The Complete Guide to Music Theory for Beginning Piano Students

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Introduction: The Complete Guide to Music Theory for Beginning Piano Students

This lesson is going to introduce you as a beginning piano student to the amazing world of Music Theory.

Music Theory explains how notes relate to each other in our piano music. Even though we read just one note at a time when we're playing our piano pieces, what we learn through Music Theory is how each of those individual notes actually fit in with all of the other notes to create the bigger picture which is the piece as a whole.

There are four main ways that notes connect or relate to one another.

  1. Intervals
  2. Harmony
  3. Melody
  4. Rhythm

Let's break each of these down, see what they are, and learn how they connect notes together in our music.

Step 1: Intervals

Intervals are the distance between pitches. The notes can be played one at a time or together at the same time.

Intervals can be read from left to right. (see the blue arrow in image #2) Usually, the melody line is the very top line and is what we tend to hear the most. Think about the song "Jingle Bells"...I use this as an example in the video at the end of this lesson. That familiar tune to this song that most of us know is what we call the Melodic Line of the song and by studying the intervals between these melodic line notes, we understand how each note connects to the others better.

We can have intervals from unisons up in order through 8ths. I have circled several interval examples in image #2 so you can see what they look like. I go over them with you at the piano in the final step if you have any questions at this point.

Next, let's look at Harmony and see how notes connect to each other in a different way from our Melodic intervals.

Step 2: Harmony

Remember how we read our notes from left to right to find the Melodic Line & Intervals?

Harmony - or harmonic notes are read from the bottom to the top (or top to bottom)...completely opposite. Harmony always involves more than two notes and we call these notes that are played together - chords.

In the image above you can see a simple example of 2 notes that are played together at the same time. Usually, chords have more than 2 notes, but sometimes, as in this case, there are just 2 notes. We still consider these 2-note groups of notes as chords.

The main point to remember at this time about Harmony is that we read and play the notes from the bottom to the top, which is different from Melodic Melody notes that are read and played from left to right.

Speaking of Melodic Lines, let's take a look at how Melody connects notes together to form those tunes that can remember much easier than Harmonic Lines.

Step 3: Melody

As we mentioned before, the Melody line of a piece is usually found in the very top line and we read those notes from left to right.

If you are asked to identify the Melodic and Harmonic lines of a piece, you would look at the top line for the Melody and the bottom lines for the Harmony.

The image above shows the melodic line in this music example. In piano music, much of the melodic line will be in the Treble Clef - right hand, and the harmonic line will be found in the Bass Clef - left hand.

It's interesting to note, that melody flows in one direction and harmony flows in another direction. Harmony plays a "supporting role" to melody and the way it is written in the music almost demonstrates that; as we see chords seemingly hold up the melody line to give it support, texture, and strength.

Now we need to understand how we know what notes to play in these melodic and harmonic music lines. We do this through Key Signatures. Let's see what they are.

Step 4: Keys and Key Signatures

In music, a Key is what tells us what notes we are going to play in a given piano piece. Have you ever noticed how all music doesn't sound the same? In part, this is because music can be written in many different keys, which has different notes from each other when we're playing in a certain Key.

The way we can know what Key we're playing in is by looking at the Key Signature at the beginning of every piece, and at the beginning of every line of music in that piece. It's always on the left...see in the image above?

The Key Signature will tell us what notes we are to play sharp or flat throughout the piece. All of our melodic and harmonic lines will be built using the Key indicated by the Key Signature.

There will never be a Key Signature that contains both sharps and flats together, but...you may see the Key Signature change sometimes throughout the piece from the original one..so make sure you look out for that in your music.

The best way to learn your Key Signatures is by playing Scales. Let's look at scales and learn what we call some of the tones/notes in scales.

Step 5: Scales

Scales are made up of all the notes in between the first and last note of the scale.

For example, a C Major scale starts on C and ends on C. C Major has no sharps or flats in it. (As you learn each Key Signature you'll know what notes to play for each major and minor scale.) The notes in between are included in the scale and the notes must be the same as the key signature of C...which is no sharps or flats.

As we play through an entire scale we can see how each note connects to each other by counting the intervals between the notes that we're playing.

One of the first things that you will begin working on in your piano playing as a beginner is scales. We usually start with C Major and then progress through what we call the Circle of Fifths to learn all the rest of our scales.

Learning our scales makes learning our piano pieces much easier! If you know how to play the E Major scale, you'll be able to learn a piece in that same key a lot faster; especially if you practice on that scale before you start working on your piece each day in your practicing.

Scales are the building blocks for the chords that we play - which remember are a part of the Harmonic Line in music theory. Let's look at how we can build Chords out of our scales.

Step 6: Chords

Chords are different from melody lines. Chords are notes that are played together, at the same time. In our music, they are stacked on top of each other...you can see this in the images.

Chords can be made up of any combination of two or more notes. What's neat, is that we have a different name for each type of chord that we build.

Triads are made up of 3 notes and are one of the most common chords that we learn at the beginning of our music theory studies. There are in fact many different types of Triads made up from adding in some notes or even taking away some notes. The possibilities are actually numerous in terms of how you can change notes around to make up different Triads.

Chords serve to define or describe the type of harmony that we have in a piece. Everything in music theory is really about defining what is happening with the notes that we see and play.

The final part of our lesson today will deal with how we can create patterns from the chords that we play. Chord Progressions teach us how to really move around on the keyboard in more complicated pieces of music and in different styles of music; such as Jazz or Rock & Roll.

Step 7: Chord Progressions

Building Chords on a Scale is what we do when we play Chord Progressions.

Let's go back to scales for just a minute.

Each note of a scale can be turned into a Triad by stacking 2 notes on top of it. See image #2 - see how there are 3 note chords all the way up the scale? This example is in the key of C Major.

Once we build triads on each tone of the scale, we then number each tone/chord of the scale starting with 1 and ending with 8; except we call the "8" chord, the 1 chord again. Usually, the numbers for each chord are written with Roman Numerals in our music.

Now what we have are seven different chords that we can use. Out of those seven chords, the most commonly used ones are the 1, 4, & 5 chords. These are called Primary Chords. These are the chords circled in image #2.

To play this chord progression on your piano, simply take out the other chords and start from the beginning and play each one right after the other. Play the 1, 4, 5 & 1 chord again on the top octave.

You can do this with each new key you learn and it will help to reinforce your knowledge of that key and the scale that goes with it.

OK...this is a lot of information so let's now go to the piano together to see examples of each of these steps.

Step 8: Come Practice With Me!

This video will take you through examples at the piano to show you how we read and play intervals, harmony, melody, and rhythm in real time.

It might be best to take one step per day to really take the time needed to grasp each concept thoroughly.

Read the step and then watch that part of the video so you can fully understand how each part works. Then try taking a new piece of music that you've never played before and then identify the melodic and harmonic lines, the chords and even chord progressions that you find.

Can you play the scale that the piece is in? Remember to do that with each new Key Signature and piece you learn.

Music Theory will help you understand the bigger picture of what you are playing on the piano. You'll come to understand how notes connect to each other through many different ways and it will even help you create your own music one day if that is one of your goals!

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