Basic Music Theory for Songwriters

By Griffin Brown, Spire Contributor | June 17, 2018

Music Theory Title Image

In the age of the internet, a new wave of talent has entered the music industry—self-taught musicians. Online resources make it possible to learn the craft without a formal education, or even a without strong musical foundation in the first place.

The increased accessibility to recording software and the opportunity to spread music online has made it possible for DIY musicians to succeed without much (if any) prior musical experience. This is great for the music community, but artists can be even more effective with some knowledge of basic music theory.

In this article, we’ll cover the fundamentals. We’ll be covering rhythm, keys and chords, and chord progressions.

Don’t worry if you have zero experience with music theory; this discussion will be geared toward the fundamentals. You may vaguely know some of these concepts, but knowing their names will help to understand them further.

And if you have some experience with music theory, hopefully this article can help you brush up on your knowledge. Staying sharp with this stuff is like practicing anything else.

Rhythm, time signatures, and groove

Rhythm

They say that music is based on three things: rhythm, rhythm, and rhythm. And this isn’t an exaggeration! Put simply, rhythm is the placement of sounds in time, or simply “when sounds happen.” This is the foundation of all percussion and melody.

Some of the earliest musical traditions involved rhythmic-based group playing. Vocal shouts and percussion have been used in ceremony and celebration for thousands of years.

Time signatures

Time signatures simply describe the length of a measure. Measures are the basic building blocks of time in a piece of music. They determine structure, section lengths, and phrasing for melody, harmony, and rhythm.

Measure notation
Measure

If you’re producing music, you’re probably comfortable with the concept of the beat or “pulse” of a song—where you’re nodding your head. The time signature describes how those beats are felt and notated.

Time signature is described as a fraction. The bottom number (the denominator) says what type of note counts as a “beat.” Divide one by this number to get the length of this beat.

A 4 would mean the beat is a quarter note long, an 8 would give an eighth note, a 16 a sixteenth, and so on.

Time signature denominator
Time signature (denominator)

The top number (the numerator) shows how many of these beats fit into one measure.

Time signature numerator
Time signature (numerator)

The measures in DAWs (“digital audio workstations,” software like Ableton and Logic Pro) are essentially the same as in the notation above.

Ableton measures-min
Ableton Live measures
Logic measures-min
Logic Pro measures

Most contemporary popular music is in 4/4 time. The 4 on bottom says that one beat is a quarter note, and the 4 on the top says that there are four quarter notes per measure.

44 time
4/4 time

You might be thinking, wouldn’t 4/4 and 2/2 (for example) be the same? Four quarter note should be the same as two half notes, right?

44 vs 22
4/4 time vs. 2/2 time

Technically, a measure in each time signature would last the same amount of time at the same tempo. Often, composers will choose one or the other to simplify notation. But because the rhythm in 2/2 is grouped differently, the feel and phrasing can be different between the two.

2/2 will neatly group “events” (notes, percussion, etc.) into two sections per measure and create the feeling that there are two pulses per measure. This has an effect on the timing of chord changes and the phrasing of melodies.

4/4 time will more clearly outline four distinct pulses, allowing for more flexibility in the phrasing of ideas.

Here are some examples of less common time signatures in music you may have heard:

“Happy Birthday” (in 3/4)

“Mission Impossible Theme” (starts in 5/8, goes to 4/4 at 0:19)

OutKast - “Hey Ya!” (in 11/4 from 3:55–4:28)

For the majority of those reading this, you’ll probably be using a decent amount of 4/4 time. By all means it’s fun to try out interesting time signatures, but many musical genres use mostly 4/4 so it’s a good idea to master this.

Understanding the standard is important. This will give you the tools to intentionally and creatively break away from it when you’d like.

Groove

The words “groove” and “rhythm” are often used in the same way. Here, we’re using “groove” to describe the feel of a rhythm. This simply comes from where the composer actually decided to place things in time.

Check out the three audio samples below. These are all in 4/4 time, but the placement of the snare drum drastically changes the feel of the drum part. It does this by emphasizing a certain beat in the measure, making it felt more powerfully.

Because of this, the snare determines where the listener will hear one of the stronger pulses.

The snare drum in most Western contemporary music acts as the backbeat. This serves as a response to the strongest beats, notably the downbeat (first beat) of a measure. In 4/4, the strongest beats are one and three and the backbeat is usually placed on beats two and four.

Backbeats in 44
Backbeats

Keys, chords, and progressions

Keys

In most music, the key is the basis of all harmony and melody. Simply, a key is a collection of available notes.

Generally, the key determines which notes will sound harmonious in a piece of music—which ones sound “right." Musical traditions like rock, blues, and jazz also occasionally use notes from outside the key for embellishment and connecting notes within the key.

Keys are usually described in scales, which are “rooted” on a certain note and continue upward until reaching the same note an octave up. A scale’s notes are determined by certain distances between the notes. These are called intervals.

The main intervals used in Western music when developing scales are half steps (one step in a DAW) and whole steps (two steps in a DAW).

Western music generally uses a tuning system called “equal temperament," which has 12 half steps in an octave.

Screen Shot 2018-07-17 at 10.40.34 AM
Equal temperament

There are two main types of keys you should understand—major and minor keys. The classic description of the major key is that it sounds “happy." The minor key, on the other hand, is said to sound “sad."

The notes of the major key are determined like this: root, whole step, whole step, half step, whole step, whole step, whole step, half step (1 octave above the root).

In the diagrams below, whole steps are denoted as “W” and half steps are denoted as “H.”

 

Screen Shot 2018-07-17 at 10.20.33 AM
Major scale

The notes of the natural minor key are determined like this: root, whole step, half step, whole step, whole step, half step, whole step, whole step (1 octave above the root). There are actually two more types of minor keys, but this is the main one worth knowing.

Screen Shot 2018-07-17 at 10.20.58 AM
Minor scale

Scales can also be described using intervals in relationship to the root note. Notes are labeled based on their distance from the root. Generally, these are the names used for intervals at specific lengths:

0 steps = unison

1 step = minor second (half step)

2 steps = major second (whole step)

3 steps = minor third

4 steps = major third

5 steps = perfect fourth

6 steps = tritone

7 steps = perfect fifth

8 steps = minor sixth

9 steps = major sixth

10 steps = minor seventh

11 steps = major seventh

12 steps = octave

Note that fourths and fifths are called “perfect." This is because they are perfect intervals, which sound harmonious in both major and minor keys. See that both the C Major and C Minor scales above include F and G, which are the perfect fourth and fifth above C.

The unison (the same note played simultaneously, like in separate instruments) and the octave are also perfect intervals.

The tritone gets its name because it is three whole steps stacked on top of each other. It is one of the more “dissonant” intervals, meaning it creates tension that leads to a more “consonant” (or harmonious) sound.

The seven notes of the major scale would be the root note, a major second, major third, perfect fourth, perfect fifth, major sixth, and major seventh.

major scale with interval
Major scale (by intervals)

The seven notes of the minor scale would be the root note, a major second, minor third, perfect fourth, perfect fifth, minor sixth, and minor seventh.

Screen Shot 2018-07-17 at 10.16.37 AM
Minor scale (by intervals)

You may also hear notes just referred to by number. Minor intervals are usually referred to as “flats." The natural minor scale, for example, could be described as: “one, two, flat three, four, five, flat six, flat seven, one."

Scales are related to each other through the concept of modes. We won’t go too deep into modes in this article, but the idea is that starting a scale on a different note other than the root creates a different scale.

For example, if you play a C Major scale (all the white notes on a keyboard) from A to A, this is the A Natural Minor scale. In fact, playing any major scale starting on the sixth note of that major scale creates a natural minor scale, called the “related minor key."

Screen Shot 2018-07-17 at 10.17.11 AM
Related minor keys

If you’re able to play an instrument, learning how to play scales can be very useful. This makes them much easier to memorize and much easier to recall when working.

And you don’t have to be a virtuoso instrumentalist for this to help. The ability to play an instrument will make music theory more “real” for you and much less abstract.

Chords

A chord is a collection of three or more notes played simultaneously. In composition, different chords can be played consecutively (a progression—we’ll get to that next) to move the piece along.

Each chord in the sequence sustains for a certain amount of time, locking the measure(s) on that chord. Melodies can be built from the current chord.

Chords are generally built by adding non-adjacent notes from a scale. The number of notes we include in the chord determines its sound and how we notate it.

Triads

Stacking three non-adjacent notes from a scale creates a triad. This is the most basic type of chord, as the root, third, and fifth are enough information for our ears to identify a certain chord.

In the key of C Major, we could start at C (first note of the scale) and add E (third note of the scale) and G (fifth note of the scale) to create a C Major triad.

Screen Shot 2018-07-17 at 10.18.29 AM
Major triad

Major vs. Minor

While we’re at it, the distinction between major and minor chords is important to understand. Take a look at the major and minor scales below.

Major vs minor scales
Major triad
Screen Shot 2018-07-17 at 10.20.33 AM
Major triad
Screen Shot 2018-07-17 at 10.20.58 AM
Major vs. minor scale comparison

Notice that the third note is different in the two scales. This note is a half step lower in the minor scale than it is in the major scale. Building a triad starting on the first note of each scale would create one starting with a major third and one with a minor third.

These chords, as you could expect, are called a major and minor triad, specifically a C Major triad (or just C Major) and a C Minor triad (or just C Minor).

Screen Shot 2018-07-17 at 10.21.54 AM
Major & minor triads

Seventh chords

A triad obviously isn’t the only type of chord. We can skip over another scale note (whether we’re in major or minor) and add the seventh note of the scale to create a seventh chord. This added note introduces a new tone to the chord, making it more complex and changing it.

Screen Shot 2018-07-17 at 10.23.01 AM
Major & minor 7th chords

Inversions

A chord’s notes can be played in any octave without changing its identity. This is done through the use of inversions. The same notes are used, but each inversion has a slightly different sound.

The shape we’ve talked about for triads and seventh chords is referred to as “root position," as its lowest note is the root of the chord. We can move the root note up an octave to create the same chord in “first inversion." This will still function as the same chord, but sound slightly different.

The third can be moved up an octave for “second inversion."

The fifth in seventh chords can be moved up for “third inversion."

Triad:

Inversions of a C Major triad
Major & minor 7th chords
Screen Shot 2018-07-17 at 10.25.18 AM
Triad inversions

Seventh chord:

Screen Shot 2018-07-17 at 10.27.05 AM
Major & minor 7th chords
Screen Shot 2018-07-17 at 10.29.44 AM
7th chord inversions

Inversions can be used for smooth “voice leading." This is the concept that each note in a chord should lead seamlessly to a note in the next chord. By using inversions, this standard chord progression sounds much smoother because individual notes within the chords jump around less.

Voice leading-min
Voice leading

Progressions

Chord progressions are the basis of harmony in music.

Like melodies, they are very dependent on the key. Melodies are usually made from the available notes in a key, while progressions are created mostly from available chords in the key.

These available chords can be found by creating root-position triads and seventh chords rooted on each note in the scale.

As you can see in the C Major key below, our available triads are C Major, D Minor, E Minor, F Major, G Major, A Minor, and B diminished.

Screen Shot 2018-07-17 at 11.41.36 AM
Screen Shot 2018-07-17 at 11.41.47 AM
Screen Shot 2018-07-17 at 11.41.54 AM
Screen Shot 2018-07-17 at 11.42.02 AM
Screen Shot 2018-07-17 at 11.42.09 AM
Screen Shot 2018-07-17 at 11.42.17 AM
Screen Shot 2018-07-17 at 10.31.05 AM

Note: A major triad is built from two thirds, a minor third stacked on a major third. The minor triad is a major third stacked on a minor third. A diminished triad is two minor thirds stacked. Two major thirds creates an “augmented” triad.

Screen Shot 2018-07-17 at 10.34.42 AM
Types of triads

Chords in a key can be described with numbers as well, just like the notes in a scale are. Most chord notation uses Roman numerals, with major chords being capitalized and minor chords being lower case.

The major key (starting at any root) includes the chords I, ii, iii, IV, V, vi, vii° (° is the symbol for diminished).

The minor key includes i, ii°, bIII, IV, v, bVI, bVII.

With the terminology and notation in mind, let’s look at some common progressions. Keep in mind that a chord progression can be as complicated or as simple as you’d like. It can be anything from two chords on loop to a totally linear sequence that doesn’t repeat.

Major progressions

There are a few standard progressions in the major key that are worth knowing and understanding. The first is arguably the most common in Western music: I - IV - V - I

In the key of C Major, this is C Major, F Major, G Major, C Major.

i-iv-v-i
I - IV - V - I Progression

This progression is and has been used extensively across many genres, especially in classical and gospel music. As such, it can also be heard in styles that developed from these genres, such as blues and rock.

Elvis Presley - “All Shook Up” (starts on I, IV - V - I happens at 0:20)

Counting Crows - “Mr. Jones” (especially noticeable in chorus @ 0:41)

The classic I - IV - V - I progression demonstrates a key aspect of resolution. This is the concept that certain notes / chords in a key sound like they lead (or “resolve”) to other notes / chords in the key. Theoretically any chord can come after another, but some resolutions sound more powerful.

The I chord represents the current key, and is called the “tonic” chord.

The V chord is called the “dominant” chord. It has the strongest pull towards the tonic. In the key of C Major, this chord is G Major, containing notes G, B, and D.

Screen Shot 2018-07-17 at 10.49.31 AM
Dominant chord in C Major

The important one here is the B, which is one half step below C, the root note of the key. This note is referred to as the “leading tone," which resolves heavily to the root note. This is why V sounds like it resolves so strongly to I.

Screen Shot 2018-07-17 at 10.49.49 AM
Leading tone

Another standard major progression is I - V - vi - IV - I. This is the classic “four chord song” progression, which has been used in pop and rock music for decades. The video below demonstrates just how prevalent this progression is:

In the key of C Major, this is C Major, G Major, A Minor, F Major, C Major.

I-V-vi-IV-I
i - iv - v - i Progression

Notice that the resolution at the end of the progression is different. This is because a resolution from IV to I instead of V to I has become a characteristic sound of contemporary music. How you resolve to the tonic will greatly determine whether your progression references more contemporary or more traditional music.

Minor progressions

Now that we have new chords to work with, the minor key has a whole host of new available progressions. We can create a brand new progression by taking any of the major progressions and changing them to minor progressions.

Simply alter any of the notes that change when going from major to minor (3 becomes b3, 6 becomes b6, and 7 becomes b7).

Here are the two examples from above, now in minor:

I - IV - V - I becomes i - iv - v - i:

i-iv-v-i
i - iv - v - i Progression
i-v-bVI-iv-i
i - bVI - bIII - bVII - i Progression

i - iv - bVII - i

Minor also offers us some new resolutions.

Notably, we now have access to bVII, a major chord rooted on the seventh note of the minor scale. In C Minor, this is Bb Major (containing Bb, D, and F).

This chord resolves well to i (C Minor is this case). This allows us to create progressions like the following:

i - bVI - bIII - bVII - i

i-bVI-bIII-bVII-i
i - iv - bVII - i Progression

i - iv - bVII - i

i-iv-bVII-i
i - iv - bVII - i Progression

i - bVI - bVII - i

i-bVI-bVII-i
i - bVI - bVII - i Progression

Conclusion

While it may seem like a daunting challenge to learn music theory, a bit of fundamental knowledge can help musicians connect with each other, making them more able to “speak the language."

With some of the information above and a handle on the terminology, music creation can be a much less random, much more intentional process.

And further, an understanding of music theory helps to legitimize an artist as a “musician." In the age of the Internet and the endless waves of new artists, developing this musicianship can truly set someone apart from the rest of the crowd.

In the end, this will make the artist more effective and versatile, opening up opportunities to continue moving up in the music industry.