I know what you’re thinking because it’s a big claim for sure. How on earth could music theory change your life? For me, it was one of the first things I truly remember learning about growing up.

Perhaps this isn’t so much of a reflection of my wonderful ability but my lack of application elsewhere across education. I have very little memories of doing homework growing up. I was definitely that classic coaster – doing the bare minimum to achieve what is necessary without really fulfilling my true potential. Onwards and upwards!

Back to music theory. Why did something so niche have a dramatic influence of my life? Because it taught me one of the greatest lessons for me to date – how to learn itself.

Learning sounds fairly uninteresting (think school) until you realise that it’s just another way of talking about growth. Unless you’re learning (read: increasing who you are and your gifting) then you’re not going anywhere or doing anything significant.

My humble beginnings

It all started when I was about 7 years old. Asian parents equated to classical piano lessons. And I definitely had the knack for it so I didn’t mind the push. From as early as I can remember, I’ve always been good at music. So I went through the grades and made it to about grade 6 in the end before I was somewhat bored to tears with Beethoven (bless him).

At some point along the journey of discovering music, I began to realise that there was a pattern of learning that lies behind the practical application and context of the subject itself, in this case music.

Fast forward to age 14 or so. My parents were divorcing and my school friends and I had just discovered hard rock music in the likes of Rage Against The Machine, System of a Down and Deftones. Later on this progressed to heavy metal and some much more technical shredding and high-speed shenanigans. Let’s just say I had some unprocessed teenage emotions.

I decided to trade in the piano for an electric guitar. My mum, probably out of guilt more than anything, bought me a Fender Squier for Christmas. I began to play the heck out of that thing.

What sounded complex was actually the product of basic components

Thus began my real learning experience. I was using all of the basic building blocks I’d been taught in classical piano and yet I was applying them in a new context. I began to love the metronome. I would spend hours playing scales and sequences to perfection, reading guitar tabs and videos online. I realised that what sounded complex in a full piece of music was actually the product of hundreds or even thousands of smaller basic components. If you could master the basics, then you could achieve mastery.

Fast forward a few years and I had ended up teaching people how to play the guitar and I began to see a lot of the same patterns in my students. Everybody wanted to reach mastery (e.g. to play that awesome song or riff). But very few ever put the time that was needed into the tiny components that made the big picture work. Most people struggled to master the basics. And that seems strange to me because the basics are actually the easiest part of everything anyways.

The role of a teacher is to help break down the big and to make it accessible. But a teacher can never learn something for you. You must apply yourself to the small and the mundane in order to fulfil the wonders and the joys that come from mastery. There’s no feeling like playing the perfect solo or writing a song that captures your feelings and emotions, let alone sharing it with the world.

Why are we so reluctant to tackle the basics?

What I learnt back then has stuck with me through many learning experiences. From music to sport to soft skills, leadership and spiritual things – it seems to me that mastery is always about mastering the basics. Why is it then that many of us live as though there is some secret tactic or technique that will help us get to the next level?

I have heard so many people talk about their desire to go deeper with God and yet rarely pray. And many others who professed their desire to become an amazing musician and yet always avoided doing the most necessary of practice. Or what about the countless others around us who talk about fulfilling their dreams but never seem to take steps to further them. But to accomplish greatness, you must be willing to embrace smallness. There is no shortcut around hard work and being teachable.

Time to take a deep dive into music theory 101

To illustrate this further and maybe provide a learning experience for some reading, let’s take very quick deep dive into music theory for a moment. Whilst I learnt a lot of high level theory through classical piano, when I picked up guitar I realised that it could be boiled down in application to some very simple concepts.

I’m by no means attempting to minimise a real music education here as there is great value in it. But for the vast majority of people who want to play or learn pop/rock music for fun, the following is a very quick summary of some of the crucial concepts.

Remember, we’re trying to show how everything in life can be reduced to its most basic elements. If you focus on mastering basics, then mastery is within your reach.

Let’s talk about western music

There are 12 musical notes in western music. That’s it. No more and no less. These 12 notes are the following:

A A# B C C# D D# E F F# G G#

When you get to the end note which is G# (pronounced G sharp) it simply starts back at A again. This A will sound the same as the first A but will sound higher. (We call it an octave higher).

However, depending on the circumstance, we can also refer to our sharps (#) as flats (b). This isn’t very necessary for our example today but let’s include it anyways. Then our 12 notes could be the following:

A Bb B C Db D Eb E F Gb G Ab

These are the exact same 12 notes so A# = Bb and so on.

You may also notice that there are no sharps or flats between B & C and also E & F. I’m sure you could ask Google why this is the case but it doesn’t really matter. All you need to know is that this is just how it is.

Let’s talk about the major scale

Within these 12 notes we find that a certain sequence of 8 notes sounds pleasing to us. This is called THE MAJOR SCALE. You may or may not have heard of it. Depending on which note you start on will determine which major scale you are playing. E.g. G major scale or C major scale. And here’s the crucial point: 99% of what 99% people listen to is made up from notes from the major scale.

What defines the major scale, I hear you ask? Well it’s simply about the gap (we call it an interval) between each note. Each step up in our sequence of 12 notes is called a semitone and two semitones is referred to as a tone. The major scale always has a gap of the following:

Tone, Tone, Semitone, Tone, Tone, Tone, Semitone

Or affectionately:

T T ST T T T ST

The most basic major scale is in the key of C (which means it starts on C) because it gives us nice easy notes with no sharps or flats. These are called naturals. If you’ve ever seen a piano then all of the white notes are naturals and all of the black notes are sharps or flats. If we start on C and write out the notes following the above tone & semitone intervals, we get the following:

C D E F G A B C

If you wanted to find out the notes in any major scale, you could simply apply the tone & semitone formula above.

Let’s talk about chords

Let’s add one more element and introduce a chord. If a scale is a sequence of notes then a chord is what you get when you play multiple notes at the same time. Attached to the major scale is something called a major chord. We get this by taking the 1st, 3rd and 5th notes and playing them at the same time.

Again, don’t worry about why this is the case for now. If we take our C major example above then we will take our notes C, E and G which are 1st, 3rd and 5th respectively and we now have a C major chord.

Now let’s try to make more chords out of our C major scale. What if we were to keep taking different notes with the same intervals as above. What about taking our 2nd, 4th & 6th notes and putting them together? That gives us D, F & A which just happens to be a D minor chord. We haven’t told you about minor chords or scales yet but all you need to know is that it’s another sequence of notes which derives from the major scale.

Still with me? Probably not but let’s keep going. If you continue through the scale making chords as above then you end up with the following chords in the scale.

C major, D minor, E minor, F major, G major, A minor, B diminished, C major.

Straight away I’m going to get rid of our second C major chord at the end as it’s the same as the first one.

Then I’m going to get rid of our B diminished chord as it’s rarely used and sounds like you’re in a horror movie.

We are now left with just 6 chords:

C major, D minor, E minor, F major, G major, A minor

We can also shorten this to look like the following:

C, Dm, Em, F, G, Am

We could also look at it like the following:

Major chords:

C, F, G

Minor chords:

Dm, Em, Am

Or if we were to take the numerical placement of where each of those chords come from within the scale we would find the following.

Major chords:

1, 4, 5

Minor chords:

2, 3, 6

This works for 99% of music that 99% people listen to

Here’s the crazy part of it. Those numbers above will work in every single major scale you try them in. And these six chord combinations make up 99% of music that 99% of people listen to or want to learn.

Time to take a breather

Let’s recap quickly because we’ve covered a lot of ground. We’ve just learnt the following:

  • All western music is made up of just 12 notes
  • A scale is a sequence of notes.
  • The major scale is a sequence of notes with the specific intervals of semitones and tones as T T ST T T T ST
  • A chord is multiple notes played at the same time.
  • A major chord is made by taking the 1st, 3rd and 5th notes from a major scale.
  • The minor scale is a derivative of the major scale and we can also make chords from it.
  • We can make up 6 chords from our major scale which include 3 major chords and 3 minor chords.
  • The 1st, 4th and 5th chords of these are always major and the 2nd, 3rd and 6th chords are always minor.
  • The combinations above will work with every single major scale, accounting for 99% of popular music.

This might sound like a lot, but remember you’ve only spent a few minutes digesting it. But this wouldn’t take years to learn as many of us would think – more like hours or days depending on your natural ability.

Where have you been avoiding the basics?

Here’s the thing, whatever your application is for music, you can’t skip learning the above. It includes the basic elements which cover every possible application from playing your favourite songs, improvisation or songwriting.

Maybe you’re not too fussed about learning music specifically. But understanding this has been a game changer for me in many different areas. Whatever growth looks like for you, you will find that mastery is entirely about the basics.

Don’t skip leg day. Don’t skip the metronome. And definitely don’t skip the basics.

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