Basic Music Theory for the Aspiring Songwriter – The Notes and Building Chords

Music theory can be a pain in the butt. While studying the history of music theory I realized it’s usually Jean Philippe Rameauthe work of people trying to figure out and document what the music creators are actually doing in their music… And it seems that for a period after a new theory is put in writing, music becomes, for many, stale and lifeless as they try to actually follow the rules.


Music theory, if used as a tool and not a set of rules-set-in-stone can be powerful for songwriters and composers.

I’m starting with the notes because they’re the group of basic building blocks we use in almost all our music!

As kids, most of us in the western world learned Do-Re-Mi-Fa-Sol-La-Ti-Do. This is the major scale. Most of the music we hear is built from this. There are 7 notes (do through ti) in the major scale and 7 basic chords we can build from these. In the key of C major, the notes that correspond to the do – re – mi are C, D, E, F, G, A, and B.

The chords we use in western music have a root, third, and fifth. The first chord we usually consider in C… is the C chord. The root is C, the third is E and the fifth is G. We count the root as 1 so C – E – G is 1 – 3 – 5 (D would be 2 and F would be 4…).  The base of most of our chords are built this way.

In major chords, the interval between 1 and 3 is a major third (two whole steps) and the interval between 3 and 5 is a minor third (a whole step and a half step). In minor chords, the interval between 1 and 3 is a minor third while the interval between 3 and 5 is a major third. The C major and c minor chords both have the  notes C and G. The difference is in the middle note. The C major chord has an E as stated above while the c minor has an E-flat.

In the key of C the 7 chords are as follows

I – C or C major is C – E – G

ii – d minor is D – F – A

iii – e minor is E – G – B

IV – F or F major is F – A – C

V – G or G major is G – B – D

vi – a minor is A – C – E

and the last chord is vii dim – b diminished B – D – F

Diminished chords are rarely used in rock and pop. They have two minor thirds and will be discussed further in a later post.  There is also the augmented chord which can’t be built with the major scale and will be addressed in a later post!

For hundreds of years we’ve put heavy importance on the Major and minor keys. This, in no way means you need to. It’s a familiar sound but sometimes we need to explore the unfamiliar to get greater inspiration!

Later this week I’ll post all the chords in all the keys and explain how you can mix and match! For now, play with the chords in C and get used to the sound.


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