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Music Theory: How To Read Music – Part 3

By ASKM Publishing

Learn all about music theory and how to read music

To follow this post correctly please be sure to read Part 1 and Part 2 of our Learning Music Theory Tutorial

In part 1 and 2 of our tutorial on “Learning How to Read Music” we covered the basics. In part 1 we covered the very beginning of music theory. The part that deals with the music alphabet, pitch and scales; particularly the major scale. In part 2 we added on to that knowledge. We covered rhythm, tempo, the difference between notes and rests, and much more. Now to take your knowledge  to the next level you need to learn what we’re going to discuss in part 3. This will bring all the music concepts together.

Recap

Part 1:

Music alphabet – 7 letters that are comprised of “A B C D E F G”.

Major scale – each pitch/note of the music alphabet has a scale. The most popular scale is the major scale. In order to properly learn the major scale for each note you must follow the pattern of: W W H W W W H

Ex: C major scale – C D E F G A B C

  • C to D – whole step
  • D to E – whole step
  • E to F – half step
  • F to G – whole step
  • G to A – whole step
  • A to B – whole step
  • B to C – whole step

Music staffs/clefs:

Treble clef staff – All staffs have 5 lines and 4 spaces. Any notes above middle C, are apart of the treble staff. The lines and spaces both have letter names. Going up the staff starting from the bottom line, the line notes are:

E G B D F

– a good way to remember this is the acronym: Every Good Boy Does Fine

Going up the staff, the space notes are:

F A C E

Bass clef staff – The bass staff has 5 line and 4 spaces as well. The lines and spaces have letter names the represent the name of the notes/pitches. Going up the staff starting from the bottom line, the notes are:

G B D F A

-a good way to remember this is the acronym: Good Boys Do Fine Always

Going up the staff, the space notes are:

A C E G

-a good way to remember this is the acronym: All Cows Eat Grass

 

Part 2:

Chords – 2 or more pitches played together. The most common type of chords are triad chords, which are 3 notes played simultaneously. With basic chords all the notes played together are all apart of the same scale. Each pitch in a scale has a chord born from it. If you’re in the C major scale ( C D E F G A B C), there’s a chord for the pitch C, a chord for the pitch D and so on.

Rhythm – is what tells an artist the duration of a music note. It tells you how long to play or sing a note. This is why rhythm is counted. In rhythm you have quarter, half, whole, eighth, sixteenth and triplet notes.

Rests – are notation in music that lets you know when you’re not suppose to play or sing. It’s when you should “take a rest.” However, you need to know how long the rest should last. Like notes, there are quarter, half, whole, eighth and sixteenth rests.

Time/Meter – tells the musician and recording artist what type of notes you’ll be working with, and what tempo the music will be in. It basically controls the flow of the music. The most common type of meter in music is 4/4 time.

*To get the full learning of what’s discussed in the recap be sure to read over and steady both part 1 and part 2 of “Music Theory 101: Learning for all artists.”

 

Finger numbers

music-theory

Learn all about music theory and how your fingers should be numbered for playing the piano

Before you can truly learn how to read music or play you must 1st understand how the fingers work. This goes for playing any instrument. But it’s especially crucial for music theory piano and guitar. It’s all about how and where you place your fingers. Each finger on both hands have a number. On your right hand starting from your thumb you count 1-5. On your left hand you start from your thumb and count 1-5. For instance, if a music teacher asked you to play middle C with finger 3 on your right hand. This means you would play middle C with your middle finger of your right hand. This concept applies to music chords as well. A standard triad chord have 3 notes. Since the notes in the chord have notes in between them. You would play with fingers in between your chords, meaning every other finger. For example, to play a C major chord, you would use fingers 1-3-5. Finger 1 would play the C. Finger 3 would play the E. Finger 5 would play the G.

*Sometimes when playing chords you will actually end up using fingers 1-2-5 or 1-3-4. That will be explained later on.

Chords

In part 1 and 2 of our tutorial we briefly touched on music chords. However, we didn’t go into depth with them. There’s so much to chords and how they benefit the art of music. Remember chords are 2 or more notes play at the same time. The most basic and popular type of chords are triads. Triads are chords that are made up of 3 notes. Also remember chords are built from notes in scales. For example, with the C major scale the notes consist of – C D E F G A B C. For each of those notes there is a chord. This means the C has a triad chord. The D has a triad chord. The E has a triad chord and so on.

chords

Just a reminder of what the C major chord looks like and what notes it’s made up of in music theory

Chord numbers

When working with chords, one of the primary things you have to understand are their numbers. To understand this you have to know the scale the chord is built on. Remember all keys in a scale have a number. For example, in the C major scale: C is named the 1st key since it’s the 1st note on the C major scale. D is named the 2nd key since the it’s the 2nd note in the C major scale, and so on.

C D E F G A B C

C – 1st note/pitch

D – 2nd note/pitch

E – 3rd note/pitch

F – 4th note/pitch

G – 5th note/pitch

A – 6th note/pitch

B – 7th note/pitch

C – 8th  note/pitch or octave

Understanding how this method works will help you with naming chords. For example, if you have a C major chord which is C E G then you know the number of that chord is 1. This is because the chord is built on the 1st note of the C major scale. It’s more to this concept. It will be explained below. However, this is the 1st part to naming chords. Knowing which note they’re built on and what number that note is in a particular scale.

Intervals

Before we get into the meat and bones of chords we must 1st discuss intervals. In order to understand how chords work and progress, you have to know about intervals. Scales, chords and intervals all work together in unison. So what is an interval? In music theory, an interval the distance between any 2 musical notes. Intervals have 2 components to them. The numeric size of the interval and the type of interval it is. This means when you measure the distance between 2 notes, you have to know how far they are from each other and the quality of the distance. Using the C major scale as an example, when measuring an interval always count the note you’re starting on as 1. This means if you’re in the C major scale, and you’re measuring C to D, you would count C as 1. Then you would count D as 2. This makes 2 steps. So C to D in the C major scale is a 2nd. To be exact it’s a major 2nd. I’ll explain where the “major” part comes in.

music-theory

An example of what a major 2nd interval looks like in a C major scale. C to D

C major scale – C D E F G A B C

C to D – Major 2nd

Counting C is step 1, Counting D is step 2.

Major, minor, perfect, diminished, augmented intervals

Now that you know the basics of intervals, you must know their type. You know how to get the number of an interval. That’s by starting on the note you’re on and counting up to the note you desire to stop at. However, you now need to know how to get the interval type. There are many different types of intervals in music theory. The most common are: major, minor, diminished and augmented.

music-theory

A chart showing the different type of intervals specifically for the C major scale in music theory

Major interval:

-any distance that’s a 2nd, 3rd, 6th or 7th are major intervals. What makes it major is the fact that there’s a note in between each step as you count up the scale.

Using the C major scale as an example:

major-interval

An example of a Major 3rd interval in the scale of C major. C to E

  • C to D = Major 2nd > written as M2
  • C to E = Major 3rd > written as M3
  • C to A = Major 6th > written as M6
  • C to B = Major 7th > written as M7

Minor interval:

-any distance that’s a half step down from a major interval. This mean there isn’t a note distance in between them.

Using the C major scale as an example:

minor-interval

A visual example of a minor 3rd interval in the C major scale. C to Eb (E flat)

  • C to Db = minor 2nd > written as m2
  • C to Eb = minor 3rd > written as m2
  • C to Ab = minor 6th > written as m6
  • C to Bb = minor 7th > written as m7

Perfect interval:

-any distance that’s 1 (prime), 4th, 5th or 8th (octave). You’ll hear this in music theory a lot. A music or voice instructor may say “she sang a perfect 5th.” This means she sang the 1st note to the 5th note perfectly. Both pitches were exact. It wasn’t too high (sharp) or too low (flat).

Using the C major scale as an example:

perfect-interval

A visual of a perfect interval in the C major scale. C to G( aka perfect 5th)

  • C to C = prime (which isn’t common at all)
  • C to F = Perfect 4th > written as P4
  • C to G = Perfect 5th > written as P5
  • C to C = Octave or Perfect 8th > written as P8 (this is going from the 1st C on the scale to the last C on the scale).

Diminished interval:

-any distance that’s smaller than a major or perfect interval. It’s very common in music and theory for a major interval to be converted into a minor interval.

Using the C major scale as an example:

diminished-fourth

A visual example of a diminished interval. C to Fb (F flat) which would be called a diminished 4th.

  • C to Fb = Diminished 4th (the Fb is actually an E because there are no black keys in between E and F).
  • C to Gb = Diminished 5th

Augmented interval:

-any distance that’s larger than a major or perfect interval.

Using the C major scale as an example:

augmented-fifth

A visual example of an augmented 5th interval. C to G# (G sharp), which would be called an augmented 5th.

  • C to D# = Augmented 2nd
  • C to F# = Augmented 4th
  • C to G# = Augmented 5th

*Remember to follow this pattern with intervals using any major scale. With minor scales it’s slightly different. Below is a short summary explaining how intervals work with minor scales. We’ll be using the C minor scale as an example.

C minor scale: C D Eb F G Ab Bb C

  • C to D = Major 2nd
  • C to E = minor 3rd
  • C to F = Perfect 4th
  • C to G = Perfect 5th
  • C to Ab = minor 6th
  • C to Bb = minor 7th
  • C to C = Perfect octave

To learn more about intervals in complete depth, here’s an amazing music theory course on them here.

More about music chords

Now that we know all about intervals, music scale numbers and what number a chord is built on; we can further explain the major of chords. As I’ve state earlier before you can learn the heart and soul of chords you must 1st know intervals and know how to tell which note a chord has been built on. For example, a C major chord (C E G) has been built on the 1st note in a C major scale. This is because C is the 1st note in a C major scale. In music theory, the most simplest type of chord is triad chord. That’s a chord built of 3 notes. The 1st note of scale, the 3rd note of a scale and the 5th note of a scale. This is why in the C major scale, the C major chord is C E G. This same rule applies to every scale. Even the scales that have accidentals in them. For instance, in the G major scale (G A B C D E F G). The G major chord would be G B D. This is because it takes the 1st, 3rd and 5th notes of the G major scale to produce the chord. However, chords get much more complicated than this.

Major, minor, diminished, augmented, dominant 7 chords

Just like there are many different intervals, there are many different chords. All chords aren’t major. Major chords are just the basis for understanding chords. Using the C major scale as an example again, below I’ll explain each chord type and how they work.

Major chord:

-any chord that’s built on a major 3rd, with a minor 3rd added on top.

chords

An example of the C major chord

Ex: C major triad chord > C E G = C to E is a Major 3rd and then E to G is a minor 3rd. Major 3rd plus minor 3rd equals a major triad chord ( M3 + m3 = Major triad chord)

Minor chord:

-any chord that’s built on a minor 3rd, with a major 3rd on top.

c-minor-chord

An example of the C minor chord, which consists of C Eb (E flat) and G. The 3rd tone being lowered a half step is what makes it a minor chord

Ex: C minor triad chord > C Eb G = C to Eb is a minor 3rd, Eb to G is a major 3rd. Minor 3rd plus major 3rd equals a minor triad chord (m3 + M3 = minor triad chord)

Diminished chord:

-any chord that’s built on two minor 3rd intervals

diminished-chord

An example of the C diminished chord, which consists of C Eb (E flat) and Gb (G flat). The 3rd and 5th tone being lowered a half step is what makes it a diminished chord

Ex: C diminished triad chord > C Eb Gb = C to Eb is a minor 3rd, Eb to Gb is a minor 3rd. Minor 3rd plus minor 3rd equals a diminished triad chord (m3 + m3 = diminished triad chord)

Augmented chord:

-any chord that’s built on two major 3rd intervals

augmented-chord

An example of the C augmented chord, which consists of C E and G# (G sharp). The 5th tone being raised a half step is what makes it a augmented chord

Ex: C augmented triad chord > C E G# = C to E is a major 3rd, E to G# is a major 3rd. Major 3rd plus major 3rd equals an augmented triad chord (M3 + M3 = augmented triad chord)

Dominant 7 chord:

-any chord that’s built on a major chord and has a minor 3rd added to the top. It’s the most popular type of seventh chord in music theory. However, it’s not the only one.

dominant-7-chord

An example of the C dominant 7 chord, which consists of C E G an Bb (B flat). The 7th tone being lowered a half step is what makes it a dominant 7 chord

Ex: C dominant 7  > C E G Bb = C E G is a major chord. Then added a minor 3rd (G to Bb) to that major chord. You now get (C E G Bb).  Major triad chord plus minor 3rd equals a dominant 7 chord (Major triad chord + m3 = dominant 7 chord).

This may seem difficult initially. However, you can get the hang of it. The great thing about learning music theory are it’s many tricks and tips. To quickly learn the major and minor chords of a scale you can just memorize the chart below. Remember once you find the minor you can easily find a diminished. Once you find a major you can easily find an augmented.

Major scale chord chart:

  • 1st note – creates a Major triad chord
  • 2nd note – creates a minor triad chord
  • 3rd note – creates a minor triad chord
  • 4th note – creates a Major triad chord
  • 5th note – creates a Major triad chord
  • 6th note – creates a minor triad chord
  • 7th note – creates a diminished triad chord

Ex: Using C major scale > C D E F G A B C

  • C 1st note > C E G – Major triad chord
  • D 2nd note > D F A – minor triad chord
  • E 3rd note > E G B – minor triad chord
  • F 4th note > F A C – Major triad chord
  • G 5th note > G B D – Major triad chord
  • A 6th note > A C E – minor triad chord
  • B 7th note > B D F – diminished triad chord

minor scale chord chart:

  • 1st note – creates a minor triad chord
  • 2nd note – creates a diminished triad chord
  • 3rd note – creates a Major triad chord
  • 4th note – creates a minor triad chord
  • 5th note – creates a minor triad chord
  • 6th note – creates a Major triad chord
  • 7th note – creates a Major triad chord

Ex: Using C minor scale > C D Eb F G Ab Bb C

  • C 1st note > C Eb G – minor triad chord
  • D 2nd note > D F Ab -diminished triad chord
  • Eb 3rd note > Eb G Bb -Major triad chord
  • F 4th note > F Ab C – minor triad chord
  • G 5th note > G Bb D – minor triad chord
  • Ab 6th note > Ab C Eb – Major triad chord
  • Bb 7th note > Bb D F – Major triad chord

*Also note that in music theory chords are numbered using roman numerals. For example, if you wanted to name a C major chord you would write it as > I (which is 1 in roman numerals). Of course you would call it “I”, since it’s the chord built on the 1st tone of the C major scale.

Chord progressions

chord-progression

The most standard type of chord progression to learn in music theory is 1-4-5, which represent the tonic, subdominant and dominant chords.

After learning about the different type of chords, it’s now time to learn about chord progressions. In music theory, chord progressions are basically the structure of how chords move and flow throughout music. To understand chord progressions, you must 1st know the top 3 common chords used in a major scale. There are chord 1 (aka the tonic chord), chord 4 (the subdominant chord) and chord 5 (the dominant chord). In music they would be written out in roman numerals as > I  IV  V (equivalent to 1 4 5). Using the C major scale as an example the following I, IV, V chords are:

  • I = C major > C E G
  • IV = F major > F A C
  • V = G major > G B D *However, often times in music, composer used dominant 7 instead of V (chord 5). So it would end up being G B D F or sometimes even simplified to G F B.

If you’re learning a song in any key. Regardless of if you’re playing it or singing it. The 1st, 4th and 5th chords of that scale will be in the song 9 times out 10. That’s because the tonic, subdominant and dominant keys and chords of a scale are vital. They are extremely important. They help bring the music together. They help make the song whole. They also help artist identify which key he or she is singing in or playing in. This is standard in music theory. A chord progression would be how you play these chords together. You would play the C major chord, then the F major chord and then the G major chord or the G7 chord. However, it doesn’t have to go in this order. Which ever order you decide to play them in creates your chord progression.

Inversions

When playing a chord progression you’re not going to always play the chord at the root position. To make sure the music sound smooth and your fingers are able to play eloquently, you want to do what is called an inversion. A music inversion is when you rearrangement the order of notes in music. You still use the same key/pitch. However, the order in which you use them change. A C E G will always make up a C major chord no matter what. It doesn’t matter the order it’s played in. If it’s E G C, it’s still a C major scale. You just changed the order around. Suppose you wanted to play a C major chord and a F major chord on a piano. If you try to play each chord in root position (C E G and F A C), your fingers would have to do a lot of jumping around. However, if you played the C major in it’s root position (C E G) and the F major chord as an inversion (C F A vs. F A C) you now didn’t have to move your fingers too much. The same finger you played the C major chord with can stay on it’s original place when it’s time to play the F major chord because you’re playing an inversion. This is a very convenient trick in music theory many artists and composers do. Below is a more visual example:

music-theory

A great visual example of the 1-4-5 chords in C major in their inversion positions for bass and treble staff.

Ex: Plays C major and F major chord using the right hand

C major chord > root position = C E G – played with fingers 1 3 5 using the right hand

– Thumb which is finger 1, would play the C. Middle finger which is 3 would play the E. Pinky which is finger 5 would play the G.

F major chord > inversion position = C F A – played with fingers 1 2 5 using the left hand.

-Thumb which is finger 1, would play the C. Index finger which is 2 would play the F. Pinky which is finger 5 would play the A.

See how much smoother and easier it is to switch chords versus trying to play both chords in root position. Your fingers have to do a lot more work. These type of chord progressions and many more are very common in music theory. They work wonders for singing and playing. These are just 1 of the many great things about chords and how they work. Most harmonies that are in music are written as inversions. They aren’t played in root position.

This tremendous knowledge of intervals, chords and progressions combined with what you learned in part 1 and part 2 will lead you on a great path to understanding music theory. You won’t know everything. There’s still more to learn. However, these basics will definitely put you on the right path and make you ready for level 2.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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