Theory For Beginners And Others

Jan 14, 2021

Registration for my Music Theory workshop has been brisk, lo these past twenty-four hours, but the question I've heard most has been "Is this workshop for theory beginners?" You can definitely take this workshop if you're new to theory. That is not the same thing as saying you will necessarily understand everything covered in the workshop, so let me explain what I mean.

I'm going to start out this class with the most basic nuts and bolts of theory, as if everyone knew nothing about any of it. Basically, my opening premise is: "You got a guitar? You know what frets are? Cool. A distance of one fret, that's called a half step. A distance of two frets, that's a whole step. Next: you know the alphabet? The first seven letters of it? Good, that's all you're gonna need. Now, let's count out some letters and numbers on the fingerboard, and maybe we can make us some scales and chords outta that." (I'm not sure why my imaginary theory-instructor self sounds like a junior high class clown doing a lame Joe Pesci impression. It won't sound like that in real life.)

That's about all it's going to take to learn about scales. After that, we'll do a similar thing with frets and letters and numbers to talk about intervals – stuff like, three frets is something called a minor third, four frets, that's called a major third. I will, of course, go into considerably more detail than that to get us there, but that's the idea. If you're cool with that, we can use that information to build some chords – major chords, minor chords, nothing too fancy.

Once that's all working, we'll look at the notes in one of those major scales we built, and make some observations about what kinds of chords we can build just using the notes in that particular scale. Not only that, but how doing that, we wind up with a particularly interesting combination of major and minor chords. ("Hey, look – the first, fourth and fifth chords we get in this scale are all major! Coincidence? I think not!").

And that's the first half of everything we're going to cover. How to count, how to use letters and numbers, how to start talking about scales, how to put together major and minor chords, and how those chords and those scales relate to each other.

If you're able to grok all of that, as far as I'm concerned, you'll have won the theory workshop.

From there, we're going to add 7ths to the major and minor chords we've built, and scramble around the notes of the major scale to make some variations that people refer to as "modes." Stuff like Dorian, Mixolydian, and other Greek words you may have heard before. That's where things might start to get challenging if you're brand new to all this.

It's also where I hope to set off a few lightbulbs if you've already been around the block with this before, yet still have questions. Questions like: what's the difference between a 7th chord and a major seventh chord? If you're playing the notes of a G major scale over an A minor chord, why can't you just call it that instead of calling it A Dorian? And if the V chord is the dominant chord in a key, how come the blues has dominant chords for the I, IV and the V chord?

Here's the thing. Just knowing how major scales and major and minor chords work is so helpful to understanding the guitar that if you don't totally absorb everything about the fancier chords and scales this time, you'll still have a big leg up on the situation. I believe learning theory is a cumulative process, and it will probably take more than one iteration, more than one book or class or video to gain to a working understanding of all the details. But I want this workshop to be one of those iterations for you, one helpful installment on your road to understanding theory. Because I also believe in the value of theory, in its capacity to unlock music and the guitar in so many ways. Chord voicings, improvisation, learning the fingerboard, remembering chord progressions, figuring songs out off of records – theory is ticking away underneath all of that, invisible yet integral to so many of the things we all want to get better at.

Music Theory From Zero To Sixty takes place this Saturday, January 16th at 10:30am CST. You can get more details, and register to attend, at the link below:

Music Theory From Zero To Sixty