Learn Music Theory

Music theory is basically the study of how music works. This is very important if you really want to advance or improve your musical skills. Knowing a thing or two on the theory behind music can literally help you a lot. It will help build your knowledge in music and eventually awaken the creativity inside you.

I started playing music by imitating how others play without really knowing the theory behind it. It helped in a short while until I felt stuck. I did not see any progress or creativity. I started researching and read a few things on music theory even though I did not really understand it at first. Then after a few days of trying to apply what I have read I found that little by little playing improved.

I encourage you to start spicing up your music!


Understanding Half Steps and Whole Steps

Let's get into a little bit of music theory. Ohhh that theory? Yes, that theory! Learning theories may sound a little boring but believe me this is a powerful tool that can get you through learning a lot. Having a good grasp of the theory behind music will greatly improve your music skills. Once you mastered the idea, you can apply this theory to any musical instrument you want to learn. Even learning to sing for that matter.

What is a music interval? A music interval is basically the distance between two notes. Interval can be classified in different ways but now let's just keep things simple.

In western music, the smallest interval between two notes is called a half step or semi-tone. Let us take a look at the C and C# sharp notes. The interval between these two notes is called a half step, a semitone, or a half tone. You can use any term you want, they all mean the same thing. A half step is the interval between two adjacent notes. On your piano a half step is the two adjacent notes or keys regardless of the color (black or white). Example are C and C#, E and F, G and Ab, etc. On your guitar, these are the two adjacent frets (first and second frets, second and third frets and so on.)


Now let us check out the F and G notes. You will see that F and G has F# or Gb between them which are half steps (F to F# then F# to G). This is called a whole step, a tone, or a whole tone. A whole step is basically composed of two half steps!  I would recommend that you pause a moment and go to your instrument and identify the half steps and whole steps. This is a very simple exercise but is very critical in improving your skills.
Great job! Now you can identify half steps and whole steps. Let's try a little question and answer portion to solidify our basic knowledge on this lessson.

[Question] Are C and C#, D# and E, G and A half steps?
[Answer] No! G and A is a whole step because there is G# or Ab in between.

[Question] Are D and E, D# and F, E and F# whole steps?
[Answer] Yes! They are all composed of two half steps.

At this point  you should be able to do the following:

  • Define a half step and a whole step
  • Differentiate a half step from a whole step
  • Identify the half steps and whole steps on your instrument

What are Scales in Music

What are scales in music? Music scales refer to a series or sequence of notes that go in an ascending and descending order. There are several kinds of scales in music and they are usually distinguished by the pattern of the intervals between adjacent keys on your piano. Mastery of music scales is very important because this serves as a structure in determining which notes can be used in a specific key. Music scales also gives us the foundation in chords construction. Once you get the formula, you can apply this on any musical instrument you want to learn.

Ok, to better understand scales, let’s study the most common scale used the Major scale (Ionian scale). The Major scale is composed of seven notes plus the octave of the root. The easiest major scale to play on the piano keyboard is the C Major scale. Going back to our previous lessons, once you know the names of your white keys you already know the C Major scale since it is made up of all white keys. The scale starts on the C note (which is its root) and ascends (left to right) walking on the following notes or pitches C, D, E, F, G, A, B, plus C and vice versa.

Aside from the C Major scale we still have other major scales and I am sure you are thinking, "How do we play the other Major scales?” The good news is we do not need to memorize everything. We just need to follow a short formula or pattern. Then, we can start playing all the different major scales. The formula simply goes like these -- Whole:Whole:half:Whole:Whole:Whole:half (W - W - h - W - W - W - h )! How do we use this formula? Let's try this on the C Major scale. Press any C note on your piano, apply a whole step from C which takes you to D, another whole step from D, apply a half step from E, and so on and you will get the C Major scale!  (e.g. D Major Scale below)

D Major Scale

Now using the same concept, I recommend that you go back to your instrument and try to figure out the other major scales starting with the C# Major scale. While you are doing this exercise, say the name of notes out loud when you press them. This will help you memorize the names of the notes in the different major scale. If you are not familiar with half steps and whole steps yet, please refer to our previous lesson "Understanding Half Steps and Whole Steps". After reading this article and doing the exercise above, should be able to:

  • Define music scales
  • Identify and name all the notes on every major scale (D maj scale = D, E, F#, G, A, B, C#, D)
  • Play the different major scales (C maj scale, C# maj scale, D maj scale, etc)