I am trying to get into music theory as a beginner, but I always get stuck right at the beginning. What I'm looking for in music theory is a set of tools to understand the composition of musical pieces (I'm more interested in melody specifically), but the only resources I could find just throw concepts at me without explaining the rationale behind them. Here are some examples of questions I wish were answered:

  • Why are there notes? I mean the notes ABCDEFG. There are 12 different pitches in an octave, so why only 7 are given a name? Is it because of how they're laid out on the piano? Shouldn't theory be independent of instrument? This set of notes corresponds (if I understand correctly which I probably do not) to the C major key. But we already have the concept of a key, why isn't it enough? Why do we need to emphasize this particular key in the choice of basic notes?
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    Hi and welcome to the site. We try to keep posts to a single question only here. I've answered based on your first bullet point - any chance of separating your other questions out into different posts, if you have searched and not found answers to those questions on this site already? – topo Reinstate Monica Apr 26 at 12:44
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    Hi @confusedAmateur - welcome. As topo commented, I have edited to just focus on your first question. I think you'll find the others are already answered here - please browse around existing questions, and read the tour and How to Ask pages for guidance. – Doktor Mayhem Apr 26 at 12:58
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    Also, the 7 note idea - it's pretty western focused. It's worth looking at music from other cultures to see the dramatic differences. – Doktor Mayhem Apr 26 at 13:00
  • Sorry, I might not have been clear in the way I formulated my question. I'm not looking for specific answers to those questions, I'm giving them as an example of why I'm frustrated with existing material on music theory: they just give out notations and concepts without justifying them. What I'm looking for is some place to learn music theory where I could find the answers to those questions. – confusedAmateur Apr 26 at 13:18
  • @confusedAmateur we'd actually like to think that that one of those place is right here, on this site! Some of your questions have good answers here already, but there's always room to go into more detail on the history of why certain ways of looking at music became popular in certain cultures. Bear in mind that many of the reasons why theory concepts are what they are come more from the history of how those ideas evolved, rather than (or as well as) there being some deep logic underneath them. It's always worth asking "can I imagine things being another way?" - often the answer is 'yes'! – topo Reinstate Monica Apr 26 at 13:35

It's fairly obvious from your questions that you don't actually play any music on an instrument. If you did, several of the questions wouldn't need you to ask them.

My advice is to get hold of an instrument and have a good go at playing it, either with or without a teacher, with or without (preferrably initially) music.

Theory, as we've said many times, really is there to explain or rationalise what happens in practice. It isn't, for the vast majority of people, the gateway to learning or understanding music.

I've said this before, but here goes again. You can't swim, but would like to be able to. Best way is to read a dozen good books explaining how it all works. Then jump in the deep end. This probably sounds stupid - and it is. But I hope it gets the point across.

Next, explaining the background behind answers to your questions are just words again - no practical applications are available. So, please find an instrument (or two!) and have a go at making music. In a few months time, most of the grey areas will be wonderful colours, specially if your teacher has been involved, and by then, not only will you have the answers, but probably will be able to play some of the pieces you've been listening to, and wondering how they work.

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    Actually I used to play saxophone when I was a kid, and I recently started teaching myself piano, so I do have a little experience with playing music (although I only played from partitions; I've never composed anything). What level do I need to reach to begin understanding theory? What exercises should I practice? What should I be looking for? – confusedAmateur Apr 26 at 13:33
  • Get back to sax. Piano is the best for trying to understand a lot of theoretical concepts. At what level? Unanswerable! I've been playing, performing, teaching for 60 yrs, and still trying to understand some of the theory. Looking for? Patterns. Harmonies. Scales - what they are, what they consist of, how to use them. How and why music is written. What makes different styles different. Listening to one piece in many syles of playing. The list goes on... But playing something and getting to understand how and why it works is one of the main pillars of theory. – Tim Apr 28 at 8:41

There are 12 different pitches in an octave

Actually, there are an infinite number of different pitches in an octave. The human ear can't distinguish all of them, but it can certainly distinguish more than 12.

The way that the 7-and 12-note scales relate to each other is something like this:

  • People discovered that there is a 7-note scale, the diatonic scale, that presents a choice of pitches that sound good together. (We could consider that this is the point where the notes got named ABCDEFG).
  • People then discovered that you can make a 12-note scale - the chromatic scale - on which you can play a diatonic scale starting on each of the chromatic scale's 12 degrees. Or, put another way - the 12-tone scale 'contains' 12 different choices of diatonic scale. This allows a lot of new musical possibilities - e.g. it allows you to move between different diatonic scales in the same piece.

Shouldn't theory be independent of instrument?

The physical instruments we have today have evolved alongside the evolution of the ways people think about music. The layout of the piano, as you've noticed, isn't at all 'general' or 'neutral' - it reflects the C major scale (Or any of the other modes based on the same diatonic scale - D Dorian, E Phrygian, and so on). This means that each key relates to a different set of shapes on the piano keyboard - this might seem awkward, but it also means that the player has a way to find their way around the keyboard as every key 'looks' different. If you look at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Isomorphic_keyboard, you will see that people have considered whether there would be advantages to keyboards not laid out around a particular diatonic scale.

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  • There are not 12 pitches in an octave! There is a continuum. – ggcg Apr 26 at 13:56
  • @ggcg yep, 'continuum' is probably a better way of putting it than "infinite number". – topo Reinstate Monica Apr 26 at 14:59

Dear Confused Amateur,

You are really asking for several distinct things and they are all interesting and important.

You may want to learn about the history of Western music as well to address some of your questions about why the notes system is the way it is today. You will want to learn about Just vs Equal Tempered tuning.

Music theory starts as an introductory course in any foreign language. You learn the alphabet, learn to make words, learn the basic definitions of things that are important in that language and how to identify and use them correctly in some context that is relevant today. Then get deeper into sentence structure, mapping sentences, learning to say and understand more sophisticated things.

I would recommend getting your hands on some simple work books that are part of a graded system for music theory, rather than some massive expensive tome that a music graduate student would buy. There are several out there and I'm sure you can look them up on Amazon or other online markets. The key is get something that is graded say 1 through 6 and each book is 50 pages and around $10. That way you pace yourself and get practice rather than drinking from a fire hose. It's going to be difficult to understand harmony theory and something like chord substitutions if you don't have intervals, chord formulas, and keys down solid. I have work through several of these with my students but don't have any in front of me right now. After getting a solid foundation in the vocabulary then go for the tome.

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  • Thanks for your answer! I don't know if what I'm going to say makes sense, but what I'm looking for isn't specifically about Western music, but music theory in general. So in your analogy, it would be like learning linguistics instead of a language. Like, I feel I should first learn grammar before I try to understand a specific genre of literature. – confusedAmateur Apr 26 at 14:20
  • It does make sense but music theory is more a western tradition than in other cultures. There may be no such books for you that cover theory in general. I have studied Indian music, both ragas and carnatic music. There is some overlap but more diffs. Also some cultures have notes that we don't – ggcg Apr 26 at 14:31
  • You will have to drink from more than one fountain – ggcg Apr 26 at 14:31
  • You should play an instrument, play some melodies or invent your own songs. Then try to notate your ideas and write them down in any possible way of graphic notations. ( letters, numbers, tabs). Then you can search for a children song and compare your notation with already existing traditional notations. You will see that there is some logic in this traditional system. But it is always most creative to observe our cultural practices like an alien from another star or universe... not only in music, in every subjects and affairs, like tradition, culture, religion, laws and medicines. – Albrecht Hügli Apr 26 at 15:29

What I'm looking for in music theory is a set of tools to understand the composition of musical pieces

What is this "understanding"? It means the ability to handle things.

Understanding is a psychological process related to an abstract or physical object, such as a person, situation, or message whereby one is able to think about it and use concepts to deal adequately with that object. ... Understanding implies abilities and dispositions with respect to an object of knowledge that are sufficient to support intelligent behaviour.


What is it that you want to do? You do something to an object - a melody. What do you do to it? Do you play it, do you modify it, do you create new variations of it, or do you make arrangements of it? Music theory provides tools for doing those things. If you say that you just want to "understand" without actually doing anything even in an imaginary sense, then ... it seems to contradict the meaning of "understanding". Understanding means having a set of skills and abstractions to act and to behave.

In my opinion, you should be able to play melodies. Claiming to "understand" melodies without being able to actually play any melodies feels impossible. And if someone says they "understand" composition, it means that they have to be able to compose, at least a little bit, at least in some weird way or shape they are able to create compositions. If you can't compose anything and have never composed anything in any way or form, then you just cannot possibly understand composition.

So, start composing! Make a melody. Pick a note, pick another note. Happy? No? Change something.

When you do this, you will probably feel a need for some concepts from music theory to reason about the notes, see the forest from the trees, and to gain perspectives for why your composition creates certain feelings. To communicate your composition to other people. To write down and manipulate your composition. When you have these needs, then start reading music theory.

To help you get started in making sensible melodies, it might be useful to replicate existing ones. Can you play the melody of Happy Birthday by ear? If not, start by doing that, it is a very, very elementary skill. Write down the notes. When doing that you might notice that it's kind of useful to have names for the pitches, or at least well-known locations on an instrument, keyboard or fretboard, musical notation staff or grid in a music application. When those things help you in achieving what you want to do, then I guess they start making sense?

As you already figured out, the piano keyboard itself contains a lot of theoretical concepts of Western music culture embedded into the layout and structure of the instrument itself. It's a very nice way to communicate theory, isn't it? You are able to act as if you understood the concepts ... or actually, by using that instrument you kind of do understand the concepts. Just press the keys! The same applies to most instruments. The guitar has frets, 12 frets per octave - it was a non-trivial decision or development that was done for you a long time ago, to support certain kinds of music in a certain culture. You have taken this "12 notes" thing for granted, as a general law of music. That was actually a slight misunderstanding, but it helped you to progress. I suggest you to take a musical instrument, not question why it is like it is, and start making music. Play notes. Two notes, three notes, you just made a melody.

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The note lines, staff systems and clefs are indicating the pitch of the tones. Before this system there have been Tabulation like we still have for the guitar. You can invent your own notation system like e.g. J.J. Rousseau (or me) it would even be possible that others will understand and be able to read your writing. But there will be billions of others that will speak and read the historically grown note language.

You can also compose only with 5, 7 or 12 numbers or write the letters of the notes adding sharps and flats.

But already notating in the traditional notation it is for most amateur musicians impossible to read more than 4 staffs.

The music notation is a symbolic design and a way of representation what we hear when a full orchestra plays a symphony or a two hand piano concerto with passages across more than 80 keys.

It is like it is because it has been developed over thousands of years. This is not that it has to remain like this for ever.

Just try to read this answer at once reading from the left to the right. It isn’t possible for one of us - but in music notation it is.


You can read one line of normal text at once or eventually to if you are genius. An organist is able to read 3 lines of the traditional symbolic notation. But there may be 2, 3, 5 or more different voices. If these score would be notated in different layers like a tabulatura or any other symbolic representation in letters or numbers he could read in maximum 4 lines (probably by learning and memorizing and adding line per line, like beginners of piano playing have to do).

A conductor is able to read a full score (of course also by studying before the different parts and adding them together).

This would be an impossible thing in any other symbolic representation I could imagine.


In one point I agree with you and you have my support:

The single parts in partituras (orchestra scores) are all printed in the same clefs like they are notated in the individual sheets of the instruments. This is an absolutely un-needing respect to the history and an asks an enormous effort for an amateur conductor. (There are actually other editions with transcriptions like "directory lead-sheets" that are written all in the same clefs: soprano and bass clef).

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  • Can you clarify your last paragraph please? – Tim Apr 27 at 6:29

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