How Music Theory Work for Singers, Songwriters, Musicians and More
No matter what type of artist you are, you’ve heard of the term music theory before. Whether you’re a singer, songwriter, producer, etc. I’m sure you heard of music theory. You may not understand it. You may not know how it works. However, it’s a great skill to know as an artist. The great thing about theory is its beneficial for all artists. Singers, songwriters, musicians, rappers, producers and all types of artists should know theory. Even if you don’t have a full understanding of how it works, you should at least know the basics. This is why I want to explain music theory 101 and the basics. You won’t become a Stevie Wonder or Mozart over night. However, you will gain the foundational knowledge every music artist should have.
What is music theory?
Before explaining the basics of any subject, it’s important to 1st know what it means. In regards to music, what exactly is theory? Music theory is the study and practices of music. It describes how music is made.
What is music?
Before going any further we should also look at the official definition of the word “music” itself. We all love music. We all listen to some genre of music. However, what is it really? Music is the organized vocal or instrumental sound designed to create beauty.
Pitch and the music alphabet
In order to understand music and theory, the 1st thing you must understand is pitch. Pitch is the sound of a note. The note you play or sing will have a particular pitch to it. To know what the name is of the pitch/note you’re playing or singing you must know the music alphabet.
The music alphabet uses 7 letters > A B C D E F G (on a piano these are the white keys). Then it starts over again from A. There is a way to determine the difference between notes that repeat themselves. Meaning when you have two pitches with the same name. We’ll get to that later.
Each pitch/note name have a scale. Meaning the note A has a scale, the note B has a scale and so on. The easiest and most popular music scale there is, is the C major scale. This is because the C major scale have all white keys in it (meaning it doesn’t have any flat or sharp notes). The C major scale also starts on middle C, which is the pitch that all the other notes revolve around. The middle C is used to measure other pitches and separates the treble clef from the bass clef. The C major scale is actually the scale we’ll be using in this post to reference for a lot of examples. Many music theory books tend to do this with the C major scale.
When learning the scale of a pitch name in music theory, the 1st type of scale you learn is the major scale. Each note name (A B C D E F G) has a major scale pattern it follows. The major scale follows the pattern of:
Whole Step | Whole Step | Half Step | Whole Step | Whole Step | Whole Step | Half Step |
In order to understand this pattern, you have to understand what whole steps and half steps are in music.
Whole steps – is when you go from 1 note to the next note with a note in between the 2.
Half steps – is when you go from 1 note to the next note with no notes in between the 2.
You would follow this major scale pattern for all the notes/pitches. For example, with the C major scale. You would start on C. Then you would continue up the alphabet until you get to C again (C D E F G A B C). If you follow the diagram below once you start on C, then go up to D, that’s a whole step. The reason it’s a whole step is because there’s a note in between them. It’s a black key, which still counts as a note. If you study the diagram and look at each note in the music scale you’ll see how this major scale follow the (W W H W W W H) pattern.
- C to D – whole step
- D to E – whole step
- E to F – half step
- F to G – whole step
- G to A – whole step
- A to B – whole step
- B to C – whole step
Accidentals and Scale Patterns
The C major scale (out of all of the major scales) is the only scale that has all white keys. All of the other remaining scales, in order to follow the (W W H W W W H) pattern have at least 1 black key in it. The black keys represent accidental notes. Accidentals are notes that are either flat or sharp. Sometimes they are called natural. However, for major scales most of the time a black key will either be a flat or a sharp note. Any black key to the right of a white note is a sharp. A black key to the left of a white note is a flat. The major scale that has only 1 sharp note is the G major scale. In the G major scale, there is an F# (F sharp). This is because, in order for the G major scale to follow the (W W H W W W H) pattern the F has to be raised a half step. Raising it a half step makes it now a F#. Below is a diagram that gives you a visual of how the G major scale works.
- G to A – whole step
- A to B – whole step
- B to C – half step
- C to D – whole step
- D to E – whole step
- E to F# – whole step
- F# to G – whole step
Remember you follow this pattern for the major scales only. This doesn’t apply for other type of scales (i.e. minor, harmonic minor, etc.) Also to figure out which accidentals are in other scales make sure you view the notes on a piano/ keyboard/ diagram and see what notes have a note in between them and which notes don’t have any between them. This will help you determine which have which accidentals in them. Below is a list of all the major scales and their accidentals.
- C major scale – C D E F G A B C (no accidentals/ all white notes)
- G major scale – G A B C D E F# G (1 accidental/ F#)
- D major scale – D E F# G A B C# D (2 accidentals/ F#, C#)
- A major scale – A B C# D E F# G# A (3 accidentals/ F#, C#, G#)
- E major scale – E F# G# A B C# D# E (4 accidentals/ F#, C#, G#, D#)
- B major scale – B C# D# E F# G# A# B (5 accidentals/ F#, C#, G#, D#, A#)
- F major scale – F G A Bb C D E F (1 accidental/ Bb > B flat)
- Bb major scale – Bb C D Eb F G A Bb (2 accidentals/ Bb, Eb)
- Eb major scale – Eb F G Ab Bb C D Eb (3 accidentals/ Bb, Eb, Ab)
- Ab major scale – Ab Bb C Db Eb F G Ab (4 accidentals/ Bb, Eb, Ab, Db)
- Db major scale – Db Eb F Gb Ab Bb C Db (5 accidentals/ Bb, Eb, Ab, Db, Gb)
- Gb major scale – Gb Ab Bb Cb Db Eb F Gb (6 accidentals/ Bb, Eb, Ab, Db, Gb, Cb)
Grand staff, treble and bass clef
Now that we know all about pitch names, scales and the most common type of scales, we have to put it all together. When you have a scale, it can be placed multiple places. The scale can be written in soprano or alto voice. This is where the grand music staff comes in. The grand staff is when the treble staff and bass staff are combined together. The treble staff is a music staff that’s used for higher voices and instruments. For pianists, notes written on the treble clef are usually played with the right hand. The bass staff is a music staff that’s used for lower voices and instruments in music. For pianists, the bass staff is usually played with the left hand. The middle C is what separates these 2 staffs and also blends them together. Anything to the right of the middle C on the grand staff is considered the treble staff. Anything to the left of middle C on the grand staff is considered the bass staff.
Treble Clef Staff
In order to read notes written on the treble clef staff you have to understand how it works. All staffs have 5 lines and 4 spaces. The lines and spaces both have letter names. Going up the staff starting from the bottom line, the line notes are:
E G B D F
– a good way to remember this is the acronym: Every Good Boy Does Fine
Going up the staff, the space notes are:
F A C E
-a good way to remember this is simply spelling out the word “Face”
So for this staff, the C major scale would start on middle C and go up until the treble clef staff.
Bass Clef Staff
In order to read notes written on the bass clef staff you also have to understand its note names. Like the treble staff, the bass staff has 5 line and 4 spaces. The lines and spaces have letter names the represent the name of the notes/pitches. Going up the staff starting from the bottom line, the notes are:
G B D F A
-a good way to remember this is the acronym: Good Boys Do Fine Always
Going up the staff, the space notes are:
A C E G
-a good way to remember this is the acronym: All Cows Eat Grass
So now you not only know the note names and their scales. You can see how their scales are placed on the grand staff, treble or bass staff.
Another important factor when learning music theory is understanding chords. Chords are a huge part of learning music. They are arguably the heart and soul of songs. Music chords are 2 or more pitches played together. Chords are born from music scales. Every music scale have chords to accompany it. Every note in a particular scale have a chord that’s made from it. For example, with the C major scale being C D E F G A B C, there’s a chord for each note in that scale. This means there’s a chord for the C note, a chord for the D note and so on. The most popular type of chords are triad chords. Triads chords are 3 note chords that are usually built on 3rds. Meaning you start on the home note of the chord (1st note of the chord) and go up a 3rd to get the remaining 2 notes for the chord. Another way to look at this would be to say start off on the home note (tonic note) and skip a note to get the 2nd chord pitch, and skip the next note to get the 3rd pitch. The C major chord would be: C E G. This means the notes C, E and G would all be played together. This is called the C major chord. This could also be referred to as the tonic chord because the chord is built on the tonic note (C note). This is just the beginning of chords. The theory behind them goes much deeper.
When learning music as a singer, songwriter, composer, etc understanding what these notes do are very important. Yes knowing what a scale or chord is is good. However, knowing what these element do are even more important. The notes mentioned in the different scales are usually the melody. This is what the singer sings or lead instrumentalist plays. The melody is usually written on or around the treble clef staff.
The chords explained above is what makes up the harmony. If you’re playing or singing a song in C major, the melody would be the individual notes sung. The chords would be the music accompanying the the melody. For example, the C major chord would be the harmony to a song written in C major. Usually the chords/harmonies are written on or around the bass clef. Also while the particular chord is accompanying the melody, the melody note is usually at least 1 of the notes in the chord. So if the chord is C, E, G, then one of the notes being sung as the melody will usually be C, E or G.
Music notes with the same names
As mentioned earlier in the beginning of this post. All note names range from A to G. After that the letter name repeats itself. This means there are more than one A, B, C, etc. in music theory. So how do you tell the difference between the repeating notes. This is where octaves come in. An octave is the distance between one pitch and another pitch that has the same name and sound of the 1st pitch, however it’s higher in sound. In order for it to be an octave or perfect octave the 1st note of the scale has to be the same note as the ending note. Meaning it has to be C to C, or D to D with the remaining notes of the scale in between the starting and ending notes. To know which C, D, E, etc. you’re on the scales and notes are given numbers. The best way to learn this is to start with middle C. Middle C is also called C4. Any C an octave down from that C would be C3. An octave down from C3 would be C2 and so on. An octave above C4 would be C5 and so on. This also applies to other notes in music. If you wanted to play the C major scale starting from middle C, you would call it “C4 major scale.” If you wanted to play the D major scale of the D right after the middle C, you would call it the “D4 major scale.” If you wanted to simply play or sing an individual note, this same rule would apply. To play or sing middle C and distinguish it from the other C’s you would call it “C4.” Once again you would follow this rule for all note names.
This music theory content is only the basics. It won’t teach you everything you need to know about theory overnight. However, this information is the foundation that will give you a great head start. Below are a list of books and other sources that can help you get started with learning how to read and write music.
- Alfred’s Basic Adult Piano Course – Book One
- Adult All-In-One Course
- How to play piano
- Piano Book for Adult Beginners