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The Best Music Theory Tips For Beginners

Are you looking to dive into the exciting world of music theory? Whether you just starting out on your musical journey or you are interested in learning about music theory to take your playing to the next level, understanding the basics can greatly enhance your understanding and enjoyment of music. At Greater Toronto Music School, our top music theory teachers are excited about helping students navigate this exciting and fascinating topic. Here are our top 10 music theory tips for beginners, carefully selected to make learning both exciting and effective.

Mao is a Toronto based music teacher.

The Best Music Theory Tips For Beginners: Quick Menu


1. Learn the Musical Alphabet

Understanding the Musical Alphabet

The musical alphabet consists of seven letters: A, B, C, D, E, F, and G. The musical alphabet repeats in a continuous loop. Each letter represents a specific tone on the musical scale. For example, A is followed by B, then C, and so on. Understanding this pattern is essential to reading and interpreting musical notation. This pattern can be seen visually on the piano keyboard. Take a look at the black notes - they occur in groups of 2 and 3 notes. Seeing this pattern will help you to visualize this cycle.

Knowing the musical alphabet is the first step towards understanding how notes are organized in music. It allows musicians to recognize specific notes on sheet music or when playing an instrument. To deepen your familiarity with this concept, try practicing with flashcards or interactive online exercises.

A piano keyboard with the letters of the musical alphabet
Notice how C falls just before the 2 black keys.

2. Master Basic Rhythms

Grasping Rhythmic Patterns

Rhythm is often described as the heartbeat of music. To read music, we must first understand a few things. The staff is made up of 5 lines and 4 spaces which is populated by notes. Each note, depending on where it is found on the staff, represents a certain tone in the musical alphabet. To be able to read music, we must know where the notes lie on the staff and certain rhythmic values.

The most common rhythmic values are:

  1. Quarter notes - these notes get 1 full beat. They can be described as a black note head with a straight stem.

  2. Half notes - these notes get 2 full beats. They can be described as a white note head with a straight stem.

  3. Whole notes - these notes get 4 full beats. They can be described as a white note head without any stem.

A diagram showing quarter notes, half notes and whole notes.

Practice clapping or tapping these rhythms to develop a strong sense of time and pulse. You can count the value of each note as you clap or tap. Once you feel comfortable, try combining them to make more complex rhythmic sequences. Developing an understanding of rhythms is fundamental for playing music accurately and staying in time with other musicians. You can enhance your timing and rhythmic skills by using a metronome, which helps you maintain a steady tempo while practicing.

Click here to see our favourite metronome to help you master rhythms and strengthen your sense of time.

3. Understand Time Signatures

Decoding Time Signatures

You might be wondering what the two number '4's in front of each of the examples given above are. These are time signature. Music is divided up into measures, with each one having a set amount of beats. The time signature determines how many beats are in each measure. Common time signatures include 4/4 and 3/4 and indicate the meter or rhythm of a piece of music. The top number tells us the number of beats per measure and the bottom number represents the type of note that receives one beat. Understanding time signatures is essential in order to play music with the correct timing and feel.

Each time signature has a different rhythmic feels and therefore, certain styles are characterized by their time signature. For example, 4/4 time is common in pop, rock, EDM and funk music because it provides a steady and predictable beat, while 3/4 time often creates a waltz-like feel with a stronger emphasis on the first beat of each measure.

A piece of sheet music used to demonstrate a time signature
Music in 3/4 time signature

4. Memorize Key Signatures

Unlocking Key Signatures

In music, a key is a series of notes or scale that forms the basis of a musical composition. It provides the harmonic foundation and defines the tonal centre. Each key is comprised of a unique set of notes and may include accidentals. Accidentals are notes that are slightly higher (sharp) or slightly lower (flat) than a given pitch. For example, G flat or G sharp. Key signatures tell us which notes are sharp or flat in any given piece of music. Learning and memorizing key signatures can help a musician to understand the relationships between different notes and chords and to read music with ease.

Each key signature corresponds to a specific key in music, for example F major or A minor. Knowing key signatures allows you to quickly identify which notes are altered (sharpened or flattened) within a piece of music without needing accidentals (sharps or flats) written in front of each note.

Consider using key signature flash cards to help you learn and memorize each one. You can click here to see our favourite ones.

A piece of sheet music with a key signature
The sharp symbol (#) at the start of the line of music is the Key Signature

5. Study Scales and Modes

Exploring Scales and Modes

Scales are made of of specific sequences of notes and modes are variations of these distinct sequences, each with their own unique musical characteristics. Both scales and modes can be played in an ascending (pitches starting low and going higher) or descending (pitches starting high and going lower) order. Learning scales and modes equips musicians with a strong a foundation for improvisation and composition.

In Western music, Major and minor scales are the most common. Most listeners can relate a major scale with a happy and uplifting sound and minor scales with a sad, melancholy sound. Modes, such as Dorian or Mixolydian, give musicians different tonal colours and are often applied to create different moods within a piece of music.

6. Practice Ear Training

Developing Ear Training Skills

Ear training is an important skill for any musician and it involves recognizing pitch, intervals (the distance between notes), and chord progressions only by listening. Musicians with stronger listening skills often exhibit more overall musicality and a strong ability to play music by ear.

There are many common ear training exercises that you can use to improve your listening. You might try having a friend play an interval on their instrument. Try to identify the interval and if it's ascending or descending. Many musicians practice identifying chords progressions from recordings, or transcribing melodies by ear. Practicing listening skills allows musicians to deeply understand the music that they hear and can free musicians from relying too heavily on sheet music. While it's important to be able to read music, the best musicians should be able to improvise and play by ear as well.

Check out the absolute best book to practice your ear training skills by clicking here.

7. Explore Chord Structures

Delving into Chord Theory

In music, chords are groups of three or more notes played together at the same time. You may have heard someone referring to the harmony of a particular piece - this refers to the chord progression. There are many different chord structures and it's important for you to start with the basics. Start with fundamental chords, such as major (Root, Major 3rd, Perfect 5th), minor (Root, Minor 3rd, Perfect 5th), and seventh chords (Root, Major 3rd, Perfect 5th, Flat 7). Understanding chord structure and chord progressions opens up many doors for musicians who are interested in composing their own music or accompanying themselves or someone else.

Major chords, just like major scales that we discussed above, have a happy and consonant sound, while minor chords, just like minor scales, frequently create a sense of sadness or melancholy. Seventh chords add colour and complexity to harmonic progressions and have a distinct jazzy & bluesy sound.

Interested to learn more about chords and scales? Click here to see our favourite book that includes all of the most common and important chords and scales.

Demonstration of major, minor and 7 chords.
The notes that build each chord are circled so you can clearly see how to construct major, minor and 7 chords.

8. Understand Dynamics and Articulations

Mastering Dynamics and Articulations

Dynamics is a fancy musical term that simply put, refers to the volume at which music is played. One common dynamic marking is forte, noted with an f, which tells us to play loudly. Another common dynamic marking is piano, denoted with a p, which tells us to play softly. Articulations tell us exactly how to play a given note. Common articulations are staccato, noted with a small dot above or below the note head, which tells us to play the note sharply and detached. Legato, another common articulation, tells us to play smooth and connected and can either be notated with a small horizontal line above or below the note head or a long curved line over a musical phrase. This long curved line is called a slur. The best musicians pay close attention to dynamics and articulations because they add expression and emotion to the music.

9. Use Resources and Technology

Leveraging Music Resources

In the digital age, there are a multitude of fantastic resources available online that can help you learn and master music theory. While some of these require a payment or a subscription, there are many free resources at your finger tips. Take advantage of the apps, software, website and videos that are at your fingertips. These tools can supplement your learning and provide instant feedback on your progress.

10. Learn From A Qualified Music Theory Teacher

Enrolling in Music Theory Lessons In Toronto or Online Music Theory Classes for Beginners

A qualified music theory teacher can help you navigate the complex word of music theory. The best music theory teachers will provide personalized guidance, feedback, and encouragement to help you along your musical journey. Consider enrolling in music theory lessons in Toronto or starting to take online music theory lessons to receive expert instruction tailored to your learning pace and goals.

At Greater Toronto Music School, we have a multitude of top music theory teachers available for in person music lessons in Toronto or online music classes. Our expert instructor are here for you to ask questions and will provide you with receive immediate feedback on your progress. Learning on your own is a great way to start, but hiring a professional will help you to explore advanced topics that may not be covered in self-study materials alone. Whether you're a beginner or a seasoned musician looking to deepen your understanding, working with a teacher with accelerate your learning and enhance your overall musical development.

By employing these top 10 music theory tips for beginners, you’ll build a solid foundation in music theory that will enrich your musical experience. Whether you're interested in playing an instrument, composing music, or simply deepening your appreciation for music, understanding these fundamental concepts is key. At Greater Toronto Music School, we're here to support you every step of the way on your musical journey.

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Disclaimer: This blog post contains affiliate links. When you make a purchase through these links, Greater Toronto Music School may earn a commission at no additional cost to you. Your support helps us continue to provide valuable resources and services to music enthusiasts like you.

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