Music Theory for lunch…

Music Theory for lunch…

The sounds of music can be organized into three main components: melody (a succession of notes), rhythm (when and how long play notes), and harmony (more notes played together).


With notation, a musician can represent each note pitch (relative sense of high or low, also frequency) and rhythm (placement in time). In practice, notes are placed on a grid of five lines and four spaces called staff with a clef sign at the beginning. The treble clef (or G clef) denotes higher-pitched sounds, whereas the bass clef (or F clef) denotes lower-pitched sounds.


In general, popular music is tonal, in other terms its melodies and harmonies are centered around a single musical pitch called a tonic. 


A scale is a group of pitches arranged around a tonic as an ascending series of whole notes (the equivalent of a two-fret span on a guitar) and half notes (the distance of one fret); when it forms the basis of most melodies is a major scale (or diatonic scale). 

C Major Scale
C Major Scale

Whenever a major scale starts on a tonic other than C, the formula will require that the notes be modified to maintain the correct pattern of whole steps and half steps: 

  • a scale for the tonic of G requires a sharp sign # to be placed in front of the F, which has the effect of raising it one half step in pitch, moving it farther from E and closer to G.
  • a scale for the tonic F requires a half step between the third and fourth degrees and a whole step between the fourth and fifth degrees. Thus, the distance from A to B must be made a half step smaller, while at the same time the distance from B to C must be made a half step larger. That is noted with a flat sign ♭ in front of the B.

For music written in sharp or flat keys, the sharps and the flats are collected and placed next to the clef sign at the beginning of the piece (key signature). 

The distance between two musical tones is described as an interval with its name based on the number of tones it contains (also interval quantity). For example, the distance between two notes of the same pitch (C to C) is called a unison; the distance from C to D containing two scale tones is a second interval, whereas the distance from C to E containing three scale tones is a third interval. If the interval contains eight scale tones, it is called an octave. 

Instead, interval quality considers flats and sharps to determine the number of half notes the interval contains. Interval quality is similarly named by counting the scale tones but also requires additional qualification by considering whether the upper note of the interval belongs to the major scale of the lower note of the interval (from major, to minor and diminished). 


A melodic interval (two notes played one after the other) is the smallest unit of melody; instead a harmonic interval (two notes played together) is the smallest unit of harmony. Two or more tones written or played simultaneously form a chord; below, the C chord is presented in its components. 


Note that the most common and basic chords are made up of arrangements of three notes called triads. The first note of a triad, the root, gives the triad its name. The root is its fundamental note. Then, a triad contains the third, the note a third interval above the root, and the fifth, the note a fifth interval above the root. When written on chord charts, only the letter name of the chord is reported and it is assumed as major, while the minor triad is explicited with Cmi


Like interval qualities, the differences in triads are called triad qualities. Finally, triads can be extended with 7th, 9th, 11th, and so on depending on the instruments and the desired result.


Musical time is divided into units of measure, of which the smallest is the beat, that in turn can be arranged in sequences of strong (accented) and weak (unaccented) beats to form the meter (or rhythm). Such groups of beats are divided by vertical lines (bar lines) to define the measures (or bors). Finally, the meter is further characterized with half notes, full notes, and rests. 

Music Staff

A whole measure of four beats can be occupied either by a full note, two half notes, four quarter notes, eight eighth notes, or sixteen sixteenth notes with their equivalent rests. When two, three, or four eighth notes occur next to one another, they are connected with a beam. Placed immediately after and parallel to a notehead or rest, a dot increases the value of the note or rest  by one-half its normal duration.


The meter of a piece of music is indicated at the beginning by two numbers (time signature), the first indicating how many beats for measure and the second which note value receives one beat. Thus, the most common time signature is 4/4, which is the basic meter of rock, funk. blues, and even most jazz and fusion; instead, a time signature of 3/4 indicates a waltz, while 2/4 is found in some country music, some styles of Latin music, marches, and polkas. 

Time Signature


There are two primary emotional qualities represented in music: the major quality is generally described as brigh, whereas the minor quality is usually described as dark. The essential difference between the major and minor qualities comes down to a single note: the third scale degree. The major scale has a major third degree, while all minor scales have a minor third degree.

A Minor Scale
A Minor Scale

Pentatonic scales contain only five tones, whereas diatonic scales contain all the seven tones. The major pentatonic scale has a simple sound, its melodic difficulties are reduced, and therefore melodies are easier to manipulate.

Pentatonic Scale

How to use Diatonics and Pentatonics

Generally, popular music is conservative in its use of harmony, but the diatonic system has been in some way avoided from classical and avant-garde jazz musicians, but it is still fundamental in popular styles and in understanding how chord progressions are put together. Diatonic triads have a direct emotional quality that make them appropriate for the simplicity of popular harmonies (rock, pop, etc). Moreover, by adding a fourth diatonic note to each of the diatonic triads, a more complex sound is created that is both more dissonant and more emotionally subtle. Such resulting chords (diatonic seventh chords) are at the base of styles such as blues and jazz. Indeed, a piece of music generally starts in one key and then cycles in one or more keys (modulation). As with chromatic alterations and the various forms of substitution, the reason for modulation is mainly to achieve greater harmonic variety.

The Ukulele

Since the Ukulele has just four strings, chords are often voiced in inversion (a chord with a note other than the root in the bass). Thus, an inverted triad may be a first inversion chord (with the bass in the root and in the third) or a second inversion chord (with the bass in the root and in the fifth). With extended chords the process is similar.


Therefore, using the fingerboard chart below we can start playing:


Ukelele Chords
Ukelele Chords

Chords symbols are often written above the staff, whereas slash rhythms explains when the chords need to be strummed and how long:

ukulele staff

In general, four-notes rhythms employs a simple strumming pattern in which you up-strum with your index finger or down-strum with your thumb finger.

Ukulele strumming
Thumb and Index down-strums

However, measure with eighth-notes rhythms require to alternate up-strum and down-strum. As a result, the staff includes more symbols:

Ukulele staff with rhythms

So, after this epic introduction to the theory of music, you are ready to play your first song with the ukulele. Let’s play “Rolling”, tabled in simplified format for you:

Rolling tabled for Ukulele

That’s all. Now you are a musician!!!

Finally, other great sources of inspiration I feel to suggest are Cynthia Lin‘s Patreon‌ site and Ukulele Underground‘s website.


Wyatt and Shroeder (1998). Pocket Music Theory. Hal Leonard Publishing

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