Basic Music Theory 102: Music Notes, Scales & Chords
Welcome to the 2nd part of our basic music theory course for rappers, singers, songwriters and music producers.
If you haven’t done so yet, read the first part of this series on time and rhythm in music.
Now that you know how music moves in time and how to read sheet music, lets dive deeper into musical notes, scales and chords.
It can seem pretty complex and mathematical at times, but it’s really not that bad. Once you understand the concepts in this course and put them to use in your music, it will become second nature in no time.
The Notes in Western Styles of Music
In this guide, we’re focused on western popular music styles. Music is universal, but around the world people use different time signatures, pitches and naming standards when making music.
You might already know the basic notes in music but if not here’s a quick refresher on music notes.
In most western and popular music there are 12 musical notes that can be combined in different ways to create music that actually sounds good via “music scales” (more on these later).
These are the basic notes you’ll be working with all the time:
A, B, C, D, E, F, G
And each of these notes can be “modified” to sound a bit different than the original – higher or lower in pitch. This is done by either making the note a “Sharp” (notated as a #) or a “Flat” (notated as a b).
So you can have a C note, an A Sharp (A#) note or a B Flat (Bb) note, etc.
One thing to note is this – some notes have different names, but are the exact same. For example, an A# (a sharp note) is the exact same note as a Bb (b flat note).
Confusing right? But that’s because of how music moves via musical scales. It’s easier to describe when looking at a piano.
In the image above you see the main notes (A, B, C, D, E, F, G) laid out on the white keys of the piano. Now when you want to make a note a flat, you move down one key to the left. When you want to make a note sharp, you move up one key to the right.
This is called moving in half-steps (more on this below).
So now when you look at the black keys on the piano you see that they can have two different names. The first black key in the set of 2 (with circle around them) is either a C# or a Db.
That’s because when you start at C (the white key), you have to move up one key to the right to make it sharp (the first black key). But if you’re on the D (the white key) and want to make it flat, you move down one key to the left (the same black key).
Confusing, I know… But read all that again a couple of times and you’ll get it.
And use the chart above as a quick reference to which keys are which.
But now at least you know all 12 notes in music.
The same notes exist on the guitar, but it’s laid out as easily.
Now let’s talk about the musical scale.
Music scales are important. It’s how music moves so our brains can comprehend the changes in pitch in relation to certain feelings or emotions.
You can’t just sit down at a piano or pick up a guitar and play any notes one after another and expect it to sound good (of course, this is debatable depending on what you think sounds “good”).
Certain notes work well with other notes. And that’s why you need to know your musical scales.
What Is A Musical Scale?
A music scale is a set of notes that – when played along with other notes in the same scale – sound harmonic. They sound like they go together and the notes – even though they’re different – sound pleasing to the ear when played one after another.
It’s hard to describe in words, but when you play a scale on a piano vs. playing random notes you can hear the difference.
So how do you build a music scale? Let’s talk about how they’re built.
Intervals (Whole Steps and Half Steps)
This movement is based on different intervals of HALF STEPS and WHOLE STEPS. A half step is moving along the keyboard (either left or right) from key to key WITHOUT any keys in between. On the other hand a whole step is when you move along the keyboard to another key but you DO leave one key in between. Here’s an image to help you visualize what I’m talking about:.
So basically, whole steps skip a key and half steps don’t skip any keys. So, if we start at a C and move to a D, it’s a whole step. This is because there is a black key (a C#/Db) in between the two notes. But if we moved from C to the C#/Db it would be a half step, because there is no key in between the two notes.
The Two Main Musical Scales
So there are two main scales in western popular music – the major scale and the minor scale. The major scale is a lot happier sounding while the minor scale sounds more dark and depressing. You can build both major and minor scales for every note/key on the piano. How you build them all depends on the intervals you use.
The Major Scale
So how do you build a major scale? Well it all has to do with the intervals you use. Remember the whole steps and half steps? Well here’s the pattern that EVERY major scale uses when moving along the keyboard, no matter what key you start on. (W = whole step, H = half step)
W – W – H – W – W – W – H
So for example I’m going to build a major scale on the note of C. This is the root note. You can start on any key and use the above pattern but the C major scale is easy to remember.
So here’s how we’d build the C major scale:
Start at C –> Move to D (“W”) –> Move to E (“W”) –> Move to F (“H”) –> Move to G (“W”) –> Move to A (“W”) –> Move to B (“W”) –> Arrive back at C (“H”)
So we started at C and to move a whole step, we end up at D (there is one key – C#/Db – between the two. When we get to E, we need a half step. This would move up to F because there are no keys in between. Simply use the pattern above and you can build any major scale on any key on the keyboard.
Here’s an image of the C major scale:
The Minor Scale
So similar to the major scale, you can build a minor piano scale using a set pattern of steps. This pattern is:
W – H – W – W – H – W – W
So to build the minor scale for the note C we would start at C and use the pattern above to move to the next notes. Here is what it would look like:
Start on C –> Move to D (“W”) –> Move to E-Flat (“H”) –> Move to F (“W”) –> Move to G (“W”) –> Move to A-Flat (“H”) –> Move to B-Flat (“W”) –> Arrive back at C (“W”)
So now you can see there are black notes included in this scale as well. This is because a half step from D is to the black note to the right of it – an Eb (E-Flat). And when you play it out, it sounds a lot darker and sadder than the major scale.
Here’s an image of the C minor scale:
Now you might be asking why I decided to only call it an Eb and not a D# (D-Sharp). This is because when you’re playing a scale you can only use an alphabet letter once. And we already used a D as the second note (also known as a tone) of this scale.
Modes in Music
Now the Major and Minor scales are only two of a wide variety of musical scales. In western music alone there are various modified major/minor scales called Modes.
Modes work in the same way as major/minor scales in that they’re a consistent series of half-step and whole-step movements up and down a keyboard.
Here are the various different modes of western music:
- Ionian: W – W – H – W – W – W – H (this is the “major scale” above)
- Dorian: W – H – W – W – W – H – W
- Phrygian: H – W – W – W – H – W – W
- Lydian: W – W – W – H – W – W – H
- Mixolydian: W – W – H – W – W – H – W
- Aeolian: W – H – W – W – H – W – W (this is the “minor scale” above)
- Locrian: H – W – W – H – W – W – W
Try playing these modes to see how they sound. Start on any key of the piano and move in whole-steps and half-steps based on the modes above.
A chord is a set of two or more notes played together at the same time. These aren’t just random notes played together, though. These are notes that go well together (sound harmonious together).
Here are the notes in chords you’ll come across most:
All major chords use the 1st tone, 3rd tone and 5th tone of the major scale you’re playing in. So, for example, in the C major scale (C, D, E, F, G, A, B, C) let’s apply numbering. Here’s what you get:
C = 1, D = 2, E = 3, F = 4, G = 5, A = 6, B = 7, C = 8
Since the major triad chord is made up of the 1st, 3rd, and 5th tone of the scale, the C-major triad chord would use the notes C, E and G. Go over to your piano and play C-E-G together at the same time. You can hear it sounds bright and happy, just like the C major scale.
Congratulations, you just played your first music chord.
You can do the same thing to find the root chord of ANY note, you simply have to know the scale of that note. So for example, to play a D Major chord, just use the 1st, 3rd and 5th degree of the D Major scale (D – F# – A)
Minor chords are often thought of as the “sadder” chords, while Major chords sound “happy.”
The difference comes from the notes that actually make up the major and minor scales. For minor chords we simply “flat” the 3rd degree of the major chord. And that’s because in the minor scale the 3rd degree is flat compared to the major scale.
If you remember, the notes of the C major scale are C, D, E, F, G, A, B
But the notes in the minor scale are C, D, Eb, F, G, Ab, Bb, C. (the 3rd, 6th and 7th degrees are “flattened” from the major scale – this works across ALL major/minor scales)
So in C Minor – C = 1, D = 2, Eb = 3, F = 4, G = 5, Ab = 6, Bb = 7, C = 8
And even though the scales are made up of different notes, the way the chord is put together remains the same. We use the 1st, 3rd and 5th degrees of the scale.
So the C-minor chord would be made up of the notes C, Eb and G.
Again, you can use the same method to find out the minor chord for any of the 12 notes on the piano.
Augmented and Diminished Chords
Augmented and Diminished chords are chords with LOTS of tension. They sounds like they are scary or “on edge.”
Augmented chords are major chords with a SHARP 5th scale degree.
C Major is C = 1, D = 2, E = 3, F = 4, G = 5, A = 6, B = 7, C = 8
and a C Major Chord is C – E – G, then a C Augmented chord would be C – E – G#.
Diminished chords on the other hand are minor chords with a FLAT 5th scale degree.
So if C Minor is C = 1, D = 2, Eb = 3, F = 4, G = 5, Ab = 6, Bb = 7, C = 8
then a C Diminished chord is C – Eb – Gb.
The last chord type we’ll talk about here is the 7th chord. These are the really full, beautiful sounding chords you hear in a lot of jazz, r&b and soul/gospel music.
You can create either major or minor 7th chords by simply adding on the 7th scale degree to any basic major/minor chord.
So a C Major 7 chord is C – E – G – B
and a C Minor 7 is C – Eb – G – Bb.
Again, you can do this with ANY note on the keyboard, using this number system (we dive more in depth into the number system in part 3 of this course, next).
There’s one more basic concept that you should understand about building chords and that’s “inversions.”
A chord inversion is simply playing a chord, with the notes in a different order than the standard position.
The standard C Major chord is C – E – G (the 1-3-5 of the C Major scale).
If you want to invert that chord you would simply re-arrange the notes.
First Inversion = 3-5-1
So a C Major chord in first inversion would be played as E – G – C
Second Inversion = 5-1-3
So a C Major chord in second inversion would be played as G – C – E.
Try it out on the piano to see the different sound of each “voicing” of these two chords. Then try it with other chords
Other Scales & Chords
There are so many more scales in music (and tons more chords in music) than just the major and minor, but for now stick to learning and memorizing these ones. When you get good with these scales you can move on to things like the pentatonic scale, blues scale, Arabic scale, 6 chords, 9 chords, suspended chords and much more.
But now that you know how to build basic major and minor scales and chords and you’ll be able to play or make music in ANY KEY you want.
The next thing you’ll want to learn in our basic music theory course is how music flows. First, we’re going to talk about the Nashville Number System and put numbers to all the notes you just learned.