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Basic Music Theory Principles Every Emerging Artist Should Know

Basic Music Theory Principles Every Emerging Artist Should Know

Theory is nothing without practice - or at least, that’s what some people say. But at the same time, when it comes to music, mastering a few basic music theory notions can take that practice to the next level and elevate your skills as an artist. However, it’s hard to know where to start with basic music theory, and the information you find online can be downright overwhelming, especially if you’re in the early stages of building your craft as an artist. 

So, we’re here to make things a little easier for you, and present some of the basics of music theory to get your started. Of course, this is just the tip of the iceberg, as you can delve deeper into each of the principles we’re going to be tackling until you reach an advanced level of knowledge. 

What is music theory?

Music theory is the study of how music works - sounds pretty simple, doesn’t it? It’s easy to get intimidated by things like chord progressions, the circle of fifths, harmonies and tempo, and all of those terms, but once you get the basic hang of it, it all becomes clear. The idea is that you don’t need to become an expert, a scientist in music theory, but to familiarize yourself with the basic principles. That’s because these principles can help you unlock your creativity and experiment with melodies, lyrics, and more, to create original music. 

Think of music theory like grammar (stay with us now); knowing the basics of how grammar works can help you achieve a deeper understanding of how sentences are formed and how spoken and written language works. This, in turn, can help you expand your own vocabulary and unlock your creative writing skills, or simply help you become more eloquent in your daily interactions. 

Why should you care?

Music theory explores musical concepts like harmonies, rhythm, melodies, chords, form, and structure. Getting to know how these concepts work can help you figure out why certain chord progressions or arrangements sound so good together, why some songs are so incredibly catchy (earworms is the unofficial term), and why some songs or verses get stuck in your head. This can lead you to explore new avenues of creativity when writing music or jamming in the studio, and help you elevate your skills as a musician or songwriter.

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Music theory fundamentals

While it’s true that some artists have an innate talent at writing songs or lyrics that catch the listener’s attention, even the most gifted songwriter or composer can benefit from understanding the basic notions of music theory. So, let’s start with the basics. 

What is rhythm?

You know what they say, when listening to music, you need to ‘feel the rhythm,’ but what does that really mean? Rhythm is defined as the heartbeat of a song, the pulse that gives it its pace, its tempo, movement, and groove. It’s like the backbone of a musical composition, which includes the arrangement of notes, rests, speed, beats, and more. It’s what keeps everything connected and moving along. It’s a regular heartbeat, predictable, kind of like the beat of a drum, but a lot more complex since it involves all instruments and facets of a song. Rhythm basically provides cohesion and structure to a musical composition, and it’s what makes people get up from their chairs and move to the music. 

What is harmony?

Similar to rhythm, harmony plays an essential role in creating mood and atmosphere and stirring emotions in the listener. But if rhythm is the horizontal, steady heartbeat of the song, harmony is like your blood pressure, rising and falling in waves as the song ramps up or slows down from verse to chorus to verse and so on. It deals with how pitches interact with each other to create tension, emotion, anticipation, and resolution in a song. Harmony is structured around intervals, which represent distances between two pitches; then, these intervals combine and create chords, either simple or complex, dissonant or consonant, depending on the case. The way these chords are arranged and the way they progress and work together is what creates harmony in a song. It might sound complicated, but you know it when you hear it - it’s unmistakable. 

What is melody?

Melody and harmony are often confused with each other, but they are quite different, even though they are both necessary to create a catchy song that stirs up emotional responses in your listeners. Melody refers to a series of notes that work together seamlessly in a linear succession that ‘flows’ harmoniously and pleasingly to the ear. It’s built from a series of pitches that each has its own duration, speed, rhythm, tempo, and contour; but the way they are organized builds coherence and dynamic movement. The melody is basically the earworm that gets stuck in our heads, it’s the natural flow and ebb of a song that we remember most vividly from a piece of music. 

What is the circle of fifths?

The circle of fifths might sound like an intimidating mechanism meant for experts in music theory. In reality, it’s incredibly helpful for both established and emerging artists, because it can help you figure out which notes and chords work harmoniously together to create catchy songs. It’s a diagram that shows the relationship between all the different keys in the shape of a circle. The sharp keys appear on the right of the circle, while the flat keys are on the left, and the circle moves round and round, with C major representing 12 o’clock, since it doesn’t feature any sharps or flats. If you move around the circle clockwise, each key that follows C major is like a number on a clock, but it moves by five instead of one position. If C is 12 o’clock, then G is 1 o’clock, followed by D, and so on. The circle moves around, adding one sharp to each key, and if you move counterclockwise, you remove one flat with each note as you move backwards. Sounds interesting enough? Learn more about the circle of fifths on the Xposure Music blog.

What are rudiments in music theory?

When you hear ‘rudiments,’ you might be inclined to think we’re talking about car parts or something equally mechanical. In fact, rudiments are like fundamental building blocks of musical techniques, most often used relating to percussion. They can include things like single and double strokes, flams, rolls, and a funny thing called paradiddles, among others. These rudiments serve as the foundation towards developing proficiency in playing different instruments, and they’re not limited to percussion. Let’s go over the main rudiments worth familiarizing yourself with. 


Scales and chords are the primary rudiments to know when it comes to learning the basics of music theory. These are the ‘raw ingredients’ needed to create melodies, harmonies, and rhythm in your music. They consist of a sequence of notes that boast a specific pattern of tones and semitones, most often the major and minor. The major scale follows the tone-tone-semitone-tone-tone-tone-semitone pattern, while the minor scale follows the tone-semitone-tone-tone-semitone-tone-tone pattern. 

The pattern used in a scale will ultimately determine how that scale will sound, and how it will be incorporated within a song. Scales can evoke different moods and create a specific atmosphere, stirring up particular emotions, depending on the intent of the composer behind them.


Chords form the backbone of harmony in music theory. They represent a group of three or more musical notes played together in perfect harmony, and they lay the foundation for melodies and complex musical compositions. Your most basic chord is arranged in intervals of thirds and is made up of three notes: the root, the third, and the fifth, and it’s called a triad. These notes also determine the quality of the chord (major, minor, diminished, or augmented). 

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The chords you choose to combine within a song can make all the difference in creating atmosphere, building tension and anticipation, as well as emotional crescendos. Chord progressions, meaning the sequence of chords used in a song, add depth to a musical composition and take the listener on a journey. Putting chords together and building melodic and harmonious chord progressions is a fundamental skill for any musician. You can use the circle of fifths to experiment with chord progressions and figure out which notes and chords sound good together.


Have you ever heard musicians talk about playing a song in a certain key? When we talk about keys in music theory, we refer to the core note around which all the notes in a song revolve around. For instance, we can say that a certain song is played in C major or A minor, and that can be the starting point for musicians to build upon. The key in which a song is played is defined by a specific scale, together with its corresponding set of pitches, chords, and intervals. Keys are used to convey and establish a certain mood and ambiance of a song, shaping the way the listener perceives it and remembers it. 

Frequently Asked Questions

How do I start learning music theory?

To start learning music theory, begin by familiarizing yourself with the basic elements such as notes, rhythms, and scales. You can find introductory resources online, in books, or through music theory courses or tutorials. Practice reading and writing music notation to understand how musical ideas are represented on paper. As you progress, delve into concepts like intervals, chords, and keys, and explore how they interact to create harmony and melody. Actively listen to a variety of music, analyzing its structure, form, and tonal elements. Finally, don't hesitate to apply what you learn by playing an instrument or composing your own music, as hands-on experience is invaluable in reinforcing theoretical concepts.

Why is music theory important to know?

Music theory is important to know because it provides a systematic understanding of how music works, enabling musicians to communicate, analyze, and create music effectively. It offers a framework for interpreting musical compositions, allowing performers to express the composer's intentions with clarity and precision. Additionally, music theory empowers composers and songwriters to craft coherent and expressive pieces by understanding the principles of harmony, melody, rhythm, and form. Moreover, music theory fosters creativity and innovation by providing a rich vocabulary and toolkit for exploring new musical ideas and styles. Overall, a solid understanding of music theory enhances musicianship, facilitates collaboration, and deepens appreciation for the art of music.

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Gregory Walfish
Co-founder of Xposure Music, Gregory Walfish stands at the intersection of music, tech, and culture. With a software engineering background, he's passionate about artist development and technology.

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