What are the Basics of Music Theory

Woman studying the basics of music theory

Are you just learning the basics of music? Want to know more about music theory? If you are interested in making music, whether acoustically or electronically, it is important to start with the basics of music theory.

Building a foundation of basics in music theory is important. You need to become familiar with musical vocabulary and terminology. Armed with this knowledge, you can start creating music and sound for audio tracks, visual media and online games. This will also help when learning how to use musical software like Pro Tools and Ableton Live. These basics will move you into songwriting, music composition, mixing and vocal production. Ultimately, creating timeless music and sound that transcends ordinary music fundamentals. Are you asking yourself, “What is music theory?”

What is Music Theory?

Music theory allows musicians, producers, composers and instrumentalists the ability to understand the language of music. Laying a strong musical foundation with this terminology and vocabulary will help you collaborate with colleagues, build confidence in your music making skills and help you understand the basics of the music you want to create. By becoming knowledgeable in music theory basics, you can start a career in the music industry that will last for decades to come. Some definitions of the basic music theory terminology include music notation, pitch, scale, modes, rhythm, key signatures, intervals, melody, harmony, chords and chord progressions.

Music Notes

Music notes can be a universal language for all those that enjoy music and music making. Music notes, like math, are a common language among musicians, producers, composers and instrumentalist that may be from different countries and may speak in different languages. By using a common musical language, everyone can play the same music in the same style.

There are seven notes that make all music, they include A, B, C, D, E, F, and G. They can also be identified by the naming convention of Do-Re-Me-Fa-Sol-La-Ti. Each note has a unique pitch. There are twelve keys of music as displayed on a piano keyboard. A, A#/Bb, B, C, C#/Db, D D#/Eb, E, F, F#/Gb, G, G#/Ab.


The pitch of music is determined by how high or low the frequency of a note is played. Pitch is measured by the frequency of sound wave vibrations and measured in Hertz. Each music note as a unique frequency. For example, some might say a vocal is pitchy and that would mean it is out of tune. Many vocalists will sing along with an instrument. If they are pitchy, this could mean that they are singing above or below the expected pitch.


Scale comes from the Latin word “ladder”. If you think of a ladder, there are rungs that you can move up or down. Musical scales mimic a ladder in this way. A more studious definition of musical scales is a set of notes within an octave arranged by their pitch. There are major scales and minor scales. There are also seven scale degrees. The function of a scale degree relates to the amount of tension it creates. All the different pitches in major and minor scales include:

  • 1st – Tonic
  • 2nd – Supertonic
  • 3rd – Mediant
  • 4th – Subdominant
  • 5th – Dominant
  • 6th – Submediant
  • 7th – Leading Tone


Each mode has its own unique mood, making your sound darker or bright depending on how low or high the modal scale. Using a musical mode can bring a freshness to your standard musical sound. Specially, modes are a type of scale with distinct melody. Musical modes are scales derived from a parent scale. There are seven music modes. They include Ionian, Dorian, Phrygian, Lydian, Mixolydian, Aeolian, Locrian.


Rhythm is the controlled movement of music in time. Specifically, it is the way music is divided into beats that repeat a specific number of times within a bar at a specific speed or tempo.

Key Signatures

Key signatures identify the notes in a scale that are sharp or flat. They can also identify the key of a song. There are twelve key signatures, each named from the twelve available notes.


Intervals are the distance between two notes. Intervals are measured in half steps, whole steps and their position in the scale. A half step interval is one semitone. Two half steps make a whole step. Intervals are described in numbers of half-steps between two notes. Intervals are also described by quality. The five interval qualities are major, minor, perfect, augmented and diminished.


The melody is usually the part of a song that sticks in your head. It can be the most memorable part of any song. Specifically, melody is a group of notes of various pitches played one after another, sounding like one single entity. This is made up of rhythm and pitch. 


Most people picture a barber shop quartet when they think of music harmony. And many think harmonies can only happen with vocals, however this is not always the case.  Two instruments can harmonize in the same way as multiple vocalists. Specifically, harmony occurs when two or more differently pitched notes are played simultaneously.


Chords are the building blocks of all songs. A chord is a combination of two or more notes played simultaneously, with the root note starting the chord progression. Some of the most common types of chords include triad chords, major chords, minor chords, diminished chords, augmented chords, and seventh chords. To create chord extensions, add notes to the triad beyond the seventh chord. Chord inversions are variations of the same chord. A chord inversion is created by transposing notes.

Chord Progressions

There are many common chord progressions that are used in popular music. They are used because they create a certain mood and/or emotion. Most popular songs use one of only a handful of chord progressions. Specifically, chord progressions are an ordered series of chords. If two chord progressions are played simultaneously, it is called a cadence. Chord progressions support both the melody and the rhythm.

Final Thoughts

Becoming an audio producer, musician, instrumentalist or composer starts with obtaining basic knowledge of music theory. Once you have the basics down you can move forward into using digital audio workstations, Pro Tools software and MIDI sequencing to start creating your own music. With this basic knowledge and the passion to create, your musical possibilities are endless.

Audio Production Program

The Audio Production and Engineering Program  at the Institute of Production and Recording is an occupational degree program designed to train producer engineers who are entrepreneurs, musically and technically creative, and proficient in modern recording technology and technique. Throughout the program, students are involved in hands-on exercises and real-world studio projects that enable them to apply their knowledge and refine their skills.

At the end of the Audio Production and Engineering program, each student presents a portfolio — a selection of his or her best work to date. This serves as a demo reel for potential employers and clients — an audio resume with professional content that highlights the graduate’s talent and skill.

Contact us today to learn more about the audio production programs and starting a rewarding career.