Music Theory Fundamentals That You Should Know

Making music is fundamental to human nature, and you don’t need to take music theory classes to be a musician. Understanding music theory fundamentals can help you better grasp ideas of how to make music and to better read it. It’s helpful if you want to compose music of your own. Similarly, it’s also helpful if you want to arrange a work, which means to shift how the music’s written to make it appropriate for different kinds of ensembles.

What is Music Theory?

Music is all around us. People sing, play instruments, and listen to music in many different ways. But what is music, and how is it made? Music is a way of organizing sounds and tones together in an order, combining them to create approving aural sensations.

Music theory defines the core aspects of music to explain how these sounds work harmoniously to form music and provides a system for musicians to communicate their ideas to one another. There are several concepts, terms, and disciplines. Among the most fundamentals are rhythm, melody, and harmony, all of which relate to how music is constructed.

Music theory fundamentals

1. Rhythm

Rhythm is the repeated pattern of movement in sound. It can be fast or slow and is arranged in units of sound called beats. Rhythm makes the music move.

Rhythm is an arrangement of beats or notes in a consecutive loop placed at equal intervals of time. Therefore, you will also have to arrange silence in between the time of its duration just as you would do with the sounds. In other words, improper placement of silence can ruin the flow of any rhythm but it can also open up new possibilities through experimentation. This is one of the beauties of music – mistakes can often lead to new potentials. As a result, a master improviser might build a ‘mistake’ into the piece so that it becomes a part of the whole.

2. Melody

Melody is the group of notes or series of pitches (with proper placement of silence) that form the tune, the most basic building blocks of song making. This is why its construction and arrangement is of prime importance in music theory. That is to say, when you sing a familiar song, you’re likely singing the melody.

3. Harmony

Harmony is multiple lines of notes that complement the melody. That is to say, they make it more interesting, but they never overpower it.

In general, harmony is often composed of chords, groups of three or more notes played at the same time. Chords give color to harmony and melody. Melody and harmony are written using notes on a scale. A scale is a range of ascending or descending notes within an octave, or eight-note group.

Music theory rudiments

Rudiments are music theory in practice – they’re the theory behind the musical gestures you use everyday, no matter what instrument you play. The rudiments of music theory are: scale, chords, keys and key signatures.

1. Scale

Scales are the raw material for melodies. Any melodic musical passage with a singable tune relies on a scale for its form. A scale is a sequential collection of notes with a specific pattern of tones and semitones. This pattern determines the sound of the scale and the way it’s used in songs.

Different scales bring different moods, emotions and characteristics to a piece – and allow for different melodic possibilities. The two basic scales are the major and minor. The major scale follows the pattern tone-tone-semitone-tone-tone-tone-semitone. The minor scale follows the pattern tone-semitone-tone-tone-semitone-tone-tone.

There are plenty of different scales out there, each with its own unique melodic signature. Therefore, scales have just as big an impact as chords when it comes to forming a song’s sonic identity. Scales and chords are the main rudiments you need to understand to start making music.

2. Chords

When three or more notes of the same pitch are played together, at the same time, they form a chord. Chords are the individual units of harmony. As a result, they add volume to music and they also create the fundamental movement that creates music.

Chords can be thought of as being like the foundations of a building. Above all, they provide essential elements but we’re not usually as aware of them as the visible structure. In this analogy, melody is the audible structure, the part that is most noticeable. Different combinations of chords create different effects on the listener and change the mood which the sound creates in the listener’s mind.

Putting chords together in sequences is one of the basic parts of songwriting. A chord progression is a musically pleasing sequence of chords. Learning how to build individual chords and arrange them together is a skill you can improve by learning music theory.

3. Keys and key signatures

A musical key defines the group of pitches that will be used in a musical composition. It sets the pattern that makes up the principal major or minor scale and harmonic “home” of the song.

A key signature determines the key of a piece of music by a set of sharps or flats (accidentals). It appears at the beginning of a line of music to indicate which notes must be altered from their original state to fit the key. Likewise, keys are the harmonic and melodic context for the action in a song, they provide a template that helps musicians know what notes to play when playing with each other. Therefore, a song may start and one key and end in another, or visit a different key before returning (i.e., a key change).


We’ve put together set of quizzes that you can play to learn music theory fundamentals at OC Musica’s student portal.