Don’t Fear the Theory – an Introduction

The map is not the territory

For 2022, I’ve decided to publish a series of posts looking at the basics of music theory.  

This is aimed at people who sing or play music already, and want to know more about musical terminology and notation.  You can pick’n’mix your way through and just pay attention to the things that interest you, but if you follow it week by week you should end up with a good understanding of musical theory. I’m going to try and make it very focused and break things down into simple elements.

Let me say, right at the beginning, that you can be an astounding musician – a composer as well as a performer – without knowing how to read and write music. Paul McCartney, anyone?  Now that we have recording technology, we can share our music without making marks on a page.  Neither path is better.

But, if you’re interested, I think it’s really useful to be able to read and write music.  It’s not rocket science and it means you can read tunes rather than having to remember them. It’s a whole lot easier than learning to read and write English.

Now, if you think back to reading and writing – you didn’t start learning to do those until you had done quite a lot of talking and listening, did you? It’s important to listen and understand the concepts before we start writing them down.  This is why I chose today’s subtitle: The Map is Not the Territory.

Music is what you hear.  What is printed or written on the page is not music, just as a folded Ordnance Survey sheet is not Snowdonia.

For each item, I will first of all give you examples and explain how it sounds.  Then we will learn the symbols and how it is written down. 

This course is about standard Western classical notation, and we will use examples from rock, pop, jazz and folk songs as well as classical compositions.  There are myriad genres of music across the world about which I know nothing, so I’m not going to talk about them.

I’m going to be very specific about terminology, to help us get the concepts clear in our heads.  Even so, there are times when the same word may mean different things in different contexts.

One of the confusing things about music is that it uses words that have more than one meaning. Think about the word, “note”, for instance.  It can mean the key on a keyboard (the black notes), the sound you hear (hold that note), or the squiggle on the page (the last note in bar 3).  These words may also have other everyday meanings as well, to add to the possible confusion.

I am based in the UK so I will use British terminology, but I will refer to American terminology because it’s so prevalent, and it can be confusing if you are not aware of the alternative terms.

I hope that’s whetted your appetite for this series.  Part 1, Pulse, is coming soon…