Category Archives: Music Theory

Guitar Lesson – Music Theory Part 5 – M&m


I know… very boring… but keep reading… once you get a hang of this stuff, you’ll see the fretboard in a whole new way.

In the last lesson, we talked about what a “major” chord is verses a “minor” chord.  And we also looked at building “triads” which are basically 3 notes played together.  Major and minor chords are triads.  And we also looked at how there are different shapes for the major and minor chords that you can place at different frets to get all the chords.

We used the C (Major) Scale to build a triad starting with C and we got the C (Major) chord.  But what if we built triads using the rest of the scale??  Let’s see…

  1  C — C E G = C
  2  D — D F A = Dm
  3  E — E G B = Em
  4  F — F A C = F
  5  G — G B D = G
  6  A — A C E = Am
  7  B — B D F = Bo (diminished)

Let’s look at a few of these and see why they might be major or minor.  Remember that a chord is “major” if its 2nd note is a “major 3rd” from the root (2 steps).  And the chord is “minor” if its 2nd note is a “minor 3rd” from the root (1 1/2 steps).

The 1st chord we get has the notes C, E, G.  The E is 2 steps away from the C so this is a major chord.

The 2nd chord we get has the notes D, F, A.  The F is 1 1/2 steps away from the D so this is a minor chord.

The 3rd chord we has the notes E G B.  E is 1 1/2 steps away from G so it’s minor.

The 4th (sometimes called the “sub dominant”) and 5th (sometimes called the “dominant”) chords are both major because their 2nd notes are 2 steps away from their root (ie F->A and G->B).

The 6th chord is minor.  This is also the “relative minor” to the 1st major.

The 7th chord is different.  Not only is the 2nd note a minor 3rd from the root (B->D).  But the 3rd note is not a 5th!  B’s 5th is F#, not F.  So the F is flat or “diminished” from the normal 5th.  Therefore, this chord is called the “diminished” (usually denoted by a superscript O).

Let’s review and use “M” for major and “m” for minor (and “o” for diminished).  We have:
  1  2   3   4   5  6   7   <– numberth note in scale
  C  D   E   F   G  A   B   <– notes for C scale
  M  m   m   M   M  m   o   <– [M]ajor, [m]inor, or diminshed
  I  ii  iii IV  V  vi  vii <– roman numerals (uppercase = major)
If you go through this exercise with all/any of the scales, you’ll find this pattern in every case.

Why is this useful?

This is also sometimes called the “Nashville System“.  Instead of writing out the specific chords, for instance: C, G, Am, F, the chart might read: I, V, vi, IV or maybe: 1, 5, 6m, 4.  The expectation is that you would be able to figure out which chord it is if/when provided the key (ie root or scale).

When you’re learning a song, if you don’t have an instrument handy (and you don’t have perfect pitch), it might be hard to figure out what notes/chords are being played.  But if you train your ear to hear “relative pitches” and use this basic understanding, you can learn a song by ear simply by identifying the chords by their numbers.  What you’ll find is that each chord has a distinct feel/flavor.  And no matter which key you’re playing in, each chord can serve the same function.  For instance, if you play a progression (a sequence of chords that repeat), you may find that the V chord likes to be followed by the I chord.  
I do most of my learning this way for covers.  I find that it gives me 2 advantages:
1) I can learn a song in the car while driving
2) I’m not “stuck” on a particular key in case we decide to play it in another key (usually requested by singers)

TIP 1 :- Listen to the bass notes.  Most of the time it’s easier to identify the chord using that note.
TIP 2 :- Pick a key.  Start with the I chord.  Then play another chord from the scale (ii, iii, IV, V, vi, or vii) then play the I chord again.  See if you can hear the differences and movement.

This might come in handy when trying to transpose on the spot.  For instance, let’s say you learned the song in C.  The progression is: C, Am, F, G.  Instead of think of the chords by their letters, think of them as: I, vi, IV, V in the key of C.  Now, let’s say you want to play this song in E.  And you might remember that the notes to E (major scale) are: E F# G# A B C# D# E.  So this progression in (the key of) E is: E, C#, A, B.

In fact, transposing on guitar is extremely easy (much easier than piano IMHO).  If you have learned your progression using barre chords, and you’ve been playing the above progression in C using 3rd fret (A-shape for C major), you can shift your entire playing down 4 frets to E (7th fret on A-string) and wa-la, you’re playing in the new key!

If you’re writing your own songs, this might give you some basic starting point for coming up with a progression.  This can serve as the basic guide or “rule of thumb” for what chords might sound good together.  This can also serve as the rules to break.

This also helps when improving (a solo that’s not predefined).  Usually in these situations, you already know what the progression will be.  By remember what notes are in the chords coming up, you can quickly figure out what notes might sound good over them (vs other notes that won’t sound so good… unless that’s what you’re going for).  This becomes even more powerful when you think of this in terms of numbers.  For instance, think of the V chord as having notes 2, 5, 7 from the scale.  For guitar, this means you just need to know the “starting point” (ie key, root, scale).  So you know that if you play one of those notes from the scale, it’ll harmonize with the chord.

Once you start analyzing songs this way, you’ll confirm what you’ve probably heard others have said, “this is basically the same song as ____”.

Over time as you develop your ear, you’ll hear the same patterns over and over again so learning new songs becomes very easy.  (ie *yawn*, another 1 5 6 4 pattern?!)

Guitar Lesson – Music Theory Part 4 – Easy as 1, 3, 5

Last time on “Guitar Lesson – Music Theory”…
  • Notes next to each other = 1/2 step (H), two 1/2 = whole (W)
  • On the guitar, 1 fret = 1/2 step
  • To play a major scale, start at a note then play W-W-H-W-W-W-H to get back to the same note on octave away
  • If you start a scale on a different note, you’ll get different number of sharps and flats
  • Following number of sharps and flats is also called the circle of fifths
  • Using the same pattern but starting at a different position will give you another scale.  By starting at the 6th note, you’ll get the minor scale pattern.
  • Major scales and minor scales that have the same notes are “relative” to each other.
And now, part 4….
This time, let’s look at each note in the major scale and see what their relationship is to the “root” note (aka “1”, aka “do”):
(remember: W W H W W W H)
1 -> 2  =  W                      = whole step
1 -> 3  =  W + W                  = 2 steps 
1 -> 4  =  W + W + H              = 2 1/2 steps
1 -> 5  =  W + W + H + W          = 3 1/2 steps
1 -> 6  =  W + W + H + W + W      = 4 1/2 steps
1 -> 7  =  W + W + H + W + W + W  = 5 1/2 steps

How about the minor scale?

(remember: W H W W H W W)
1 -> 2  =  W                      = whole step
1 -> 3  =  W + H                  = 1 1/2 steps 
1 -> 4  =  W + H + W              = 2 1/2 steps
1 -> 5  =  W + H + W + W          = 3 1/2 steps
1 -> 6  =  W + H + W + W + H      = 4 steps
1 -> 7  =  W + H + W + W + H + W  = 5 steps

For now, let’s just look at the notes 1, 3 and 5.  The 1 note is, of course, the root.  As mentioned in the previous lesson, the 5th is the same between the two scales.  But the 3rd is different.  The “major 3rd” is 2 steps away from 1 while the “minor 3rd” is 1 1/2 step away from the 1.

This little 1/2 step makes a big difference in sound.

Let’s take a look some chords and see how this works out.
All the basic chords from the earlier lessons are “triad” meaning that they are made of 3 notes.  To form a triad, simply start at a note (1), skip a note, take the next note (3), skip another note, then take the next one after that (5).

When you do this with the C on the C Major Scale (C D E F G A B C), you get: C-E-G.  This picture shows where these notes are played when you play a C (open string).

How about when we do this for A minor?  The notes to Am are: A-C-E.  But the A major scale is: A B C# D E F# G# A.

But what if we looked at the notes from the A minor scale?  Then we have: A B C D E F G A.

So… when you take the 1, 3, and 5 notes from the major scale, you get the major chord.  When you take the 1, 3, 5 notes from the minor scale, you get the minor chord.

And that’s actually what is meant by “major” chord and “minor” chord.  The “major” and “minor” refers to which 3rd you’re taking from.  The major scale or minor scale.

In other words, in C major (chord), the “major” refers to the “major 3rd”.  And in A minor (chord), the “minor” refers to the the “minor 3rd”.

Sometimes people will use numbers purely relative to the major scale.  In this method, a minus sign (-) is used to mean “flat” or “diminished” and a plus sign (+) might be used to mean “sharp” or “augment”.

So a major chord might be written as: 1 3 5.  While a minor chord might be written as: 1 -3 5.

Yet another way to look at this is:
    major 3rd is 2 steps from root
    minor 3rd is 1 1/2 steps from root

Specifically for guitarists, once you’ve learned how to hold the chords, you may want to review the notes chart (see Part 1) and try to remember what notes are being held on each string.

TIP :- For each shape, start by memorizing where the root note is.  For instance:  (all examples refer to the open string chords from Guitar Basics lessons)

   Chord      Notes (1 3 5)    Root Notes On Strings

     E          E  G# B        low-E, D, high-E
     A          A  C# E        A, G
     D          D  F# A        D, B
     G          G  B  D        low-E, G, high-E
     C          C  E  G        A, B
     Am         A  C  E        A, G
     Em         E  G  B        low-E, D, high-E
     Dm         D  F  A        D, B

Guitar Lesson – Music Theory Part 3 – Major (Pain), Minor (Inconvenience)

So far, we’ve talked about the major scale which has a W-W-H-W-W-W-H pattern.

You can imagine that you can take this pattern and start in a different position.

So let’s try that with the C (Major) Scale:

   C   D   E   F   G   A   B   C

     W   W   H   W   W   W   H

What if we started this on A instead?

                       A   B   C   D   E   F   G   A

                         W   H   W   W   H   W   W

Now the pattern becomes:  W-H-W-W-H-W-W  (and we get the Minor Scale).

This is also called “relative minor” and “relative major”.  

In other words, the C Major Scale is “related” to the “A Minor Scale”.

This chart is sometimes called the “Circle of Fifths“.  Because as you go clockwise, the next note is the 5th of the previous one.

But what if we looked at the C Major Scale vs C Minor Scale?

        1  2  4  5  8
major:  C  D  F  G  C
minor:  C  D  Eb F  G  Ab Bb

Not only can you build another scale using the same pattern starting at a different position.  But when you look at the patterns side-by-side starting with the same note, you’ll notice that some notes from the two scales are the same while others are different.

In this case, the major and minor scales differ on the 3rd, 6th, and the 7th notes.

This will make more sense when we go back and look at chords.

Guitar Lesson – Music Theory Part 2 – WWHWWWH

In the previous lesson, we talked about steps.  Just to summarize…

notes next to each other = 1/2 step apart
two 1/2 steps = a whole step

Now we’ll take this idea and see how it applies for scales.

The first scale that most people learn is the C Major Scale.  The notes for this scale are:

    1   2    3   4   5   6   7   8    <— let’s numberthem
    do  re   mi  fa  so  la  ti  do   <— for vocalists
    C   D    E   F   G   A   B   C
(1 = starting note = “root’)

If we look at these notes on the piano, the first thing you might notice is that to play this scale, only the white keys are required.

Now, let’s look at the relationship between the notes.  In this chart, we’ll also number the notes:

C -> D = whole step (W)
D –> E = whole step (W)
E –> F = 1/2 step   (H)
F –> G = whole step (W)
G –> A = whole step (W)
A –> B = whole step (W)
B –> C = 1/2 step   (H)

All major scales follow this pattern: W-W-H-W-W-W-H.  So playing the C Major Scale is simply saying play this pattern starting with C.

Let’s look at what this might look like for the G Major Scale:

    G  A  B  C  D  E  F#  G

When we follow this pattern starting with G, we get F#.  So This scale has 1 sharp (#).

Let’s do it again for the F Major Scale:

    F  G  A  Bb  C  D  E  F

When we follow this pattern starting with F, we get Bb.  So This scale has 1 flat (b).

If we do this for all the notes, you’ll notice that each note will result in a different number of sharps and flats.

TIP 1 :- Letters should not be repeated.  So for the F (Major) Scale, the A was already used as the 3rd note so the 4th note could not be A# and has to be Bb.

TIP 2 :- On music sheets, the sharps and flats are placed on the line representing that note/letter.

So let’s take a look at what each scale might look like.

Here, we’ve put C in the middle.  As you move down from C, the number of sharps increase.  And as you move up from C, the number of flats increase.
This is also known as “circle of fifths“.

The way that I memorize it is this…

For sharps:

For flats:
   [B]oys (Bb)
   [E]at   (Eb)
   [A]ll    (Ab)
   [D]ay  (Db)
   [G]??  (Gb)

This called the circle of fifths because as you move clockwise around, the next scale starts with the 5th note of the previous.  For instance, G’s scale has 1 sharp and is the 5th note of the C Scale.  D’s scale has 2 sharps is the 5th note of the G Scale.

As I always tell my students, if you don’t remember anything else, remember this: whole, whole, half, whole, whole, whole half (WWHWWWWH)! 

Guitar Lesson – Music Theory Part 1 – Take a "Step"

Okay, we are finally at my favorite part of learning guitar — Music Theory!  I like numbers and math… what can I say.

In another post, we already went over the pro’s and con’s of learning theory.  But before we dive in, I just want to say… If you can count to 8, you can learn theory.  If you can add and subtract, you can learn theory.  If you can read this blog but cannot count and add/subtract, then perhaps you’d enjoy these more.

So let’s get started!

First, let’s look at an octave (from a note back to itself again but either higher or lower in pitch) on a piano.

I like using this to illustrate the sequence of notes because a lot of folks may have had piano lessons when they were young.  (Why do all the mothers think their child should play piano??)

On the piano, notes get higher (“sharp”) as you move to the right and they get lower (“flat”) as you move to the left.

Going up starting at C, you get:
C   C#|Db   D   D#|Eb   E   F  F#|Gb   G   G#|Ab   A   A#|Bb   B    (then C again)

In this picture, the ones in blue are the black keys which are the flats and sharps.  C# is the same note as Db.  D# is the same note as Eb.  So on and so forth.

Notice that there are no sharps or flats between B and C and E and F.

The relationship (or “distance”?) between notes are often referred to as “steps”.  Notes next to each other are “1/2 step” apart (on the piano, these are keys next to each other).  So from B to C is 1/2 step.  From C to D is two 1/2 or a “whole step”.
Another example:
   E  to  F           1/2 step
   B  to  C#        whole step

Let’s look how this plays out on the guitar (pun intended).

On the guitar, each fret is a 1/2 step.  On a given string, as you move down the neck (toward the body), notes get higher/sharp.  As you move up the neck (toward the head), notes get lower/flat.
Due to the different strings being tuned relatively close to each other, notes repeat on the guitar.   Notice that playing the 5th fret on the E string results in A which is the same note as playing the A-string opened.   And you can see the same relationship between the A- and D-strings.   Again for D- and G-strings.  The pattern breaks from G- to B-string… the B is on the 4th fret of the G-string.  Then back to the 5th fret on the B-string to get the E.   This, of course, is probably how you learned to tune.  (Now you know why to play those specific positions)

If you pick a string and follow it down to the 12th fret, you’ll end up at the same note as you started except one octave above.  So all-in-all, there are only 12 unique notes (in Western music).

Music Theory = *yawn*

Tal and I got a new camcorder. We were trying it out and I started to do a video for music theory.

Tal kept stopping me in the middle of my intro. He said I was babbling and just going on and on. 😛

Well… yes, I kind of was. But…

Music theory really is important to understand if you want to take your playing to the next level. I think this is true of any instrument. But particularly for guitar because so much of what you’d do on the fretboard is based on theory.

Why Music Theory Is Boring

I think people get turned of by music theory because, first, it has the word “theory” in it which conjures up images of nerdy scientists in white suits, thick glasses, pocket protectors, and an embarrassingly obvious lack of social skills. And why would theory be important?! I don’t want to learn how to play “in theory”… I want to play actually!

It seems so “brainly” and boring. All the numbers and math don’t feel like art. (How do you do math on letters anyway?!)

Most (guitar) players learn and memorize shapes and patterns which derives from theory but don’t require it. Sometimes we call this the “box” method. And then later, they’ll learn other techniques to think outside “the box”.

And they might not see how it can help them. Especially for players who have done pretty well without it. You can certainly play songs and riffs without ever learning any theory. And playing skill has nothing to do with theory.

Why Music Theory Is Good To Know

But theory can be your loyal and faithful friend. The friend that you can always count on… who will never leave you… who will be there long after your band-mates have left you for a “better” gig and your drummer steals your girlfriend because while you were busy practicing, they were going behind your back and hooking up at some sleazy joint downtown that you wouldn’t want to be caught dead in and the whole reason why you spent all those nights practicing instead of being with her was because your no-talent, drama-queen of a lead singer can’t sing the damn song in the key you learned it in and now you got to transpose the whole thing and learn it all over again.

If this applies to you, here are some reasons why you might want to learn a little bit of theory. This list will make more sense to guitarists.

  • Why do chord shapes look the way they do? Can I play chords using other shapes? Why are there different ways (positions) to hold the same chord?
  • Why do scale shapes look the way they do? Are there other ways to play scales?
  • If I want to improvise on a song, how do I know what notes to play or what scale to use?
  • Why do some chords seem to always go together?
  • If I want to write a song, how do I know what chords would sound good together?
  • What is transposing? How can I play a song in a different key (quickly)?
  • What do the numbers in chords mean?

If you get a good handle on these, you’ll be able to spend more time with your girlfriend (or boyfriend or whatever).

So stay tuned! We’ll be posting lessons on music theory soon! (As soon as we figure out how to use the camcorder)