Music theory for non-musos

Music theory for non-musos

I’m no expert on the subject, but it seems to me that being able to speak the language of music can be pretty darn useful in many musical situations and especially when collaborating with other musicians on a project online.

This article and others that will follow will be aimed at helping those with little or no knowledge and is intended to provide some guidance on the fundamentals of music.

Being familiar with the language of music will help you to communicate more effectively with other musicians when you want to get your ideas across or help you to understand musicians better when they are yelling, “Go up a semitone!”

The Notes

Probably a good place to start will be with the names of the notes used in our standard Western musical scales. It’s pretty simple, there are only twelve of them.

Yes, that’s right. All of your favorite songs are written using just twelve notes! They are, simply: A B C D E F & G  – And now you know at least as much about music as your youngest child 🙂

Singers may be familiar with the vocal exercise “Do Re Mi Fa Sol La Ti”. You’ll notice that’s seven notes just there. What a coincidence! If the first note you were to sing was an ‘A’ then the second note would be ‘B’, and third note a ‘C’. You get the idea.

These are the seven notes starting from A, which gives us, in this case, an A minor scale.


The sharpest among you (pun intended!) will have noticed that that’s only seven. Well, the missing notes are just variations of these seven. Or, ‘the notes in between’ to put it another way. You may have heard the terms ‘sharp’ and ‘flat’ – well these are our missing notes. And if you are familiar with a piano keyboard, the seven notes listed above are all the white notes, while the sharps and flats are all the black notes.

So, if I sharpen a note then the note goes up a semi-tone. We use the symbol ‘#’ to denote a sharp note. If I flatten a note, the note goes down a semitone. We use the symbol ‘b’ to denote a flat note.

What does it mean? It means that #music was using #hashtags long before #socialmedia.. but I digress..

Most of the seven notes listed can be either sharpened or flattened. But, to make things confusing, not all of them. Also, when we are ascending the scale, we tend to sharpen notes; whereas when we descending down the scale then we tend to flatten notes. In other words, the same note can have two names, depending on what mood we’re in – actually, it depends on what key we are in, but don’t worry too much about that for now. So let’s add in our missing notes.

Ascending chromatic scale: A A# B C C# D D# E F F# G G# and back to A.


Descending chromatic scale: A Ab G Gb F E Eb D Db C B Bb and back to A.

Minor and Major Keys

Since we are starting on the A note in these examples, that would tend to mean that we are singing in the key of A. And in this case (to be explained at another time) this arrangement of seven notes – without any sharps or flats – means that we would be singing in the key of A minor.

If instead we started on the C note and sang C D E F G A B, then we would be singing in the key of C major.

A point of interest, then, is that the key of A minor has the same notes as the key of C major. The difference is essentially the root-note in the scale, which subsequently affects the intervals between notes.

And whilst we’re on the subject, a ‘minor’ key will be the one that tends be more sad or moody sounding, whereas a major key will tend to be more positive, joyful or happy – even though we are using the same notes. More on keys at another time. For the time being, for a bit of fun, whenever you listen to a song, see if you can figure out if it is in a major or a minor key.

Scales and Chords

What is a scale, you ask? It’s basically a bunch of notes that fit nicely into the given key of the music. The seven notes listed previously gives us the scale of A minor. Also, as opposed to chords, when we play a scale, we play the notes one after the other – so not together.

Scales are typically played ascending or descending, just like it is written above. Whereas a melody is different from a scale because although we use the same notes, a melody is created by reorganizing the order and timing of those notes to make something much more interesting.

If we start playing notes together, now we are talking about chords. A chord is three or more notes that are played together. A basic major or minor chord is made up of the 1st, 3rd, and 5th notes of a major or minor scale.

So taking our A minor scale as an example, to make an A minor chord we use the three notes A (1st), C (3rd) & E (5th).


And an A minor scale along with the chord..


For C major it would be C (1st), E (3rd) & G (5th).


And with the C major scale..


If we were to just play two notes together, this is more commonly referred to as an ‘interval’ rather than a chord. This is how it sounds with just two notes playing together in 3rds using the A minor scale..


We kinda need the three notes to make a chord. A chord is sometimes also known as a triad.

Some instruments, including vocals, can only play individual notes, and hence are often more associated with the melody role in a song. While others, like the piano and guitar, can play more than one note at a time, i.e. chords.


What happens once you pass that twelfth note? Well, we just start the same scale again. So the notes repeat. I.e. after reaching our G# note, the next note would be A again. Except now, we are an ‘octave’ higher than we were before.

If we were to sing a low A and an A one octave higher, and then another A at the next octave, we would be singing in ‘unison’. Put another way, we are not harmonizing, per say. We are singing the same notes, just at a different frequency in the audible spectrum. It’s all very mathematical, so maybe we’ll figure that one out another time.

Tones and Semitones

As you can tell so far, music is all very simple. Tones and semitones.. simple too!

Taking our 12 note chromatic scale, if we go up or down a single step at any point within the scale, we are moving by a semitone.

Up a semitone..


And down a semitone..


If we go up or down by two steps (so we skip over one note), then it is a full tone.

So, up a tone..


And down a tone..


So then, from A to A# or A to Ab is a semi-tone, whereas A to B or A to G is a tone. It’s the same even where we don’t have a sharp or a flat. So going from E to F is a single step, i.e. a semitone.


My brain is hurting at this point, but there should be plenty here to get your own heads around. So to summarize:

  1. The chromatic scale has 12 notes (that’s all of them, one after the other)
  2. A chord has three notes or more (also known as a major or minor triad)
  3. The gap between any two notes is known as an ‘interval’
  4. A semitone is one step up or down in the chromatic scale
  5. A tone is two steps up or down in the chromatic scale
  6. Sharpening a note means the note ascends by one semitone
  7. Flattening a note means the note descends by one semitone
  8. A major key/chord is often characterized as sounding happy
  9. A minor key/chord is often characterized as sounding sad

If you are interested in learning more then I would highly suggest you move forward by getting access to a keyboard of some description. There are plenty of free apps for iPhone and Android that will let you play around with a piano-like keyboard and hear the notes discussed.

I hope this has been helpful. I’ll try to expand on these and some other music fundamentals in the coming weeks and months. Meantime, if you have any questions or want to add some pointers, or correct my rather rusty music theories, please go ahead by leaving a comment below.

Thanks for reading. Until next time!

One thought on “Music theory for non-musos

  1. Finally had some time to thoroughly read this. It’s so informative and well written. I love that you added audio clips for beanheads like me to be able to understand better. Thank you! 🙂

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