes in any major key. All the modes in a major key will contain the same notes, however, the notes will be placed at different intervals, or in different orders as it were, thus giving them all unique tonal qualities.

The seven modes are:

Outside of western music, there are, but not limited to, Persian, Arabian and Indian patterns. Indian music uses a twenty-two tone octave, while Persian and Arabian music take advantage of quarter-tones which are half the size of the semitones in western music.

I will discuss scales in greater detail in the following chapters of the Music Theory series.


Chords are built from scale intervals and generally are defined by the first/root, third and fifth degrees in a scale. Major chords are defined by a root, major third and fifth, while minor chords are defined by a root, minor third and fifth.

There are several other chord types:

There are many other types of chords, however, this is simply an overview.

Emphasis and Technique

A lot can be said about a musicians technique. For example, if Eddie Van Halen were to play your guitar with your rig, he would still sound like Van Halen. I briefly touched emphasis in the rhythm section. A player will emphasize certain notes to at flavor or texture to a piece of music, just as a drummer will emphasize particular beats to clarify the rhythmic composition of a piece.

Technique takes emphasis a step further. Technique implies how something is actual performed or practiced. Some common techniques for guitar players are:
Sweep Picking
Alternate Picking
Finger Picking
Hammer on
Pull off
Finger Tapping
Pick Tapping

Most of these are self explanatory. Definitions for these techniques will be explained in later parts of this lesson series.

Both emphasis and technique have a large impact on the over all sound and quality of a composition, because they all sound different and unique.


A melody is any series of consecutive notes. Some famous melodies are, "Row, Row, Row Your Boat" and "Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star". While there are no boundaries for melody or playing any music for that matter, most melodies adhere to one or more scale structures or tonalities. While most composers will build a piece of music based off chord progressions, or harmony, some will use a melody as the basis for their work.


Harmony is when two or more tones are played simultaneously or occur over the same time frame. Harmony is also determined by an interval. In this case, an interval refers to the distance between the two or more tones play together. These harmonic intervals will lead us back to how chords are created. So you begin to see how this all ties together. If the intervals between these notes are a third and fifth, then we have a [triad] chord as outlined above.

Consonance and Dissonance

Consonance is when two tones, played simultaneously or not, complement and enhance the overall tonality, such as octaves, thirds or fifths. Dissonance is the opposite; two or more tones that counteract each other such as sixths or half step intervals, C to B or C to C#.

An easy way to think of the two is through stability. Consonant intervals are considered stable and need no further resolution, while dissonant intervals are unstable and "want to move" or resolve. You will find lots of dissonant intervals in most Jazz music. Classical music uses dissonant intervals to build up to consonant intervals. This leads back to Emphasis. If a guitar player emphasizes a dissonant interval, the next consonant interval will sound that much better.

Consonance and dissonance also lead back to melody. As a melody over laps a harmony or chords in a progression, the composer may add a dissonant interval in the last few bars of the melody to lead into a new chord progression in order to emphasize the change as it happens.


Structure is simple. This is simply the way all of the above is put together. Structure is overlaying a rhythm or two with a melody or harmony, by way of scales and chords as well as consonant and dissonant intervals, emphasizing certain notes with any number of particular techniques in order to create an enjoyable piece of music.

A musician builds structure with phrases based off a time signature or time period. There are platforms from which to start such as Twelve Bar Blues. However, there are no rules.


After all is said and done, you want to take a step back and evaluate your composition. You will examine each section of the structure. Is this the outcome you predicted? Do you like the way this or that sounds? Will anyone else enjoy this as much as I do? These are common questions to ask oneself upon completion.

There are plenty of times when I will play a riff or several riffs, but I don't really know what I am playing. That is when I sit back and analyze in an attempt to decipher what is I am doing.

That sums up this lesson. I know this was all pretty boring, but I feel it is an important step in understanding music theory. I plan on creating several more lessons that will go more in depth as well as touch on things I have mentioned in the past. But for now, I hope you will enjoy this lesson.

Rock on!



Good job. You need to know what you're playing instead of just playing randomly. Some may look at this as food for thought when actually it's a mental banquet. Look forward to the next lesson.


Good stuff.


Interesting thoughts there Guitarslinger. Good work and thank you


Glad y'all liked this one!

Rock on.


Well stated Sir! I love your lessons. That you! Rock on!


I am glad that you are finding my lessons useful!


Brilliant stuff, this is exactly what I was looking for.

What book would you recommend for each layer of music?



I'm glad you found this helpful. Being self taught mostly, (most of my scholastic music education has been done in a social/anthropological context as well as appreciation) I am largely unaware of too many valuable books out there. I believe that my other lessons are very helpful, and I must stress that you can find almost all the answers you'll need on the internet.

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