building blocks headerhomelink

If you're a beginner, read the theory philosophy page first.  Learning music theory is optional.  Each section is designed to be
read several times.  It makes more sense each time you read it.  

Intervals       Overtones       Relative Tension       Diatonic - Chromatic       Chord building       Dominant - Subdominant - Tonic       Major - minor       Modes

Remember this:

Major scale Ionian and scale shape

The Root, Tonic, Fundamental or 1 note. 

This can be any note.  This note represents the "place" the music wants to return to.  It's the "home" of the key signature.
If you hum your favorite song, the tonic note is probably the last note.  Most songs end on the tonic note or the tonic chord.     
root note
home tonic root

Our music system uses 12 notes. 

Other systems use different numbers of notes.      

12 notes

This pattern is called the Major scale.  

It's shown in pink.
major scale 1 - 12

Next we change the numbers. 

This simplifies things eventually.  If you're wondering why there's no "white square" between 3 and 4, it has to do with note resolution and the overtone series.  We'll get to that in a moment.

major 1 - 7

“It’s constantly being suggested… there are a thousand things to learn, but there aren’t…Hundreds of tunes are put together with the same doggone chords, sequences, scale passages and interval skips…If you have a complicated scale you want to play it’s just a compound of simple moves."               -Howard Roberts 

1 can be any note. 

If you put C in place of 1 you get the C Major scale.  It's outlined in red.  Notice that it matches the Major scale shape. 
The C Major scale has no sharp or flat notes.  Notice that when the note series reaches G it starts over again at A. 

major scale C

This pattern repeats over and over. 

Each repeating series of notes is called an Octave.  There are no sharp or flat notes between (E and F) and (B and C).   EF and BC are always next to each other.  Also notice that A comes after G

key of C 3 octaves

The color pattern matches the color coded guitar fretboard

The white squares are sharps # or flats b.  

This chart shows the interval pattern of the Major scale.  Notice that between (3 and 4) and (7 and 1) there's no sharp or flat note.     

major scale numbers 3 octaves

Some people call a sharp augmented and a flat diminished.  This will be repeated later.

major c scale sharp flat new

Apply these to the scale numbers. 
Most people use the flat names (red) when referring to interval numbers.  It's easier to simplify.  For example, most people say b3 instead of #2.      

1 - 7 # b

Remember, 1 can be any note.  Use any note as 1 and apply it to the Major scale pattern. 
Let's try using G as the 1 note.  This note becomes the G Major scale (outlined in red). This key signature (chord and scale system that sound good together) has one sharp note (F#).

The blue arrows remind you that the pattern continues in both directions.  For the sake of simplicty I'm only showing 1 octave of the scale.

G major scale

Lets look at another key signature, Ab Major (outlined in red).  This scale starts on Ab (as the 1 note).  Notice that this scale has 4 flats.

Ab Major scale

Why did we use flats instead of sharps?  Sheet music notation has a system for labeling key signatures.  This key signature is
called Ab instead of G#.  But here's what G# looks like.  It looks and sounds exactly the same.  It's simply not used because
of notation reasons.

G# Major, imaginary key

This is why we used flats instead of sharps for the Ab scale. 

Ab Major key notatedThis is the standard method of notating Ab Major (which is the same as G# Major). 
If you notice, there are 4 flats marked on the treble cleff (top) and 4 flats marked on the bass cleff (bottom)
These flats corrospond with our scale.  

This is an introduction.  This will be covered in the sheet music section. 
For now, simply understand why we're using flats instead of sharps. 

Other key signatures use sharps instead of flats.  If in doubt, Google it.
Use the free color sheet music, click here.
Use the guitar key wheel, click here.
Use the color coded guitar fretboard, click here.

This is the same notation method on standard sheet music.

Ab Major treble cleff

Ab Major extends higher and lower through several more octaves in both directions. 

Ab Major extended

If this seems confusing or redundant, thats OK!  Simply read it and start understanding it.  It gets easier every time you read it.  I'm
including lots of extra information so your education can be complete. 

interval header

Remember this:    (eventually)

Root,   2nd,   Major 3rd,   6th,   Major 7th,   Octave     These are part of the Major scale pattern which is shown in pink.
Perfect 4th and 5th       These are also part of the Major scale pattern.
minor 2nd (b2),   minor 3rd (b3),   diminished 5th (b5),   minor 6th (b6),   minor 7th (b7 or dominant 7th)
These aren't part of the Major scale pattern, they're the white sharp - flat notes.
Augmented 4th  (#4)   This is the same interval as a diminished 5th or b5.

important interval names

An Interval is the distance between notes. 

Common names are shown in red. 

C major scale interval chart

Interval relationships are always the same.

A major 2nd interval is always 2 notes up (or down).  A perfect 4th interval is always 5 notes up (or down).  A perfect 5th interval is always 7 notes up (or down).

major scale interval variation

Notice that a perfect 5th interval (down) lands on the 4th (relative to the root note).  This relationship is called an interval inversion.  Most inverted
intervals sound very similar.   If you want to hear the perfect 4th and 5th, click here.   More interval inversions will be covered later.  These are
different from chord inversions (also covered later).

interval inversion, perfect 5th and perfect 4th

You can also describe intervals as steps.

A half step is the next note up or down.   A whole step = a Major 2nd.   Two whole steps = a Major 3rd.

interval half steps and whole steps

Non-scale intervals also have names.

Common names are in red.  These names refer to the "flat names" for the intervals.  Sharp names use the word augmented.

major scale intervals sharps and flats

Music majors are hardcore.

b5 = diminished 5th = #4 = augmented 4th = the same interval?  But they aren't?!?  Lol.  Here's why. 

augmented vs diminished

That looks the same to me.  But they disagree.  It has to do with relationships. 

In the top example, the 4 is augmented (so if scale numeral 4 = F, then the augmented 4 = F#).
In the bottom example the 5 is diminished (so if scale numeral 5 = G, then the diminished 5 = Gb). 

In my mind, this is exactly the same.  If you want your life to be simple, it's the same.  If you want to be legit, you should know the difference.  That's up to you. 

Let's look at it one more time.
augmented and diminished 2

That looks the same to me.  It has some practical uses though.  For example, a Lydian mode has an augmented 4 (#4), and a diminished Locrian mode has a b5.  I'll repeat that later. 

The next problem.  A diminished 5th  =  b5 and an augmented 4th  =  #4.  So therefore:
A b2  =  a minor 2nd.  
So a b2 should also be a diminished 2nd??  No!!  A diminished 2nd is actually a flat minor 2nd or a unison (the same note).  That's worthless.

A b3  =  a minor 3rd
So a b3 should also be a diminished 3rd??  NO!!  Lol.  A diminished 3rd is actually a 2nd.  I'm sure it made sense to somebody at some point (while high on opium).  None of this is very important.  I'll cover it later in an advanced theory section.

Music majors make theory harder than it should be.  If you want to know proper music theory, learn the nuances.  If you want to make music, make music.  This would be easier if everything had 1 name and was straightforward, but it isn't.  You have to know all the names because different people use different methods. 

Remember this:

Major:        2nd, 3rd, 6th and 7th
Perfect:     4th and 5th 
Flat:           minor 3rd, minor 7th, minor 6th, minor 2nd, and diminished 5th
Sharp:       augmented 4th

That's good enough for now.


overtones header

"The most important sounds to capture when recording are the ghost tones"       -Carlos Santana

Remember this: When you hear a note, you're actually hearing lots of other notes at the same time. 
These overtones determine how music works and the way notes interact with each other.

C major scale harmonics         

Any single note is a blend of other notes

These other notes are called overtones, harmonics* or partials.  *Harmonics is also a playing method. 

This explains relative tension and resolution 

The next section.  If you don't understand this, skip it and come back later.

The loudest overtones are close to the fundamental 

Overtone Intervals: from loudest to softest.  The colors represent tension. 
Green is less tense.  Yellow is mildly tense.   Red is very tense.

Fundamental = 1   Overtones = 1 5 1 3 5 b7 1 2 3 b5 5 6 b7 7 1

Note: the spacing:

The largest intervals are closest to the fundamental.  

The Major Triad
1, 3, 5 appears in the first five tones. 
There's a strong relationship between the 1, 5, 3 and b7 (a non scale tone!)  

The 7 and b5 overtones are far from the fundamental.
There's no b3 or 4 in the series.

The power of 5    
A Power Chord is the 1 and 5.  This explains the relationship between 1 and 5. 
It helps explain why 5 wants to resolve to the 1 when used in the bass.

Compare the overtones in the note C with the C Major scale.  

overtones and harmonics in the Major scale

The tension of major scale notes can be heard when compared to the Root.  To hear this tension, go to my ear training page.

Some notes are very dissonan

7 and b5 are tense because of their location in the overtone series.
This creates a sense of "motion"
that is built into the major scale.
Some notes want to resolve, or move to stable notes.        


relative tension header

Remember this:
Any note is stable or unstable.  We measure stability by comparing it to the root note (1).  

stable and unstable notes

1, 5, 3           sound "complete" and right when you play them.
6, 2, 4, 7      want to "move" or resolve
when you play them. 

Note:  When I first started playing, I liked the sound of a perfect 4th more than a perfect 5th. 
A perfect 4th is an inverted 5th.  Some of these rules are suspect.  But they're the accepted rules.
Compare a perfect 4th and perfect 5th interval.  Click here.  For more of these exercises, see ear training.

These notes tend to move down to the closest stable note.  

This is not a rule, notes can resolve upwards, or not at all.

Natural resolution for the unstable notes.

C major scale resolution patterns

Major 7 moves upward
because it's the most unstable, and the tonic 1 is the most stable.
is called the leading tone because it has a very strong "pull" towards the fundamental 1.

"If you approach everything from the root note, there is no mystery for what you are going to play"     -Carlos Santana

Use your ears.  Follow your heart.


diatonic and chromatic header

Remember this:

Diatonic notes are scale notes.  Chromatic* notes are non-scale notes. 

*Chromatic also refers to a playing style.  Play a pattern, move a few frets and play the same pattern (5 or 7 frets always sounds good). 

Chromatic notes: natural resolution patterns

Chromatic notes are called "wrong notes"  

But that's not true.  Mozart used them, so they can't be wrong.  They're simply tense or harsh.  Without them music would be boring.
I use the b2 and b5 all the time.  I naturally play a Phrygian minor scale that uses a b2.  I also play blues scales that use a b2 and b5.

Major scale wrong notes
                   Interval                                                                                             Inverted Interval*                                
Part of the overtone series.                                                       2nd      2 down / up
Minor 3rd.  The "somber" interval. Not an overtone.                 6th       3 down / up
Not an overtone.                                                                        3rd      4 down / up

                        b2      It "pulls" toward 1 as strongly as 7.  Not an overtone.              7th      1 down / up
                        b5 **  
Tritone (minor 3rd + minor 3rd)  It's an overtone.                     b5        6 down / up
The Major 7 is a major scale note, but it's very tense.              b2       1 down / up

 *  A 2nd is 2 notes above the root.  A b7 (inverted 2nd) is 2 notes below.  Some of them sound very similar.
            ** The devils interval.  It was banned by the Catholic church.

Inverted Interval listening exercises

    b2 and 7          2 and b7         b3 and 6          3 and b6         4 and 5          

Any note can go to any note.

The yellow resolutions sound more "intense".  But they're still resolving. 

C major scale chromatic resolution patterns

There are 3 "wrong" notes.

7, b2 and b5.  1 scale note (7) and two non-scale notes.  
These notes are one note away from the most stable tones.

Each chromatic note is 1 note away from a stable note 

Four chromatic notes are next to the most stable tones (1 3 5).  The only note that isn't is b7 and it's part of the overtone series.
If the next note doesn't sound right, keep moving it.  In this next example you play a minor 2nd.
If you resolve to the tonic, it sounds different than if you resolve to the minor 3rd or Major 3rd.

resolving a b2, blues or jazz

Making wrong chromatic notes sound right             

Jamming helps these skills

Slide or Bend to the next stable note.
The faster you move to a stable note, the more "right" it will sound. They'll assume you wanted that b5.
     Jimi Hendrix hit wrong notes all the time.  He'd bend the note to something meaningful.

Play it twice.  
Play it once and it's "wrong".  Play it twice and they praise your chromatic choices.

Know the way out.  
Every chromatic note has a sequence that makes it sound good.  These sequences vary.  
      It all depends on the style your playing.  Use your ears.  
      Find note combinations that allow a b5 or b2 to sound like it was meant to be.

Play it like you mean it.  

"Audiences are conditioned.  Only the true artist and enlightened listener are non-conditioned."

"I even think the word dissonant is a conditioned qualification.  How can you say 'all that’s dissonant?'  It's like saying, if you’re looking at a Rembrandt, 'Oh that’s bright isn't it?'  It's silly."

"It's unreasonable for the artist to think in those terms.  It steals something from the music, because you don't give the music the first chance of being listened to for what it is."       -John McLaughlin


chord building header

Remember this:

To build a chord from a scale, pick a starting note, skip a note, use a note, skip a note, use a note.

For color explanations see relative tension
I'm including the tension colors to force the concept into your head.

There are 7 basic chords in the Major scale.  

To see all seven chords we'll need to extend the scale another octave.   The colors show the relative tension of each chord note.

C Major scale chord building

These 7 chords make up one Key.  Now we need to re-number each individual chord.  

       Major scale tension and intervals


dominant subdominant tonic header                                                                                                                

Remember this:

Some chords contain stable notes.  Some chords contain unstable notes.  As a result, some chords are more stable than others. 
A tonic function chord can become the tonic chord (1 chord).  Dominant chords tend to resolve to a tonic function chord.

stable and unstable intervals

Tonic function chords

tonic and tonic function chords


Major 1 = 1  3  5
It contains all three stable notes.    The tonic can also be the 1 note.

Tonic Function 

minor 6  =   6  1  3
minor 3  =  3  5  7

These chords contain two stable notes.  

minor 3
is less stable than minor 6 because of 7  (the leading tone wants to resolve to 1)

The minor 6th or minor 3rd chords change function depending on where they're located in a chord progression.
The minor 6 can easily become the tonic.  This happens when Major switches to minor.

Subdominant chords 

subdominant chords chart
Major 4 =  4  6  1
minor 2
=   2  4  6

They contain less stable notes.

minor 2 is less stable then Major 4 because it contains the 2 and 4 and no stable notes.


dominant chords chart

Major 5  =   5  7  2
Diminished 7th  =  7  2  4

These chords want to resolve.  They dominate the chord progression.

Major 5
is less stable because it contains 7 and 2. 

Major 5 
resolves to Major 1 because of 7 (the leading tone) and the relationship of 5 to the root note (1 or tonic).  See overtones

7 is least stable

It contains the most unstable tones,  7  2  4.  
It resolves to Chord 1, because of 7 and because the natural resolution of  7  2  4  is  1  3  5. * 

Diminished 7 also has a b5 instead of a 5.  This interval is called the Tritone It's the most unstable interval and it "requires" resolution to Chord 1

diminished 7

 * This differs from the natural resolution of each note.  This is the natural resolution for the chord.

Chords relative to themselves

Imagine that each chord is a planet in a solar system.  They all revolve around the sun (the Major 1 chord).  The sun is the tonic chord.
However, each chord is a separate planet.  It's stable to itself, with moons of it's own.  

Each chord by itself, is stable. 

The exception is the diminished 7th.

If you play the Major 5 chord, it won't sound tense until you define it as the Dominant 7 Major 5 chord (black circle below) by playing the Major 1 and Major 4 chords.  If you avoid doing that, it'll sound very stable, because it's a Major chord (1, 3, 5).

Major Triad   =   1   3   5                     Minor Triad   =   1   b3   5  

major scale chords chart

I don’t consider mathematical relationships as I compose.  “If I play root, 3rd, 5th, I instantly know what that is, because I was trained to…It’s possible that some of the things are starting out mathematically, but it’s quite automatic now.”       -Joe Satriani


major minor header

Remember this:

This chart is the easiest way to understand chords in a mode (this mode is Ionian Major). 
Play the major Ionian scale over these chords and it'll sound good.

In this section, Major is red and minor is blue.

chord relationships

You can also label Major, minor and diminished with roman numerals.  You'll see this quite often. 
The minor chords use lowercase roman numerals.  This is the same chart as the one above (Ionian Major). 

Major scale roman numerals
To play any mode, scale or key signature, you need to know which chords and scale to use.
Here's the Aeolian minor chord chart and scale chart. 

Aeolian minor scale and minor chords

Now lets examine how we get this information.

"Hopefully you just play, you just know these things instinctively...That’s when your on it.  If everyone had to think about what they do, they wouldn't play anything."        -Ry Cooder

Major is considered a "happy" sound.           Major  =  1   3   5       The major triad is stable.
is considered a "somber" sound.         minor  =  1  b3  5       The minor triad is stable.

A Major chord  is a Major 3rd + a minor 3rd interval       A minor chord is a minor 3rd + a Major 3rd interval 

major and minor chords
A minor triad is an inverted major triad.

Each triad is stable

If you play a minor chord and add the major 3rd, it sounds wrong.  (Blues music does this all the time)
If you play a Major chord and add the minor 3rd, it sounds wrong.  (Blues music)

Each chord is either Major or minor

The exception is chord 7, which is minor diminished, 1, b3, b5.

The 7 chord is Diminished.  

It has a b5 instead of a 5.  It's very tense and usually resolves to the 1 chord.  It always does in popular music.

This chart shows the Major and minor chords in the Ionian mode.

major and minor chord chart

minor chords and key signatures

Let's examine Aeolian minor in the context we've been using: the Major Ionian scale.
The Major Ionian key is defined by the Major 1 chord, Major 4 chord and a Major 5 chord with a dominant 7th interval (black circle below). 
If you see these chords, you're playing in Major Ionian (or something very similar).

defining major chord dominant 7th

The minor Aeolian key is defined by a minor 1 chord, minor 4 and minor 5 chord.  As you can see in the above chart, our minor chords
are labeled 2, 3 and 6.  We need to fix that.

Let's re-make our chart.  Now, instead of Ionian, we're in Aeolian

Aeolian is the relative minor of Ionian.

Aeolian uses the same scale steps as Ionian, but it starts on 6 (the blue circle below) instead of 1.  This creates new interval relationships for the Aeolian root note.
The new root note is also called 1 (Aeolian), it just starts on the 6 of Ionian.   Because we're using the original Ionian scale steps (shown in pink), we now have a b3, b6 and b7 (the black circles). 

Ionian vs Aeolian

The blue and red arrows below show chords that define Aeolian.  The easiest definition is 1 minor, 4 minor and 5 minor.  Another defining chord progression for
Aeolian is 1 minor, b6 Major and Major b7dom7 (b7 - black circle below). 

If you recall, Ionian had a defining Major5dom7 chord that was on chord 5.  If you follow the root of the Aeolian Major b7dom7 chord to the top of the chart you'll see it was originally the 5 chord in Ionian.  It's root note is simply shifted from 5 to b7.   

defining chords in Aeolian minor

You don't need to memorize this.  Remember, there's a simple method to understand any mode or key system.  Just try to understand how a new mode is created, and how we build the new chord system.  

Remember this

A mode is a scale.  It uses the major scale intervals.  It has a root note that starts on a different interval. 
This changes the interval relationships in the new scale.  It also changes the chord relationships.

Our original Ionian scale is still represented. 

Aeolian uses the same scale steps as the Ionian scale, it just starts on Ionian interval 6.
Aeolian vs Ionian mode

Each mode is like a different language.  It has different chords, interval relationships and relative tension.  Understand how mode relationships work, and you'll understand any mode system with a few hours of use.

You don't need to memorize this.  Simply understand how it works. 

Tension in the Aeolian mode. 

This isn't super important.  Notice there are no tense red notesThere's no Major7, b2 or b5       However, the second chord is diminished and has a b5 in it (like the 7 chord in Ionian).  Other chords in this key have a 7, b2 or b5 interval.  The actual Aeolian scale does not.  This lack of tense notes makes Aeolian a gentle scale that doesn't have as much natural movement (need for resolution) as the major scale.  However, because Chord 2 is diminished, it provides an opportunity for movement back to the Major Ionian key. 

Aeolian mode tension chart
For more tension resolution information, see diatonic chromatic and chord building.

Another scale people use is melodic minor   
A Major 7 interval is played on the way up, and a b7 is played on the way down.
The Major 7 pulls toward 1 on the way up, and provides a strong sense of movement.  The b7 is smoother on the way down,

Another minor scale is harmonic minor    
This scale has a Major 7 on the way up, and down.  Once again, this provides a strong sense of movement.

"I haven't played a proper chord in years.  I don't play proper guitar [laughs].  I avoid the major third like the plague.  I like the ambiguity between the major and the minor chords.  I tend to isolate the chords down to two or three notes and then octaves of the notes."      -The Edge

Relative Major and minor

Relative Major and relative minor describe patterns of chord usage. 

Every key has a relative Major and minor system.

These systems use the same notes and chords.  They're just labeled differently.

The first chord played influences the sound of the next chord. 

Chords control the tonality.  
If you're playing minor chords, you can't make the music sound Major with any scale.  You have to play Major chords to sound Major.
That's why Major and minor are different systems. 

Compare the Major and minor chord systems

Guitars are often tuned in EWe tend to play in minor.
Em is the relative minor key of G Major.  If you start playing in Em, your song will be minor until you switch to Major, and then it will be in G Major

Review:  The Aeolian root note is located on Ionian interval 6.

major minor comparison E minor

is part of G Major.  But you can think of it as a separate key.  

1 - 4 - 5 in minor and 1 - 4 - 5 in Major are Defining Chord Progressions.  

They define the key signature.  These progressions can only occur certain ways (in a key).  When you hear one, your ear identifies the root note.
Make your music ambiguous by avoiding these progressions until you're ready to identify the key.     

Defining Chord Progressions         Chord Progressions    

The Chords follow the same pattern

They're labeled differently because of the different interval qualities.

Ionian Aeolian mode comparison

That's the easy chart I was talking about earlier.  You had to understand how we got to this point though.

And here's a version with roman numerals.

major minor mode with roman numerals


modes header

Remember this:

This section is short and important.  I recommend all of it. 

Modes and Chords describe the same thing.

They are systems that track groups of notes.  A mode is a scale version of a chord.
A mode can create a new key signature.  It uses a different chord as the 1 chord.  
This new key signature has a sound that is different than traditional Major or minor.

There are 7 modes: one for each chord.

Each mode has a different root interval and root chord.  The modes sound different because the interval relationships are measured in relation to the 1 note.

Compare the Major scale to the minor scale.  
The interval steps (pink squares) are the same, but the minor scale has different interval qualities.

major minor scale comparison

The minor scale is mode 6 (Aeolian mode).

The Chords follow the same pattern

They're just labeled differently because of the different interval qualities. 

major and minor modes

Each mode is Major or minor, with one note changed

Mode 7 has two notes changed.  This can be memorized*  When you switch chords, you'll know what the right notes are.

modes 1-7

* Warning: using the modes this way could make you sound like everyone else.                  

Modes and chords are the same thing. 

When you learn one, you learn the other.

When playing modes and scales, it's "important that you know their relationship to the chords...  Every scale has a mood"      -John Mclauglin

Modes create new key signatures.  

They create different harmonic relationships (sounds) because the interval qualities of the chords are different.  
To hear each mode properly, play it over the appropriate 1 - 4 - 5 chord progression (see chart below).  If you don't, the mode will sound like the Major scale.

Many songs use one mode system the whole way through.  Other songs change modes at the verse, chorus or bridge.  

chords in each mode

Why do modes sounds different?  

Some modes have two very unstable notes, and some don't have any.

Green is stable.
     Yellow is unstable.      Red is very unstable.

mode tension

Each mode has a relative Major and minor

Use the music theory key wheel for quick reference.


The modes have a different sound, because each one:

Resolves to a different 1 note (relative to the Ionian Major scale).   This creates a new scale that has different interval qualities.  These new intervals require a different numbering system for the chords.


There's one main scale.  

All modes are variations the Major scale. 

Every chord is also a mode. 

There are 7 basic chords and 7 modes. 

The chords in each mode follow the same patterns as the chords in the major scale.  

Musicians often learn these things instinctively. 

Your subconciouse will hear these patterns.  When you apply these ideas, they'll seem easier.