Essential Music Theory for Beginners: The Fundamentals
Whether you are a beginner pianist or have been playing piano for some time, improving your knowledge of music theory will strengthen your musical understanding. In this guide to music theory for beginners, we will identify tips to get started learning music theory. We also describe some of the fundamental concepts of music theory: melody, harmony, rhythm, meter, tempo, dynamics, and form.
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Interested in learning music theory? Here’s what you need to know to get started.
Learning music theory helps musicians become stronger players. When we learn to analyze music and think about how chords fit with a melody, or understand how dynamic changes affect the sound, our interpretation of the music changes. By thinking about music theory concepts, like harmony, form, and texture, we can make informed choices about the way we perform a piece.
In Western music, music theory analysis provides a way to look at the way pieces of music organize sound and silence (or notes and rests). Musicians analyzing a piece might consider the pitches, which make up the melodies and harmonies, or the rhythms created by meter and tempo choices. They might consider how loud or soft the piece is played, or dynamic values, or what instruments are playing the piece and how they sound.
What should I learn before music theory?
For very young pianists, it’s important to make sure they are developmentally ready before embarking on music theory lessons. A student working to learn music theory should be old enough to read and write.
If a student is not yet ready, families can start the process of thinking critically about music by inviting a child to listen to songs and describe what they hear. Ask them to tell you if the music is soft or loud, or fast, or slow. You can also have them clap along or dance along to find the beat. By teaching listening skills early, your student will be able to identify fundamental concepts in music theory like dynamics (how loud or soft a piece is) or tempo (how fast or slow the music plays)!
Where is the best place to start with music theory?
A great starting place is to learn to read musical notation! With patience and practice, you will learn how the building blocks of symbols come together to form musical notes that have meaning. Musical notes on the page give us information like which tones to play (melody) and how long to play them for (rhythm). It’s just like learning how to build words from the alphabet when learning to read. You can find out more about reading music in our article How To Read Music.
Once you understand how to read music notation, the next thing to learn is the way rhythm is organized in music. You’ll learn about beats, time signatures and meter, and how notes are divided. For more tips on rhythm, like finding the beat and identifying types of rhythms, check out our article on Building Rhythm Skills in Beginner Musicians.
As your ability to read music improves, you’ll be ready to add in key signatures and scales to your music theory understanding. Starting with these fundamentals will give you a strong foundation to build upon!
What is the best instrument to learn music theory?
At Hoffman Academy, we think that learning to play piano provides an amazing opportunity to learn music theory. From the beginning of the Hoffman Method, our piano students learn music theory principles like music literacy and note reading and how to read and recognize rhythms.
The simple layout of the piano keyboard makes it easy to visualize so many music theory concepts. Very few other instruments have each note that can be played set out in order from highest to lowest.
Pianists learn to read in both treble and bass clef on the grand staff, instead of just in one clef. A piano keyboard also allows multiple notes to be played at the same time. This means pianists get to explore harmony in unique ways, learning to identify chords in classical music, as well as chords indicated in jazz charts or pop charts.
Basic principles of music theory
As you practice playing piano and reading notes and rhythms, you can put your knowledge of music theory to use and explore these fundamentals of music theory. We’ve provided definitions and a guide below to help you think about music theory as it relates to the piano pieces you are learning to play. By thinking about these fundamentals as you play or listen to music, you’ll gain a deeper insight and appreciation for the music!
Melody. The melody is the part of a song or piece that makes us want to hum along! It’s the main tune of the piece. In Western classical music, melodies arrange the 12 notes in a given octave in nearly infinite combinations to create unique stories that can feel happy, sad, or exciting. Read this article to learn more about melody.
Harmony. Harmony in music is when you add another note to your melody – like adding additional ingredients to make a cake! Any time two or more musical notes play together, a chord is created, and harmony exists! In Western music, we can add a third note to the harmony to make major chords, minor chords, diminished chords, and more! Adding even more notes creates more complex chords. Learn more about harmony here.
Rhythm and meter. When we tap our foot or clap along to a song, we are finding the central beat. Meter helps us organize those beats into patterns, and rhythm is the way we organize sound within each pattern. Rhythm can help us subdivide the beat, putting lots of fast notes inside, or playing one long, slow note over several beats. Get tips for how to read rhythm notation here.
Tempo. In music, tempo describes how fast or slow a song plays. We can compare rhythm and tempo in music to walking. If we walk fast or slow, we’re still walking to a 1-2 beat, but our pace (or tempo) has changed! Explore the concept of tempo here.
Dynamics. Dynamics in music function like volume controls. They tell the instrumentalist or singer to perform loudly or softly – and just like speaking in a whisper or shout changes the message, dynamics change the way we perceive music. Find out all about dynamics here.
Form. If you like pop or rock music, the form in a song is like the verse and chorus. Form provides the structure for music and helps us organize the different parts of a song. When you play or listen to a new piece of music, listen for melodies that repeat – once you’ve identified similar and different parts of the tune, you can identify the form of the music!
Interested in learning additional principles of music theory in a fun, engaging way? Sign up for Hoffman Academy Premium today!