Music Theory for Guitarists: Introduction
Music Theory: Part 1
Why is music theory so important? Because if you want to be good at something, you will have to learn most everything about it. The same thing goes for guitarists – you can be good at playing a song, say for example “Sweet Child of Mine” by Guns N’ Roses. But without the basics, you won’t be able to come up with your own version of it. What makes the popular musicians stand out is the fact that they have their own style of playing their respective instruments. Sure, not everybody can know everything about the ins and outs of music itself, but it would be good to have a simple background behind how music works.
Basic Elements of Music
So to begin, there are many elements behind music theory, but the most important would be: rhythm, melody, tempo, and timbre. What are all these? Without these four things, you won’t have music at all. Rhythm, first off, is the pattern of musical sounds according to their duration. The song “We Will Rock You” by Queen will not be the same song if we change the stomp-stomp-clap pattern. Secondly, melody – all songs have a musical line which you can sing along to. It’s what defines the song’s uniqueness. Tempo, on the other hand, is what determines the speed of a song. Timbre is basically what determines each instrument from the other – the sound of Do (C) on a guitar will sound different from Do (C) on a piano.
Dynamics is also an element of music. It determines the loudness or softness of the sounds. In classical music, we use terms such as forte (loud) and piano (soft) to indicate how that specific section of music is to be played. Dynamics also provides variation within the song. You don’t really hear a song being loud all the time – sometimes, it has to tone down a bit, especially if you want to build up towards a climax. Take for example the outro section of “Somebody to Love” by Queen: the voice begin softly saying “find… me… somebody to love…” and eventually get louder and louder towards the repeat of the chorus. This is called a crescendo, a gradual increase in volume. The opposite would be a decrescendo, which is commonly heard in a “fade out” at the end of a song.
What makes a melody sound nice? That would probably be harmony – a combination of tones played or sang together. Take “All My Loving” by the Beatles – John Lennon and Paul McCartney sing the same lyrics in different melodies to create a unique blend of voices that that song is known for. Another good example of harmony is “How Deep Is Your Love” by the Bee Gees. A good example of guitar harmony would be Racer X’s “Viking Kong”.
Notes and Note Reading
Another important part of music theory is to have a basic background on reading notes. The most basic note types that you should learn first are the quarter note, half note, and the whole not. The note types determine the duration of each note: quarter notes have 1 beat; half notes have 2 beats each, and whole notes have 4 beats each. (video soon)
There are also other more advanced notes like the eighth note, the sixteenth note, and dotted notes. The more types of notes there are in a piece of music, the more interesting the rhythm gets.
The next thing about note-reading is to learn the pitches. Basically, we have just 7 main pitches: C (do), D (re), E (mi), F (fa), G (sol), A (la), B (ti). Other more advanced pitches are just the same 7 notes with accidentals like the sharp (♯) and the flat (♭). Sharps raise pitches a half-step higher, while flats lower pitches a half-step lower.
Tabs or Tablature
Some people prefer not to read notes at all. This is where tabs come in handy. What are tabs, you ask? “Tabs” is a short word for tablature, which is basically a table for the structure of music using numbers instead of notes. Guitar tablature would look something like this:
Note Reading or Tabs?
The problem with tablatures is that it doesn’t have note values – no indication of how long you should hold that specific note. So people who use tabs usually have to rely on listening to the song. Some prefer reading the actual sheet music, while some prefer reading tabs instead. It all boils down to preference.
Here at Guitar-Elite, we offer guitar courses that allow you to choose any reading method you prefer – notes or tablatures – or better yet, both! For guitar learners, it’s possible to play and learn with just tabs (it’s easier and faster). Guitar-Elite includes music theory, note reading and tablatures with our video lessons, so you can learn the fun way!
Once you have learned the note pitches, you’ll want to learn about scales. Scales are a set of pitches in ascending order. You will start off learning about major and minor scales that have two different set of patterned tones. Scales are what musicians use to create solos and the melodies.
Major and Minor
There are two basic types of scales: Major and minor. The main difference between the two is that the major scale sounds much more “cheerful” than the minor scale, which sounds a little “dramatic”. But looking into the theory of scales, the actual difference is the interval of each note in the scale.
Scales are made up of steps: Half steps and whole steps. It would be easier to look at it from the perspective of a piano player. In this image, C going to D is a whole step, while G going to Ab is a half step.
Basically, a half step is going from C to C#, D to D#, etc. On the other hand, a whole step is going from C to D, D to E, and so on and so forth. Take note that E going to F is a half step.
That being said, a major scale is made up of the following pattern: W-W-H-W-W-W-H
A minor scale is made up of this pattern: W-H-W-W-H-W-W. Looking at the piano below, you will better understand the patterns of the major and minor scales.
C Major Scale: C – D – E – F – G – A – B – C
(Listen to the C Major Scale here)
C Minor Scale: C – D – Eb – F – G – Ab – Bb – C
(Listen to the C Minor Scale here)
Time signatures – sets the number of beats per measure. If you have 4/4, you will have 4 quarter notes per measure; or 2 half notes per measure; or 1 whole note per measure (see example below).
Songs are differentiated not only by its speed or melody but also by its time signature. Try listening to these songs to learn the difference between time signatures:
- 4/4 – “Carry On My Wayward Son” by Kansas
- 3/4 – “Nothing Else Matters” by Metallica
- 6/8 – “Shine On You Crazy Diamond” by Pink Floyd
There is also a plethora of complicated time signatures:
- 7/4 – “Money” by Pink Floyd
- 11/4 – “Hey Ya” by Outkast
- 5/4 – “Mission Impossible Theme” by Lalo Schifrin
Some songs also carry multiple time signatures such as:
- “Strawberry Fields Forever” by Beatles
- “I Say A Little Prayer” by Dionne Warwick
- “The Big Medley” by Dream Theater
These are just some elements of music but there is so much more to learn. As a result, we are making a series of articles for this topic.
Check out part two of music theory here .
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