More Music Theory for Beginners

More Music Theory for Beginners

On the surface, music theory is full of unfamiliar terms and concepts, and it begs unending questions.

“What’s the difference between melody and harmony?”

“How do I learn how to read the musical symbols on the page?”

“Why are there hashtags all over my child’s sheet music?”

(Hint: They mean something else in music!) You can find the answers to all of these basic questions and more here. 

Remind me what music theory is again?

It’s the rules and concepts that tell us how and why music works and sounds the way it does. Some of this comes down to science (like the exact frequency in Hz of each sound), but it is also the artistic choices we make that give a piece feeling.

Music Theory Basics for Beginners
Click the image above to read Music Theory Basics

In this two-part article, we will be breaking down music theory basics to get you started. This, of course, includes musical notation for beginners so that we can talk about the music theory concepts in that context.

The main topics we will be covering are: pitch, music notation, accidentals, scales, and keys.

Keep in mind that there are many types of music notation around the world, and different ways to explain how music works. We will be looking at music theory through a Western European lens, which is the most commonly used. 


Before we talk about anything written, we need to talk about pitch. The pitch is, quite simply, how we assign a name to a sound. Western music uses the first seven letters of the alphabet to label the basic pitches: A, B, C, D, E, F, and G. After G, we start over again at A, but this A will sound higher.

We call this a different octave: seven notes, followed by the first one again. We can see this more clearly on a piano keyboard.

The further to the left on a keyboard a pitch is, the lower it will sound. The further to the right, the higher it will sound. This presents differently depending on what instrument you’re playing, but the concept is the same.

Notice also that there are black keys in between some of the white keys. While there are seven lettered notes, there are a total of twelve pitches in each octave. The black keys are pitches in between the letters, which we will talk about later in “accidentals.”

Another way to teach pitch is through what is called solfege. You may be familiar with do, re, mi, fa, so , la, ti, do (anyone seen The Sound of Music?). Each pitch is assigned a syllable to correspond with a note. In the “fixed do” system, C is always do, D is always re, and so on. There are also syllables to match the black keys (the note between C and D can be di or ra, for example).

Solfege is especially useful for identifying notes without seeing them on a keyboard or on paper. There are even hand signs to accompany them as an additional visual aid. It is also considered to be an excellent way to identify the relationship between notes and the patterns they make.

Music notation for beginners

Now that we have established how sounds are discussed, we can talk about writing them down. Music notation is the language we use to translate music into writing. First, let’s take a look at the way we draw the framework of sheet music using a staff, clefs, and notes.

Reading music on the staff

In this image, all three of the above terms are shown. The staff is the grid with horizontal lines that all of the other markings are written on and around. Every staff has five lines, four spaces, and a clef at the beginning (the swirly figure on the far left). The clef tells us the letter assigned to each line on the staff. There are three main types of clefs: treble clef (G-clef), bass clef (F-clef), and the C-clef

For a treble clef (seen above), the bottom line of the staff is an “E” pitch, followed by “F” on the next space, “G” on the next line, “A” on the space after that, and so on. A treble clef is generally used for higher-sounding instruments (like trumpet or clarinet) and the notes played by the right hand on a piano.

For a bass clef, the bottom line of the staff is a “G” pitch, followed by “A” on the next space, “B” on the next line, “C” on the space after that, and so on. A bass clef is generally used for lower-sounding instruments (like trombone or cello) and the notes played by the left hand on a piano.

There is also a C-clef, which changes position on the staff to indicate where the pitch “C” is on the staff. Its placement on the staff varies based on what type of instrument is using it, or what range of notes a vocalist is using. For example, in the image above, the third line is being designated as “C,” and so this clef is referred to as an alto or viola clef (because it is used by alto vocalists and viola musicians). This clef sees the most use in orchestral and chamber music scores.

Do All Musicians Need to Learn Sheet Music
Do all musicians need to read sheet music? Click above to find out!


Let’s look at how to read music notes. A note is the circular marking on the staff that indicates what pitch is played at that point in the music. There are several types of notes, each indicating how long the note should be played (or how many “beats”).

The most basic note values are:

  • Whole note (4 beats)
whote note
  • Half note (2 beats)
half note
  • Quarter note (1 beat)
quarter note
  • Eighth note (½ beat)
eighth note

You can see that each one is half of the previous. The location of the note on the staff’s lines and spaces is what tells you which note to play, and the note’s value tells you how long to play it. The division of the notes is one reason why music is beneficial to children: it supports the skills they are developing in mathematics by using fractions.

There are many other marks that are included in musical notation that indicate such things as:

  • Rhythm (using measures and time signatures, which will be discussed in Part 2 of this article)
  • Silence (rests)
  • Volume (dynamics)
  • Speed (tempo)
  • Style (articulation)
  • Repetitions 

A tutor can help you learn and implement all of these things and more!


Remember the black keys on the piano? These are used for the pitches in between the named notes, and are either referred to as sharp (♯) or flat (♭). Note that the sharp is different than a hashtag or a pound sign, which is oriented differently and looks like #. There is also a natural (♮) accidental, which cancels out a previous sharp or flat.

Let’s look at the black key between C and D. When moving up the keyboard to the right, we refer to it as C-sharp, because it is higher than C (in the direction we’re moving). When moving down the keyboard to the left, we refer to it as D-flat, because it is lower than D (in the direction we’re moving). The pitch sounds exactly the same and is referred to as an enharmonic tone. The difference is in its context within the piece. 

We call the space between notes an interval, which is measured in half and whole steps. The distance between C and C-sharp is one key, which makes this a half step. The distance between C and D is two keys, which equals one whole step (half step + half step). This becomes more relevant in scales.


A scale is an established series of pitches that follows a specific pattern of whole steps and half steps. Scales are an easy way to begin familiarizing yourself with your instrument and how to play each note, as well as the common patterns in which you will do so. They can be used to frame a piece and offer structure. There are three main types: major, minor, and chromatic. All can begin on any note, but must be played in a specific pattern from their starting point.

Major scales are one of the first things a musician will learn. The figures above that show the three different kinds of clefs are all written with a C major scale. A major scale must be played in the following series of whole and half steps: W-W-H-W-W-W-H. You may also recognize this as do re mi fa so la ti do.

There are three different types of minor scale, each with their own pattern of whole and half steps: natural minor, harmonic minor, and melodic minor. The most commonly used is the natural minor, which uses: W-H-W-W-H-W-W. 

A chromatic scale is simply all twelve half steps in an octave. This means that if you started on C, you would then go to C-sharp, D, D-sharp, E, F, F-sharp, and so on until you reached the next C.


Now that we’ve talked about accidentals and scales, we can apply them to another important concept: keys. This is different from the keys on a piano or a keyboard! A key in music theory is essentially the scale (and its designated pitches) a piece is framed around. This is indicated at the beginning of a piece with a key signature.

Consider the B major scale:

It starts and ends on B, and has five sharps. Now, when we put it into a key signature:

The sharps move to the front of the staff. In the key of B, the notes C, D, F, G, and A are all sharped. A key signature indicates that all instances of those notes in the piece (unless otherwise specified with a natural) will be sharped, even though they may not have the sharp written right next to the note.

When you hear major keys in music, you will find that they often evoke positive emotions. Smash Mouth’s “All Star,” for instance, is in the key of F-sharp major. The same is true for Scott Joplin’s “The Entertainer,” which is in C major. Compared to major keys, minor keys tend to be used in darker and more melancholy pieces. Beethoven’s Symphony No.5 in C minor (the famous “da da da duuum”) is one such example. 

Enlist the aid of a music tutor

As you can see, music theory has a breadth of new ideas that you likely haven’t found in any other discipline. While we went over some broad definitions here, a music tutor can go into even more depth with you to answer any further questions you might have, especially regarding music notation for beginners.

Reading up on music theory concepts is one thing, but putting them into practice is another, and it helps to have a guiding hand to walk you through it. Music tutoring is an excellent way to find one. I encourage you to find a tutor that works for you!

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