Basic Music Theory 101
Learning to make music can be a pretty intimidating project. If you’re a complete beginner and you sit down at your computer or an instrument like a piano or guitar, you might not have any idea of what you’re supposed to do.
Or maybe you’ve messed around a bit and know about some of the sounds piano keys make, but still have no idea how they relate to each other.
And what about playing a full song? Where do you even start with that?
On this page, I want to talk a bit about the fundamentals of music – any type of music. These are the things you need to know about before learning things like notes, scales and chords.
And often you’re going to have to learn the very basics about how music works even when going through piano tutorials or guitar tutorials.
I want to just briefly mention stuff like time and rhythm.
All music follows what’s called tempo and a time signature. The tempo of a song is how fast it moves forward. It’s described in beats – or a single unit of musical time – per minute. So for something with a tempo of 60 BPM you would count one beat every second. A tempo of 120 BPM would be two beats every second, and so on.
The total length of a song is determined by the tempo and the number of “measures” or “bars” in a song. A measure or bar is a single phrase of music that includes a certain number of beats or notes. For example, there may be 128 measures (phrases) in a song and each measure may have 4 beats/notes in it.
The rhythm of a song or piece of music is all about how it flows in time. It is determined by time signatures and the types of notes/beats used in each measure. By types of notes I mean how short or long the notes/beats used are. There are a few different types of notes that can be played, regardless of the type of instrument you’re playing. Here’s a list:
- Whole Notes (1)
- Half Notes (1/2)
- Quarter Notes (1/4)
- Eighth Notes (1/8)
- Sixteenth Notes (1/16)
You also have thirty-second (1/32) and sixty-fourth (1/64) notes but those are rarely seen or used, except in very difficult or advanced pieces of music. Now let’s talk about how these types of notes are used and organized with time signatures.
A time signature is a measurement that tells you how many beats are in a measure. A time signature is shown at the beginning of a piece of music (if you’re reading sheet music). It normally looks like a fraction like you learned in school – for example, 4/4
The top number is the number of beats that are in each measure of music – in this case 4. So for every measure you would count out 4 beats – 1, 2, 3, 4; 1, 2, 3, 4 and so on.
The bottom number is used to describe which type of note (from above) actually gets 1 full count. Since our example is 4/4 time this means that a quarter note (1/4) gets one full count. So you could fit 4 quarter notes, 2 half notes or 8 eighth notes in one measure.
If the time signature was 4/8 it would mean that an eighth note (1/8) would get one full count in a measure of 4 beats. You could fit 4 eighth notes, 2 quarter notes or 1 half note in a measure of music. If the time signature is 3/4, there would only be 3 beats per measure, but a quarter note would get 1 full beat.
Most of the popular music you’ll come across will be in a time signature of 4/4. This is also known as common time. I’m a producer and musician as well so for this blog, I’ll probably only (or mostly) deal with 4/4 time.
The Music Staff
So how do you read music? And how do you organize and write out all these different types of notes? Well, you’d use a music staff, shown below.
You’d write out the different notes on the above “staff” in a series of measures. And it’s not just instrumental music that gets written this way. If you’re a singer, your vocals/lyrics can be written in a music staff as well. It lets you know what notes to sing for each word.
I’m sure you’re wondering what those weird symbols are at the beginning of the staff. Those are called clefs.
The top symbol is called the treble clef, and will show you the notes you play on the top half of the piano with your right hand. The bottom symbol is called the bass clef and will show you the notes you play on the bottom half of the piano with your left hand.
When you combine a staff with a time signature and some notes/beats in different measures, you have a playable piece of music. Here’s an example:
So how do you read something like that?? To be honest, I don’t know how to sight-read piano sheet music, but I do intend on learning it one day. My focus right now is being able to play piano by ear, without having to read sheet music. But it’s still important to know the basics of how to read music and have a good sense of timing.
For now all you have to know is that when playing music, you count everything out so that it flows properly. So remember our time signature of 4/4? Where there are 4 beats in a every measure and every quarter note (1/4) gets the count of one, single beat?
Here’s how you would write that out on a music staff.
Here’s how you would count that out – “1, 2, 3, 4.” How fast you count that all depends on the tempo of the song. Simple enough right?
Now if you have a bar of eighth notes, here’s what it would look like:
No if you count at the same speed/tempo as the last example (4 quarter notes) here’s how you would count out the eighth notes – “1-and, 2-and, 3-and, 4-and.”
Here’s what sixteenth notes look like written out (notated).
You would count these as “1-e-and-uh, 2-e-and-uh, 3-e-and-uh, 4-e-and-uh.”
Even though the number of notes on the staff doubles each time, the speed or tempo at which you play the notes remains the same. That means sixteenth notes are played faster than quarter notes.
Now what about the different sounds (pitches) when you play different keys of the piano? How are they written out? Here’s a little chart for you
It will take some time to memorize all those notes and be able to read them fluently. I still can’t read piano sheet music fluently, but like I said, I’m more interested in learning to play by ear for now. Once I’ve gotten a good grasp of that, I’ll start to memorize notation and practice reading piano sheet music.
That’s it for the basics of how music works. Some of the stuff on this page may have gone over your head, especially with timing and note types. Another great resource to learn more about this type of music theory is MusicTheory.net.
Their lessons are dope and I really recommend checking them out at some point.
Next up, we are going to learn about music notes, scales and chords.