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Introduction to music theory for beginners

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To learn the basics of reading scores, we will split the course into three parts. We begin by defining what is music theory, and answer the question "should I learn music theory?". In the second part we will discuss the basic concepts to learn to read music. Finally, in the third part we will see the remaining required details, namely, the armor, keys and additional lines, so that you are completely equipped to read a score. There is also attached at the very end of this course a few examples to train!

Basics required for this lesson : Harmony for Dummies : the notes,
Practice this lesson : None

What is music theory ?

Music theory is an extremely complete system to write and play music. It can transcribe completely and accurately almost all the sounds that can be done with an instrument on a sheet of paper thanks to what is called the "score". But before embarking on learning this, ask ourselves “why bother to learn ?” while there already exist tabs for guitar.

To answer this question, let's first see some of the benefits of music theory:

  • First, music theory is the most comprehensive system that exists. A number of things that are difficult or impossible to reproduce on a tab becomes easy to recreate in the form of a score. We'll talk about the main differences between tablatures and scores right after.
  • Outside the guitarists and bass players, the vast majority of musicians know music theory. So it's very handy to have a basic understanding so you can interact effectively with other musicians you meet
  • Some musical styles (including classical music and jazz) are rarely found in the form of  tablature, the vast majority of these musical styles are written as scores.
  • Music theory is not very hard to learn: 5-10 minutes a day are enough to have good groundings in a few weeks. Of course you will be reading at sight, but there will be no trouble to read a score
  • Music theory called "rhythm", ie the set of symbols used to represent the rhythm on the scores, is undoubtedly the best way to learn the rhythm. However we will not see the rhythmic notation in this course, it will be addressed in specific courses.

Now let's see the differences between the scores and tablatures:

  • A tab describes the mechanical movement that our hands must make to play a note without telling us what note it is
  • A score tells us which note to play, but does not tell us which movement to make, which will depend on the instrument you play.
  • The advantage of tablature is that we don't need to think: we "stupidly" reproduce the given gesture without asking any question. This is also a disadvantage: we have no idea of ​​the notes we play, and by dint of getting shut in a tab you end up being a player that reproduces memorized mechanical movements you know by heart.

The advantage of the score is that we know what we play. The downside is we do not know how, and therefore it requires to think a minimum in order to "translate" notes into what movement to use on the guitar. Especially since the guitar is not an easy instrument to identify notes.

There are still big flaws in the scores, which are also found in the tablature. It's simply when you have to write chords grids accompanied by strumming patterns. Indeed, in rhythmic guitar, you often get some chords that need to be played with a precise rhythm, and to transcribe it in the form of tablature or score is just a real mess. Each time you need to indicate the number of notes / strings to play, along with all the changes that you will do with the right hand. Basically, it looks like this:


It's very boring to write, and even more boring to read. For everything related to rythmic guitar, the best solution remains the chord grid.

So finally, do you need to learn music theory or not ? In any case, knowing the basics of music theory is always useful, but it is not necessarily essential. But only you can give a clear and appropriate answer to yourself:

  • If you are playing jazz or classical, or you just want to understand what you play, then yes, learn music theory
  • If you are the rock / blues / funk / punk or whatever style and do not necessarily want to understand what you play, then music theory will not be necessary
  • If you mainly play rythmic guitar with a few chords, then neither scores nor tablatures will be very useful.

The basis of scores

First of all, a score is a way to transcribe notes, make sure you master the course "Harmony for dummies: the notes." Here's a short summary: there are seven basic notes C,D,E,F,G,A,B (then again C), they are all separate by a tone except E-F and B-C which are separated by half a tone. And starting from the seven basic notes you can then add a # in order to raise the note of half a tone or add a b to lower the note of half a tone. Again, if you have any doubts, go back on the course on the notes.
Let's see how a score looks like:

As you can see, there are five horizontal lines, with a symbol at the beginning, a symbol that you've surely seen somewhere since it is the treble clef. Do not worry too much about it for now, we will get back to it in the third part.

We'll start with giving a number to each of these lines, the line at the bottom is the first line and the top line is the fifth line. But we will not stop there and we will also number the spacings, ie the space between the lines. The space between the first and second line will be the first space, the space between the second line and third line will be the second space etc.

So we end up with five lines and four blank lines (spaces) on which we will be able to place a note, like this:


Normally the notes have different shapes (4th note, half note, whole note, etc ...) to indicate the rhythm, but we will not see it today, we will only focus on the heights of notes.
The note that is shown on the score is placed on the first line. For now you can not guess what note it is, so I tell you it's the E note.

To find the other notes, we will use a fairly simple system. If I place a second note like this:


Note that the second note is placed on the first space, ie just above the first line. We will therefore consider that, compared to our E note, we have gone up of a "notch". We can not put a note with a height between our E note and the new note. This new note is located directly above the E. So to find out what note it is, it's very simple: you take the note which is located just after E, ie C, D, E, F. Thus the newly written note is the F.

Be careful, to properly use this system, we must understand that we use only the unaltered notes, ie C, D, E, F, G, A, B, with no sharps or flats.

Based on this F, we can add a new note like this:


This new note is placed on the second string, ie a "notch" above note F.. So if you take the note right after F, it is G. You have the three successive notes: E, F and G.
It also works the other way, here's an example:


We have the two notes, one located on the third space and the other one located on the third line. The note on the third line is a C (you can not guess that, so I tell you), then, the note located on the third line is located one notch below, so it is the note right before the C, and this note is a B.

Of course, we are not obliged to always write notes one after another, we can end up with two notes separated by several "notches", like this:


There we have our first note in the first space, so it is always F. To find the second note, we have to count all the intermediate notes, like this:

  • From the F we go to the G on the second line
  • from the G we go to the A on the second space
  • from the A we go to the B on the third line
  • from the B we go to the C on the third space

The second note is therefore a C.
I said earlier that for this system, we use the unaltered notes. So this raises the question: how are we going to write the sharps and flats on a score? Well, it's simple, we simply need to write the # symbol or the symbol b BEFORE the note that will be a sharp or a flat. If we take back our two notes C and B we just mentioned, they can be transformed like this:


This gives us C # and Bb.
CAUTION concerning the alterations, it's not all you need to know. There is something very important to know if you do not want to make mistakes: when applying a sharp or a flat to a note, all other notes in the same height will automatically be sharp or flat, until the end of the measure.
Let's see a concrete example, which will be a bit long:

As you can see, there is a lot of notes. We also have a bar line at the end, between two notes. Do not worry too much about it, this bar is simply there to define the measure. We'll talk about it in the course of rhythm music theory, but for now just know that before this bar we have the first measure, and after this bar there is the second measure.

Let's detail a few notes that are written. If you recount correctly you will see that we have, in order: E,D,F,E,G,E,G,E,D,E
You also notice that we have put a flat on the second E, it thus gives us: E,D,F,Eb,G,E,G,E,D,E

But as I said earlier, the flat (or sharp), applies to the rest of the measure at the same height. So that means that the flat placed on the second E will also apply to the fourth E (since it is the same height and in the same measure), but not in the first E (since it is before the flat), or the third E (since it is not at the same height) or the last E (since it is not in the same measure). So we finally end up with these notes: E,D,F,Eb,G,E,G,Eb,D,E

Be very careful with the alterations, because we too quickly forget a # or b and end up with a wrong note!

And now, there is one last detail to be addressed regarding the alterations. The most curious of you are probably saying to themselves "yes but if I want one Eb in my measure and a E (without b) later in the same measure ?" This is indeed a problem and to solve it we will seek a new symbol: the natural sign
This symbol, when placed just before a note, cancels any sharp or flat that would have been applied by default. So if I consider these three notes:


I begin with a C #, followed by a B, followed by a C which should normally be # (as it is at the same height and in the same measure as the previous C #), but this natural sign cancels the sharp, and it will therefore need to play a normal C.
Well, we finished with this part. Take the time to digest and train to find the notes on the staff. To help you, here's a quick summary of what we just saw:


We can find there all the notes available on the staff and a reminder of #, b and natural signs.
With all this you should be able to have fun to read simple melodies. However it will not be enough to read a real score. So we will discuss in the third part of this course the concepts of keys, armors and other amusing things necessary to decrypt a score.
Do not rush however, train with what we saw in Part II and be comfortable enough with the notes and the fact of finding them on the score.

The keys, armors and other amusing things

To start this third part we will look into the keys. As I said earlier, at the beginning of the score we have the treble clef:

This key allows us to have a starting point to find all the other notes. Indeed, if we look a little closer to the symbol, the loop in the middle of it "surrounds" the second line. It then tells us that this second line is a G, and this note will serve as absolute reference frame to find all the other notes on the staff.

But in music there are other keys. All are commonly used, so I do not show them all, however I will still tell you about the bass clef, which is very often used, and that looks like this:


As you can see, the symbol has a large ball placed on the fourth line. In addition, two points also surround the fourth line. This tells us that this fourth line will be the note F. This is a new starting point, different from that of the treble clef in order to find the notes on the bass clef.

The concept of going up of a notch => going up of a note and down of a notch => going down of a note is exactly the same. It's just that all notes will be shifted on the staff. Here is a small summary of the notes found on the bass clef:


Train yourself well to find the notes in the two keys, it is not difficult, but it will be very useful and it makes a good gym for the head and the thing that is in it.

To continue this third part, we will talk further notes that it is possible to write in a score. Indeed, so far in the treble clef and bass clef I could write only nine notes, which is a bit limited. There will be lots of cases where we wish to write higher notes and lower notes than what is indicated in the score. Let us see how to do this.
We will start to "spill" outside the score, like this:


As you can see, I start by writing an F on the fifth row and I went up a notch, to find myself "above" the fifth row, ie a possible fifth space. Do not look any further: I went up a notch, I got a note, so I find myself on a G.

I also did the same thing but in the lower notes, I left from the E note on the first line, I went down a notch and find myself under the first line, ie the note D.
So far there is not much to worry about, but what if I want to start from the note G that is above the fifth line and I want to move to the A above, which will be located a notch up? We have no lines anymore, we will not put the notes in an empty space will we ? Well no, we will not put the notes in an empty space, so we will add an extra line just for the A, which gives this:


This line is therefore our sixth line, but you will notice that it is not written across the width of the partition, only on the width needed for the note. And of course you can continue by adding a note at the top of the line and another line on top again:


This gives us the notes B and C over the A.

We can theoretically go a long way, but it will quickly become unreadable, so we'll see again in other ways to write the very high notes.
And it works the other way also, little example:


Here we find the notes F,E,D,C,B.

To end the third part of this course, there remains one element of a score that we have not yet discussed: the armor. The concept is simple, it involves placing sharps or flats at the beginning of the partition, right next to the key, like this:

or like this:

As you can see they are placed on a line or a specific space. The rule of thumb is simple: All the notes corresponding to this line, regardless of height, for all of the score will be sharp or flat. So if you put a # on the third space of the treble clef, thus corresponding to the note C, ALL the C, at any height, will be sharp.

In our first example we have two sharps "on key", the C and the F. The three notes written on the score are C then  F then  another F, and these notes will by default be sharps. If you want to cancel the sharp on a specific note, you will use the natural sign seen in the previous section.

Note that there are rules for sharps and flats in the key, which force us to put them in a specific order (eg you can not have a G # in the key if there was no C # and F #). All these rules help to understand and to read the partitions that have armor, but they require relatively extensive knowledge in harmony, so we will not discuss all this in today's course.
That's it, now we have finished with the basics of reading scores. Make sure you fully understand everything, and train yourself step by step. To do this, take any score and try to read some parts of its. Soon we will add some simple examples in this course which you can, train on. Don't hesitate to ask questions on the forum if you want to make sure you have understood or have succeeded in reading a score.

I also add here below two scores that summarize the notes that can be found in the treble clef and bass clef, with many additional lines. Feel free to use it as a checklist to ensure that you make no mistake:

For those who are curious about how all this translates to the guitar, the first thing to do is go to the course to learn to find notes on the fretboard, but it will probably be not sufficient. So we will see later a more suitable course on reading scores for the guitar .
Good luck and see you soon!

Appendix : exemples to train

Let's start with simple examples

Exemple numéro 1

Exemple numéro 2

Exemple numéro 3

Exemple numéro 4

Now let's add additional lines

Exemple numéro 5

Exemple numéro 6

A few alterations

Exemple numéro 7

Exemple numéro 8

Now try the key alterations

Exemple numéro 9

Do not hesitate to post your answers on the topic dedicated to the course so that we can correct you! Other examples will arrive including the bass clef!


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(Leopold Stokowski)