When learning a new instrument or taking a music class for the first time, you will be required to learn Music Theory. The importance of learning theory is what will help you read the music, decipher the music and become privy to the music language. As a musician, teacher or student, there are certain terms that you should know, both basic and advanced, that will guide you, helping you to understand music and become more of an expert on the subject.
Basic Music Theory Terms
Starting with some basic theory terms, musicians and those studying music and theory should know the following terms:
The pitch indicates how high or low a note is and attributes to Tone, which is a steady sound or interval of two semitones (or space between two notes like the interval). Unison is two or more instruments or voices holding the same note, and an octave is two notes with the same note quality, as in if it was the A, but it would be at a different pitch so there would be a low A and a high A. Rhythm is the regular repeated pattern of sound.
You should have a general idea of music notes at this point, which is the foundation for all music. Knowing how to identify which notes go where to make certain sounds also help you to hear and acknowledge the differences between melody and harmony, or in more layman’s terms, the main musical sound and the “background” sound(s).
There are 12 keys based off of 7 letters of the musical alphabet:
A♭, A, A# / B♭, B, C, C#/D♭, D, D#/E♭, E, F, F#/G♭, G, G#.
The interval is indicative of the spacing between two notes, also noted in theory as a whole step or a half step. Terms indicate numbers when noting the distance between the notes, such as 2nd, 3rd, 4th, all the way to 8th, which is the octave. We describe the intervals in terms of the following: major, minor, augmented, diminished, or perfect. These terms explain the sound you hear when playing 2 or more notes at a time to create the interval.
The Musical staff is made up of the Treble and Bass Clefs (top and bottom). These coincide with how the notes appear and where they are on the instrument. For voice, females tend to sing more in the treble range, and men in the bass.
Music scales utilize those foundation blocks – the notes – in octaves arranged by pitch. There are two different sets of scales utilized in music.
The major scales are the “happy” sounding notes which follow the same interval pattern. The minor music scales are the more emotion-evoking notes and have different variations noted as melodic, harmonic and natural minor scales. Major scales are more pleasant to the ear, and typically a little easier to master than minor scales, which are dark and ominous-sounding.
Chords / Triads
Scales segway into chords and triads because there are more than two types of chords in music. There is the two same as in scales: major and minor. But there are also augmented and diminished chords in music, and you should be aware of the differences in each. The augmented chord is when the top note (fifth) is raised. For example, an augmented C chord would be C, E, and G#. A diminished chord is a minor triad consisting of two minor thirds above the root, like if you used C for your major chord, the diminished chord would be C, E♭ , and G♭.
Another chord that you should know is the Seventh Chord, which is when a note is added to a triad, providing a more full and rich sound. Usually, these notes extend the octave. There are even more variations to chords and triads, with terms like minor seventh, minor third, and major fifth, that demonstrate the interval of a number of semitones between notes.
Knowledge of what key you’re playing or singing in is going to be essential as a musician. The key signature lets you know which notes within the song are sharp or flat, which gives a particular sound or feel to a piece of music. There are twelve key signatures in total.
When reading music you not only need to know the notes, you also need to decipher the dynamics, which is the way that you need to present your notes/chords/triads. Dynamics add the feeling into the notes, whether you’re singing or playing, to help convey emotion.
There are many dynamics but there are some core terms you should know:
- Accent (<) – an accent is what puts emphasis on a note
- Adagio – an Italian term meaning slow tempo.
- Allegro – an Italian word for a fast tempo.
- Mezzo-Piano (mp), Mezzo-Forte (mf) – Mezzo means “moderate” and the piano means “soft” while forte means “loud”, so moderately soft and moderately loud.
- Piano (p), Pianissimo (pp) – piano, as already established means “soft” and pianissimo means “VERY soft.”
- Forte (f), Fortissimo (ff) – forte as stated above means “loud” so fortissimo means “VERY loud.”
- Rallentando (rall.) – Italian, means gradually slower. Sometimes also known as rit. (Ritardando)
Advanced Music Theory Terms
When reading music you also need to recognize certain advanced music theory terms like Ascending and Descending, which is going up or down on the scale/interval.
More essential advanced music theory terms include:
- Root, which is the lowest note in the chord
- Secondary Dominant, where the dominant key in the chord is something other than the root,
- Transpose, which is shifting an entire piece or phrase of music into a different pitch/key
- Inversion, where the order of notes within the chord change.
Music Theory Is Essential
All musicians, teachers, singers and others who study music in depth should know or at least have a working knowledge of music theory. If you have a good theory base, the music itself becomes easier, more recognizable and a breeze to practice and develop your skills.
There are many other music theory terms that you can acquire knowledge of than the ones mentioned here, so never stop learning and digging deep into theory in your musical journey.