If you are a beginner musician that wants to learn music theory, then you should learn how to build chords from scales. But to do that you need to learn some fundamentals first. In this article, I cover the 5 most important topics for learning music theory. Those 5 elements are the notes of the chromatic scale, music intervals, the 4 triads in music, triads from the major scale, and 7ths from the major scale.
What are the fundamentals to learn music theory?
First off, I will assume no music composers are reading this article because composers refer to the 4 elements of music. For the regular singer-songwriter, there are only 3 elements to music: rhythm, harmony, and melody.
I personally believe rhythm is the most important, but it is also the hardest to learn and implement. However, harmony and melody are much easier to learn and complement each other quite well. So if you learn those two elements, then that is two-thirds of the puzzle.
Keep in mind, I will only be covering the basics of these topics. It is up to you to delve deeper into them for greater insights. If you want to learn music theory, then learn these 5 fundamental topics:
- The Chromatic scale
- The 4 triads in music
- Triads built from the major scale
- 4-note chords built from the major scale (or any scale).
Hopefully, you’ve noticed the increase in the number of notes in those 5 topics, but let’s cover them briefly one-by-one.
Why the chromatic scale is important
The chromatic scale has every note possible in western music. If you want to know music and music theory then you have to know all the note names. This is the first step and it involves single notes.
The chromatic scale is the scale that has the 12 notes used in music and is often referred to as the ABC’s of music. Here is the scale starting on A and ending on A an octave higher (A’):
Chromatic Scale (Sharps):
Chromatic Scale (Flats):
You need to know the order of the notes by heart, forward and backward, and in both the flat and sharp versions. Check out my article Chromatic Scale Notes for Guitar for more insights into the scale and some chromatic exercises for guitar.
Intervals are the key to learning music theory
I feel that music intervals are incredibly important to learning music theory. Once you know all the intervals, then chords, scales, and modes are easy to understand.
Here are the intervals using A as the root which could also be called tonic or 1st:
- A > Bb = minor 2nd (m2), also called flat 9 (b9)
- A > B = major 2nd (M2), also called the nine
- A > C = minor 3rd (m3), also called the flat 3 or b3
- A > B# = augmented 2nd (A2), also called the sharp 9 (#9), equals m3
- A > C# = major 3rd (M3), just called the 3 or 3rd
- A > D = perfect 4th (P4, also called the 4, 4th, 11 or 11th
- A > D# = augmented 4th (A4) and usually called the sharp 11 (#11), equals a b5
- A > Eb = diminished 5th (d5), everyone calls it the flat five (b5) or tritone
- A > E = perfect 5th (P5), called the 5, 5th or dominant
- A > E# = augmented 5th (A5) and just called the sharp 5 (#5)
- A > F = minor 6th (m6), called the flat 6 or flat 13 (b6, b13)
- A > F# = major 6th (M6), called the 6 or 13
- A > G = minor 7th (m7) usually just called the flat 7 (b7)
- A > G# = major 7th (M7), called the 7 or major 7
For an in-depth article on the subject read my article Music Intervals which explains in detail terms like augmented, perfect, etc. That article asl covers enharmonic equivalents like the augmented 2nd and minor 3rd.
The 4 triads (How you actually play and write songs)
There are 4 triads in music, though only 2 of them are commonly seen in popular music. But let’s define a triad first.
A triad is a 3-note chord that is built in thirds (refer to the intervals above). What that means is that the 2nd note of a chord is a 3rd away from the 1st note, and the 3rd note in a chord is a 3rd away from the 2nd note. That sounds confusing, doesn’t it?
Or stated another way, a triad is a chord built with the letters/notes that are the 3rd and 5th letters away from the starting note called the 1st or root note. Here are the 4 triads expressed in intervals:
Major triad = Root, major 3rd, perfect 5th
Minor triad = Root, minor 3rd, perfect 5th
Augmented triad = Root, major 3rd, augmented 5th
Diminished triad = Root, minor 3rd, diminished 5th
For a more in-depth view of the triads, read my Triads in Music article.
Triads from the major scale
If you are going to learn only one scale than make it the major scale. Each note from the major scale builds a specific triad and that order is always the same regardless of the ley.
The 1st, 4th, and 5h scale degrees build a major triad. The 2nd, 3rd, and 6th scale degrees all build minor triads, and the 7th scale degree builds a diminished triad. Here is a C major scale with the scale degrees expressed as intervals of the tonic C:
C = the tonic or 1st builds a major triad
D = the major 2nd of C builds a minor triad
E = the major 3rd of C builds a minor triad
F = perfect 4th of C builds a major triad
G = perfect 5th of C builds a major triad
A = major 6th of C builds a minor triad
B = major 7th of C builds a diminished triad
The major scale builds more than just triads
Though there are many great songs that only use triads, you can also build some fantastic 4 and 5 note chords from the major scale. Here are the 7th chords for the scale degrees of the C major scale:
C: C major 7 (Cmaj7)
D: D minor 7 (Dm7)
G: G dominant 7 or G7
B: B half-diminished or Bm7b5 (B minor 7 flat 5)
There are other chords that can be built from the major scale that you should look into. Some of my favorites are 6, add9, m add9, maj9, 9, m add9, sus, sus2, 7sus, and 13sus. Check out my Chords from Scales article for detailed notes on building chords from scales.
Other music theory topics to help you learn music theory
Here is a shortlist of music fundamentals that will help you learn music theory:
- The Circle of 5ths
- Time Signature
- Note subdivision
- Music notation (see my article 7 types of notation for guitar)
- All things rhythm
- *Reading standard notation
The most important reason to learn how to read standard notation is so that you can visualize various rhythmic elements such as ties, rests, sub-divisions, triplets, syncopation, etc.
Learn your single notes as your first step to learning music theory. Then increase to 2 notes (intervals), 3 notes (the triads), and finally 4 note chords (7ths and adds). And if you can learn how to build those chords from the major scale then you will have a great grasp on how harmony and melody are related.
Here are a few links if you want an overload of music theory: