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Music Theory Basics (Part 1)

December 7, 2012 at 5:33 PM

Music is a language and like any other language it has a written form. The parts that make up the written form of music and the rules for writing is are know as music theory. No matter your age or experience level, reading music and understanding music theory is a valuable skill.

Not yet music literate? Now is the perfect time to learn!

Let's dive in!

Staff: The musical staff is the foundation of modern musical notation. The staff is made up of five lines and four spaces. Each line and space represents a specific note.

Note: Short for "notation". Depicts the pitch and duration of a musical sound.

Pitch: represents the perceived fundamental frequency of a sound.

Clef: A clef is what assigns individual notes to certain lines or spaces. There are several type of clefs, but the most common are the Treble clef (aka G clef) and the Bass clef (aka F clef).

Treble clef: Treble is a term for higher sounding notes. The treble clef gets its name because it represents the high notes.

Bass clef: Bass is a term for lower sounding notes. The bass clef gets its name because it represents the low notes.

Note names: In modern music, there are 7 letters that make up the musical alphabet. A, B, C, D, E, F, and G. The letters are used to denote the pitch of each note. The note names are assigned in alphabetical order (i.e. B comes before C, etc.) and once you reach a G the alphabet starts over again (i.e. A, B, C, D, E, F, G, A, B, C...). This patten can repeat an infinite number of times.
Let's put this all together with this handy chart!

Since this handy chart won’t always be available, let’s go over how to remember note names. The best way, that I have found, is to use mnemonic devices.

On the treble clef, the notes in the spaces (from bottom to top) spell FACE. The note names spell a word, so that’s easy enough to remember. The notes on the lines (from bottom to top) are E, G, B, D, and F. To remember these note names, most people make up a sentence like: Every Good Boy Does Fine.
On the bass clef, the notes in the spaces (from bottom to top) are A, C, E, and G. The sentence All Cows Eat Grass is a handy way to remember that. The notes on the lines (from bottom to top) are G, B, D, F, and A. I like to use the sentence Green Bananas Don’t Fool Anybody.

If this seems complicated to you, throw away the sentences and just remember two things. The treble clef is also called a G clef because it indicates where the G is located on the staff. If you look closely, the line that intersects the clef the most is the second line from the bottom. That line is G. Likewise, on the bass clef is also called an F clef because is indicated where the F is located. The F can be found between the two dots that are to the side of the clef. This is the second line from the top. Music scholars believe that the current style of the clefs evolved from stylized G’s and F’s that composers and publishers included in the music.

In Music Theory Basics (Part 2) we will cover Rhythm and Note Duration. Inspired and can’t wait? has a useful Beginner Music Theory section with easy to read slide shows. You can also find music theory in some of the most popular violin method books like Suzuki.

From Benedict Gomez
Posted on December 8, 2012 at 10:27 PM
I learned it as, Every Good Boy Deserves Fudge.
From Paul Deck
Posted on December 9, 2012 at 1:27 AM
For those of us proud of the progressive women in our lives:

Educated Girls Become Dangerous Feminists

From Benedict Gomez
Posted on December 9, 2012 at 3:34 AM
I find the more educated the least likely they are to be "dangerous" feminists. The Code Pink type seems least educated to me.
From Benedict Gomez
Posted on December 9, 2012 at 3:37 AM
The only other of these I know is:


A slight "King Philip" variation I made in college.

From Charlie Gibbs
Posted on December 11, 2012 at 7:12 PM
Ah, a biology major!

Getting back to musical mnemonics, here's one I found recently that gives the order that sharps appear in key signatures:


Flats, on the other hand, appear in this order:


From Rachel Davis
Posted on December 14, 2012 at 5:39 PM
I learned:


and, I made two "words" going the other direction.

GCF (Greatest Common Factor)

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