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Sam Gossner @samulis

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Berklee College of Music

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Basics of Musical Terminology and Theory

Posted by samulis - July 18th, 2015

[under construction]

Hi there! If you are reading this, you either (1) randomly appeared on my page, (2) are a fan and saw I made a newspost, or (3) received a review and/or feedback from someone on a piece you wrote and aren't sure what they meant. This page is to clarify and present a basic working understanding of the fundementals of music theory and general terminology. This is not a final or absolute source, nor a remarkably perfect one, but is just a rough point in a few directions to help folks get what I am trying to say and improve their craft.


1. Music is comprised of tones with specific frequencies. Thesse tones are called notes.

2. Notes can have different durations, but typically line up on a grid divided in progressively smaller halves. Notes that take up an entire "measure" are called "whole notes". Notes that take up half of a measure are called "half notes". Notes that take up a quarter of a measure are called "quarter notes"... and so on. This is the basis of rhythm.

3. The organized combination of rhythm and tones is what we call music.

4. There are seven letter-name notes, which repeat in cycle, corresponding to the white keys on the keyboard. These letter-name notes are, in ascending or left-to-right order, A, B, C, D, E, F, and G. C is the most familiar note. It appears directly to the left of each bunch of two black keys. If you pick one letter-name note on the keyboard and find the very next note of the same letter-name, you will have found the distance of an octave, or the point at which the letter names repeat.

5. The distance, or interval, between notes is measured in steps. A whole step is the interval of two keys on the piano (e.g. between C and the white key directly to the right... don't forget, the black keys count as 1/2 of a step!), while a half-step is the interval of one key (e.g. between C and the white key directly to the left). On a piano roll, it can be easier to think of spaces, a unit where 1 space = 1/2 step. There are 12 spaces per octave or 6 steps per octave (go ahead and count!).

6. Scales are the fundemental tool for creating music. Scales are dervied by applying a series of whole and half steps to any starting note or pitch. The most familiar scale is C Major, starting from one C, and going along the white keys up to the next C. Try to count the number of steps or spaces between each white key and the next. You should have gotten this pattern (w= whole, h = half) w w h w w w h (2, 2, 1, 2, 2, 2, 1 if you used spaces on a piano roll). See below for more on scales. We use intervals again to name the distance between notes in a scale. The distance between the bottom note (such as C) and the second note (in that case, D), is called a Second. The distance between the first note and the third note (E), is called a Third. This continues (fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh) before we meet C again. That, as we stated earlier, is called the octave. Then the interval system either continues (ninth, tenth, eleventh, twelth...) or repeats for simplicity (second, third, fourth, fifth...).

7. Harmony is when more than one note is played at once. Intervals a whole step and greater apart create more spacious harmonies, and intervals greater than an octave are almost too wide without any notes in between to fill the gap.

8. Chords are groups of notes at certain intervals played together. Chords are the fundemental unit of harmony. The most basic form of chord is the triad, which has three notes (like how tridents have three points or tricycles have three wheels). The most common form of triad is the Major chord. The major chord consists of a chosen starting note, plus a note 4 spaces (two wholesteps, or a Major third) above, and then a note a 3 spaces (1 and 1/2 steps, or a minor third). There is also the minor chord, which is the same intervals but in reverse (i.e. minor third, then major third).



Accidental: An accidental is a note that must be raised or flattened from its normal state to 

Arpeggio: A method of voicing a chord by playing only one note from that chord at a time. Literally means "harp-like". Ex. (C, E, G, E as quarter notes over a measure to make one example of a C Major arpeggio).

Background: The background is any musical content that is not intended to be focused on by the listener. This can be anything from drums to a repeating pattern to bass and more.

Chord: A chord is a collection of three or more notes, voiced either at once (hamophony/polyphony) or spread out over a measure (arpeggio). Chords can be functional or non-functional, meaning that they can utilize rules to create certain effects and patterns people find attractive, such as the motion from the 5th chord (V) to the root chord (I) of any scale. (see also, Roman Numeral Notation, functioanl harmony, hamophony, arpeggio).

Contrast: One of the basic principles of design (and music!). Contrast is to smoothly transition between different-feeling sections within a piece in order to create interest (for example, a sad section and a happy section).

Development: Taking a melodic idea and, through tools such as repetition, variation, and elaboration, creating a piece that has both consistency and variation.

Divisi: Divisi is when a section of instruments is split (divided) to play two notes at once, typically in harmony.

Dominant: The Dominant is a term in functional harmony to describe a chord that is a fifth above (or fourth below) the chord it resolves to. The dominant is typically built on the 5th step of the scale, resolving to a chord on the 1st step. See also, Secondary Dominant.

Dominant Chord: A Dominant Chord, or Dominant 7th Chord, is a major chord with a flatted 7th step (chromatic intervals 4 + 3 + 3). Dominant chords are typically functional, and should resolve to the chord that is a fifth below the root of the chord.

Fifth: A Perfect Fifth is a musical interval. It consists of 7 chromatic steps up or down from any given note. When it is above the root note, the fifth is the second member of a root position chord (see chord, inversion, root position).

Figured Bass: See Roman Numeral Anaysis.

Foreground: The foreground is any musical content that is intended to be focused on by the listener. This is typically the melody and sometimes counter-melodies.

Fourth: A Perfect Fourth is the intervallic inversion of a Perfect Fifth. It consists of 5 chromatic steps up (or down) from any given note. It is the first (bottom) note in a Third Inversion triad when it is below the root note. When used above the root note along with a 5th, it creates a Suspended 4 chord ("sus4"), which must be followed by a Major chord with the same root.

Frequency: Frequency refers to the absolute numerical value, in cycles per second (Hertz, abbreviated Hz) of a note. In acoustics, it describes the number of times in a second that the waveform completes a cycle (i.e. how we get cycles... per... second).

Function: Function refers to the imbued expectation of a concept (such as chords or steps in a scale) to behave in a certain way that the human ear has come to enjoy over the past 1000+ years.

Functional Harmony: Functional harmony is a set of rules that have been developed over the past 500 years to help humans understand why certain harmonic progressions sound better than others, and to assist in the fast and effective creation of enjoyable harmonies. Functional music revolves around three types of chords: the tonic, the dominant, and the subdominant. The tonic is home. It is a major or minor chord built off of the first note in the scale, such as the C Major chord in the key of C Major. The dominant is the next most important chord. It is a major or dominant chord built a fifth above (or a fourth below) the tonic (e.g. G Major in the key of C Major). The dominant always wants be followed by the tonic. Often, the dominant is preceeded by the, guess what, subdominant, which can be performed by either a major (or minor) chord built on the fourth degree (e.g. F Major in the key of C Major) or a minor or diminished chord built on the second degree (e.g. D minor in the key of C Major). The remaining chords (iii, vi, and sometimes vii) can be used before a subdominant. This gives us popular chord progressions like I - vi -IV - V - I (e.g. C Major, A minor, F Major, G Major, C Major).

Harmonic Material, Harmony: The harmony is the chordal accompiament of the melody. For example, while the melody might be holding the note "E", the harmony instrument(s) might be playing the notes C, E, or G in order to create a C major chord.

Hamophony: Hamophony is when the harmony functions in a block-like motion as opposed to being elusively hidden in multiple moving lines (counterpoint). It is very common in popular and contemporary music. Not to be confused with Polyphony or Monophony.

Instrument: An instrument is a physical or virtual tool that is used to produce sound. Many instruments are, on their on, monophonic, but can be combined with other instruments to play mutiple lines and thus create a work. The art of using mutliple instruments at once is called Instrumentation or, in a classical context specifically focused on the orchestra, Orchestration.

Major: Major music uses the scale "2, 2, 1, 2, 2 , 2, 1" (ascending) in spaces or "w,w,h,w,w,w,h" in intervals (w=whole, h=half). The easiest example is C Major, which is formed by playing the white keys of the piano from C to C, ascending (or descending). Major pieces are considered happy.

Major Chord: A major chord consists of three notes: the root, a note a major third above it (4 chromatic steps) with a note a minor third above that (3 chromatic steps) stacked on top (creating a total interval of a fifth, or 7 chromatic steps between the bottom note and the top note). For example, C, E, and G played together create C Major, a major chord.

Melodic Material, Melody: The melody is a faster moving monophonic idea (typically hummable/singable) that functions as the top layer of your composition.

Minor: Minor music uses the scale 2, 1, 2, 2, 1, 2, 2 (ascending) in chromatic steps or "w h w w h w w" in intervals (w=whole, h=half). The easiest example is A minor, which is formed by playing the white keys of the piano from A to A (octave), ascending or descending. Minor pieces are typically considered "sad" or "contemplative". A common feature of functional harmony in minor music is to swap out the minor IV chord and V chord for major chords by raising the 6th and 7th step (making a scale of 2, 1, 2, 2, 2, 2, 1, also known as the Melodic Minor), or sometimes just the 7th step (making a scale of 2, 1, 2, 2, 1, 3, 1, also known as the Harmonic Minor). This is in order to let the V chord function as the dominant effectively.

Minor Chord: A minor chord consists of three notes: the root, a note a minor third above that (3 chromatic steps), with a note a major third above that (4 chromatic steps) stacked on top (creating a total interval of a 5th, or 7 chromatic steps, between the bottom note and the top note). For example, A, C, and E played together create A minor, a minor chord.

Monophony: Monophony is when only one note appears in a piece at a time. Similar to Unison.

Non-Chord Tones: NCT's are notes in the melody or countermelody that DO NOT belong to the harmony that is currently being used. They are functional, meaning that they must be resolved. The four most important kinds are Passing Tones (PT), Neighbor Tones (NT), Suspensions (Susp.), and Anticipations (Ant.). Passing tones go between two chord tones, literally passing (for example, in quarter notes over a measure of C Major: E, D, C, C). Neighbor tones are like passing tones, but they return to the note that they originate from instead of following through with the pass. Suspensions are when a chord tone from one measure remains into the next measure where it is NOT a chord tone, and then resolves down to a chord tone in that measure. Anticipations are when a chord tone from a measure appears in the previous measure and is held into that measure before the chord changes proper.

Octave: The octave is an interval of 12 chromatic steps. A note an octave above another note is twice the frequency (e.g. A4 {A in the fourth octave} is twice the frequency of A3 {A in the third octave}, which in turn is twice the frequency of A2 {A in the second octave}).

Orchestra: An orchestra is a body of musicians comprised of four main sections: brass, strings, percussion, and woodwinds. Within each section is 4-8 different instruments or sections of instruments that each play a line in a piece. Most orchestras number about 100-200 musicians total. A small orchestra is called a Chamber Ensemble. The art of writing for and assigning parts to each of the instruments in the orchestra in an effective way is called Orchestration.

Ostinato: A repeating pattern, such as CDEDCDED repeating every measure, with each of those note staking an eighth note duration.

Polyphony: Polyphony is when there are multiple notes at once in a piece. Contrast with Monophony.

Root: The root is the note in a chord that the chord is named after, regardless of if the chord is in "root" position or inverted. If you have an interval larger than 4 chromatic steps, you are likely looking at an inverted chord. In functional harmony, the bass often follows root motion to emphasize the functional motion of the harmony.

Roman Numeral Analysis: Roman Numeral Analysis is an alternative method to notating chord progressions that lets you work without worrying about using a specific key. The way to derive the chords in any key is simple. In the major scale, create chord on top of each step in the scale, obeying the accidentals of that key (for example, in the key of G, a chord built on the fifth degree, D, would have an F#, not an F natural, because F is sharp in the key of G). Analyze if the bottom interval in each chord is major or minor, and that is the classification of that chord. For example, let's do the C Major scale. First we have the chord C, E, G. The interval between C and E is four spaces or two wholesteps, so it is a major interval. Thus, our first chord is Major. In Roman Numerals, the number "one" appears as an "i". Because that chord is major, we capitalize the i: I. Our second chord is built on D: D, F, A. The interval between D and F is a minor third (i.e. 3 spaces), so it is a minor chord. The number "two" is two i's (ii), and because this chord is minor, it is put in lower-case: ii. This process continues. We can thus state that the chords of ANY major scale are as follows: I, ii, iii, IV, V, vi, viio. The seventh step is a special case. It makes a diminished chords (two stacked minor thirds, and gets a degree sign after it. Roman Numeral Analysis lets us look at music functionally easier. For example, when I say "V - I", I mean the motion of the dominant chord to the tonic chord in functional harmony.

Secondary Dominant: A secondary dominant is a case in which a Dominant Chord that does NOT belong to the key appears before either the ii, iii, IV, V, or vi chords. As a dominant chord, it is a fifth above (or a fourth below) the root of the chord it is going to and typically has a flatted seventh scale degree (see dominant chord). in Roman Numeral Analysis/Notation, it is written V/[destination], spoken "Five of [destination]". If a seventh is present, it is V7/[destination] or "five-seven of [destination]". An excellent example is the V/V. In the key of C Major, we know our V (dominant) chord is G Major (or G Dominant 7). Thus, we go a fifth above that (or fourth below) and get the note D. Now, D is our second scale degree, so typically it is a minor chord. However, if we turn it into a major third by raising the middle note of the chord, it becomes major, and thus eligible to be a dominant chord. We can clarify the dominance by giving it a flat seventh. As in the key of C major, the 7th of D (C) is already flatted (i.e. 10 spaces above the root instead of 11), we can just add the C as-is. Thus, we can make a progression: D(7) -> G(7) -> C.

Unison: Unison is when multiple instruments play the same exact note, typically in the same octave, at the same time. This can be used in orchestration to create textures. Contrast with Divisi.

Variation: Variation is when a part of a melody or harmony changes upon being repeated to create contrast and fresh interest.