5 Key Elements of Music Theory

Some people seem to have been blessed with an ear for music and intuitively get how all the pieces fit together, while others immerse themselves in the formal study of theory till they sound like a mathematician. Most of us, however, fall somewhere in the middle of this continuum. We have a talent and a passion for music, but we need a little help in figuring out how to connect the dots.

Knowing even a little about how music ticks will help you make sense of what you're playing and give you a broader tonal palette from which to create and play music.

Theory is an important part of the foundation for understanding how music works. Like a road map, it will tell you what musicians and composers have done in the past and why it works. It enables you to put notes into some sort of context, and lets you share in a common language with other musicians. Theory makes it possible for you to immediately understand the sounds you hear, which then gives you the ability to recreate those sounds. Performing and improvising become infinitely easier, not to mention composing your own music. With a little theory under your belt, you'll be able to summon any possible combination of notes and phrases to emote the exact feeling you're trying to convey.

Music theory should be used as a tool to aid you in your playing, not as a bible to be adhered to. You can adapt theory, and the degree to which you study it, to fit your needs and desires. If your goal in playing guitar is simply to be able to strum a few songs around a campfire or as mere accompaniment to your voice, or if you're really just interested in playing the most elementary chords and looking great with that guitar slung across your chest while doing it, then studying music theory probably isn't high on your list of priorities. Not everyone wants to become a great player, and that's okay. But you should at least be somewhat familiar with the basics.

If you want to actually understand what you are doing and why you are doing it, then you need to understand music theory. Not knowing will hold you back dramatically.

Here are 5 key elements of music theory you should understand

Notes – Knowing note names, values, pitch, and placement are key foundation basics that all the other elements of music are built upon. You should know about the staff and intervals and what sharps and flats mean. Learning to read music is almost exactly like learning a new language, to the point where a fluent person can “hear” a musical “conversation” when reading a piece of sheet music.

Rhythm – Rhythm is the basis of all music. Counting beats is an essential part of being able to read and play music. Understanding and applying time signatures and beat values is an absolute must for a musician. Playing out of time is the one thing that listeners will not forgive. And if you want to play with others in a band, rhythm is imperative to staying in sync.

Scales – Learning scales is fundamental to being able to play the guitar. The major scale is the basis of chords and other types of scales. It is also the basis of Western music as we know it. If you learn the major scale, you will be able to understand how chords are constructed, know why your favorite songs sound the way they do, play great arpeggios, and be able to write your own songs. It will allow you to understand the concept of intervals, develop dexterity and strength in your fingers, and to start to really hear musical relationships.

Chords – Knowing guitar chord theory allows you to play any chord anywhere on the fretboard quickly and efficiently. When you understand the science of chord construction, your playing will be more artful, expressive, and professional. Knowing chord construction and function is critical to the songwriter and improviser. Applying a few simple chord techniques gives a song harmonic movement and is the key to error-free soloing. Other benefits of knowing chord theory include being able to pick out melodies and to play songs by ear.

Key Signatures – A key signature refers to the collection of every accidental (sharps and flats) found in a scale that indicates the key of a composition. Key signatures are the flats or sharps you see after the clef and before the time signature. The purpose of the key signature, aside from telling you what key to play in, is to avoid writing too many accidentals. The sharps or flats placed on the line or space in the key signature indicate that notes on that line or space need to be sharped or flatted. It also indicates that all the other notes of the same letter, even if they are in other octaves, need to be sharped or flatted as well. For example, instead of writing Bb over and over again, the flat sign (b) is placed on the third line of the Treble Clef indicating that all B notes need to be flatted.

Music theory is a vast subject and can be overwhelming to grasp at times, not unlike learning math or science. It would be wise to study with a good teacher who will help guide you.

If you are interested in learning more about music theory, I would recommend the following the courses.  They are all practical courses, taught by guitar players, for guitar players

SixStringMadness is a huge supporter of Steve Stine and the amazing courses he has put together.  Checkout his Music Theory Made Easy Course






CAGED Made Simple is another theory based course that Steve did that will really help you get a handle on the “why” of music

Be sure to check out SteveStine.com for the complete catalog

GuitarTricks.com has some fantastic lessons on music theory.  Instructor Christopher Schlegel has a great Introduction to Music Theory course and Lisa McCormick teaches Basic Chord Theory.

You'll need a full access membership to view those lessons on GuitarTricks but if you click the link below, you can get a 14 day trial membership for FREE

FREE Guitar Tricks Membership








JamPlay.com has a terrific section on music theory as well.  There are a ton of great lessons for members but some free ones as well if you want to get the basics.  I would highly recommend signing up for a membership with JamPlay though.  There is so much great info and lessons on there.

Here are some free lesson to get you started

Music Theory 101 with Steve Eulberg

Understanding Intervals with instructor David Wallimann