I have been playing by ear and would like to learn to be able to understand what playing in the right key as well as understanding the 1,4,5 logic? Should I be concentrating on learning the notes to then start scales?

I am lost.

Thanks !

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    Unsure where 'composition' comes into this. – Tim Dec 10 '18 at 6:28
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    not everything is 1,4,5 logic - you can mix keys, you can play accidentals to create suspense etc.. playing by ear tends to mean you're playing in key already. ... – treyBake Dec 10 '18 at 15:52
  • Right now, this is very unclear and broad. I don't know what your level of playing is, but it sounds like you're trying to learn basic music theory (a good term to google). I'd suggest you start by learning what scales are and how to play one or two to start, then learning how they relate to chords. There are plenty of sites that will show you those basics, along with the basics of how to read music. If you want answers here, though, you'll need to have more specific questions. – Karen Dec 18 '18 at 21:34

Welcome! You've already made a good start playing by ear. The theory will make sense quite quickly now, as you're probably aware of the things that go together well, just by the sound. All theory is doing is trying to explain it all on paper.

Music is, obviously, made up of notes. When put into an ascending/descending order, they form scales. The main one being the major scale. There are 12 of these, and they all contain notes with the same distances between them. TTSTTTS is a pattern you'll find - T= tone, S= semitone. From that scale, containing diatonic notes, millions of tunes have been made. The 1 4 5 (often written I IV V) is about the three main chords, or harmonies, which will accompany a lot of those tunes. They represent note clusters from the scale. I =1,3,5. IV = 4,6,8. V = 5,7,9.

All this is a good place to start, then go onto other chords - ii, iii, vi.

Reading music is an option which can be very useful, as it's a way to make a page of lines and dots come to life. It's just another language! And we all know that to communicate best, all speaking the same language helps somewhat.


Your question is almost too broad to be answerable, but I think your question is generally about the concept of the major/minor key system. Here are a few responses to the specifics of your question to help you get started:

...the 1,4,5 logic...

This is about harmony. Normally the chords are labelled with Roman numerals: I IV V. Those three chords are called the primary triads. Those chords are respectively called tonic, subdominant, and dominant. They represent to basic levels of functional harmony.

...playing in the right key...

You will want to understand how to read key signatures. Keys can be major or minor and should be distinguished from playing in a mode. The traditional way of defining that music is in a key is through the use of cadences - in particular cadences involving the dominant chord.

...learning the notes to then start [practicing] scales...

The time honored approach is to learn scales and cadences for all 24 major and minor keys.

One caveat:

Minor key harmony is a bit more complicated than major key harmony. The absolutely essential thing to know is a perfect cadence in a minor key uses a raised seventh scale degree for the dominant chord. This raised seventh degree is called the leading tone.

All the above is a super simplified overview of the concept of "being in a key." These ideas do not necessarily apply to jazz, blues, rock, folk, etc. This applies to "classical" music, or more properly call the "common practice period."

A good college harmony textbook will cover all these concepts at both the introductory level and with the subtleties and complexities of the advanced levels.


Playing by ear is the best way to play so keep doing that. The 1, 4, 5 logic comes from the amazing fact that these three chords contain all the notes of the major scale and form a complete harmony to diatonic melodies. But there is quite a bit more to learn, more chord progressions etc. I would recommend (1) learning to read music, (2) learning basic music theory, and (3) classical harmony theory (homophonic and polyphonic). There are a lot of easy to follow work books with exercises for theory and harmony.


Learn Music Theory, focusing on the following topics.

  1. Major Scale
  2. Chords
  3. Chord Progressions
  4. Circle of Fifth
  5. Cadence
  6. Melody writing
  7. Minor Scale

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