Music Theory Basics

Music Theory Basics


Here is an overview of the music theory you will need for this class.  See your notes from our January 14th class for additional information.

First off, it’s good to remember why this stuff is worth knowing:

1) You need to be able to identify at least the starting note of your songs.  Then you need to find this note on the piano.  You’ll be able to walk up to any piano, plunk the note and find your starting spot.  Beyond that, the more comfortable you get reading music and playing your melody at the piano, the better.

2) It’s also important for you to know what key your song is in.  We’ll talk about that more later.

Let’s look at information to accomplish the first goal…


Here is a basic look at the piano keyboard:

This pattern of white and black notes repeats itself over and over on the keyboard.  As you move to the right, the notes sound higher.  As you move to the right, the notes sound lower.  Now, the music “alphabet” is only seven letters: A B C D E F G, then it repeats.  ABCDEFGABECEFGABCD…on and on.  The image above starts in the middle of this alphabet, with C, so you see that after we reach G, the alphabet starts over again.  If the keyboard were extended one note to the left, that would have to be a B; on the other hand, if we extended this picture one note to the right, that note is a C.

Many people find it easiest to memorize one note, then use it as a guide to find all the others.  I think D is easy to spot because it’s smack dab in the middle of those two black keys.  I call this the “doghouse.”  Just remember, D for doghouse, D is in the doghouse and boom…you got it.



A sharp (#) indicates that the note is raised to the next highest piano key.  This can be a white key moving to a black key or a white key moving to a white key.

The picture above shows how C# is the next note higher (to the right) from C.  This works the same way for every note – G# is the next note higher from G.  Now, if you are asking yourself “Hey, why is E# on the same note as F?” then hold that thought.  Keep in mind that this keyboard pattern repeats, so that a B# is the next note higher from B – it just happens to be pictured here on the far left.

A flat (b) indicates that the note is lowered to the next lowest piano key.  This can be a white key moving to a black key or a white key moving to a white key.

The picture above now has the flats layered on, in addition to our sharps.  You’ll see that an Eb is the next note below E and an Ab is the next note below A.  You’ll also see that Fb is on the same note as E.  This is the same sort of issue we came across above in the sharps, so let’s figure it out…

An enharmonic is a note with two names.  Check out the picture above.  You’ll see the overlap…C# is the same note as Db.  Gb is the same as F#.  Also, Cb is the same as B and B# is the same as C.  Sometimes in your music the song will be written with F#’s.  In other songs, you’ll see Gb’s.  Your piano player will be pushing down the same key.



Now that you know where these notes live on the piano, it’s time to see how composers write them down for us to read.  Your music will consist of two clefs – treble clef and bass clef.  These are symbols that sit at the beginning of lines of music that tell us where these notes are written on a series of lines and spaces, called the staff.  A note can be on a line or in a space. 

Here is the treble clef:

The lines (reading from lowest to highest) are EGBDF.  Remember the sentence Every Good Boy Does Fine.  The spaces spell out the word FACE.  That’s pretty handy.

Here is the bass clef:

So, the lines (again, always reading lowest to highest) are GBDFA.  Remember the sentence Great Big Dogs Fight Animals.  The spaces are ACEG.  That doesn’t spell anything handy, so we remember the sentence All Cows Eat Grass. 

If you have a hard time remembering which set of reminders go with which clef, remember that both sentences in the bass clef are about animals…animals that can be found around a barn…which starts with a B…like bass clef.

NOTE:  The lines and spaces of both staffs extend beyond the original five lines.  It is helpful at this point to show a full staff of music, with notes extending above and below the staff on what we call ledger lines.  This image is also helpful because it shows you where middle C is located and how you find that, and the other notes, on the piano keyboard.

Now we’re ready to look at information to help us reach the second goal (list way up at the top of this page).  It’s time to figure out what key our piece of music is in.



A key is a tonal center or pitch center.  At it’s most basic, a key is defined by a scale (think Do Re Mi Fa Sol La Ti Do).  A song can be in C Major, for example, and use a C Major Scale.  Or Eb Major with an Eb Major scale or f minor and use an f minor scale.  (In this guide, major keys use capital letters and minor keys use lowercase letters).

You can tell what key your piece is in by looking at the key signature.  This is located at the very start of a piece, right after the clef.  Here are some examples:

You’ll see the first key signature has no sharps or flats.  The second has three flats.  The third has two sharps.  You’ll also see that the treble and bass clef will always match, so you only need to look at one or the other to determine the key of your piece.

You read the sharps and flats the same as you read notes.  If a sharp in the treble clef key signature is on the top line, that line is F, so it is F# (F sharp).  If a flat in the bass clef is in the bottom space, that space is A so the flat is Ab (A flat).



A key signature tells you which notes in the song are automatically sharp and flat.  For example, instead of writing a sharp next to every F in the entire song, a composer will give you a key signature with an F# in it and expect that the player/singer remembers this for the entire piece.  All the Fs in that song are actually F#.  As you’ll see below, this can mean remembering multiple sharps or flats.



We won’t worry too much about this here, but it’s good to point out that there are major keys and minor keys.  This has everything to do with how a piece sounds.  Major keys are bright and happy sounding.  Minor keys are darker and sad.  That’s the very basics.   Your ear will naturally give you these feelings about a key.  Major keys and minor keys come in pairs and we say they are relatives.  Each major key has a relative minor key and these two keys share the same key signature.  However, your piece will be in one key or the other.  We’ll look at this more below when we discuss the Circle of Fifths, but C Major has no sharps or flats in the key signature.  It’s relative minor is a minor, so a minor also has no sharps or flats in the key signature.  Your ear will then tell you if the music is C Major or a minor.



Sharps and flats occur in a sequence, which makes this all much easier because it is an unbreakable rule.

The order that sharps can appear is – F C G D A E B  (Fat Cats Go Down Alleys Eating Birds).  In other words, if you have two sharps in your key signature, those sharps MUST be F# and C#.  If you have five sharps, they MUST be F# C# G# D# and A#.  etc.

The order that flats can appear is – B E A D G C F (BEAD, Greatest Common Factor – I know, that one isn’t as good).  So, if you have one flat in your key signature, it will always be Bb.  If you have three flats, they will always be Bb, Eb and Ab.

Keep in mind, this means that if you have one sharp, if must be F#.  You will not ever see a key signature with just a D# in it, for example.  You will not see a key signature with only Ab and Gb – it does not exist.  To continue with that example, in order for a Gb to be in the key signature, it must have the Bb, Eb, Ab and Db preceeding it.



With all of that in mind, we can start to name the key signatures.  To help with this, we will use the Circle of Fifths.  This is a diagram that you can use as a cheat sheet for the rest of the semester.  It can exist because of a neat rule – as you add a sharp to the key signature, the name of the key moves up a fifth. 

What the heck is a fifth?A fifth is a distance between notes (also called the interval between notes).  Notes that are a fifth apart are five notes away.  C and G are a fifth apart because C D E F G is five notes.  Think about it this way…if you put your thumb on a C and put your other fingers on the keyboard, one per note, your pinkie lands on a G.

Let’s look at one half of the Circle of Fifths first – the sharps.

Starting at the top of this circle is C Major – no sharps or flats.  As you move clockwise, you add a sharp in each segment (remember, they occur in the order described above).  The keys move up a fifth each time.  (G is up a fifth from C, D is up a fifth from G, etc.)

On the inside circle, I’ve listed the relative minor keys that coorespond to each major key. 

Now let’s look at the second half of the Circle of Fifthsthe flats.

Here you see we add a flat as we move counterclockwise from C Major.  (Remember the order of the flats above).  Now, going clockwise the key names are still moving up a fifth, continuing with the pattern.

Now let’s overlap the flat side with the sharp side and form a complete Circle of Fifths

You’ll see at the bottom of the circle, there are three segments that overlap.  Keep in mind what we covered about enharmonics above.  These are two different names for the two same things.  The three segments at the bottom of the circle are the only enharmonics you may come across.  They are Db (5 flats) and C# (7 sharps); Gb (Six flats) and F# (Six sharps) and B (5 sharps) and Cb (Seven flats).  Their relative minors also have enharmonic names.  What you’ll hear coming from the piano sounds the same.  I have indicated these enharmonic Major and minor keys by placing the second name in parenthesis.

With a complete Circle of Fifths you are now all set to determine the key of any piece of music.  Let’s say you pick out a new song and see that the key signature has three flats in it.  Using the circle above, you can see that this piece is either in Eb Major or c minor.  Once you listen to it, you’ll see if it sounds major or minor and make your choice.



As with anything, this information makes more and more sense the longer you live with it.  Using this information and a bit a practice, you’ll be able to find any note on the piano, determine the notes in your song and determine what key your song is in.  Please email me if you have any questions or ask me in class.



Only read this section if you want one more trick to determining key signatures.  Let’s say you don’t have your Circle of Fifths nearby.  There is a more formal way of determining the key of a piece.

For the sharp key signatures:  The name of the key is the next note up from the last sharp in the key signature.  Example:  If your key signature has four sharps, they are F#, C#, G# and D#.  So, D# is the last sharp.  The next note up from D# is E.  The name of the key is E Major (or c# minor). 

For the flat key signatures:  The name of the key is the same as the second to last flat in the key signature.  Example:  If your key signature has four flats, they are Bb, Eb, Ab and Db.  So, Ab is the second to last flat, so the key is Ab Major (or f minor).