Introduction to Music Theory | Hub Guitar

Introduction to Music Theory

Why Should You Learn Music Theory?

There are world-class guitar virtuosos who know little of music theory. Many new guitar players who see strange diagrams or dots and lines don’t believe these to be relevant. Amateur players often reject music theory as useless. The explanations of theory in books and online are outdated—or, worse, written by people who are clueless. Because of this disconnect, many new players miss out on important information.

The study of music theory is not optional; it is necessary.

All musicians develop systems to understand how music works. These systems can be the standard ones or the player’s own informal observations. As soon as one begins to play with other musicians and interact with the world of music, it becomes helpful to understand the formal system of music theory. It is also much quicker to learn this system, since it already exists. Why would you invent Algebra all over again, when it has already been discovered?

Key Terms


Music is the intentional arrangement of sound. Sounds can be arranged to be pleasant or frightening, and anything in between.


Pitch is the relative highness or lowness of a sound. If you play your A string open, it produces a low pitch. If you fret the string at fret XII, that’s a higher pitch. Pitch is also used to describe the accuracy of a note. Most musicians agree that any given note will represent a scientific pitch. On the guitar, “A” at fret II of the G string should produce a vibration of 440hz, which is 440 cycles per second. If you play your A and then listen to a correct A, and yours is too high or too low, then you are off pitch.


Rhythm is the time-based organization of sounds. Some rhythms contain pitches (such as a guitar being strummed), but other sounds are complex and are not thought of as pitched. Imagine two wood blocks hitting each other. The sound might seem high or low, but most people don’t hear it as a musical note. Musicians play rhythms along with a beat, called a tempo, expressed in the term beats per minute (BPM). A musician playing with a 100BPM tempo will play only rhythms that fit metrically into that tempo. For instance, he or she might play once per every two beats, or twice for each beat. The latter is called subdivision: the beats are divided into equal pieces.


Harmony is the sound of multiple pitches ringing together. By combining pitches we can create sounds with different moods. Try playing a major chord, and then a minor chord; these are both similar yet they have very different mood. The more notes a harmony has, the more complex it is. All pitches that are played together will contribute to the harmony. If you play the note C, and I play the note E, and someone else sings the note G, we will be creating a C major chord—in harmony, together.


Melody is a series of pitches, usually higher than the rest of the music. They unfold over time to tell a story. In a popular song, the melody is the part that the singer sings, and the harmony is in at least one other instrument. Melody is one of the most important factors in making music memorable. Most humans won’t remember exactly what a chord sounds like, but nobody forgets a good melody.


Timbre (pronounced TAM-ber) is the quality that makes a musical note sound unique. Imagine that you are hearing somebody play a note on the guitar and then they sing the same note out loud. If you were blindfolded, you could probably easily identify which sound the guitar made. This is because, in addition to rhythm and pitch, each musical sound will have its own character due to the timbre of the instrument and the instrument’s player.


Dynamics refers to the loudness or softness of the music. In 1791, classical composer Joseph Haydn composed a symphony that is now known as the “Surprise Symphony.” The opening theme begins like a soft whisper. The listener is on the edge of his seat, hardly able to hear it. Suddenly, the whole orchestra plays a very loud chord together, shocking the first audience that witnessed the symphony. This is an early example of a musical joke; Haydn might have laughed to himself all the way home. While there is less variation in volume in today’s music, dynamics are still important.

Key Task:

Be able to define, in your own words, the following terms:

  • Pitch
  • Rhythm
  • Harmony
  • Melody
  • Timbre
  • Dynamics
As the creator of Hub Guitar, Grey has compiled hundreds of guitar lessons, written several books, and filmed hundreds of video lessons. He teaches private lessons in his Boston studio, as well as via video chat through TakeLessons.

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