Music theory simplified

Jun 18, 2022 21:50 · 664 words · 4 minute read music

Layering Abstractions

There is a standard progression to teaching people music. It looks like this:

  1. Notes
  2. Scales
  3. Chords
  4. Modes

Chords get moved around in that order depending on the instrument and style of music you’re playing.

But here’s the thing… They’re all actually just different sets of the same stuff. The difference is much smaller than I initially imagined.

Let’s start with a simple triad.

The first time you learn chords, you’re taught about major triads. They are simple. For the purposes of this example, let’s use C Major (CM). It has the notes:


Now we’re going to skip ahead to building this chord using a jazzier style. If we add one more note on top, we get a “C Major 7” (CM7) chord. This chord has the following notes:


If we keep going, we get a “C Major 9” (CM9). CM9 chords have a lovely mellow sound to them.


There are two more chords, “C Major 11” (CM11), and “C Major 13” which follow the same pattern, and are used a bit less often because they have a more disonant sound. But if we write down all the notes in a CM13 chord, we get:


And now, if we reorder these notes, we get:


Otherwise known as the C Major Scale.

You can do this with any major triad. And the trick to doing this is to follow the pattern of half steps:

Root, 4, 3, 4, 3, 3, 4

But what if we do this with a minor chord?

Well, we have to use a different pattern:

Root, 3, 4, 3, 4, 3, 4

If we do this, with D, we can reorder the notes to get:


This, it turns out is called a “mode”, and this particular one is called “D Dorian”.

It turns out that every minor chord corresponds to a Dorian mode.

Now there are two directions we can go. We can start looking at more complex chords like dominant 7 chords, augmented chords, etc. or we can start looking at what happens if you play a scale up and down starting at different places in the scale. But we will arrive in the same place with either approach. Modes are just reordered chords.

That’s it. You now have the tools to understand most of music theory.

Now, of course, comes the question of: “well how do I know which one to use?”. And this is where practice comes in. Play every chord and every mode 1000 times per week, and you’ll have a firm grasp of music theory in no time!

How I was taught music

I was “classically trained”, at least in the rudimentary sense. I have played multiple instruments, and was taught both by private instructors and teachers at school. The way I was taught was to set some sheet music in front of me and play the sheet music. Whether piano, french horn, mellophone, trombone, percussion, or whatever instrument my friend convinced me to try; the goal was always to play the sheet music as written. When I started playing jazz, I was confused because I thought that I was meant to put together a puzzle of melodies that flowed between chords - this was on the right track, but loses the forest for the trees.

Playing sheet music as written is a good way to do it when performing in groups, and I can’t really fault my school teachers for pushing us in that direction. Pragmatically, it seems like the only way to simultaneously teach 40 children.

I think a lot of people are taught this way, and it leaves a huge gap in how we learn music. I hope that as you learn more about music, you’re able to use these lessons improve your interest in and understanding of music.