Practical Music Theory for Modern Musicians

Before we get started here, I want you to scratch out the word “Theory” in the title above – go ahead, grab a pencil, and just scratch it out!  Because nothing we’re going to talk about in this column is even remotely ‘theoretical’; these are the basic building blocks of all music, the tools you’re going to use every single day to become the best musician you can be.

Unfortunately, most traditional music courses use antiquated terms and jargon that musicians just don’t use anymore. We’re going to explore how music works using 21st century musician-speak, just like players use on-stage and in the studio today.

If you’re going to be a great musician you’ve got to know the tools in your toolbox, and know them well. Triads are the foundational elements of all our songs.  These three note chords have been the bedrock of music for the past 600 years; from Bach and Beethoven to the Beatles and Beyoncé.  Let’s break it all down and get to know the ‘Personalities’ of these chords.

A couple of Ground Rules first:

  1. There are several different ways to refer to notes – don’t be confused, these are just different names for the same stuff!
  • Letter Names – “A, B, C, …”
  • Numbers – “1, 2, 3, …”
  • Olde Skoole Solfege – do, re, mi, …”
  • and others such as Roman Numerals / “Tonic – Dominant” / etc.

In this column we’re going to stick with the two most common, Letters and Numbers. Just remember, A-B-C / 1-2-3 / do-re-mi; its all the same

2. A huge percentage of music we play these days is in major keys, built on the major scale – That’s only 7 notes! You can build a triad on any of these 7 notes; and these are the chords we’re going to focus on today.


Chords are like family to me – when I sit down to play music it’s like a family reunion or a gathering of great friends.  There are 3 chords that form my ‘Primary Family’ – These 3 chords are built on the 1st / 4th / 5th degrees of the scale; referred to as the ‘1 chord / 4 chord / 5 chord’.  In the key of ‘C’ these chords are C, F, and G.  These are like Mom, Dad, Brother; the chords you see and use all day / every day – they all live together under the same roof.  These 3 simple triads literally form the backbone of 90% of our music; they’re my primary family, known as the Primary Triads.

Let me introduce you to ‘the 1 Chord’; ‘C’ in the key of C.  This is Home Base, this is ‘Mom’, this chord’s personality is the center of the family – You hear this chord and you know you have arrived at a place of rest; we could end the song right here and feel satisfied. As you’re driving around try to pick out the ‘1 Chord’ in every song on the radio; trust me they’re gonna be everywhere.  Get used to that feeling of Home Base that the 1 Chord gives.

If the 1 Chord is ‘Mom’, then the 5 Chord is ‘Dad’.  There is a definite magnetism between these two; the 5 Chord is just aching to pull you to the 1 Chord.  If you don’t believe me check out Ferris Bueller during the parade scene in Chicago [4:42 is the 5 Chord].

That powerful pull you feel in the song ‘Twist & Shout’ is the 5 Chord pulling you to the final Home Base feeling provided by the 1 Chord.  And btw, this entire song is built, start-to-finish, of nothing more than my primary family of chords, the 1, 4, and 5.

So how about the personality of the 4 Chord?  This ‘F’ chord (in the key of C) is my Brother; almost like my twin brother.  There are hundreds of great songs that simply rock back-and-forth between the 1 Chord and the 4 Chord, everything from ‘I’ve Got a Feeling’ by the Beatles to the Hallelujah Chorus.  Because both the ‘C’ chord and the ‘F’ chord share the common tone ‘C’, these guys work really well together – Smooth.

So that is my Primary Chord Family, the 1, 4, and 5 – make a note that the Primary Triads are all major triads.  But then we also have a ‘Close Family’ of chords, aunts / uncles / cousins that we do visit fairly often.  These are the chords built on the 2nd / 3rd / 6th degrees of the scale and they all happen to be minor triads. More on those next issue.


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