Category Archives: Music Theory

The Unanswered Question – Leonard Bernstein


Music Theory — why??

A friend of mine recently asked me, “what are some practical applications of music theory?” This is a very good question. I mean… why learn something if you never going to use it.

Here are some of my thoughts:


As part of learning theory I think you also end up learning how to read music. You learn what the lines and what some of the funny symbols are all about. Personally, I can’t read very fast. But I can read something if I have to. So it provides a way of communicating with other musicians in written form.

Theory is also useful for verbal communication. I find it simpler to talk in numbers rather than letters. Let’s say the song is in G. I prefer saying, “Let’s try playing a 6 5 4 5 progression for the bridge” rather than “Em D C D”. I guess they’re both just as quick…

But let’s say the song has a key change. It’s easier to say, “Let’s try the same progression 1 step up” rather than “Instead of G play A, instead of Em play F#m, instead of C play D, instead of D play E”, etc., etc.


I do a lot of my learning in the car (driving by myself). It seems to be where I can have a block of time to just listen and I can blast it without others complaining. For most songs that I have to learn which are mostly pop and rock I’m able to pick out chord structures and notes while I’m listening. So by the time I get to a guitar, I already have a good idea of what I’m doing playing… maybe evn how. This is called “relative pitch”: being able to identify a I chord vs a IV chord vs a II minor, etc. I wish I also had “perfect pitch” and was able to also tell what the key is. Maybe in the next life.

Understanding theory provides a framework that allows you to quickly figure out what a song is doing (how chords are changing). This coupled with ear training allows you to identify chords and notes quickly and without a lot of guessing.

One time I was sitting with a friend of mine who’s a very talented piano player. We were watching a performance at a conference and she said, “Wow, I really like this song.” She took out some pen and paper and just started writing out the melody she was hearing in numbers. Music theory gives you the language to be able to translate what you hear to something that can be read.


Aside from the obvious advantage of being able to write your composition in music notation so someone else can play your song, music theory comes in handy during writing because it gives you an idea what chords and notes would sound “good” together. And conversely, it would also tell you what chords and notes might sound “strange” and “unexpected” (if that’s what you’re going for). Again, it takes some of the guess work out. Or maybe answer the question, “is this basically the same song as ___?” (the answer is usually yes and it’s okay… we all borrow from somebody)

As you analyze more and more songs, you’ll notice certain patterns are used over and over again. And you’ll notice that these patterns seem to almost always give you a certain “feel”. This might also be useful while writing. Maybe there’s a certain “feel” you’re going after. Music theory might help give you a starting point to vary from.

understanding theory will also help you understand and come up with harmony quicker. This can be used 2 ways: what chords to use and/or what background vocals to sing to harmonize with a given melody.

Moving it up and down

To tie it all to guitar…

One of the things I love about guitar is that you can visually see how the theory “plays out”. For instance, transposing a song from one key to another might be (usually is) as simple as moving a few shapes up or down the neck. This is not true, say, for the piano. Your fingers have to do something slightly different when playing in C vs Eb. No one every feels sorry for the guitarist if the singer decides to change the key (and it’s almost always the singer 😉

In a previous post, we looked at how all chords of the same type (ie major, minor, 7, etc.) are held the same way regardless of the root note. Example: you’d hold G7 and A7 the same way except a few frets apart.

Final Thoughts

I think theory can often be “misused”. You can easily box yourself in both as a player and composer. Nevertheless, it’s a useful tool to have in your toolbox for creative expression.

Wow, I can’t believe I just typed all this on a keyboard hooked up to an ipod!

Guitar Lesson – Music Theory Part 8 – Scales and Modes

In one of the previous post, we looked at how you can use the major scale to create other scales by starting on a different note.  These other scales are also known as modes.  In that post, we started the pattern from the 6-note and created the minor scale:
          6  7  1  2  3  4  5  6  7  8
C major:        C  D  E  F  G  A  B  C
A minor:  A  B  C  D  E  F  G  A             
Now let’s take a look at what happens if we tried starting the pattern from the other notes.  Each scale or mode also has (Greek) name.  Remember, the root of each of the scales below is the 1st note.
C Ionian (major) :   C  D  E  F  G  A  B  C
D Dorian         :      D  E  F  G  A  B  C  D 
E Phrygian       :         E  F  G  A  B  C  D  E
F Lydian         :            F  G  A  B  C  D  E  F
G Mixolydian     :               G  A  B  C  D  E  F  G
A Aeolian (minor):                  A  B  C  D  E  F  G  A 
B Locrian        :                     B  C  D  E  F  A  B 
This gives us the basic idea of how to figure out the patterns of the other scales.  Let’s look at the different patterns side by side: (W= whole step, H = half step)

Ionian (major) :      W  W  H  W  W  W  H

Dorian         :      W  H  W  W  W  H  W
Phrygian       :      H  W  W  W  H  W
Lydian         :      W  W  W  H  H
Mixolydian     :      W  W  H  W
Aeolian (minor):      W  H  W
Locrian        :     

Now if we apply these patterns to the same root we can see the differences between the modes (which is really the important thing to remember):

                     1  2  3  4  5  6  7  8
C Ionian (major) :   C  D  E  F  G  A  B  C

C Dorian         :   C  D  Eb F  G  A  Bb C
C Phrygian       :   Db Eb F  G  Ab Bb C
C Lydian         :   C  D  F# G  A  C
C Mixolydian     :   C  D  F  G  A  Bb C
C Aeolian (minor):   C  D  Eb F  G  Ab Bb C
C Locrian        :   Db Eb Gb Ab Bb C

In some upcoming posts, we’ll start looking at what scale patterns might look like on the fretboard of the guitar. 

Guitar Lesson – Music Theory Part 7 – "out of key" chords

In Part 5, we looked at building triads from the major scale.  This resulted in: (just looking at 2, 3, 4, 5 and 6)

   ii   iii   IV   V   vi

Now, let’s turn them up-side-down and see what their major/minor counterparts might sound like.

   II   III   iv   v   VI 

Let’s try using the key of G.  So the “normal” chords would have been:

   Am   Bm    C    D   Em

So instead of these, let’s try: 
   A    B     Cm   Dm  E

Here’s a progression that tries to use all of them.  First, we’ll use all the “normal” chords.  Then we’ll play another sequence that will use some of the “abnormal” ones.  Here, some 7th chords will be used.  But the major and minor 3rds will still be “flipped”. 

|G    |D    |Em   |Bm   |
|C    |Am7  |D    |D7   | 
|G    |B7   |Em   |A7   | 
|C    |Cm   |G    |E7   |

|C    |Cm   |G    

Unfortunate, this example doesn’t use the 5-minor.  But we’ll get to that in the next example… 

Another set of chords that are “out of key” are the diminished-6 and diminished-7 chords (aka “6-flat” and “7-flat”).  This is not the same as 6 dim or 7 dim.  But rather, take the 6-note and 7-note of the scale and make them flat.   For instance:

E major scale:    E  F#  G#  A  B  C#  D#  E

So instead of C# and D#, use C and D.  Particularly, use their major chords.  Try this progression: 

|E    |E    |Bm   |Bm   |   (here’s that 5-minor)
|E    |E    |Bm   |Bm   |
|E    |E    |C    |D    | 
|E    |E    |C    |D    |
I hope these examples gave you some idea on how to “break out” of the scale and find other interesting sounding chords.

As you play with these chords more, you’ll start to hear their distinctive sound and you’ll be able to identify them more quickly when you hear them in songs.  You may notice that certain genres tend to use a certain chord a lot.  For instance, the 4-minor (as a “turnaround”) in 50s and 60s pop/rock, the 6-flat in (early) grunch, or the 2-major in (what I call “old school”) country.

Guitar Lesson – Music Theory Part 6.7.2 – diminished

This is part 6.7.2 which is a continuation on the discussion on “7”. The reason why this is in a separate post is because, quite frankly, I forgot.  And this is also a continuation on triads where we talked about how the diminished chord is what you’d get if you built the triad starting with the 7-note on the scale.

In this case, we’re looking at the 2 diminished chords: Half-Diminished and Diminished. 

Half-Diminished = 1 b3 b5 b7 
Diminshed       = 1 b3 b5 bb7 (the 7 is flat twice thus making it a 6) 

This might be confusing at first.  But once you “do the math”, you’ll see quickly that there isn’t much to remember.  Also, (in my experience) these chords are not very common (and for that reason, I’m not too familiar with them  :-).  But I love using them because they add such wonderful, (usually) unexpected texture.  Hopefully the progressions below will give you a flavor.

In my search for other material on these chords on the web, it seems like “diminished” is often also referred to as “diminished 7” (“dim7”).  But I was not able to find a slick way of pointing to the half-diminished chord except for “min7 b5”.

For the purpose of this post, I’ll be using “dim7” and “min7 b5”.

First, let’s look at the shapes.  Here are 2 ways of holding each.  For each of these, make a note of where the root note is (hint: either the A or D-string).

As mentioned above, the diminished 7th chord starts at the root and has a minor 3rd, a flat 5th, and a flat-flat 7th.  Interestingly, this puts each note in a perfect repeatable pattern.   For instance: 
Eb (major) = Eb(1) G (3)  Bb(5) 

Eb dim7    = Eb(1) Gb(b3) A (b5) C (bb7) 

What if we started with Gb?

Gb (major) = Gb(1) Bb(3)  Db(5) 
Gb dim7    = Gb(1) A (b3) C (b5) Eb(bb7) 

Notice that Gb dim7 has the same notes as Eb dim7!  How about for A? 

A (major)  = A (1) C#(3)  E (5) 
A dim7     = A (1) C (b3) Eb(b5) Gb(bb7)

You can image that you’ll get the same notes again if you start the pattern using C.

Since there are only 12 notes (C C# D D# E F G G# A A# B) and this chord uses 4, there can only be 3 different diminished 7th chords!

Now, let’s try using these in progressions along with other chords that we’ve already looked at in past posts.

Diminished 7th Example 1 
|C     |D     |Bm      |Em     |  (repeat) 

|C     |D     |Eb dim7 |Em     |  (repeat) 
This  progression is in the key of G which would have a Bm as the 3-chord.  (see previous post)
For hearing the full effect of the dim7 chord, try playing the 1st line (maybe repeat a few times) then try the 2nd line (and repeat a few times).  You’ll notice that the Eb dim7 replaces the Bm.  And you might hear how the Eb dim7 provides more “energy” and “tension” to be “resolved” by the Em chord.
Diminished 7th Example 2
|Dm7     |G7     |Cmaj7      |Db dim7  |  (repeat) 

This example in the key of C is a more jazzy example (or funky a la Sunday Morning by Maroon 5??).  Again, the dim7 chord provides a tension to be resolved by the following chord (Dm7 in this case).  And you can hear a moving bass line from: C > Db > D. 
Half-Diminished Example
|Bm b5   |E7     |Am       |Fmaj7     |  (repeat) 

This example might be a bit more classical or Spanish (in fact, try strumming Flamingo style… perhaps more on this later).  This would be considered to be in the key of C.  The Bm b5 chord is the “natural” chord create from the 7-note in the scale.  While the E7 is “out of scale” (E is the 3rd note so it would have been Em using the notes from the C major scale).  The Bm b5 chord “wants to go to” the E7 which “wants to go to” Am.
Hopefully you now have an idea of how diminished chords can be used to create tension and unrest and that you found these examples useful! 

Guitar Lesson – Music Theory Part 6.7 – soft, jazzy, and bluesy

All 7 and we’ll watch them fall…

In a previous post, we talked about major and minor scales and how they share some notes while other notes are different.  7 is one of the ones that are different.  So when adding 7 onto a triad, you can either add the major 7 (“maj7”) or the minor 7 (just “7”).

You can add the 7 onto a major or minor chord.  So using the root note of A, we can have the following chords:
A7       – A C# E G
Amaj7    – A C# E G#
Am7      – A C  E G

I have not personally heard of the major 7 added to the minor chord (Am maj7??).

The changes between these chords are small but their uses and sound are very different.  Below, I’ll try to give a few examples of how you might them being used…

7 Chord
The 7 chord tends to feel unresolved.  This is a very common chord in blues.  For instance, in this common blues progression, you can substitute all the chords with the corresponding 7 chord:

|A    |D    |A    |A   |
|D    |D    |A    |A   |
|E    |D    |A    |E   |

So using 7’s, this would be:

|A7   |D7   |A7   |A7   |
|D7   |D7   |A7   |A7   |
|E7   |D7   |A7   |E7   |

Or using the number system:

|I7   |IV7  |I7   |I7   |
|IV7  |IV7  |I7   |I7   |
|V7   |IV7  |I7   |V7   |

Often the 7 chord is used to “propel” the music toward its relative 4th.  For instance, A7 (I) will want to be followed by D (IV).  Here’s an example:

|A    |A7   |D    |Dm   |   

But you can also look at the relationship backwards which is D (I) and A7 (V7).  Here’s an example:

|D    |A    |A7   |D    |

These are fairly common in folk, hymns, and rock.  Here’s a some-what folk-y example: 

|D    |A    |A7   |D D7 |
|G    |A    |D    |D7   | 
|G    |E7   |A    |A7   |  (back to top)

In this example, the A7 (V7) on the 1st line is used to lead us back to the D (I).  The D7 (I7) on the 1st line leads us to the G (IV) on the 2nd line.  The D7 is used again on the 2nd line to lead us to the G.  Then E7 (II7) is used to lead to the A (V) and the last A7 (V7) is used to lead us back to D (I).

Major 7 Chord
The major 7 chord tends to be softer sounding.  Often, this chord is used as a substitute for the IV chord in a progression.  For instance:

|C     |F    |  (repeat)
|C     |Fmaj7|  (repeat)

When we look at the notes that make up these chord it becomes more apparent why this “works”:

C      – C E G

Fmaj7  – F A C E

<— T = thumb

Another very popular variation on this is to use the maj7 chord for both:

|Cmaj7  |Fmaj7  |  (repeat)
Cmaj7  – C E G B
Fmaj7  – F A C E

In essence, we’ve give the F (IV) some characteristic of the C (I) by using the E (the 3-note) in both chords.  You can take this a step further by adding the 6-chord (vi).  In this case, this would be Am:

|C   |Fmaj7 |Am   |Fmaj7 |   (repeat)

Cmaj7  – C E G B
Fmaj7  – F A C E
Am     – A C E

Another way to look at this is that the E note (the 3-note) is used as a pedal note.

Minor 7 Chord
This is probably my favorite (definitely top 3). I love using this chord. Here, the 7 is the minor 7 relative to the root note. And it helps to soften the chord.

Am7     – A C E G

Recall that the minor 7 is a whole step from the root note. When this is used with the 2-chord (ii7), then the “7” is the same as the root note of the 1-chord (I). For example:

|Am7   |G     | (repeat)

Am7     – A C E G
G       – G B D

So what if we substituted the 6-chord with its 7 (vi7)?

G (I)      – G B D
Em7 (vi7)  – E G B D

<— standard shape

Now, let’s add this to another example we looked at before: (

|G    |Cadd9 |Em7  |Cadd9 | (repeat)

But instead of using the standard shape shown above.  Try this one instead:

Guitar Lesson – Music Theory Part 6.6

I’m not a big fan of 6.  I don’t know why… maybe under different circumstances we could have been friends… but sometimes a number just rubs you the wrong way… know what I mean??

I’m afraid I don’t have a lot of advice on how to use chords with 6 in them.

I think my favorite way of holding this chord is using this shape.  It sounds pretty nice when you use arpeggios.

I’ve been told that the 6 chord is use in a lot of Christmas music.

But one of my favorite chords with the 6 note in it is by adding it to the sus4 chord.

Sometimes I like to use this instead of the normal sus4 chord.  I like holding this using the 1st finger across to hold all 3 strings (in this case, on 2nd fret) then apply the 2nd and 3rd fingers in front.

Try going back and forth between this chord and the normal root chord (in this case, A major).

Another way to think of this chord might be D/A (that’s “D over A” or “D slash A”) or 2nd inversion D.  We’ll get into those type of chords in future posts.

Guitar Lesson – Music Theory Part 6.4 – 4 and more sus2

1, 2, 3, 4 … come on baby say you love me (

Alright, so we’re going to talk about the 4 note.  The most popular use of this note on guitar is probably the sus4.  Here are the common shapes for this chord:

In these chords, the (major) 3rd is not played and is “covered” by the 4th.  The 3rd is shown using the white dot.

Very similar to the 2 chord, the 3rd is not played so these chords are ambiguous.  They’re not major or minor.

A common (proper? classical?) way to use the “sus” chord is to use the suspended (that’s what “sus” stands for) note as a way to “smooth” out a transition between two chords.  For instance:
     G    Dsus4    D

The G is the “preparation”.  The Dsus4 is the “suspension”.  And the D is the “resolve”.

Here, the G is made up of: G-B-D.  Dsus4 is: D-G-A.  So the G is suspended.  (If you use the open-string shape for G and the Dsus4 shown here, the G on the high-E string is suspended.  If you use fingers 2, 3, and 4 to hold the G, then you’ll probably find that you don’t need to lift your pinky going from G to Dsus4).  And D is: D-F#-A.  So the 4th is resolved by the (major) 3rd.

In these diagrams, the 3rd is shown by the white dot which is “covered up” by the 4th.

Another common use of these chords in modern music is going between the sus chord and normal triad.  This happens a lot with both sus2 (see part 6.2) and sus4.

To hear some examples, check out:

Black or White (Michael Jackson) — the riff basically goes from sus4 to major then sus2 to major

Another way to use the 4 note, of course, is to leave the 3rd in.  In that case, we’d be adding the 4.

I find that this chord by itself could be a little strange sounding.  But it makes a lot of sense when you play it along with other chords.  For instance, try holding the open-string C chord the same way (ie include the G on the high-E, shift this shape up 2 frets).  Play the C then Dadd4.  C, of course, have the G in it also (and it’s been suspended on the G-string).

Another example of how this chord might be used is in the song Hysteria by Def Leppard (wow… I’m really showing my age with these examples!):

Watch Phil Collen’s hand position (that’s the guitarist on the left for you youngsters) .  In this case, I would consider that the riff is made out of the 1, 3, and 4 notes (D, F#, G) and it repeated as a “theme” over D, G and Em (actual progression is: ||D    |G    |Em  G |D   :|| )

Okay, yes, there was a lot of use of sus4 in the 80s!  Probably too much in fact!  (Although, I think these songs “technically” came out in the early 90s)

Let’s try this more recent example of sus2.  Here’s Bad Day by Fuel (well, relatively more recent):

Here, the beginning chords are:  A   Asus2   A

Again, the play is with the 3rd.

Sometimes, the sus4 chord might be used as a “substitution” for the V chord and the sus2 chord in place of the IV chord.  (see M&m post)  

There are a few ways guitarists like the play these.  Here is one example:

|G    |Cadd9   |Dsus4   |G      |

For this progression, try holding the G using all 4 fingers.  Your ring finger should be holding the B-string on the 3rd fret and your pinky on the high-E strin gon the 3rd fret.  These are now holding notes D and G.  (see G<–>Cadd9 Thing post)

Cadd9 also has these notes.  Then Dsus4 as well.

In this case, the 4 note is not used as a way to “mask” the 3rd (in the D chord), necessarily.  But the G is suspended throughout the progression.  This is also sometimes called the “pedal point” or “pedal tone”.

For a sus2 example, try:

    |E      |Bsus4     |Asus2    |E       |

Guitar Lesson – Music Theory Part 6.2 – 2 & 9

We’re continuing our look at the other numbers: 2, 4, 6, 7, 9.  I’m going to try to give you some ideas how you might use these chords.

This is part 6.2 because we’re going to look at the 2 chord.  😛

Disclaimer :- The following tips are purely based on my own experience, reading, and experimentation.  Results may vary.  Check with your ears to see if these chords are right for you.  Side effects may include: more time spent with your guitar, creative ways of holding chords, and creative voicing and dressing up your chords.

2 & 9

To be completely accurate, I guess most guitar chords using the 2 note is actually the 9.  What I mean by that is that most of the time, the 2 note being played in most of these chords are not actually 1 step away from the lowest root note but rather an octave + 1 step.  It’s very rare that you’d play a root note with the 2nd note on the next string.  For the most part, it’s just kind of hard to do.  🙂  And the notes tend to become “mushy”.  So I’m going to talk about the 2 and 9 together (interchangeably).

2 if fun.  I like the 2.  It’s very versatile… kind of like a plain white tee… you can where it out, where it under something, where it like pajamas.  Because the 2 chord doesn’t have the 3rd in it, it’s ambiguous — it’s neither major or minor.  So it can be used to “mask” the major or minor.  For instance, try this progression:

    Em   C   D   Asus9  (a la “Drive” by Incabus)

Now, try substituting the Asus9 with either A or Am.  You might find that the A sounds okay.  But the key should be G which should make it Am.  But if you try Am, you might find that it’s too dark and lack the “driving” (pun intended) characteristic of the song.

I also like using the 2 with the 3rd, both major and minor.  For instance, try this chord: (Emin9)

Notice that the root is E.  The F# is played on the D-string while the G is also played (on the G-string.  In this case, the 7 (D) is also played on the B-string.

Try some arpeggios (allow notes to ring but only play one at a time).

Here’s a fun progression.  Try playing Emin9 followed by the one on the right which I’m calling C-5+9.

And here’s another way to hold the min9 chord which also sounds great.

Another one that I really like is adding the 2 note with the major chord which might look something like this:

Notice in this version of Cadd9 (see previous post for other version), both the D and the E are played.  And in fact, the D and E are only 1 step apart.

I usually like using this chord to create a smooth/gentle end to a song.

This type of chord is fairly common on the piano in pop.

Well, there you have it.  A few different ways to use the 2 (or 9) notes… without 3rd, with minor 3rd, and with major 3rd.

Guitar Lesson – Music Theory Part 6 – the other numbers

Sometimes I think the other numbers must feel like what’s-her-face on the Brady Bunch (“Marsha, Marsha, Marsha”)… what’s her name…??  Doesn’t matter… Anyway…

In this lesson, we’re going to take about some of the other numbers that are not 1, 3 and 5.

Just to recap… We use 1, 3, and 5 to build triads.  When we do this, we find that we get major chords and minor chords.  The 1 and 5 are the same for both.  The major chord uses the major 3rd while the minor chord uses the minor 3rd.

So let’s look what we can do with 2, 4, 6, 7 and 9.
Often, people will use sus2 and sus4.  The “sus” is short for “suspended”.  In these chords, the 3rd is not played and is substituted by the 2 or 4.  For instance, Asus2 would be made out of: A B E.  While Asus4 would be played using: A D E.

The 6th chord is simply the normal triad with an added 6th.  For C, this would mean the notes are: C E G A.

The 7th chord is simply the normal triad with an added 7th.  Normally, if it just says “7” as in C7, the “7” refers to the minor 7th.  So C7 has: C E G Bb.  You can also add the 7th to the minor chord.  Cm7 would be: C Eb G Bb.  The major 7th can also be used but it’s normally written as “maj7“.  Cmaj7 would be: C E G B.  

The last number we’ll talk about for this lesson is the 9.  As you may recall, the 1 and 8 notes are the same note except the 8th is an octave above the 1.  The 9th is therefore the same note as the 2nd also an octave above.

For 9, there are 4 chords worth mentioning…

add9” (ie Cadd9, see previous lesson) — This is probably the most common one for guitarists.  For instance, Cadd9 would be: C E G D.

9” — This is not the same as “add9”.  In this case, the minor 7th is implied.  So the notes for C9 are: C E G Bb D.

maj9” — In this case, the major 7th is implied and so Cmaj9 would be: C E G B D.

min9” — Very similar to the “maj9”, here the minor 7th is implied and so Cmin9 would be: C Eb G Bb D.

There are also 11th and 13th chords but we’ll look at them another time.

In one of the next posts, we’ll look at how these chords might be used.